Adultery and the Old Testament (1)

Posted on February 16, 2011 by


Adultery. Not exactly the warmest of words. For some, it evokes the pain that can only be felt from experiencing a broken home. For others, it is a reminder of what could have been if certain circumstances had presented themselves. There are some who think of this word as an obstacle that was overcome and they are survivors indeed. While yet still, there are others who are ever vigilant of all the steps that lead to this dreaded sin.

And finally, there are some who stand humbled in the rubble around them (a life destroyed), that was brought to fruition through that terrible act of adultery. They enjoyed their brief night in paradise, only to be awakened by the torrents of pain in the morning.

The Word Adultery

It is amazing that some who would set forth the claim that their interests are in teaching of the Word of God, hold a variety of views as to the nature and meaning of adultery contrary to the biblical data. Without considerable interaction with these distinct points of view, let us press on to consider some of the Old Testament evidence as to the meaning and nature of adultery. How does God represent it in the Hebrew Bible?

The actual derivation of the English word for adultery is quite enlightening. It actually derives from combining a number of Latin terms into one:

The word adultery originates not from the Late Latin word for “to alter, corrupt”: adulterare. Adulterare in turn is formed by the combination of ad (“towards”), and alter (“other”), together with the infinitive form are (making it a verb). (Wikipedia)

So, in English the word adultery has the idea of one person moving towards another person in order to make a new personal arrangement. Moreover, in some cases the Latin term adulterare carried the meaning of ”to pollute” – taking something that is pure, and contaminating it.

When we say that some has committed adultery, we are simply stating that a person has corrupted his or her marriage by introducing a third party. The marriage has been altered, changed, and polluted. The English word is quite descriptive, but since the Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew we must understand this term biblically.

The Old Testament Term

In the Old Testament, the primary Hebrew word for adultery is na’aph. As with any word, it is part of a grouping of words with similar meanings. Many of these words emphasize a range of meanings; for example, they can take literal or figurative meanings, and even describe those who are married or betrothed who are unfaithful. However, na’aph is the found the majority of the time to state that a person has – as we say – “cheated” on their spouse.[1]

William Wilson notes that na’aph “is confined to adultery in the exclusive sense of the term or fornication by a married person.”[2] James Swanson amplifies the meaning, stating that it refers to a person who has “sexual intercourse with [someone] other than a spouse, as a married or betrothed person.”[3]

One of the earliest appearances of na’aph in the Old Testament is in the reading of the “10 Commandments” (Exodus 20.14). God says transparently, “You shall not commit adultery.” This command is cradled between the “shall not’s” of murder and stealing, which should give us an indication as to the severity of adultery in the eyes of God (Exod. 20.13, 15 cf. Lev. 20.10).

Clyde Woods makes the observation that in this command, the “sacredness of marriage” is emphasized, and it is this “principle of social purity” that “provides the basis for numerous [other] laws regarding sexual relationships and offences” (cf. Exod. 22.19; Lev. 18.1-18; Deut. 22.13-30).[4]

And in this connection, R. Alan Cole finds in Joseph’s rejection of Potiphar’s wife the fact that: “For a man to have intercourse with another man’s wife was considered as heinous sin against God as well as man, long before the law, in patriarchal times (Gen. 39.9).”[5]

The holiness of God demands that the matrimonial bed be undefiled by extra-marital affairs (Heb.13.4). Some people defile their marriage by enjoying the privileges of marriage with another person (John 8.4). Others so saturated their minds with “day dream scenarios”, that if circumstances presented themselves they would do it (Matt. 5.28). From the beginning, however, this was not God’s ideal plan for marriage (Matt. 19.9 cf. Gen. 2.24).

To be continued…


  1. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Hebrew (2d ed. electronic ed. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997).
  2. William Wilson, Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies (Peabody: Hendrickson, n.d.), 6.
  3. Swanson, DBLH 5537 (No. 1273).
  4. Clyde M. Woods, Genesis-Exodus (Henderson, TN: Woods, 1972), 179.
  5. R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1973), 160.