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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature

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In the common acceptation of the word, adultery denotes the sexual intercourse of a married woman with any other man than her husband, or of a married man with any other woman than his wife. But the crime is not understood in this extent among Eastern nations, nor was it so understood by the Jews. With them, adultery was the act whereby any married man was exposed to the risk of having a spurious offspring imposed upon him. An adulterer was, therefore, any man who had illicit intercourse with a married or betrothed woman; and an adulteress was a betrothed or married woman who had intercourse with any other man than her husband. An intercourse between a married man and an unmarried woman was not, as with us, deemed adultery, but fornication; a great sin, but not, like adultery, involving the contingency of polluting a descent, of turning aside an inheritance, or of imposing upon a man a charge which did not belong to him. Adultery was thus considered a great social wrong, against which society protected itself by much severer penalties than attended an unchaste act not involving the same contingencies.

It will be seen that this Oriental limitation of adultery is intimately connected with the existence of polygamy. If adultery be defined as a breach of the marriage covenant, then, where the contract is between one man and one woman, as in Christian countries, the man as much as the woman infringes the covenant, or commits adultery, by every act of intercourse with any other woman: but where polygamy is allowed, where the husband may marry other wives, and take to himself concubines and slaves, the marriage contract cannot and does not convey to the woman a legal title that the man should belong to her alone. If, therefore, a Jew associated with a woman who was not his wife, his concubine, or his slave, he was guilty of unchastity, but committed no offence which gave a wife reason to complain that her legal rights had been infringed. If, however, the woman with whom he associated was the wife of another, he was guilty of adultery, not by infringing his own marriage covenant, but by causing a breach of that which existed between that woman and her husband. By thus excluding from the name and punishment of adultery the offence which did not involve the enormous wrong of imposing upon a man a supposititious offspring, in a nation where the succession to landed property went entirely by birth, so that a father could not by his testament alienate it from anyone who was regarded as his son—the law was enabled, with less severity than if the inferior offence had been included, to punish the crime with death. It is still so punished wherever the practice of polygamy has similarly operated in limiting the crime—not, perhaps, that the law expressly assigns that punishment, but it recognizes the right of the injured party to inflict it, and, in fact, leaves it, in a great degree, in his hands. Now death was the punishment of adultery before the time of Moses; and if he had assigned a less punishment, his law would have been inoperative, for private vengeance, sanctioned by usage, would still have inflicted death. But by adopting it into the law, those restrictions were imposed upon its operation which necessarily arise when the calm inquiry of public justice is substituted for the impulsive action of excited hands. Thus, death would be less frequently inflicted; and that this effect followed seems to be implied in the fact that the whole biblical history offers no example of capital punishment for the crime. Eventually, divorce superseded all other punishment.

It seems that the Roman law made the same important distinction with the Hebrew, between the infidelity of the husband and of the wife. 'Adultery' was defined by the civilians to be the violation of another man's bed, so that the infidelity of the husband to his own wife could not alone constitute the offence.

It is understood that the crime was punished among the Assyrians and Chaldeans by cutting off the nose and the ears; and this brings to mind the passage in which the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 23:25), after, in the name of the Lord, reproving Israel and Judah for their adulteries (i.e. idolatries) with the Assyrians and Chaldeans, threatens the punishment, 'they shall take away thy nose and thy ears.' One or both of these mutilations, most generally that of the nose, were also inflicted by other nations, as the Persians and Egyptians, and even the Romans; but we suspect that among the former, as with the latter, it was less a judicial punishment than a summary infliction by the aggrieved party. It would also seem that these mutilations were more usually inflicted on the male than the female adulterer. In Egypt, however, cutting off the nose was the female punishment, and the man was beaten terribly with rods. The respect with which the conjugal union was treated in that country in the earliest times is manifested in the history of Abraham (Genesis 12:19).

Adultery, Trial of

It would be unjust to the spirit of the Mosaic legislation to suppose that the trial of the suspected wife by the bitter water, called the Water of Jealousy, was by it first produced. It is to be regarded as an attempt to mitigate the evils of, and to bring under legal control, an old custom which could not be entirely abrogated.

The original usage, which it was designed to mitigate, was probably of the kind which we still find in Western Africa, where, when a party is accused of murder, adultery, or witchcraft, if he denies the crime, he is required to drink the red water, and on refusing is deemed guilty of the offence. But in Africa the drink is highly poisonous in itself, and, if rightly prepared, the only chance of escape is the rejection of it by the stomach, whereas, among the Hebrews, the 'water of jealousy,' however unpleasant, was prepared in a prescribed manner with ingredients known to all to be perfectly innocent. It could not therefore injure the innocent, and its action upon the guilty must have resulted, not from the effects of the drink itself, but from the consciousness of having committed a horrible perjury. As regulated, then, by the law of Moses, the trial for suspected adultery by the bitter water amounted to this, that a woman suspected of adultery by her husband was allowed to repel the charge by a public oath of purgation, which oath was designedly made so solemn in itself, and was attended by such awful circumstances, that it was in the highest degree unlikely that it would be dared by any woman not supported by the consciousness of innocence. And the fact that no instance of the actual application of the ordeal occurs in Scripture, affords some countenance to the assertion of the Jewish writers, that the trial was so much dreaded by the women, that those who were really guilty generally avoided it by confession; and that thus the trial itself early fell into disuse. And if, as we have supposed, this mode of trial was only tolerated by Moses, the ultimate neglect of it must have been desired and intended by him. In later times, indeed, it was disputed in the Jewish schools, whether the husband was bound to prosecute his wife to this extremity, or whether it was not lawful for him to connive at and pardon her act, if he were so inclined. There were some who held that he was bound by his duty to prosecute, while others maintained that it was left to his pleasure.

From the same source we learn that this form of trial was finally abrogated about forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem. The reason assigned is, that the men themselves were at that time generally adulterous; and that God would not fulfill the imprecations of the ordeal oath upon the wife while the husband was guilty of the same crime (John 8:1-8).

Adultery, Symbolical

Adultery, in the symbolical language of the Old Testament, means idolatry and apostasy from the worship of the true God (Jeremiah 3:8-9; Ezekiel 16:32; Ezekiel 23:37; also Revelation 2:22). Hence an Adulteress meant an apostate church or city, particularly 'the daughter of Jerusalem,' or the Jewish church and people (Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 3:6; Jeremiah 3:8-9; Ezekiel 16:22; Ezekiel 23:7). This figure resulted from the primary one, which describes the connection between God and his separated people as a marriage between Him and them. By an application of the same figure, 'An adulterous generation' (Matthew 12:39; Matthew 16:4; Mark 8:38) means a faithless and impious generation.





Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Adultery'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​a/adultery.html.
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