Adultery and the Old Testament (2)

Posted on February 22, 2011 by


[We are continuing last week’s study on adultery in the Old Testament]

Literal and Figurative Adultery

Na’aph may mean literal adultery, but it also carries figurative or more precisely, spiritual application as well: “in some contexts this refers to religious adultery, usually in which Israel is viewed as the unfaithful female spouse to the Lord in a covenantal marriage contract.”[1] Also, “it is applied to the turning aside of Israel from the true God to the worship of idols” (Jer. 3.8-9, 5.7, 9.1, 23.14; cf. Jas. 4.4).[2]

As part of the case against Judah, the Lord affirms through Jeremiah that Judah should have learned from her adulterous sister Israel:

The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” (Jer. 3.6-10).

Since the days of Jeroboam, the Northern kingdom was mired by a fixation with idolatry (cf. 1 Kings 12.25-33). It was this faithless character to which Jeremiah appeals to and equates with adultery – albeit in spiritual metaphor.

To be covenanted and joined to a spouse, only to reject them for an illegitimate lover, is adultery; so too, the rejection of our God for illegitimate pursuits of the flesh (like idolatry) is given the descriptive contours of adultery to showcase the high level of our treason against God’s love. The literal and figurative uses of adultery share a reciprocal connection; they enhance each other’s meaning.[3]

Adultery and Ezekiel

Several times in the book of Ezekiel, the spiritual appraisal of Israel is pictured in terms of adultery. Principally, the first 24 chapters of Ezekiel address themselves to this theme.

Chapters 15 through 17 explain the doom of Jerusalem by means of allegories and parables.[4] Within this framework, chapter 16 portrays the spiritual infidelity of the Hebrews in the unmistakably graphic picture of marital sexual-infidelity.

Observe some snippets from the chapter that the English Standard Version translators call “The Lord’s Faithless Bride” (Ezekiel 16.1- 58):

  • “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine.” (vs. 8 )
  • “But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passer-by; your beauty became his.” (vs. 15)
  • “At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passer-by and multiplying your whoring.” (vs. 25)
  • “Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband!” (vs. 32)

With great precision the prophet presents God’s anger and sense of betrayal with the imagery of adultery. Samuel Schultz and Gary Smith summarize: “Ezekiel compared Judah to a young girl that God cared for and married. But the bride ignored her husband and loved others (foreign customs, idols, her own beauty)”.[5]

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. Wilhelm Gensenius, and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Electronic ed. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2003), 525.
  3. Emmet Russell observes this exact point when he writes, “the figurative use enhances the literal sense, emphasizing the divine institution and nature of marriage.” Found in Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), 17.
  4. Homer Hailey, Hailey’s Comments (2 vols. Las Vegas: Nevada, 1985), 1.201-04.
  5. Samuel J. Schultz, and Gary V. Smith, Exploring the Old Testament, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 191.