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Adultery Is About More Than Sex, Even According To The Ten Commandments

posted by Brad Hirschfield

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.



  • michele

    I am in the middle of a horrible divorce with my husband. We have three kids and the destruction of my husbands affair is far greater than I let on to the people around us. We have children with needs beyond that of normal children. Our marriage and home life was hard. I am at fault for putting all of energy in to my kids. My husband is at fault for secretly judging me for it and becoming extremely unhappy over the years. I would say that our marriage had an atmosphere that would cultivated an affair. I know that in my heart I graved someone that would act like they would love me and have thought of someone else before once. I did not ever act on that feeling. I kept praying and kept looking for answers. We have been through so much hard stuff it is hard to think that we are going to throw it all away. Hard children, a child with open heart surgery, my husbands hip surgery . It has been hard since we started having children. He kissed a girl at his high school reunion and she started e-mailing him when they returned. They started having and affair. The women he is having the affair with called me early in the affair to see what she would be dealing with while taking my husband away from our family. She seems very sneaky and manipulative. My husband is a person that could be easily tricked by a gold digger type. She has since left her husband and is probably hoping that my husband will take care of her and her kids. I cannot tell you how much this has affected our lives. My children do not even know that their Dad is having an affair. They will figure it out soon enough. It has been hard not tell them. The way that affairs destroy marriages and children’s lives is that it gives men and women a place to go and escape their unhappy lives. So instead of dealing with what they started and trying to figure out what could save their children’s lives, they think with a different part of their body and run to the greener grass. The women or men on the other side of that fence calling the other person out of their marriage is such a destructive entity, and truly from anything opposite of God like. My children and I do go to fellowship church and I do believe if my husband and I had gone to this church and followed some of the suggestions from Ed that our marriage could have been saved long ago. Always tell someone how you feel. Don’t hold back . Risk losing it all by communicating instead of going along with things to not make waves and eventually becoming stale inside. My husband and I were a very special couple, loved each other so much that people envied us. He has convinced himself that we were never special but I know that this is his way of giving himself permission for what he has done. I wish the best for him and know that God must have another path for my children and I . It is going to be a hard life for all of us but survival will happen with Gods help. Work on your marriage. Their is evil out there…Websites, gold diggers , lonely women and men looking for your mate. If you are a man getting ready to cheat, just know that the grass is always greener. It may stay green for one week, one month or one year, but it will look very much like the grass you left eventually. Joy comes from within not from another person. If you figure this out before you make a mistake then great if not then OMG. The destruction your life and children will face is unreal. Can you imagine my husband in three or so years watching another man helping me raise our children. Can you imagine how it is going to feel when his children looking at him like a stranger for what he has done to their lives. Can you imagine the insane regret. I weep for him more than myself. God will help me and I know this was not my decision. He will have to live with his decision forever. DONT CHEAT….IT IS NOT WORTH IT !!! SO MUCH IS LOST BY NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH AND GIVING IN TO SELFISHNESS. WIVES DONT GIVE UP UNTIL GOD GIVES YOU SO MANY SIGNS AND IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO MOVE ON AND HEAL.

  • Di

    I am so sorry you are going through this. I was in your spot years ago- I thought I would die-I had 3 kids at home and dad was gone a lot! When he moved out they thought he was just off with his club or buddies-He remarried and cheated on her-go figure-You can pray for a change of his heart- the grass may be greener on the other side- but he still has to mow it. It took a while to get over the shock-it takes time and is a lot to process. If he will talk to clergy and take advice- good- if not – you can only do what you can do. Take care, God will provide and you will be in my prayers!D

  • Kara

    I’m sorry you’re going through all of that. I may not completely understand why someone would do that, but I do know the consequences are never good. God didn’t make us a mate for marriage just so we could cheat when times are rough. Being a daughter with a mom who cheated on my dad, I have been lied to by her and now don’t spend time with her… She has a lot of problems, but she always bottles them up inside and tries to avoid her life a lot. I’ve even heard her say how she wanted her own life, instead of always having to baby me and my sister. This hurts a lot, but also knowing that adultery leads to death also hurts. She’s just digging herself a deeper hole with God. I can understand that she’s not happy, but she also needs to think of others first… Especially since I haven’t been alright with her in over a year, and don’t visit. I don’t have a female rolemodel, I don’t know how to cook, I don’t know how to be a mother and I don’t have anyone that could teach me now. I wouldn’t wish any family to go through this… It really hurts the whole family, even those not directly involved…

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