Safeguarding Marriage

Ten Commandments - 7

Safeguarding Marriage

The Importance of the Seventh Commandment

(Exodus 20:14)

Promiscuity and adultery, widely practised in our sexually liberated age, actually have a number of sad and unintended consequences. Rob Yule’s message on the seventh commandment, delivered at St. Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 1 November 1998, gives four compelling reasons - economic, moral, medical and theological - for choosing marital faithfulness.

If the commandment to honour parents puts a fence around the family, the commandment prohibiting adultery puts a hedge around marriage. These two commandments are the buttress of social relationships. Neglect of them today is having disastrous consequences for our nation and our way of life.

Adultery is voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and another person - whether married or not - other than their spouse. It is easy to understand what adultery is. It is much harder for a sex-obsessed culture like our own to accept what the prohibition of adultery involves - being sexually faithful to your wife or husband. I want to give four reasons why we ought to heed this often sneered-at commandment.

1. Economic

In its original setting the seventh commandment had an economic aspect to it. The tenth commandment concerning coveting includes the requirement, ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife’ (Exodus 20:17). Much more was involved in this than just the view, now unfashionable, that the wife was the property of her husband. The ancient world knew what we are today in danger of forgetting, that the family was the basic unit of economic life. Family continuity was essential to economic survival.

In ancient communally-based societies there was no social welfare outside clan or family. Adultery threatened the ability of the family to provide for its legitimate members. If an act of adultery produced a child, it threatened family continuity by introducing an unauthorised dependent on the family’s income and a rival heir to the family’s property. The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, remarks how a deceived husband would therefore be forced to care for the children of a treacherous rival as if they were his own flesh and blood (Elaine Adler Goodfriend, ‘Adultery’, Anchor Bible Dictionary [New York & London, Doubleday, 1992], Vol. I, p. 82). Adultery is the behaviour of a cuckoo, which lays its egg in another bird’s nest for it to care for.

We today, of course, think that contraception has eliminated this inconvenience. But it hasn’t altered one bit the disastrous economic consequences of adultery and other forms of sexual infidelity. In his Focus on the Family film series James Dobson warns would-be philanderers, ‘The grass might look greener on the other side of the fence. But just remember, you’ll have to mow it!’ And you’ll not only have to mow it - but go on mowing your present lawn as well! The economic cost of supporting two groups of dependents - quite apart from the emotional toll of a broken marriage and a fractured household - is so little considered today by a society which continually sells us the lie that sexual promiscuity is a way to happiness and fulfilment. It’s not. It’s a way to pain and poverty.

William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton and now a professor at the University of Maryland, has pointed out that you only need to do three things to avoid poverty in the United States. They are: finish high school, marry before having a child, and have that first child after the age of twenty. In America only 8% of children from families who do this are poor ; but 80% of children from families who fail to do this are poor (Bruce Logan, ‘Family Matters,’ Cutting Edge, July-August 1998, p. 1). We enlightened people, supposedly so worldly-wise about sex and economics, forget what earlier generations knew so well - that the family is the basic economic unit of society, and that faithful marriages are the key to personal as well as national prosperity.

2. Moral

The moral dimension of adultery was even more prominent than the economic in the ancient world. Adultery was viewed as the height of betrayal or treachery. It was an assault on the sanctity of marriage and the family. The Old Testament calls adultery an ‘abomination’ (Ezekiel 22:11), and says that both parties to an illicit union are ‘defiled’ by what they have done (Leviticus 18:20, Numbers 5:13, Ezekiel 33:26). Adultery is even listed in the offences which defile the land of Israel, disqualifying the Israelites from living there, causing the land to ‘vomit out its inhabitants’ (Leviticus 18:20, 24-25). The book of Genesis calls adultery ‘a great sin’ (Genesis 20:9), a ‘sin against God’ (Genesis 20:6, 39:9), and this revulsion is echoed in ancient Near Eastern texts from Ugarit and Egypt that call adultery a ‘great crime’ (Goodfriend, art. cit., p. 82).

The book of Proverbs, chapters 5-7, contain vivid warnings against consorting with an adulteress. She is described as a ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ woman - suggesting that she places herself outside accepted norms of conduct and community relationships. She lures foolish men to their downfall with seductive words. Associating with her leads to ‘death’ (7:21-23):

With seductive speech she persuades him;
with her smooth talk she compels him.
Right away he follows her,
and goes like an ox to the slaughter,
or bounds like a stag towards the trap
until an arrow pierces his entrails.
He is like a bird rushing into a snare,
not knowing that it will cost him his life.

Her indifference to moral standards, and to the men and families she is bringing to ruin, is vividly expressed: ‘she eats, and wipes her mouth, and says, "I have done no wrong."‘ (Proverbs 30:20).

The book of Proverbs brings out the folly of adultery and the wisdom of avoiding the seductions of the adulteress (6:23-32):

Do not desire her beauty in your heart,
and do not let her capture you with her
eyelashes . . . .
Can fire be carried in the bosom
without burning one’s clothes?
Or can one walk on hot coals
without scorching the feet?
So is he who sleeps with his neighbour’s wife;
no one who touches her will go unpunished...

He who commits adultery has no sense;
he who does it destroys himself.

Proverbs not only warns against adultery; it extols the value of marital love and tells how to fireproof your marriage (5:15-20):

Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.
Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?
Let them be for yourself alone,
and not for sharing with strangers.
Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
may you be intoxicated always by her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman
and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?

3. Medical

A third reason why adultery and sexual promiscuity should be avoided is for the sake of health. The liberal mentality that encourages people to be sexually permissive is guilty of a huge con. There is only one safe way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, and it’s not condoms. The HIV or AIDS virus is small enough to pass through the micropores in the latex of a condom. Anyone who thinks that’s protected sex should try Russian roulette with seven cartridges in the revolver. The only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases is by abstinence or fidelity - by having no sex, or by limiting it to a single lifelong heterosexual partner whom you can trust never to have sexual relations with anyone else than you, and you equally keeping yourself exclusively for that person. This has even been acknowledged by the World Health Organisation, which for World AIDS Day in 1991 put out this statement: ‘The most effective way to prevent sexual transmission of HIV is to abstain or for two people who are not infected to be faithful to one another.’

Let me clarify this statement. I said ‘a single, lifelong, heterosexual partner whom you can trust.’ Can you trust someone who wants to have sex with you, without a long period of courtship to get to know them? Can you trust someone who wants to live with you, but is not prepared to make a lifelong commitment to be faithful to you in marriage? Many people think they can trust a person to be faithful, because they only have one partner at a time. But over a period of time people who are not committed to monogamous marriage can have many partners, and the incubation period of some sexually transmitted diseases can be longer than the duration of these relationships. Dr. Patrick Dixon, in his book The Rising Price of Love: The True Cost of Sexual Freedom (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), which draws on his extensive work in AIDS care in London, says this (pp. 79-80):

You might think that the best way to avoid sexual diseases is to reduce the number of partners. However, life is not that simple. . . . The commonest sexual pattern is serial monogamy, or faithfulness to one person at a time, but unfortunately this can be an ideal way to spread sex diseases. One partner infects another; and after a year, perhaps both have new partners, and infect one other person each. After another year or two, each of the four infects another. Eight becomes sixteen and so on. Therefore it is hardly surprising that even in the absence of . . . ‘promiscuous behaviour’ . . . sexual diseases still spread.

Patrick Dixon says that if he had to choose between death by cancer and death by AIDS he would choose cancer. People are shocked when he says this. However, the hospice movement and the development of modern cancer treatments means that much of the pain of cancer can be alleviated. It is very different with AIDS, and some other incurable sexually transmitted diseases. One in four AIDS patients loses their vision, sometimes becoming completely blind. Many have memory loss, almost all experience crushing tiredness and weakness, many have severe diarrhoea from gut infections, or pain from shingles, genital herpes, or other immune problems. The combination of AIDS and genital herpes can cause the entire skin to break down, with ulcers so severe they can expose the bone. Losing control of the bowels, passing water involuntarily, unable to walk without falling, unable to remember who came to see you five minutes ago, nausea, vomiting, headaches, fevers, drenching sweats (Dixon, op. cit, pp 93-94). AIDS is not a pleasant illness.

Some say you should hide this from people. But it’s the sad reality of today’s sexual revolution, and its proponents have got a lot to answer for. God’s commandments are given for our good, and would protect us from such tragic consequences. The Bible tells us that if we lived according to them God would protect us from ‘all the dread diseases’ which are epidemic in the society around us (Deuteronomy 7:15). If we lived by the Maker’s Manual we wouldn’t mess up our lives like this.

4. Theological

Let me conclude with the heart of the matter. Adultery is wrong, because it denies the depth of the sexual union, the most intimate union of two people, a man and a woman, which the Bible describes in incarnational terms as becoming ‘one flesh’. ‘For this reason a man will leave his mother and father, and be united with his wife, and they will become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). This verse follows the first love poem in history, where Adam greets Eve in the language of sexual ecstasy (2:23):

‘This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called "woman",
for she was taken out of man.’

What is striking about this passage are the repeated references to ‘flesh’: ‘this is flesh of my flesh’, ‘they will become one flesh’. John Stott remarks that ‘heterosexual intercourse is more than a union; it is a kind of reunion. It is not a union of alien persons who do not belong to one another and cannot appropriately become one flesh. On the contrary, it is the union of two persons who originally were one, were then separated from each other, and now in the sexual encounter of marriage come together again.’

Stott continues: ‘It is surely this which explains the profound mystery of heterosexual intimacy, which poets and philosophers have celebrated in every culture. Heterosexual intercourse is much more than a union of bodies; it is a blending of complementary personalities through which, in the midst of prevailing alienation, the rich created oneness of human being is experienced again. And the complementarity of male and female sexual organs is only a symbol at the physical level of a much deeper spiritual complementarity.’ (Issues Facing Christians Today [London, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1984], pp. 310-11).

This is ultimately why adultery is wrong. Adultery trivialises the sexual relationship. It misses its point, skims its surface. It treats as skin-deep what is really soul-deep, as public what is actually private, as transferable what is essentially personal. The sex act is more than a handshake, more than the bumping of bodies in a bed. It is the indescribable comfort offered by two persons who are committed to each other and belong to each other, transcending their individuality in an act of intimacy that while being a universal experience is uniquely personal to themselves.

The commandment prohibiting adultery safeguards this exclusive relationship. It puts a fence around it, with a notice that says, ‘Private Property. Keep Out.’

Rob Yule
1 November 1998

© 1998, St Albans Presbyterian Church,
Palmerston North, New Zealand