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On the Possibility of Nonsexual Adultery

In his commentary on Matthew 19:9, D. A. Carson says that

if the remarriage clause is excluded, the thought becomes nonsensical: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for porneia, commits adultery”—surely untrue unless he remarries.574

Carson obviously believes that adultery does not happen until the second marriage is consummated. Before dealing with the question of nonsexual adultery, let me give some background related to his key verse.

This response of Jesus was to a second question brought up by the Pharisees. Their first question was a “test” question, asking if a man might divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus responded by telling the Pharisees that God joined the pair, therefore their marriage was not to be sundered. Jesus was redirecting their focus away from the idea of ending marriages to keeping them going. Given that focus, the more obvious interpretation of Jesus’ words is that the sundering would occur when the man put his wife away, i.e., divorced her. Remarriage was not an issue.

The Pharisees, who believed that men had a right to end their marriages through a valid divorce, only differed among themselves about the grounds. Mistaking Jesus response for a denial of divorce altogether, they asked Him to explain why Moses commanded a divorce writ (Deut. 24:1). They reasoned that if Moses commanded them to give a writ to “prove up” the divorce that presupposed a “right to” divorce. Jesus then replied that the Mosaic legislation was not supporting the hard-hearted intentions of men, but dealing with the hardness of their hearts—protecting their wives by allowing freedom of their wives from such. Their concept of marriage was contrary to the way God intended marriage from the beginning. As an aside, Jesus does mention that if the woman herself has breached the marriage covenant then a divorce is permitted, but the man who does not have that ground and divorces her anyway is guilty of the sin of adultery. As a second aside, Jesus identifies the probable cause of men divorcing their wives, which is the desire to acquire a more desirable wife.

As argued in the text of this book, the historical/ethical context of Jesus’ teaching was that, if a man simply took another wife, without divorcing his first wife, no sin was committed. Nothing that Jesus says in any passage denies or condemns this standing practice. Polygyny (having more than one wife) had been permitted by law—prevailing and revealed—for over a thousand years. Jesus never says, “If a man marries another, he commits adultery against his (first) wife”.

How does this truth affect Matthew 19:9 and (Mark 10 and Luke 16)? If polygyny is morally permissible, then the remarriage, mentioned in the aside, is not the point at which adultery takes place, and, in fact, cannot be involved in the adultery at all, except by way of explaining why the man sinned—his motive. So what is the moment of the commission of the sin? In line with the entire dialogue, it is the divorce. The man has no moral right to end his marriage on his own. If he has no moral ground, namely, her sexual sin of fornication—porneia, which such an instance would also adultery—he is sundering his marriage by the divorce. Any sundering is sin. What sin is it? Jesus calls it adultery.

Professor Carson cannot bring himself to acknowledge this. Why? Because he cannot understand how the word “adultery” can be used of the sundering done by the groundless husband. It makes no sense to him that a term, which his Greek lexicon defines (denotatively) as an extra-marital sexual act, can be used in this dialogue unless sex is involved in the act which bears that term of approbation. To this we respond, that lexicons must reflect actual use, not traditions of definition. Words change in their use in the real world. If Jesus chooses to use it in this way, then either we should change the lexicon or the learned professors need to file their complaint (in this case) with Jesus for “misusing” the language.

I have no intention here to be a smart-aleck. My background is linguistic philosophy and I humbly tell my reader that if the logic of the text provides us with a change in word usage, then we need to admit that change, not insist against that usage that it cannot be so. Either the text is in error or the professors are. I choose to side with the text. The only way that “adultery” cannot be non-sexual is if we so define it, even if to do so is against usage.

Let me give you an example. The great Princeton New Testament scholar B.B. Warfield (Shorter Works, vol. II, “Baptism”) notes that the Greek word bapto means immerse during the Attic/classical Greek period (ca 300 BC). Immerse is a part of the denotative definition of the word in that time. But by the time we arrive at koine Greek—the Greek of the New Testament—the use of the word shows that its meaning had gone through a change. Warfield cites Hebrews 9:10, where bapto is used to refer to various ritual washings (plural) of the Old Covenant (Mosaic Law), none of which, with the possible exception of one, involved the mode of immersion. It would be just as wrong to fault the writer of Hebrews for using bapto without immersion being involved, as it would be to argue that (adultery) moichatai cannot have meaning without a sexual act being involved. The historical and linguistic context demands that we expand our understanding of adultery to accommodate the usage in the text, no matter what the lexicon says.

Of course it would be nice if we could find multiple uses of moichatai which clearly have no sex-act involved. But then again, it would be nice if we had bapto used more than once the way it clearly is in Hebrews 9. Some words, common words, are used once in a different way than they usually are. That does not mean that the exceptional use is nonsensical. Of course, given the exceptional use of bapto, we find that we need to change the standard definition of it to accommodate the linguistic facts. Thus we use “washings” rather than “immersions”, and we have it right. In the case of moichatai, we change from “extramarital sexual act”, to “act which breaches covenant.” Which kind of bapto is immersion and which kind is some other mode, we let the context tell us. Whether moichatai means an extramarital sexual act or has the broader meaning, the text decides as well. With that in mind, using moichatai to describe a man breaching his covenant by unjustly divorcing his wife is not at all linguistic nonsense, it ends up saying exactly what Jesus is trying to say: God wants marriage to go on without a breaching sin, till death parts the pair. What is a breaching sin? For the woman it is fornication. For the man it is the adultery of putting his wife away simply because he wants to marry someone else. While this is all that needs to be said, more can be said. Let’s say some more.

This so-called sexless-adultery-in-divorce, indirectly involves extramarital sexual acts in many cases. How so? Remember our treatment of Matthew 5:32a, taken as an independent saying. There, the unusual passive infinitive form was said to imply (secondarily) that the man’s divorcing of his wife would seem to imply the cast off woman’s guilt as a sexual sinner, since that was, according to Jesus’ exception clause, the primary, if not only reason God recognized divorcing her. In that way she is stigmatized as a sexual sinner, though she was not. How appropriate, if ironic, to call the man who does this to her an adulterer, though he did not, himself commit a sexual sin.

Next the reader should understand that there is a certain flexibility of words used to describe sins. Take the sin we normally think of when we use the word adultery: sex between a married person and someone other than their spouse. We have already noted that this definition is not the one used anywhere in the ancient word, including the Scriptures of the Old Testament. In the O.T., when a married man had sex with an unpledged woman he was said to have defiled the virgin. Without a doubt this was considered a sin, and he was treated as a sinner. When a pledged woman (married or engaged) had sex with a man (of any marital status), the sin was called: a humbling of the woman and an evil that must be purged from Israel (namely by execution of the guilty parties) (see Deut. 22). In Leviticus 18 having sex with the wife of another man is said to render you unclean. The only place in the legal code where sex with someone else’s wife is called adultery is in the penalty regulations of Leviticus 20.

There are other terms in Leviticus 18, that 20 calls adultery. They are terms which are elsewhere used of a number of offenses, not all of which involve sexual sins. One of them, uncleanness, is used in Lev. 20:3 of child sacrifice. It is used in Lev. 21 of touching dead people. If one term which speaks of the offense of sexual sin with someone else’s wife can be used in other ways, why cannot the term adultery, which is used of that sin be used in other ways as well, especially if they relate to marriage?

There is one term which merits more careful study.

But is it? Well, that’s what we are contending about the verse in question, but let us look at other uses. In the Old Testament, the concept of “committing adultery” is either sexual or related to idolatry. The former might not seem to help make my point, but let me pause for a second to underscore a point already made. This term never is used of a man having sex with an unpledged woman. Thus, it is just as nonsensical for Carson to believe that Jesus is applying the term adultery to a man divorcing is wife and marrying someone else (thus providing the sexual element that he thinks he needs) as it is for us to apply adultery to a man who only divorces his wife. This is because no verse before Jesus’ teaching applies the term adultery of a man having sex with another, unmarried woman while he is married. Proverbs 6, where the sin of adultery is discussed regarding the male, the passage speaks of his offense against God, but never against his wife. I am sure that Carson will appeal to the “straightforward” language of Luke 16:18a and Mark 10:11, but this is not an adequate response IF there is a logical explanation that does NOT require the remarriage.

However, could not Carson respond with exactly the same argument against the position set forth here? I don’t think so. The reason for this is that Exodus 21 gives a background for speaking of a man refusing to provide for his wife as breaking covenant against her, while no Scripture teaches that his sin of sex outside of his marriage to her is a breach of his covenant to her.

One possible attempt to block appeal to Exodus 21 would be to argue that this offense yields the wife’s freedom, not his execution along with the “second wife”, and, since adultery is an executable crime, his breach alone cannot be considered equal to the sin which is clearly called adultery in Leviticus 20:10. But logically this will not work either. Technically, while the text of Leviticus 20:10 does speak of execution the adulterer, the execution is clearly against the neighbor, whose wife is taken, and this is not the kind of adultery that Carson says that Jesus condemns (a sin against the first wife) Thus the adultery mentioned in Leviticus 20 is a different sort than that Carson needs. If Carson responds that the form of adultery he finds in the Gospels could be implied in Leviticus 20, we could say the same. The fact is that at no point does any verse in the Old Testament even suggest that a man sins against his wife by sexual involvement with another woman. And since that type of action is mentioned many, many times, it is extremely odd that the specific condemnation is absent. On the other hand, the active or passive abuse of a wife, even the abuse of her reputation are discussed as reprehensible acts in the O.T.

In Mark 10 and Luke 16, where Jesus says that a man who divorces and remarries commits adultery, it is a matter of interpretation as to when the adultery takes place. Is it at the point of 1) the divorce or 2) the remarriage (Carson?) or 3) some combination of both? Because of what Jesus says in Matthew 5 and 19 regarding divorce on the ground of porneia, it would be wrong to say that the adultery takes place simply because of a divorce (option 1). Because a second marriage of a man is not in itself adulterous, but morally allowed in the Law, it can’t be that he commits adultery in the remarriage per se (option 2). By logical exclusion, then it must be some combination of both the divorce and remarriage (option 3). But how there? There are two options. It could be (A) the divorce when the sex of the second marriage happens (Carson?) or it could be (B) the divorce because the divorce was only based on the desire for a remarriage (Luck).

Though I can write option A, I’m not sure that it makes any logical sense. What does it meant to say that the divorce is the sin of adultery when the man remarries? How does that differ from option 2 above? It would seem that while Carson suggests that the passage would not make any sense if the remarriage were left out, it would make even less sense if the divorce is left in. Why not just say that a man commits adultery against his wife when he has sex with anyone other than her. That would be clear and clearly against the entire O.T. tradition. It would also be against the context. Remember that it is the O.T. divorce legislation which is at issue in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 16, and Matthew 5 for that matter.

Again, since the sex of the second marriage would be allowed aside from the divorce, it logically falls to the divorce as the sin which deserves the word “adultery.” So that leaves us with the final and actually very simple explanation offered in the text of this book. Jesus is saying that if a man divorces his wife without a legitimate ground (her sexual impurity being a marriage breaker in the Law) but only for the purpose of marrying another woman, he commits adultery in the sense of breaking his marital promise to provide for her till death. Sexless, but “covenant breaking” adultery.

The term adultery is used in by Jesus in a way that my not involve connotations of adultery. Consider Matthew 12:39, where Jesus speaks of His generation as “evil and adulterous” because they seek after a sign (Matt. 12:39). I suppose that if one tries hard enough one could see the “seeking after” as implying that the sign is like seeking after another husband (the generation being understood as being in the position of the bride of Yahweh), but this seems strained. It is easier simply to see the generation as being unfaithful to Yahweh—no fiction being implied. Their problem was one of unbelief that was incompatible with their commitment to Yahweh. They had rejected His bridegroom, their marriage partner. The insistence of seeing a magic show was in opposition to their valid marriage partner, not in pursuit of another … unless that partner was themselves and the positions those religious leaders had in Israel.

But there is actually a stronger argument that can be mustered to respond to Carson. Consider the term is bagad, which means “to deal treacherously” or to “deceive”. It is a very strong term and doesn’t just mean to deceive. This term is used no less than thirty six times in the Old Testament.

Chronologically, this term (bagadu) is first used by Job (6:15), in describing how his friends, by their labeling him a sinner (e.g., 4:8) when he was not, are said to be as treacherous as a seasonal stream. This could refer to someone going to a stream when he needed water and finding it dry. Thus, Job could expect that his friends would support him in his moment of need, but instead they undercut the friendship. They don’t need to find a new friend to be treacherous to Job they only need to fail to support him—and they do so by alleging that he deserves what is happening to him, that he is a sinner. Is this not exactly the sort of treachery that a man does to his marriage partner by withdrawing his support and alleging that she is a sinner? If that doesn’t sound analogous to this book’s interpretation of Matthew 5:32a I don’t know what would.

The next time it is used it is in the Mosaic Law (Ex. 21:8). It is used of a man who promises to make a woman his servant. Some translations make this a betrothal. Other’s protest that the word doesn’t necessarily mean that. However, as we read further, we see that the man changes his mind about those promises. Clearly he does not intend to release her from service, but to keep her in his employ. The stricture against him for “dealing treacherously” (bagad) is that he must allow her to be redeemed—though not to a foreign purchaser. The great Hebrew scholar U. Cassuto thought that she could even be redeemed by herself (Exodus, p. 268). Note that the treachery is in making promises that are broken. Regarding the divided scholarship, if the more modern interpretation is accepted then it had nothing to do with sex. If the more traditional one is accepted then it a one-flesh relationship was broken and it creates a situation remarkably similar to that of Deut. 24:1. In my own view, I believe it was a concubine relationship, because it is hard to understand what other promises might be in view in what was clearly a “slavery” situation for the girl. It is unlikely to be a promise to light work and fine clothes. Those things were for wives, not slaves. So in the end, unless the moderns can show some likely promises, I suspect that the more traditional understanding is correct even if the word doesn’t usually mean betrothal. In fact, it may be the point that proves the tradition. It is a wife that is betrothed. A slave/concubine would not merit that designation. “Designates for himself” sounds quite proper for such a half-wife situation. So whether bagad means treachery to promises, or to promises of marriage, the sin is not sexual.

Then comes Judges 9:23, where the Lord sent a spirit to stir up trouble between the men of Shechem and Abimelech (Gideon’s son). The text says that as a result the men of Shechem were disloyal to Abimelech. That word means to deal treacherously with him. They had vowed that he should be their master, but then they ceased to acknowledge him as such. In their rebellion they eventually transferred their loyalty to a man named Gaal. But the immediate evidence of their treachery involved banditry. The concept here is primarily one of breaking a covenant. Only secondarily is another leader mentioned, and had they not had a commitment to Abimelech that replacement of loyalty would not have been treachery. It is true that the men of Shechem stand in the place of a wife to a husband, in the covenantal relationship, but that analogy is not drawn. In this first use of the word, it simply means the breaking of a covenant. There is no sexuality implied even in metaphor.

In 1 Samuel 14:33, treachery comes in the form of the Hebrew soldiers breaking kosher. Again, no sex, but a breach of covenant. Psalm 25:3 contrasts treachery with trust in God. His trust will produce security. The treacherous, on the other hand will be humiliated. It is hard to know exactly what this means, but for certain the trusting are covenant keepers. The treacherous are some kind of rebels, like the Shechemites. It is not clear if they turn to others or simply refuse God’s lordship. Again, no sexuality is implied. With Psalm 59 we are presented with a poem that David wrote when Saul sent people to harass him. Some people are called treacherous (verse 5. At first blush they might belong to heathen nations, but the next verse seems to identify them as Saul’s harassers. In context, David was the faithful servant of Saul, but Saul, out of jealousy, often attacked David and sought to remove him from the scene. He made allegations of unfaithfulness against David, and these harassers seem to do that too. David says they lie about him. Once again, treachery comes in the context of the superior party who undercuts a relationship and seeks to remove the partner, and does so through lies. That is treachery (bagad).

In Psalm 73:15 we have an instance which relates to Asaph being tempted to envy the wicked. He says that if he had compromised himself by speaking like those who rebel against God, he would have been treacherous to God’s people. This could be taken as: it would be treachery to be a party to those who undercut righteous people’s relationship with their master. There is some similarity here to Matthew 5:32b as understood in this book. Psalm 78:57 uses bagad of covenant breakers who have not obeyed God’s covenant and have gone after other gods after committing themselves to Him. The problem with Israel is challenging and defying God, not obeying His commands, and turning back on their commitment to God … being unreliable. Though pagan shrines are mentioned after the statement of treachery, the main thought is breach of covenant, which proscribed such idolatry. Ps. 119:158 speaks of the treacherous as those who do not keep God’s rules. They break the covenant and attack the righteous.

Bagad is used often in the Proverbs. In 2:20 it describes people who, in general break covenants, one of them could be marriage. In 11:3 it is used in contrast to the upright who live in integrity. Covenant breakers as opposed to covenant keepers. Later in that same chapter (11:6) the righteous will be delivered from problems, but the treacherous will be caught in their own desires. There is nothing particularly sexual or marital about this treachery. In 13:2 the treacherous are those who seek violence, obviously against the innocent. The nature of that violence is not specified. This is similar to 13:15, where the conduct of the treacherous is said to be harsh or lead to calamity. Whether this is harshness to them or others is not certain. In 21:18, the treacherous are parallel to the wicked, who are said to be a ransom for the righteous. In other words the wicked and treacherous seek to hurt other people, but will end up in a bad position. In 22:12 God is said to overthrow the words of the treacherous. In other words, they say hurtful things, but God will use knowledge to overthrow their intentions.

In 23:28 treachery is what a prostitute produces in those who go to her. Here we have one of the first clear references to sexuality involved with our word. While this certainly shows that male, sexual treachery breaks covenant, it is the covenant with God, who prohibited attendance on prostitutes. Again, the focus is upon covenant breaking, not the plurality of sexual partners as sexual sin.

Proverbs 25:19 likens a treacherous person to being lame in the time of trouble. This is reminiscent of the passage in Job … useless when needed. And not merely so, but a painful experience as well. They hurt people as well as let them down. Just as a treacherous man who divorces his wife. He hurts her as well as failing to be there for her in time of trouble. The treacherous man of 25:19 does not have to aid someone else to hurt the one who depended on him.

Within 4 verses of Isaiah’s prophecy, there are no less than 12 instances of our word. In Chapter 21, Babylon receives an oracle against them. Though in it the destruction of their gods is mentioned, the oracle is about Babylon, not the Israelites that were or would be deported by that nation. But the Babylonians are said to be treacherous (21:2), while the immediate context of that is not clear, it probably refers to what is going on in verse 21:10, where God’s people seem to be vindicated by this judgment. They are said to be downtrodden or mistreated … possibly a prophecy related to what Babylon did to Judah when they deported them from the Promised Land to Babylon. Though they were Yahweh’s covenant partner, in this passage it is the mistreatment of the covenant partner by removing her from the land of promise and mistreating her which bears the term treachery. Israel’s seeking after the Babylonians is not the issue. It is Babylon’s mistreatment which is condemned. So in this case, again, there is no sexual implication in the metaphor, if there is a metaphor implied.

In 24:16, the Prophet seems to be countering the positive statement of those who deny that judgment is coming upon the earth. Their treachery (used 4 times) is in their attempts to lead others astray by not believing God’s predictions. There is no sexual impropriety implied here, but there is an attempt to provide a false sense of security by denying judgment. This reminds me of those who teach that disbelieving God about their marriage vows need not worry about God’s judgment. Those teachers in Jesus’ day told men that they could end their marriages and not fear judgment. They did not tell people that they could remarry.

In Isaiah 33:1 the term is used again used 4 times. Here the treacherous one refers to those who hurt God’s people … Assyria is the likely ones. If you read 2 Kings 18, you will read of how the chief advisor of the Assyrian king tried to undercut the confidence of the Hebrews in their God. He said his king, Sennacherib, would provide for them in stead. But Hezekiah refused and God dispersed those who threatened them. This then was an attempt to disrupt someone else’s covenant. Much like Herod did with Herodias and his brother Philip’s marriage. But this event thought it fits the concept of Isaiah 33 came in the year that Isaiah died, so the reference may be to the earlier threat against the Northern Kingdom by Assyria’s Shalmaneser. That kingdom of Israel did pay tribute to the Assyrians and then revolted and were led into captivity. Obviously the Assyrians were successful in convincing the Northern Kingdom that God would not keep his Covenant promises to protect them if they trusted in Him. That is even more like Herod.

Isaiah 48:8 is an oracle of God through Isaiah to the exiled Northern Kingdom. In it they are referred to as treacherous, which is further explained as being rebellious from birth. The focus is upon not being loyal to God and His covenant. Nothing sexual is implied.

In Jeremiah 3 there are four uses of treachery (verses 8, 11, and 20). Here the metaphor of marriage is right in your face. And it begins with an allusion to Deut. 24:1-4. For a comment on that see the text above. Similar uses of treachery are found in 5:11 and 9:2. In 12:1, treachery goes back to a more general use. Treacherous men seem to live easy lives. The prophet asks why? Later in that passage, God warns Jeremiah that members of his own family are treacherous towards him and want to hurt him. This use is like the earlier uses, where sex is not involved but an attempt to remove the righteous is in view. In Lamentations (1:2) Jeremiah speaks of Israel’s lovers having abandoned her and treated her treacherously. How so? Because the promised to take care of her if she would leave her covenant Partner, but they could not follow through on their promises. This speaks again of the interloper who disrupts a covenant.

Hosea 5:7 uses the term to speak of an adulterous wife, who has born children of adultery. In 6:7 Israel is condemned for being treacherous, which is paralleled to “breaking covenant.” Habakkuk asks God why He put up with treacherous men. The reference here is to people who are disloyal and violate agreements. In 2:5 bagad is used to speak of the way wine will betray the proud. It is thought that wine here refers to imperial success. The Babylonian king was “drunk with success” by conquering Judah, but it will turn out otherwise than he thought. Treachery here seems to be about being led astray.

Without a doubt the most significant uses of the word bagad are to be found in Malachi 2:10-16. Though we have dealt with this in the text above, it is worth our consideration here, because it brings all the thoughts on bagad to a head in a passage that was one of the last written before Jesus spoke. It is in two sections:

10“Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers? 11“Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the LORD which He loves and has married the daughter of a foreign god. 12“As for the man who does this, may the LORD cut off from the tents of Jacob everyone who awakes and answers, or who (presents an offering to the LORD of hosts.

13This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14“Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15“But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. 16“For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”

There are two sins here. Both merit the term treachery (bagad). The first is what all would acknowledge as “spiritual adultery.” It involved marrying the daughter of a foreign god. As noted in the text, it is not clear if the use here is metaphorical or if the men of Judah were actually doing this. For contextual reasons I have assumed that it was. Malachi wrote around the time of Nehemiah and Ezra, when interfaith marriages were practiced. Such were prohibited in Deut 7:3. If it is metaphorical it would still condemn actual practices, since they would be an instance of the sin.

Is this what Jesus is referring to in the Gospels, where He refers to the man divorcing his wife and marrying another? No. Intermarriage was wrong because the covenant with God specifically prohibited covenants with other gods (1st Commandment). Further, the Covenant was accepted without escape clauses. They took it for themselves and their children. It was permanent from the human side. But not from the divine. God could have other spouses and did (Gentile believers). This is not parallel to the Gospels because there the issue is from the male side and there was not prohibition in the law for a man not taking another wife.

Now comes what Malachi calls “another thing” they were doing wrong. This time it is clearly individual and does relate to an actual sinful practice that offends God and leads Him to use the strong language of treachery. It involves the men of Judah divorcing their Hebrew wives. It is that treachery that is said to be the kind of divorce, or putting away that God hates. Note that absolutely no mention is made of a new marriage … simply putting away unjustly. This is exactly what this book has called adultery and Dr. Carson denies as nonsense.

What we have seen from our long trip through the Old Testament is that the term treachery, which Malachi uses to speak metaphorically of a situation which was adulterous, is also used of men divorcing their wives. Treachery is a strong term which speaks of breaking covenant. That is the primary meaning of the word throughout its long history of use.

Again, though the specific word for adultery (na’ahp) is not used in the Malachi passage, the synonym “treachery” (bagad) is. Yahweh condemns the men of Israel for “dealing treacherously” (bagad) with their companions, their wives by covenant. They have divorce them … clearly without cause, since the word treachery is used. It is enough to have divorced his covenant partner. Malachi goes on to condemn divorce (shalach—putting away), not divorce and remarriage. Is it not manifestly clear that Yahweh is concerned with unjust divorce and labels it with the same term (bagad) He does for the woman’s breach of the marital covenant? What is the great difference between Malachi’s oracle against the Israelites for unjustly putting away their wives—called treachery, and Jesus’ calling men (who divorced their valid wives for no better ground than wanting to marry someone else) adultery?

Regarding Deuteronomy, Jesus is saying, you thought that the writ Moses gave you excused you from treachery from putting your wives away? Anyone who does so is an adulterer. They were guilty of the same treachery that God condemned in Exodus 21. Again the only difference was between calling what was going on in Exodus 21, Deut. 24, Malachi 2 adultery. To break God’s covenant (Law) in any respect—to turn away from it—is an act of adultery. So too, we argue, to break one’s marriage vows in any respect is an act worthy of the offense-term: adultery. Such a use of adultery is not “nonsensical” when applied to the breach of nonsexual aspects of the marriage covenant.

What then is the difference between treachery and adultery as words in the Old Testament? Adultery is a kind of treachery. All adultery is a kind of treachery, but not all treachery is a kind of adultery. Clearly, when a man has a sexual relationship with a married woman, that is adultery. His treachery comes in interfering with the covenant of another man, and getting the woman to break her vow of monogamy to him. But what of a man breaking his marriage covenant with a woman? Is that also adultery? As argued above, no Old Testament text supports that per se, but then no text supports applying adultery to a man who divorces his wife and marries another? Yet Jesus calls that adultery. We have argued that when Jesus does so it is because of the divorce, not the remarriage. We suggest then, that adultery is a breach of the marriage covenant.

For those who are not satisfied, I draw attention to one other matter. It is my belief with Stephen Kaufman and John Walton, that the book of Deuteronomy is structured on the basis of the Hittite Suzerainty Treaty form (prologue with preamble, General Obligations, Specific Stipulations, Ratification, Cursings and Blessings, and Epilogue). I personally believe the first giving of the Law is also structured that way with modifications. A Chart is included as Appendix J. The significance of this view is that the Ten Commandments are explained and applied by the stipulations which comment on them. Thus, to know what the adultery commandment really entails, we cannot simply do word studies, but we need to look to the stipulations. With this in mind, note:

In the section of the Statutes of the Mosaic Law (i.e., the Ten Commandment), the Seventh, says, “You shall not commit adultery.” There is no further definition at that point. Later, in the stipulations section, of Exodus, two marriage regulations are found. The first is in Exodus 21, where the husband is not permitted to neglect his wife’s welfare and prohibited from physical abuse. The other law is in the next chapter, where fornication calls for marriage, without consideration for the man’s marital status. In the stipulations section of the second giving of the law (Deut. 22:1-23:14), there are two kinds of laws presented that relate to marriage. The central group of laws in that section relate to marriage per se, while the rest deal with purity and integrity of other sorts. Here is the subject matter of those which deal with sexual relations per se:

22:13-19. How to test challenges against covenant purity.

22:20-27 How to deal with covenantal impurity.

22:28-29 How to deal with non-covenantal impurity.

22:30 One kind of impurity that shouldn’t be covenanted.

In Leviticus, at chapter 18:20 comes the law we customarily think of as the law against adultery. It is in the midst of a considerable number of laws related to impurity, including incest, bestiality and homosexuality. Then, two chapters later, in 20, we find the penalty regulations for the prior laws of sexual impurity. In the midst of them we find the penalty for “adultery”, identified as sex with the neighbor’s wife. This folds back on 18:20 identifying that impure act against the wife of a fellow citizen as adultery.

But what of the rest of the laws that relate to the Seventh Commandment? Specifically, in Exodus, the section which relates to the 7th commandment deals with male neglect of the marriage partner when he takes a second wife. In that instance he does not get rid of the first one, he just neglects her. He is forced to free her. In the second regulation in Exodus a man who may have a wife (his status is not important to the rule) he is ordered to take the second wife if the woman’s guardian believes it in her best interest.

In the section in Deuteronomy, noted above, while some laws that are identified in Leviticus specifically as dealing with “adultery” are in this section of regulations commenting on the Seventh Commandment, and ones which involve no actual adultery are the ones which mention divorce. What they do mention are failures to keep covenant with a woman who has been used sexually. In the first instance the marriage has been consummated and then the man decides to get rid of his wife, claiming that she wasn’t a virgin. He is not allowed to get rid of her. In the second law, a man uses a woman as if she were his wife. The law required him not to get rid of her if her father thought it in her best interest.

What do we make of all this law? Here’s what I make of it. The Seventh Commandment is strongly concerned with protecting a woman from a man using her and putting her away, whether or not he does so because he finds someone whom he finds that he likes better. The Exodus passage finds him taking a second wife but not doing right by his first wife. Though he has not divorced her, apparently because he would have to give up all rights to the bride price, he treats her as if he had put her away. Again, the taking of the second wife is not considered an evil of any form, and is mentioned only because it plays a part in the rationale for mistreating the first wife. This is just as in the case of Jesus’ comments about divorcing the wife in order to devote yourself to a new lady. The sin is with the mistreatment of the first wife, not in the marriage to the second one, though that is mentioned as an aside explaining how this all came to happen. The man who wants to have his wife executed for infidelity (Deut. 22) takes this a step further. He won’t have to take care of her if she’s dead. But the sin of attempting to be rid of her in this way is a serious sin and divorce is removed as an option for him in the future. The man who wishes to have sex outside of marriage does not apparently want to pay the bride price or care for her under covenant, but simply wishes to use her and put her aside. He is required to keep and provide for her if her father wills. His own marital status is not important, caring for her by providing one for her is.

Here is the point. Under the heading of the Seventh Commandment, there is strong concern that a woman be provided for under covenant. Though a man might find someone he likes better later, he is not permitted to put her away or keep her in a state of neglect. The key issue is provision under covenant. If he does not he has sinned. What kind of sin is it … that sexless act of not providing? Well … .it’s under the Seventh Commandment, so what’s so “nonsensical” about calling it “adultery”? Just because one class of sins discussed under the heading of the seventh is specifically called adultery, could there not be another that is under it that might merit that offense term as well. This is not to say that all the sins should be so identified, but if Jesus comes along later and does identify one of them, namely unjust divorce as adultery, who is to insist that it must not be adultery simply because no sex is involved, though breach of covenant is?

Let us return now to Matthew 19:9. There, Jesus is clearly responding to the Pharisee’s appeal to Deuteronomy 24. That commandment, though it obviously has something to say about marriage and failing to keep covenant is in a section of Deuteronomy that deals with the Eighth Commandment, property rights. The thrust of that section is that even though people may be considered property, they must not be treated like chattel, being passed back and forth between people who use and abuse them. The law itself is similar to the one in Exodus 21, except here the man is not said to desire to devote himself to another wife, he simply wants to get rid of the one he has. Jesus’ replied to the Pharisees’ appeal to Deuteronomy 24, which was being used to justify men ending their marriages, by saying that men ending their marriages without proper grounds are guilty of adultery. This has the effect of saying that He considers divorce for erwat dabar as adultery. True, he mentions the man’s remarriage, but this simply identifies the main reason in any age for being hard-hearted … a reason discussed in Exodus 21. But just as in Exodus 21, where the ground for neglecting the first wife is remarriage—but that second marriage is not in itself the sin, but the neglect of the wife is, so too, in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 16, groundless divorce is a sin, and not the remarriage, which is the stated ground/rationale for the radical neglect of the covenant promises. Why quibble about what to call this sin? Being as it clearly repudiates the marriage vows of the man, why not treat it as you would the repudiation of the marriage vows by the woman and call it adultery? I see nothing nonsensical about that. It seems very appropriate if you ask me. It seems to me that Carson and company don’t want to allow Jesus to apply the term adultery to the sin of covenant breaking by the male, unless the man also marries someone else. Personally, I think He has the right to use it that way if He wants to, and apparently He does.

The above comments are an interaction with Carson flowing out of a consideration of Matthew 19. I should add a word here about Mark 10. As noted above in the text of the book in the discussion of the “reversal clause”, what has been said about the point of the man’s adultery is also true of the woman when Jesus says, “and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.” (NASB) If she has ended the covenant, she cannot commit adultery in the remarriage. Adultery is, if anything, a term which obtains while a covenant is in effect. Her sin too is in the unjustified divorce. A justified divorce would be on the basis of passive or active abuse (Exodus 21). Were she to have that, then a divorce followed by a remarriage would not constitute adultery. This implies that in the case of Mark 10, she too is assumed not to have grounds and therefore she sins “sexlessly” when she divorces simply for the purpose of marrying another man.

Related Topics: Marriage, Adultery