I was talking to a friend the other day when the conversation turned to the discussion of adultery, specifically the meaning of the work “adultery” in Exodus 20:14.  My friend had a previous conversation with someone who stated that the Hebrew word translated “adultery” really means “a married woman having sex with someone other than her husband”.

This of course sent me studying, (don’t you just love conversations like that :-).  What does adultery mean and how does that impact our lives.

(Thank you Randy for the spark of this study!)

What does Adultery mean?

You shall not commit adultery. (The New King James Version. 1982 (Ex. 20:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.)

Let’s start at the beginning.  The Hebrew word used in Exodus 20:14 is na’aph (pronounced naw·af) which literally means:

to commit adultery, usually of man, always with wife of another. (Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Hebrew)

So the person my friend had talked to was correct, the literal translation of this commandment is a married woman having sex with someone other than her husband.  You may be thinking, “But Paul, that was the Old Testament, what about the New Testament?”  Well that’s rather interesting too, since the Greek word translated adultery is moicheuo (pronounced moy·khyoo·o), which literally means:

to commit adultery with, have unlawful intercourse with another’s wife (Strong, J. (1996). The exhaustive concordance of the Bible)

So the Greek translation is markedly different than the Hebrew.  Now before your mind wanders too far, let’s remember that Scripture needs to be taken as a whole so we should see what else is said about adultery.  While there are many verses that mention adultery, talk about our adulterous hearts and what the punishment for adultery is, there is one passage that I believe gives us insight into what God’s view of adultery.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (The New King James Version. 1982 (Mt 5:27-28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.)

Jesus tells us that even looking on a woman lustfully is committing adultery with her in your heart.  Notice the word translated “woman” is gune (pronounced goo·nay) which means:

a woman of any age, whether a virgin, or married, or a widow (Strong, J. (1996). The exhaustive concordance of the Bible)

According to Jesus, looking lustfully upon any woman, married or not, is committing adultery.

So how do we reconcile these two ideas, that adultery is unlawful sex with a married woman and lust after any woman?  When I searched the Old Testament for the word “adultery”, I found only one the root word na’aph.  (I did find two related words, both from the root na’aph.)  So I think it is safe to say that the Hebrew language focused the responsibility for the act of adultery on the man, (since the word focuses on sex with a woman not a man) and that most women of an age to be sexually appealing would be married.  (Both men and women tended to marry at younger ages in times past.)  However, Jesus’ statement points out that God’s definition of adultery is not merely an illegal sexual act, but the heart of one lusting after something they are not supposed to have.

This study has pointed out one other important fact.  It is easy to take a verse, even in the original language, out of context and thereby fool yourself into misunderstanding.  Even more dangerous is the fact that you can easily fool a brother or sister in Christ, whether that’s your intention or not.

I thank God that my friend sought out godly men when presented with this idea and that he brought it up to me, in context, so we could both learn.  May be always take the example of the Bereans:

Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (The New King James Version. 1982 (Ac 17:10-11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.)