Adultery hurts pretty much everybody associated with it, even if they don’t know it at the time. That’s what two of its defenders fail to appreciate on ABC News’ first show in a Nightline series about the Ten Commandments. But what hurts is not the fact that someone had sex outside the context of marriage, or made God angry by doing so, or will undermine “decent society” because they did. What hurts is the betrayal of trust, the undermining of a presumed covenant between two loving partners, and the overturning of mutually agreed upon expectations which those partners have of each other.
Because the real issue with adultery is people’s hearts and minds, not whose genitals touched whose, different cultures, including ones which base themselves on the Bible, have understood what counts as adultery in different ways. That is an awareness seemingly lost on the shows two guests who speak out against adultery.
The Ten Commandments may be eternal, but no interpretation of them is. And as soon as most people learn what counted as adultery in the time of the Bible, they understand how true that is.
When Exodus 20:13 prohibits adultery, it means something quite different from what we usually mean by that term. According to the Bible, what is prohibited is a married woman having sexual intercourse with another man, married or single. Doing so violates the covenant she has established with her husband and is a capital offense for both adulterous lovers.
However, were a married man to have consensual sex with a single woman, that would not be considered adultery in the time of the Bible. In fact, there would have been no problem at all in biblical times. Seems strange, even offensive to many of us today, but because the norms of that culture created no legal, emotional, or spiritual expectations that it be otherwise, it did not count as adultery. The only problem for a married man was when the sex was not consensual, in which case it was rape, or when his partner was married, in which case it was adultery because of the offense against the woman’s husband.
Of course Jewish law changed over time, but that is the point. The commitment to loving, meaningful, trusting relationships is eternal, but how they are achieved is something which different people understand differently at different times, even when they base themselves on the same biblical tradition.
It would have been refreshing to see a conversation about that, instead of a debate between ahistorical biblical absolutists, and largely amoral cultural relativists who think that whatever feels good must be okay. I don’t know what the producers wanted, but what emerges is not so helpful when it comes to addressing this topic which affects all of us.
Let’s face it, in a nation where 50% of married people admit to having sex outside of marriage, probably more actually are. And, when you factor in the effect on all those involved, there is probably not a person who watches the show or reads these words whose life is not in some way touched by the issue of adultery.
Perhaps the time has come to talk not about good guys and bad guys, about saying ‘yes’ to adultery or ‘no’ to it, but to talk about how a 3,300 year old tradition is still essential to maintaining healthy relationships and how different arrangements might honor the wisdom which always knew that when trust is undermined, everyone is hurt.
Of course we could also use a bit more accuracy when it comes to translating the commandment “thou shall not kill”, which are the lead words in ABC’s promotional spots for the series. The original Hebrew means thou shall not murder and between those two words, kill and murder, lays a world of difference. But that discussion will have to wait for another day.