When we discovered that the definition of adultery among the Old Testament patriarchs and their modern Arab cousins was so different we wanted to say that adultery has an obvious meaning which we all take for granted. The Old Testament patriarchs and other people of the Middle East must have known the proper interpretation and they didn't live up to it. But the astonishing fact was that in the Bible the seventh commandment about adultery has no defined meaning. We are not told what adultery is. Nor could we discover a defining content for the fourth commandment about honouring parents, or the sixth commandment, "you shall do no murder," nor even of the eighth commandment about not stealing, or the ninth that forbade false witness against a neighbour."
Although they are stated as moral absolutes, none of the ten commandments are given a precise content. And the way they are understood can differ immensely from nation to nation .Their meaning can even change radically from one generation to another. In the sixties young people objected to the covetousness of their parents, they viewed war as murder, and the profits of big companies were oppressive stealing from the poor.
As we thought about it the ten commandments began to look more like categories of moral judgment than a set of precisely defined laws. We remembered how everywhere we had traveled the human animal is characterized by the love of discussing right and wrong. And, although they argue about the exact content of the categories of murder, adultery, stealing, etc. all people discuss questions of right and wrong under the ten heads listed in the law of Moses. In that sense we are moral beings, humans in the image of God. [Genesis 1:26-27] As Paul thought about the moral values of Greeks and Jews and Romans, the people in his own province of Cilicia, in Judea, in Arabia, country people and teachers at the University of Tarsus, he must have realized that some categories of morality were common to all of them. He concluded that "When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts." [Romans 2:14-15] We wonder if Paul meant that although they argue and differ in details all people of all nations have a sense of right and wrong under each of these ten categories.
The third commandment speaks of taking God's name in vain, which is the hypocrisy Jesus condemned so severely among the Pharisees. [Matthew 23] But the hypocrisy of other people is faulted throughout the world. "Christians are hypocrites" is the common refrain of those who object to churchgoing. The fifth commandment requires us to honor parents, but should honouring include obeying wrong instructions, servile obedience for life, or as in some cultures elaborate funeral ceremonies and ancestor worship? Does the ninth commandment prohibition of false witness in a court of law extend to slander, libel, and malicious gossip about a President or the royal family?
Under the sixth commandment all people, even the most savage headhunting tribes, have some definition of what they view as legitimate and wrong killing. but not if you have agreed to make peace by eating a sacrificial meal together. Equally sincere Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Atheists will disagree about being total pacifists or the need for a police and military force for defensive purposes. The Geneva convention had to distinguish between the firing of a machine gun in battle and mowing down soldiers who have laid down their weapons, raised a white flag, and have their hands in the air. None of these explanations were included in "you shall not murder" but they had to be worked out in the light of our sense of fairness and compassion.
In Holland until the Nazi occupation stealing had meant that you never take what belongs to another. But under the Nazi occupation Dutch Christians had to ask "do ration cards belong to the state, in which case they should not be stolen, or do ration cards belong to all citizens?" And in that case it must be right to obtain them by whatever means and give them to Jews in hiding who badly needed them. A woman, who has been lost for three weeks in the bush in northern Canada, arrives at a hunter's cabin. She can see cans of food on the shelf. Would it be stealing to help herself? Most of us would decide to break in, take the food, report what had happened to the police, and give a generous cheque to the owner. We imagine nobody in their right mind would call that stealing. The first commandment says "you shall have no other gods before (beside) me." But even Atheists have some supreme value. Where there is emperor worship, as in the Roman Empire, Christians were accused of having another god and thrown to the lions. Marxists tried to root out all other religions. Jesus said "You cannot serve God and mammon, the god of wealth," which also means that those who make money their god allow no room for the God of love.
Atheists easily condemn the meaningless rituals of religious people. But they forget that they are indirectly assenting to the second commandment which specifies not making idols or images for the worship of God. But did the prohibition of idolatry require Puritans to destroy priceless statues and stained glass windows in our cathedrals? Is it permissible for the Greek Orthodox to use icons, or for evangelicals to make pictures for Sunday School materials?
Whether or not they believe in God, all people approve of some kinds of behaviour and disapprove of other kinds of behavior under each of these headings, but they have very different ideas about the exact content of what each commandment should include. This should not surprise us because, although the commandment is given in the form of an absolute, the specific details of what it means is left for us to fill in.
What has to be filled in by moral discussion is whether or not this particular act in this particular situation comes under the prohibition. If our own culture has remained stable as long as we can remember we easily assume that moral discussion is not required. We think we all know the right answers. But then suddenly there is a Beirut or Bosnian or Rwanda style civil war, and for a time the meaning of murder has to be discussed in every home and faced by every individual. Each of the commandments therefore has to be filled out by the discussion of particular cases in every generation.
It is interesting to see how in some cultures one or more of the commandments are legislated into criminal law. Murder and stealing are punished in all nations, but in the west adultery and Sabbath breaking are no longer criminal acts. Nor is atheism or idolatry. A moral person will however reject adultery, false witness, and covetousness even if the government has no law against them.
[Note : Exodus 20:1-17. Whether there are other categories of moral judgment is a matter of terminology. In our day the preservation of the environment is an important moral issue. But since it was God who made a beautiful world we could use the first commandment to require caring about the quality of the environment he has given us. Jesus said that the greedy pursuit of wealth, or mammon worship, should also be condemned under the first commandment (Matthew 6:24).]
Our conclusion is that in any moral question we should agree to begin with the absolute. Idolatry, hypocrisy, murder, adultery, stealing, and false witness to get another condemned is always wrong. Under the sixth commandment the question to be settled by moral discussion is whether this would be a case of murder or regrettable but necessary killing. In the current debates about war, or police carrying guns, or abortion we are in each case discussing a question of killing, and we agree that murder is always wrong. The discussion can then focus on whether this or that kind of killing should indeed be viewed as murder.
Is there then any bedrock foundation for defining what is wrong with adultery? What is the heart of the matter? A clue is suggested by Jesus' way of clarifying the purpose of the fourth commandment relating to work and rest. As in the case of the other commandments of the decalogue, the Old Testament does not tell us what work is or how or when we should rest one day a week. To settle the question the Pharisees of Jesus' day worked out 39 burdensome rules defining what should not be done on their day of rest. But Jesus explained that "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27-28)
Jesus has denied the Pharisaic list of rules for the Sabbath, and left the content to our moral judgment. And that will obviously vary according to our particular social situation. How we rest will differ if we are nomads on the move, or settled agriculturists, soldiers, or airline pilots, nurses on shift work, or mothers with small children. Jesus tells us that the one common basis for discussion is that the commandment about work and rest is made for humans, not that humans are made to obey rules. Applying the same principle to the seventh commandment we assume that the prohibition of adultery is not an arbitrary edict from God. Instead of social custom or religious rules, moral discussion should focus on what would be good for the marriage.
Christians will also want to work at the heart of the commandment. Jesus for example deepened our interpretation of the sixth commandment by giving us three ways of murdering others without actually killing them. Murderous anger deserves a sentence by a small town judge, saying 'raca' to write off a person is more serious, and treating someone as a complete idiot merits being trashed on the burning gehenna garbage dump outside the east wall of Jerusalem (Matthew 5:21-22). We can see each of these murderous attitudes among the children in any school yard. "I am going to kill you." "I will never never talk to you again." "Mary is retarded ... Mary is retarded ..." And, as Jesus indicated, treating another as an idiot whose opinions are not worth bothering with is perhaps the most hurtful of the three. The good news is that in loving us God never hates us, or treats us as idiots, or writes us off. In the next chapter we will see how Jesus also made it clear that genuine love is the diametric opposite of such murderous attitudes. Which suggests that genuine love could also be the diametric opposite of committing adultery.
But already we can hear the objection. If the content of the word adultery can change so much then the meaning of "You shall not commit adultery" seems to have become fuzzy. Have we slid into a dangerous relativism to muddy the categorical absolutes of the ten commandments? We will leave the problem raised by Joseph Fletcher's Situation Ethics for a deeper discussion in Appendix E. At this point we will content ourselves with a paradoxical statement.
When Einstein had introduced the radically new principle of relativity into modern physics it did not result in relativism. It did not make physics into a fuzzy science. In fact it permitted scientists to program the computer of an unmanned spacecraft to make a pin point landing on Mars. A new generation of young people raised on Star Trek knows that relativity has its own categorical absolutes. You don't nose your spaceship into a black hole. In moral matters we need a way to manage relativity without falling into the black holes of relativism. And that is exactly the point of this little book about adultery.