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Matthew 5:27-28

May 30, 2011

It’s odd that verse 28 does not specify whether the woman is married or not. Either this means that only married women can be lusted after or that any violation of Biblical sex restrictions is equivalent to adultery. No hint of the latter is given by the Mosaic Law, which prescribes death for adultery (but only if against a husband), incest (Leviticus 18:29), and some types of rape; it only gives a lesser judgment for sex with a woman dependent on her father (Exodus 22:16-17). However, Jesus is quite prepared to take issue with the Mosaic Law (Matt. 19:8). Jesus never addresses premarital sexual relations, but I wouldn’t expect him to take issue with the restrictions given by the Mosaic Law. (By “Jesus” here, I am referring to the figure in the New Testament, which does not necessarily present an accurate depiction of the teachings of any real person.)

Adultery is normally understood as one spouse cheating on the other spouse. In the Hebrew scriptures, though, husbands are never commanded not to cheat on their wives, as long as they leave the wives of other men alone (Leviticus 20:10). I’m sure that the Bible would not approve of husbands cheating on their wives, but that act is obviously not considered as bad. Cheating by the husband, of course, probably wouldn’t apply to many of the marriages in the Bible, because polygyny was allowed and, in some cases, commanded (Deuteronomy 25:5). No other type of sexual relationship is prohibited by the Law, except the types of adultery, incest, and rape described in the aforementioned passages. It is never implied that “lust” could apply to any other type of sexual relationship between a man and a woman.

The Gospels, however, break with this teaching, without any acknowledgement of the change. Matthew 19:9, and its sibling passages Mark 10:11 and Luke16:18, says that a man commits adultery if he divorces his wife and marries another. Interestingly, Mark 10:12 says that a woman can divorce her husband. This must have been a development in Hebrew culture since Mosaic times. I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea that a husband could cheat on his wife was also the result of whatever force effected the previous change.

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