This is part 2 of the Seventh Commandment, which reads, “You shall not commit adultery.”  There is much more on each of these commandments in the book Ten Essential Words.

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Adultery, along with all other sexual sins, begins in the heart and the mind.  The message of Jesus was not so much the avoidance of adultery as it was protection against lust.  When we are protecting our hearts from lust, the line of adultery is far from us.  So how can we practically go about protecting our hearts and minds?  While recognizing that it is an entire lifestyle Jesus is calling us to live, there is some practical advice Scripture gives us as a starting point.  This advice comes, fittingly enough, from a father to a son, as the son would soon be navigating the world and all its allures on his own.  The father begins:

My son, pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words.  Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to one’s whole body.  (Proverbs 4:20-22)

 Notice this is not a lecture on what sins to avoid – what lines not to cross, but rather wisdom that is to be kept in the heart, and will bring life and health to the entire body – a way of life.  This way of life is referred to repeatedly as wisdom, or the path of righteousness.  As the father continues, he begins to unfold this path for his son.

Guard your heart

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.  (Proverbs 4:23)

First, and foremost, be about protecting your heart!  We spoke of the heart previously, but to reiterate, when we are talking about the heart we are encountering the very center of who a person is.  The heart encompasses the will, the mind, the emotions, the soul, and the spirit, indeed, the very core of the person.  For this reason, Jesus spoke often of the importance of protecting our hearts and minds.  You may be familiar with the phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out.”  So it is with our hearts and minds. What we allow to enter our hearts will eventually surface in our words and our actions.

In our day and age, this may seem like attempting to stand firm against a tidal wave of sound-bites and images that inundates us on a daily basis.  From the internet to television to movies, no place seems free from imagery that damages the heart.  Aside from living in a cave, how do we navigate these messages that bombard us?  I recently ran across an old Buddhist story that I believe can speak to us today:

There were two monks crossing a river when they were accosted by a lady looking for help in crossing the swift flowing stream. The older monk readily carried the woman across the river, put her down, and went about his business. The younger monk, steeped in the tradition and mindful of the Buddhist code of ethics that there shall be no touching between a male and a female, was aghast at the perpetration of the older monk and could not resist confronting the older monk at the next stop on the latter’s impropriety. The older monk’s response? “Yes, I did carry the woman across the river, and have since put her down upon reaching the other side. But it seems you are still carrying her all this while.”

 As we sift through the images of our day, we would do well to realize that we may not have a choice about what enters the mind, but we do have a choice about what stays in the mind.  At times, we encounter images and temptations and simply set them down.  Other times, like the younger monk, we can find ourselves carrying them around for a while.  In most cases there is a moment of conscious choice – an act of volition – when we decide whether to let a thought or an image simply pass through our mind or whether we will keep it there and carry it around with us.  If we are protecting our hearts, we will be conscientious about what we allow to make its home in our heart and mind.

The Seventh Commandment reads, “You shall not commit adultery.”  The following is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of Ten Essential Words.

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We read in Genesis:

But for Adam no suitable helper was found.  So Yahweh God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.  Then Yahweh God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Several principles can be taken from this account.  First, God created the male and female species to be compatible with each other.  Observing the other creatures in the Garden, Adam was somehow incomplete without the woman: “but for Adam no suitable helper was found.”  Author Marvin Wilson writes, “Through marriage one learns the uniqueness of maleness and femaleness by the one being matched to the other.”  Second, marriage is a re-creation of the original act of creation.  Far more than a contractual agreement, marriage has in its origins a bonding together of two people – socially, sexually, spiritually, and emotionally: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  Lastly, the marriage relationship would become the most important earthly relationship in human society, even above other familial relationships: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.”  Since the Fifth Commandment already upheld the importance of family, the only reason God would call them away from their family of origin would be to engage in another relationship of the utmost spiritual significance – marriage!  We could say more about this passage, but whether it is taken to be literal or figurative, the creation story framed the significance of marriage in Israelite society.

It is the framing of this command prohibiting adultery in the context of the creation story that moves it past the issue of simple property law to the protection of a sacred institution.  In fact, the sacredness of this institution can be found in its mirroring of the giving of the Law.  Again, Marvin Wilson, who explores the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, writes, “The rabbis regarded the Jewish marriage service as reflecting the main features of God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai.  The covenant ceremony of marriage was seen as a replica or reenactment of what happened at Sinai.  It was designed to be a reminder of that basic covenant obligation which binds God to his people.”  If the giving of the Ten Commandments was central to the relationship between Yahweh and the Israelites, marriage was a constant reflection of the centrality of that relationship.

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For further discussion on the topic of this commandment in its original context, see Do The Ten Commandments Marginalize Women?

This morning, I was playing around with Google Alerts – a service that sends news stories to your email relating to specific key words. I had just set up an alert for “Ten Commandments” and sure enough, within the hour I got my initial list of of newly published stories that related to the Ten Commandments. Most were only loosely related, but there was one that caught my attention. Christopher Rollston at the Huffington Post wrote an article about how the Ten Commandments and the Bible in general are guilty of marginalizing women. Because his article both demonstrates the continued impact the Ten Commandments have on our culture and highlights something that I cover in Ten Essential Words, I wanted to use this oft-cited example to demonstrate a very fundamental mistake people make when talking about the relevancy of the Ten Commandments.

Rollston writes,

The Decalogue is a case in point. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Because the Ten Commandments are so well known, it’s quite easy to miss the assumptions in them about gender. But the marginalization of women is clear. The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and so she’s listed with the slaves and work-animals. There’s also a striking omission in this commandment: never does it say “You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband.” The Ten Commandments were written to men, not women. … The Ten Commandments embody much that is foundational for modern society, but egalitarian they aren’t.

He goes on to assert how the Old and New Testaments continue this theme of the marginalization of women.  Rollston is not wrong when he notes that in ancient Israelite society “the wife is classified as her husband’s property.”  I write the same thing when addressing the seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery.

It could be correctly supposed that the intent behind most of these laws was not the welfare of women or even the protection of marriage, but rather the safeguarding of property.  For in most ancient cultures, a wife was largely considered to be the property of the husband; thus some form of protection was needed for that property.  To commit adultery was to essentially steal what belonged to another man.

It should be noted that the laws I am referring to in the quote above are numerous Ancient Near East legal codes that address adultery and not simply the seventh commandment.  Mosaic Law actually contains many safeguards for women who otherwise would have been left abandoned.  But while Rollston concludes that the Bible marginalizes women, I reach a much different conclusion.  So where do we differ?  How do we reach quite the opposite conclusion?

  • First, Biblical theology has long asserted that scripture reflects the commands of God – the words of God – and yet at the same time those commands were recorded by human beings.  And those human beings resided in certain places and lived at certain times.  The Bible can be both the words of God and yet reflect human opinions, different personalities and genres, human rebellion, and numerous ways that, despite our best efforts, humans fall short of God’s commands.  In fact, the story of the Bible is largely the story of humankind struggling with and failing to live out these commands of God.
  • Second, and similarly, while God’s commands transcend culture, their application will always resides within a distinct culture.  The Old Testament is full of wars, kings and queens, prophets, and many other things that were normative in a culture three to four thousand years ago.  The New Testament is set largely in the context of the Roman Empire.  So the commands of God will necessarily reflect what was happening in those cultures.  When God gave the Ten Commandments, those commands represented the timeless moral standard of God, but at the same time they had specific cultural meanings and applications when Moses received them on Mount Sinai.  So, yes, the command “Do not covet” is a command from God, but at the same time coveting had different applications to an Israelite society 3,500 years ago than it does for us today.
  • Third, the challenge for us then, is not to come up with a new set of Ten Commandments that reflect our day and age, but to properly apply the timeless truths of the original Ten.  In other words, we don’t need to toss out the command against coveting because it may have been applied imperfectly in Ancient Near East culture.  Instead, we are responsible to speak to what it means to covet today.  This is exactly the cultural journey that Ten Essential Words navigates.  What did each command mean in their original context, what light does Jesus shed on each command in his day, and how might we apply each command to our modern context.

It shouldn’t surprise us then, that the Ten Commandments don’t give women the right to vote any more than they don’t address iPhone etiquette.  We can choose to see the marginalization that was present in every ancient culture (and many modern ones!) or we can see the ways the Bible actually gave women a voice they didn’t normally have at that time.  Rollston barely acknowledges a woman named Deborah that served as a judge over Israel and fails to mention that Esther served as a deliverer of the Hebrew people, that Jesus’s prominent benefactors were women, or that women also served as the primary witnesses to his resurrection – all unheard of at that time.  It could also be argued that the Apostle Paul calls women to tone it down in the new Christian movement because women had a new-found voice they hadn’t been given elsewhere and were taking many liberties with that voice.

If we fail to take these steps of moving God’s commands from an ancient cutlure to our own culture we will no doubt make the same conclusions that Rollston has made.  And by his own standards, because no previous culture is as enlightened as our culture today, there isn’t much that any ancient history or religion has to teach us.