Commandments in Jewish History: Adultery and Polygamy

Recall that we are going to start a new area, you might say, of TOB in this post. We are moving from anthropology – what man is – to ethics – what he should do.

Recall also that this entire section of TOB is centered on the words of Christ at the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, do not commit adultery; but I say to you, whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt 5:27-28.) Today we are going to think about what those words might have meant to the original Jewish hearers based on their familiarity with the Scriptures. Specifically, we will discuss adultery in three key sections of the Old Testament – the historical, the legislative, and the prophets.


Jewish morality had its basis in the Ten Commandments given to Moses; everything else in their law and ethical system was intended to be a further guide for how, specifically, to follow those commandments, which means that it was an interpretation of the Law fully contained in the Ten Commandments. This interpretation is what Christ seeks to correct in the Sermon on the Mount. “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” He intends to see to the better, more complete fulfillment of the Ten Commandments by correcting its interpretation as it had developed in the Israelite history, documented for us in Scripture.

One of the means of interpreting the law and making moral judgments was to study the example of the great men (and women) in their history, who were assumed to have been upright, just, fulfilling the law and the will of God. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, John Paul says quite harshly, “the history of the Old Testament is clearly the theater of the systematic defection from monogamy.”

“In the beginning,” God created them male and female, and they became “one flesh.” The marriage of Genesis is clearly a monogamous marriage. But throughout the history of the Jewish people, we see men and women yielding in this call to monogamy, first for motives of procreation, and later, out of lust.

Abraham and Sarah – When Sarah was barren, she said to Abraham, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Have intercourse with my maid; perhaps I will have sons through her.” (Gn 16:2)

Jacob and Rachel – “Give me children, or I shall die! … Here is my maidservant Billhah. Have intercourse with her, and let her give birth on my knees, so that I, too, may have children through her.” (Gen 30:3)

These women had a very strong desire for numerous offspring, and knew that their husbands, whom they loved, did, too. Isn’t it interesting that the women here were the instigators of effective polygamy? Unfortunately, polygamy extended itself in the culture well beyond the circumstance of infertility, so that by the time we read about David and Solomon, it is clear that they have many wives and that this is considered legal and moral. It is also clear that the motive for this polygamy is lust, concupiscence, not infertility. It is only considered adultery when David actually has intercourse with the wife of another man out of lust for her.

It really did not occur to the Jewish people by this time that “Do not commit adultery” required monogamy. Adultery was not seen as a breaking of the exclusive, one-flesh covenant between a man and a woman who loved each other; it was mostly seen as a violation of the man’s right to his property, i.e., his wife(s).


The law was intended as a primary and necessary means of fighting sin and preserving social order. It was specific, and it was severe. As polygamy became part of society, it was necessary to regulate it in order to preserve order. (Examples: “Do not take a woman as a rival [wife] to her sister while she is still alive.” (Lev 18:18) Deut 21 says that if a man has two wives, the firstborn son must be his heir; he cannot preference the son of the wife he loves more.)

Effectively, the law, while sometimes prohibiting and limiting sin, in other areas actually legalizes and protects it. This obviously distorts the people’s understanding of the true intention of monogamy for marriage implied in “do not commit adultery.”

As an aside, John Paul notes here that while the law certainly reflects a sense of shame in sexuality, sometimes to the point of considering the sexual impure, the Old Testament ethics and philosophy are not to be seen as a precursor to Manichaeism. The writers of the law are not trying to say that sex or the body or the sexual parts are bad, but rather to regulate them. They are not concerned with an upright heart so much as an upright society, and marriage and family are, of course, fundamental to society.


The prophetic works are not primarily about setting forth moral proscriptions, as the legislative writings are. They only tangentially discuss sexual ethics and sexual sin, per se. Yet the concept of adultery appears frequently in the writings of the prophets as an analogy.

The prophets rightly saw the relationship between God and Israel as the relationship of a bridegroom and a bride – a covenant of exclusive and total love. They emphasize that Israel has broken this covenant by comparing her to an adulterous wife.

Go, take a prostitute for yourself as a wife and have children of prostitution, for the land does nothing but prostitute itself by going away from the Lord.      ~Hos 1:2

I swore a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine … But you played the whore and lavished your favors on any passers-by … Building your high place in every square, you were not like a prostitute in search of payment, but like an adulterous wife who instead of her husband receives strangers!     ~Ez 16

In essence, if it is adultery for Israel to have multiple gods, that is because it is adultery for one person to have multiple spouses. It violates the intrinsically exclusive nature of the covenant and betrays the love proper to marriage.

Marriage is a covenant between two people, freely made by both out of love for one another and recognized as such by society. In marriage, two people become “one flesh.” Each has the “right” to the body of the other – as this right is exclusive, adultery (including adultery in polygamy) violates that covenant. But more than that, their sexual union is a sign of their personal union, and uniting with someone else is a falsification of that sign. Sex is a physical sign of a personal union; any physical sexual union that doesn’t make two people truly “one flesh,” that doesn’t truthfully signify a total personal union, (that means any nonmarital union, of course) is objectively misusing the physical act, distorting its content, and therefore, sinful.

When Christ recalls the commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” he has all of this in mind. He knows that his Jewish audience doesn’t properly understand that the prohibition of adultery is a requirement of monogamy and that they don’t properly understand the nature of fidelity in the marriage covenant. But, none of this is what he really focuses on. In the next post, we will move on, with Christ, to the next idea – “Whoever looks at a woman to desire her.”



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