Saturday, May 21, 2011

John 14:1-14: Doors Open on the Left in the Direction of Travel

Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Because yesterday was not the last… or until the next mathematical genius gets too much press and spins up a news cycle with equations of doom.  It is, in fact, inevitable that over the course of the remaining years of our lives, we will again be threatened with the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Best get ready, then, eh?  In the immortal words of the bumper sticker sage: “God is coming, look busy.”

Well, the lectionary offers us a timely passage for our consideration, though almost any passage can be timely, that is the nature of Scripture.

In this passage, Jesus is giving us several important clues into the nature of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom with whose coming we have been threatened as if it were a punishment over the past few weeks.  He gives us clues to where it is and he gives us directions to it. Let us look at few of them:

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”
You know, one of the things I dislike about seminary is the underlying implication that only those who have been in seminary – taken OT and New T and two sections of Church History and Greek- can truly understand what is going on in the Scripture.  That’s crap and don’t ever hire a minister who tells you that.  That said, as the result of a seminary education, I know something you may not about this verse and it may help to understand it.

In the first century, when John the beloved disciple wrote these words, to be “in a person’s house” did not mean literally to be “in their house.”  Rather, it meant to be “in their community” or “part of their world.”  A modern corollary, admittedly a flawed one, might be the Mafia concept of “cosa nostra.”  Not in the house, but of the people, not occupying the rooms, but an element of the whole.  So what Jesus may be telling us here is that there are many ways to be one with God, under his protection, an element of the whole of His Creation.  

I think this is related to the next little clue: “you know the way to the place where I am going.” Remember, where Jesus is going after this text, is to jail, to court, to the Cross and to God.  Jesus is fulfilling his calling, that’s where he is going. Here he seems to be saying, “You know how to be what God wants you to be.”

So, so far, we know:  1) that there are many ways to be part of God’s Creation; and 2) we know in our hearts what is expected of us.  So far, that’s pretty clear.  With the confidence that we can be joined in spiritual unity with God, and through thoughtful prayer, we can discern our way.
But, wait.  The next shoe to drop will complicate things:  “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.”  

SO much harm has been done in the name of this verse.  If I could change the language in any part of the New Testament, this would be on my top ten list of candidates.  It has been used to coerce people out of their genuine nature and into a white Anglo Saxon Protestant or Catholic norm in the fear that their own appearance, nature or liturgy is damnation.  It has been used to oppress people of faith who worship God in another name or another fashion. It is used today to tell people who look for all the world like they are acting in “good faith” that it isn’t faith if it isn’t our faith.  Let us tread carefully here, then, knowing that Jesus Christ would never tell us to condemn any of God’s creatures, never tell us to think we were better, never to think that service and subjection were the same.

Absent all that baggage, then, the verse seems very simple. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.” Jesus tells us that he is “the way.” In Greek the word for “the way” is Hodos, meaning the road or the course of conduct, in modern parlance, “in the direction of travel” (as in “at Clark and Division, doors open on the left in the direction of travel”).  The Chinese word is Tao, and it translates better, “the path.”  In Arabic the word is Islam and it translates as “the way to peace.”  Do you begin to see how the many rooms in my father’s house verse works now?  There are many ways to view it, many words for it, but it is the way, the path, the direction of travel.

And where are we traveling to?  What is our destination? Truth and through the truth, Life, everlasting, redeemed and redeeming, transformed and transforming.  Life in the house of, in the family of, as an essential element in, God.

There, I said it, when we are in the house of God, when we are truly with Him, we are one with God. Does that scandalize you?

Well, never fear. I don’t know anyone who is entirely one with God. I’ve read about someone, Jesus, but I don’t know anyone.  And it sounds heretical to say that one could aspire to be Jesus, to be as close to God as the one who came who WAS God.  And yet, it seems to me Jesus is saying just about that.  There is a place for you, he says, you know the way, he says. I have shown you the way, he says.  This is what it looks like to be on the path, to know the truth and to live it out.   “I am there” he says.  And I am making a place for you there.

These verses seem to me to say, there is a bridge, an open window through which we can see heaven from the mortal world.  It is Michelangelo’s finger of God, reaching out and with the lightest, tiniest contact, actually touching man.

We have arrived at a very difficult concept, one which lends itself, again, I am sorry to say, to smarty-pants theological education posturing.  How does it work, exactly, that Jesus is God, but God is still in Heaven?  And Jesus is entirely God and entirely man?  How does that work?  And how can any lesson in which Jesus says, “Do as I do” be of any use to people who are not entirely God but simply entirely human?

There are many answers to this question.  The early church offered us a few, “of the same essence”, “light from light”, and kenosis, self-emptying.  These are some of the ways of conceiving of Christ as man and God, and, just to complicate things, Holy Spirit as well. These are some ways of conceiving of it, but not all the ways, and maybe not your way. As you study Scripture, as you pray and wait and pray… you will have your way, your way of understanding Christ and his life and his words and his miracles and his death and his resurrection as a means of becoming closer to God, as a means of being in relationship with God. Yes, over time and in faith, you will develop, or perhaps have developed your own understanding of how you fulfill God’s purpose, how you are an essential part of His Creation.  You, in fact, and in faith, will know your room in our Father’s house, and how to get there, and how Jesus Christ is, for you, the way, the truth and the life.

All that is left for you to do is pick your seat and sit down. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

Last week my congregation finished reading the Bible in a year.  We were treated to a presentation by a local Theologian and educator, Adam Ericson, to a means of interpreting the Revelation of John which offered us a vision of a loving God, of a healed earth, of a goal rather than a condemnation.

And yet there were those in the audience who persisted in asking, “What happens after? Isn’t there a judgment? Isn’t awful?”

Well, thank God we got through the book last week, in any case, because this week Harold Camping and his Oakland based “Family Radio” are getting a lot of press with their prediction that the world will end on Saturday (again, he was wrong about that thing in 1994 – oops!).  Camping, an erstwhile engineer, foresees the end times through a complicated mathematical formula that incidentally places Noah’s Flood in space and time, as well as the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  A credible argument for either of these events would in themselves be newsworthy to the academic community.  But in the absence of said credibility, Camping’s theories depend in credulous congregants deceived by fiction in the form of Theology and film in the place of fact.

Now, there is little doubt that the book of Revelation contains a warning to a certain people of the consequences of their actions if they persist in their current behavior.  And in a departure from my usual uber-liberal soap box, I would further argue that we as liberal churches do not do a responsible job of addressing Revelation.  It is not as though there aren’t other ways to approach the idea that history is building toward a single end point. A dichotomous and much more ancient alternative to the “blood soaked Jesus” of Revelation is the Jewish concept of tikun olam: the healing of Creation, the ultimate return to the Garden through reconciliation, peace, re-ordering and righting of all that has fallen away from grace.  But whatever option for education a community chooses, it may not turn its face away from the concept of an end times.  The result is a congregation which is not equipped to speak to these episodes when they arise. We, as liberal Christians, are afraid of the louder voices of our conservative brothers and we shy away from the confrontation.  While I think that is a shame and a failure on the part of the liberal church, it isn’t the focus of this essay today.

What struck me about Adam’s presentation last week, was the persistence of “what happens after.”  There were no questions about the main subject of his presentation, which was “how should we be until then,” that is, no one said, “what are we being warned against? What are we to do?”

Many years ago this month, I lay on the floor of our family room, an eighteen month old in my arms and two elementary school students in their beds and had this very conversation with God.  I had cancer and it would be five long days before we knew how serious the disease or course of treatment would be.  I went through all the steps: I bargained, I was angry, etc.  And while I am blessed with a truly atrocious memory, the one thing I do remember is all the things I regretted.  There were dozens of things I had left undone.  (My dad had always said, “The things you regret in life are the things you did not do.” This always struck me as bad parenting, but it turned out to be true.) I had not seen the Northern Lights, I had not published any novels, I had not told my children that I loved them enough, I had not had enough sex.  There were others, but you can see that the list was pretty wide-ranging.

We are told, not just in Revelation, but over and over in the Bible, that the world will end. We don’t know when, Jesus didn’t know when (Matt 24:36), which means God doesn’t know when.  And if God doesn’t know when, Harold Camping doesn’t know when. But we know the end is coming for each of us, a pale horse in our future whose rider is cancer or something else. 

Now, I don’t believe the world will end Saturday.  If I did, today and tomorrow would be easier, I’ve got a 3 stage huge bar mitzvah, two choral performances for two different children and a Brownie horseback riding outing.  

But I don’t have to believe the world is ending Saturday.  I only have to know the world is winding up, history is progressing toward something. And what matters is what we do today, this minute, and in every minute between now and the parousia, personal or communal, public or private, immediate or in the future.  Will we have regrets on the last day?  Will that element of us that is eternal, our legacy in the form of children or work or music or security or justice…. Will it be a part of the healing of Creation?

That seems to me to be the ultimate lesson in the idea of an end times, be it in the words of John in Revelation or the lessons in the first book so Genesis: are we making the kingdom of heaven on earth? 

Whether or not we are, we are praying for it.  We are praying for an “end times” that realizes God’s will for us, and we are praying that our lives will contribute to that end. We only have to be more intentional when we say these well-worn words aloud:  
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done.
On Earth as it is in Heaven. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

You Shall Be Faithful: The Seventh Commandment in the 21st Century

You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14) [1]
It might be possible to say that this commandment, perhaps more than any other in the list, must be set aside today, as persons have learned a new joy and fulfillment in life through the adoption of much freer relations between human beings sexually.[2] 

Marriage in the United States is no longer defined as narrowly as it was in the past and adultery has lost its teeth as a social taboo.  Modern American media accepts and glamorizes adultery and Americans voraciously consume it.[3] And yet, we are also conflicted about it, “a vast majority of people still say it’s wrong.”[4] However, does it follow that the 7th Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14), has lost its relevance for the 21st Century?[5] At its core, the 7th Commandment offers us guidance about creating and sustaining relationship: bringing two individuals together in the creation of a singular and sacred covenantal union. As long as humanity cleaves together in covenant relationships, we will need the guidance this commandment offers.  This paper will address ways in which a less literal and more faithful understanding of the 7th Commandment elucidates its relevance for the 21st Century.

I. Adultery in Historical Context
In its historical context, the 7th Commandment defined adultery very narrowly:
An engaged or married woman committed adultery if she had sexual relations with anyone other than her husband or her betrothed husband-to-be. The man committed adultery only if he had relations with the wife or betrothed of another man. (Harrelson 1980, 123)
The prohibition of adultery is, in essence, a “property rights” issue. The 7th commandment was written in order to assure a husband that the progeny produced by his wife was his own.[6] The husband, as head of the household, was in control of his wife’s fertility and the progeny she bore him and, by extension, of her sexual fidelity.[7]  But there was more at stake at the time than bragging rights. “Paternity is essential for inheritance law,”[8] so it was critical that the mother be virtuous – pure or unadulterated – to assure paternity. “Within this biblical framework, virginity was an economic, not an ethical concern.”[9] A husband “owned” his wife and if another man adulterated her purity; it was a crime against the husband: he had been robbed of predictable progeny. The adulterers in this case were the man who “robbed” the husband, and the woman whose reproductive purity was adulterated. “The man can only commit adultery against a marriage other than his own, the woman only against her own.”[10]  

There is, of course, a prohibition in the Decalogue against stealing.  Too literal a reading of the 7th Commandment might lead one to erroneously perceive it as redundant to the 6th. In fact, the Decalogue builds on itself, to some degree.  The 6th Commandment, “You shall not steal” (Exod 20:13) is not repeated in the 7th, but nuanced.  Not only should you not steal the property of your neighbor, you should not render his property unusable to him. You should spoil it, so to speak, or blur the lines of ownership.  Remembering that adultery is also a form of trespass and that the commandments were written to a people living in community, there is in the proximity of the 6th and 7th Commandments, a template for respect among neighbors. The two commandments together might be interpreted as saying, “Don’t take what is not yours, and don’t even borrow it without permission.”

The language of adultery in the text could have “the man or the woman as subject” (Childs 1974, 422), but the act of adultery imparts impurity only on the woman. If the fertile ground in which the husband will presumably plant his seed had not been “polluted,” the wife is “unadulterated.”
If a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself… (Numbers 5:13)

 Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, turned aside to uncleanness… (Numbers 5:19)

But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you (Numbers 5:20)

 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children (Number 5:28)

The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity (Numbers 5:31)
Adultery was a crime against the husband, certainly, and a serious one because progeny, legacy, the perpetuation of the family line was essential to early Israelite identity (Levine 2009).  In fact, “since the aim of every person and every family was to live on in perpetuum, siring a son was both a matter of self-interest and a duty to family ancestors” (Levine 2009, 316). Absent from this understanding of adultery is any expectation of equity or parallelism between the parties involved.[11]  There is no presumption of monogamy on the part of the man. He is not bound to his wife in the way she is bound to him. There was “no equivalent demand for male marital fidelity” (Levine 2009, 198).  It was incumbent on a man, should his wife not produce progeny, to look elsewhere for a wife who can perpetuate his name in Israel (Levine 2009, 316, 23-24).  As a result, polygamy was commonplace in the Ancient Near East and is nowhere prohibited in the Bible.
The term for betrothal signifying sexual “separateness” …referred only to the status of a wife. For while a man sexually separated a woman from all other men, there is no equivalent female verb: a wife does not separate her husband! (Levine 2009, 71)

Adultery was also perceived to be a sin against God. The man committing the adultery rendered the woman unsuitable for reproduction (Levine, 2009 178) and violated the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28).  Nor is the woman blameless in the eyes of God: “Who forsakes the husband of her youth and forgets her covenant before God” (Prov 2:17) and is punished with such severity (Lev 18:20, 20:10, Deut 22:23). The curse of Onan combines both sins: he “spilled his semen on the ground” rather than impregnate his brother’s wife, doomed his brother’s line and incurred the displeasure of God (Gen 38:8-10) (Harrelson, 123).
II. Adultery in Contemporary Context
“In the last half-century new truths and new attitudes have fueled a sexual reformation. Standards, values and choices are being redefined and altered.  The task of the Christian in such a world is not well served by remaining ignorant of or blind to these changes.”[12]

In the 21st Century, much of what is premised in this historical context has become obsolete. First and foremost, marriage is no longer primarily a question of “property law.” A betrothed or married woman is no longer considered the property of her partner in any legal way.  His concern with her virtue before they enter into an understanding is no longer protected by law. However, in the 21st Century, what was once bound by law is bound in convention. One is assumed to have an obligation or a commitment to the person with whom they are in covenant.  The nature of that obligation may vary from covenant to covenant, but the convention of commitment is well established.

In addition, in the 21st Century, determination of paternity is no longer at issue.  Genetic paternity can now be determined in a laboratory with virtually incontrovertible results. And the importance of determining paternity in order to “perpetuate the family name” is not as important as it was in Ancient Israel. “Bloodlines” are not the only way to perpetuate a legacy; adoption is far more commonplace and widely accepted, and inheritance law no longer requires a literal “son and heir.” 

In the absence of the need to determine and protect progeny, those aspects of the prohibition against adultery which depended on that need have also become archaic.  In Ancient Israel, a woman could inherit property in the absence of a male inheritor, but ownership passed away from her upon her marriage (Frymer-Kensky 2005).  In the 21st Century, depending on jurisdiction, property brought into the union can be considered communal – that is, owned by both – or remains the sole property of one party.[13]

The commandment proscribed fidelity for women only: men were presumed to have extra-marital affairs as well as to be polygamous (Levine 2009, 189). In the 21st Century, where monogamy is the norm, fidelity is expected of both parties.  Contemporary divorce law permits either party to bring a divorce complaint on the grounds of adultery.[14]

Interestingly, while Biblical adultery turns on a “property rights” issue, in the 21st Century as a rule and in my home state of Illinois, divorce law tends away from adultery as grounds for divorce because it does not have a bearing on “the distribution of marital assets” (ILGA.GOV , Coladarci, 2010).

III. Covenant in the 21st Century
Ancient Israel defined marriage in very limited terms: two individuals, a male and a female, entering into a heterosexual covenantal union and sexual relationship for purposes of procreation.[15]  “Adultery” applied only to persons in or entering into that definition of marriage (Freymer-Kensky, 2005).
In the 21st Century in the United States, however, marriage encompasses a much wider spectrum of covenantal arrangements.  State governments, the governmental bodies that grant marriage licenses, as a rule do not concern themselves with the reproductive goals of the couple applying for a license, except where consanguinity maybe at issue (ILGA.GOV). Some states exclude the one-man-one-woman requirement.[16] Churches and religious organizations are no more uniform in their definition of the covenant of marriage (for example the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church of America).[17] And while the majority of people forming covenantal unions in the U.S. do so in a “traditional” marriage, the number of “partner” unions[18] which fall outside of those parameters is rising dramatically.[19] The 20st Century also saw a rise in behaviors that might once have been considered adultery, but in a modern context are within the bounds of covenantal behavior including “swinging,” and “open” marriages. “The only limit on the freedom, the only demarcation of the moral space, is in the terms of preservation of the covenant commitment.”[20]

Certainly, in an era in which the Decalogue was compiled, unions and arrangements like these were beyond comprehension.  The language, “You shall not commit adultery,” reflected its contemporaneous cultural setting. However, the essence of the commandment surely does not stop there. 
The Levitical laws have to do with a particular kind of sexual act, not with the gamut of affections, feeling, act, and commitments that belong to a relationship of two persons that is intimate and permanent, characterized by love and faithfulness.  (Miller, 2009, 295)

The Word of God, the 10 Commandments and specifically the 7th Commandment are meant to apply to all people under all conditions. “The commandments are meant not only as norms of behavior but also as objects of contemplation to lead toward the perception and love of God” (Falk in Dozeman 2009, 462). What God wishes for humanity, he wishes for all of humanity, regardless of the presence of a state license or a valid ketubah.  In order to return it to relevance in the 21st Century, the 7th Commandment must be examined at its most elemental and universal level and applied to covenantal unions in their myriad modern forms.

IV. Redefining Adultery
The way in which the Old Testament takes up the matter of adultery and sees it as an image and parable for the faithful relationship with God is consistent with Paul Lehmann’s suggestion that the man-woman relationship as described and laid out in the creation stories can be understood as foundational rather than limiting or restrictive.  It is paradigmatic for human relations rather than restricting them. In various ways employment of the adultery image indicates that we have in the marriage relationship and its protections something that points us to various relationships and identifies the critical thing as keeping covenant and not harming the neighbor’s relationship. This has much significance for understanding what matters with regard to same-sex relationships.  …it is a matter of the significant in the factual, in this case the character of the relationship, more than the fact of it. (Miller, 2009, 295-296)

Adultery is a legal term that applies only in limited circumstances.  We seek here to apply this limited proscription to a broader and more modern context.  We can do this by looking closely at the commandment itself.  The word “adultery” originates from the Latin adulterare meaning “to corrupt.”[21] Historically, this corruption applied to the wife, betrothed or progeny. We have seen how this application is no longer valid in the 21st Century.  In light of these shifts in social context, perhaps we are better served by the Scripture if we read the commandment as prohibiting any action that makes impure or compromises not the wife or the progeny, but the relationship itself.
 The prohibition against adultery stakes out the claim of the two partners in marriage to a relationship between themselves that is not to be compromised or destroyed by the action of either partner. (Harrelson 1980, 125)

In antiquity, it went without saying that the product of the union was progeny. Both parties entered into the relationship understanding reproduction to be the desired result and the boundaries around fidelity were very tangible and specific thing.  In the 21st Century, where there is a much wider diversity in the kinds of covenantal relationships available to individuals, what constitutes “adulteration,” that is, what blurs the lines of the relationship can be as varied as the relationships.
Whatever the agreement (if it really is an agreement), that is the accepted ideal for this couple... The infidelity is the breaking of that agreement.[22]

Biblical commentators cleave to the belief in “the possibility of a genuine relation of fidelity that is outside the conventional sanctions of legal marriage.”[23]  In the absence of strictly conventional boundaries and a uniform definition for “adultery,” they have arrived at a constellation of qualities which describe (even if they are not altogether specific and concrete in their terms) an unadulterated modern union. An unadulterated covenantal relationship is one in which both parties thrive:
In its fullest interpretation, the command against adultery envisions covenantal relations of mutuality that are genuinely life-giving, nurturing, enhancing and respectful. (Brueggemann 1994, 850)

It fosters a sense of one-ness, of being united by the covenant and a commitment to the union:
The commandment against adultery might be restated, at the most, to underscore commitment and to support partners in committing themselves to one another … in such a way as actually to reflect the commitment they are making to each other as a whole. (Harrelson 1980, 130)

And it is unique and “binding”:
The understanding of marriage as a covenant that joins the two parties together in a binding relationship and in a commitment that does not allow either one to commit to any other in the same way. (Miller 2009, 285)

And so its opposite must necessarily be as universal, and as vague: “Adultery means anything that shakes human confidence and weakens human trust.”[24]

 Adultery as Idolatry
The appropriation of the marriage and adultery metaphor for speaking about faithful an faithless conduct on the part of Israel seems to rest very much on the understanding of marriage as a covenant that joins two people together in a binding relationship and in a commitment that does not allow either one to commit to any other in the same way. (Miller, 285)

In the face of these somewhat sweeping generalizations, the language of Scripture offers some guidance.  The worship of other gods and the construction of their idols in the second commandment are interpreted as adultery.”[25]  Adultery is commonly used in the Bible as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel: “Love’s passion becomes a theological motif to describe the relationship of Yahweh to Israel” (Dozeman 2009, 485).  Idolatry displaces God with imagery or concepts that are not divine and opens the door to behavior that should be confined to the covenantal relationship (i.e., worship).  Idolatry lends itself to adultery as a metaphor:  “Law gives voice to reservations concerning Israel’s capacity to remain faithful to covenant” (Dozeman 2009, 461).

Idolatry, in general terms, is the mistaken elevation of an “idol.”  In English translations of the the Hebrew Bible, the English word “idol” may reflect a variety of Hebrew words including: “pesel: “carved image;” masseka: “statue;” and shiqqutsim: “shameful ones.”[26]

The language and imagery of adultery is most commonly present in Scripture where Israel’s fidelity to God is threatened by idolatry: “Israel’s faithfulness is spelled out in detail as a story of broken marriage, punishment and restoration” (Miller 2009, 283).  What is of interest to us in this application is not the imagery of adultery, per se, but more specifically, the imagery of separation and alienation.  When Israel violates its covenant with God, it does so by creating a distance between itself and God. Idolatry creates an unnatural separation between covenantal partners; it violates the boundaries of the relationship (Dozeman 2009, 477).  “Those who love (ahab) Yahweh draw forth a response of love (hesed) from God,” whereas, “the root meaning of “hate” (sane) is forced separation” and may also “refer to rebellion of a treaty partner” (Dozeman 2009, 486). 
The notion of forced separation is carried over into divorce law. A spouse declares divorce by publically proclaiming his or her hatred (Deut 22:13-16, 24:3). (Dozeman 2009, 485)

 In the texts below, the italics which emphasize the germane language are mine.
….because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth. (Deut 6:15)

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 played the whore there? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me’; but she did not return, and her false 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 false sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom so lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. (Jer 3:6-9)

Perhaps the most famous of the tales of adultery is the story of David and Bathsheba:
So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her….When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. (2Sam 11:4 , 11:27)

The child conceived outside of the boundaries of Bathsheba’s covenantal relationship was to die.  It was only when David brought her into relationship with him that their children (Solomon and Absalom) would be allowed to live.

By far the most challenging imagery related to adultery is present in Hosea.  In the selected verses below the dichotomy is thrown into sharp relief;  adultery is described in terms of separation and alienation, while fidelity to the covenantal relationship is described in terms of return and re-union.

1:2 When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son…

2:5 For their mother has played the whore;
   she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers;
   they give me my bread and my water,
   my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’…

2:7 She shall pursue her lovers,
   but not overtake them;
and she shall seek them,
   but shall not find them.


2: 6 Therefore I will hedge her way with thorns;
   and I will build a wall against her,
   so that she cannot find her paths.

2: 7 She shall pursue her lovers,
   but not overtake them;
and she shall seek them,
   but shall not find them.
 Then she shall say, ‘I will go
   and return to my first husband,
   for it was better with me then than now’…

2: 9 Therefore I will take back
   my grain in its time,…

2: 14 Therefore, I will now persuade her,
   and bring her into the wilderness,
   and speak tenderly to her. …

2: 19And I will take you for my wife for ever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.

These texts reaffirm the association of separation and disunity with adultery and of intimacy and unity with fidelity. 

Idolatry replaces one “beloved” with another and thereby alters the original condition of covenantal union. Where the boundaries of covenant are blurred or crossed there is disunion and separation, the covenant is adulterated.

  V. Adulteration and Boundary Making
Fidelity should be the guiding theme of interpretation of this command, as distinct from legal arrangements that bespeak old property practices and rights. (Brueggemann 1994, 850)
Brueggemann here suggests, and this paper will explore, the possibility that the efficacy of the 7th Commandment is obscured by its language. If we were to change the phrasing of the commandment from the negative: “You shall not commit adultery,” to the positive: “You shall be faithful” then our focus shifts from prohibiting the violation of legally binding vows to embracing a mutual understanding of commitment and union.

Fidelity (from the Latin fidelitatem meaning "faithfulness, adherence")[27] is here used to express the honoring of boundaries, the intentional commitment to common understanding, the unification of two into one (Gen 2:24).  Fidelity contemporizes the notion of “covenantal relationship.” By framing it in terms of fidelity, the 7th Commandment can speak to the much broader spectrum of relationships in evidence in the 21st Century.

Fidelity is gender neutral. Where adultery implied an impurity on the part of the female (and perpetrated by a man), fidelity is a dialogical concept: either party may be faithful or unfaithful with no distinction for gender or dominant/submission stereotypes. Adultery is premised on insuring the purity of relationships in which progeny is at issue. Fidelity, on the other hand, manifests itself dialogically between two parties who share a mutual understanding of the nature and limits of their union. Fidelity, therefore, applies to relationships which are not strictly monogamous, not intent on reproduction, etc. In short, “fidelity” embraces the width and breadth of covenantal relationships because it allows for the definition of union to be established on a case-by-case basis between the parties involved.

The premise underlying the 7th Commandment, then, is this: When two parties enter into a relationship, the nature of that relationship should be unique, mutual and transparent.  Neither party should be deceived as to the other’s intent.
The chief thing is that human beings continue to commit themselves to one another honestly, truthfully, and lovingly, avoiding deception, exploitation, and irresponsible conduct of any kind. (Harrelson 1980, 130)

In the 7th Commandment, the Scripture warns us against adultery and, in its narrative warrants, exhorts the virtues of fidelity. The objective of the commandment is union, mutually supportive, transparent, covenantal, and loving union.  Such a union is defined not by a convention established by a government or religious body, but by the parties entering into the covenant.  It is delineated by boundaries that are determined by those parties in clear communication and as an act of creation.  As a result, the boundaries and behaviors of each union will be unique to each couple.  They will also be incomprehensible to those outside the union. Inherent in this interpretation of the 7th Commandment is a presumption of privacy. Only the people who delineate the boundaries can speak to their location or permeation.   It is the union of two into one in fidelity, in mutuality, in trust and in love.

VI. Conclusion
Far from its perceived obsolescence in the 21st Century, the 7th Commandment offers valid and insightful guidance for forming myriad covenantal unions in faith.[28]  The prohibition against adultery ensures and sanctions unions formed with clear communication between the parties, with boundaries and objectives which foster trust, commitment and integrity.  Where the foundational trust and boundaries are violated, there is disunion and heartbreak.  Unions made in the faith of fidelity and transparency, reflect God’s expectations for his covenantal union with humanity.   In as much as we are created in His image, we should aspire to create covenants that reflect our covenant with Him.
From Justin and Aquinas, through Luther and Calvin, and into the present time… Christian interpreters have explored the universal truth of the Decalogue for creating a just society. (Dozeman 2009, 473)

Scripture, like all literature, was written at a specific time by a specific set of authors for a specific audience.  As such, we are bound to admit to the frailties of the text: the language may not be acceptable to contemporary ears; the cultural context may seem impossibly bigoted or arcane.  However, Scripture is distinguished from other literature in consequence of its revelation.  We as Jews and Christians believe that this text documents the in-breaking of the Deity into human history.  We believe that we can expect more of the words of Scripture than of any other.  In consequence, we may not look at portions of Scripture as essential and revered as the Decalogue and say they simply do not apply in the modern era.  Rather, it is incumbent on us as faithful readers and scholars to seek in Scripture the eternal truths and timeless exhortations, which are as valid in the 21st Century as they were when they were written.  In the case of the 7th Commandment, we must look beyond the prohibition of adultery to see the affirmation of faithful, loving and blessed covenantal union.
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.  And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Gen 2: 24-25)

Achtemeier, Paul J., under “Idol,” in the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco) 1996, 448-450.
Brueggemann, Walter, “Exodus” in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1994.
Chadman, Charles E.,”Adultery,”in A Concise Legal Dictionary, (Chicago: American Correspondence School of Law) 1909.
Childs, Brevard Springs, "Exodus: A Commentary," Journal of Biblical Literature 81, no. 4, (Westminster Press) 1962: 428-318.
Dozeman, Thomas B, Commentary on Exodus, (Cambridge: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company) 2009, 457-495.
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Israelite Law: Personal Status and Family Law," in  Vol. 7 of Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition, ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan Reference) 2005. 4730-4734. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 11 Dec. 2010.
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, “Virginity in the Bible” in Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, Matthews, Levinson and Fymer-Kensky, eds. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, LTD) 1998, 79-96.
Harrelson, Walter, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press) 1980.
Levin, Etan, Marital Relations in Ancient Judaism, (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz) 2009.
Miller, Patrick D., The Ten commandments: Interpretation Resources for the use of Scripture in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2009.
Müller, Sigrid, “Adultery- medieval times and reformation era” in Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception, Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception 1 (Berlin/New York :Walter de Gruyter) 2009, accessed 12/9/10.
Parker-Pope, Tara, “Love, Sex and the Changing Landscape of Infidelity,” The New York Times, published, October 27, 2008, accessed December 10, 2010.

Phillips, Anthony, Essays on Biblical Law (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, LTD ), 2002.
Pittman, Frank, Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company) 1989.
Setel, Dovorah D.  “Exodus” in Women's Bible Commentary. Newsome and Ringe, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox) 1998, 31-39.
Spong, John Shelby, and Denise G. Haines, Beyond Moralism, (San Francisco: Harper and Row ) 1986.
Sueltz, Arthur Fay, New Directions from the Ten Commandments, (New York: Harper and Row) 1976.

[1] All references to Scripture in this text will be the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
[2] Harrelson, Walter, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 129.
[3]In February, 2010, following the revelation of her husband Mark Sanford’s affair, Jenny Sanford’s memoire reached #8 on the New York Times Best Seller list ( ; the 2009 season premiere of AMC’s Mad Men, featuring philandering business men in the 1960’s, garnered 2.9 million viewers (
Tara Parker-Pope, “Love, Sex and the Changing Landscape of Infidelity,”  in The New York Times, published, October 27, 2008, accessed December 10, 2010.

[5] This paper is does not engage in the debate about what does or does not constitute “marriage” in a modern context. Not only is such a definition a movable target, having changed in appearance profoundly between the Post Exilic period and the present, it is also highly subjective.  More to the point, however, framing this commandment in such a way as to make it applicable only to traditional heterosexual marriages limits the universality inherent in the Decalogue as a moral code.  If we wish to bring biblical guidance to bear in the 21st Century, we must have faith in its limberness and the underlying absolute right it represents. We need not protect the word of God from the realities of His creation. Rather, we must look to Scripture with eyes of faith for its divine guidance in any context. This paper, therefore, will apply the 7th Commandment to a variety or relationships without concern for their qualifications as “marriages” under any terms.
[6] Etan Levin , Marital Relations in Ancient Judaism (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz), 2009, 189.
T. Frymer-Kensky offers a wonderful exploration of the foundations of the “cult of virginity” in ancient Israel and the A.N.E. in “Virginity in the Bible.”
[7] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, "Israelite Law: Personal Status and Family Law," in  Vol. 7 of Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition, ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan Reference) 2005; As a rule throughout this paper, the term “wife” will presume the inclusion of “betrothed” as well because “a betrothed girl…was for the purposes of the law of adultery in the same position as a wife” (Phillips 2002, 83).
[8] Thomas B Dozeman, Commentary on Exodus, (Cambridge:William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company) 2009, 494.
[9] Dovorah D. Setel, “Exodus” in Women's Bible Commentary. Newsome and Ringe, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox(1998), 34.
[10] Brevard Springs Childs,"Exodus: A Commentary," Journal of Biblical Literature 81, no. 4, (Westminster Press) 1974: 422.

[11] “In the ten cases devoted to marriage and sexuality in his Decretum (Secunda Pars, Casus 27–36), Gratian (d. before 1160) deemed husband and wife equally liable for adultery” (Sigrid Müller, “Adultery- medieval times and reformation era” in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception 1 (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter) 2009, accessed 12/9/10.

[12] John Shelby Spong and Denise G. Haines, Beyond Moralism, (San Francisco: Harper and Row ) 1986, 88.

[13] John A. Coladarci, Esq., Coladarci and Coladarci, Attorneys at Law, in personal correspondence, 12/7/10.
[14]Illinois Legal Code: (750 ILCS 5/) Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act., hereinafter  ILGA.GOV, Accessed 12-09-2010.

[15] “Marriage in a modern sense was unknown in ancient Israel. There are, for example, no words for ‘marriage,’’ wife,’ or ‘husband.’ The terms commonly translated as such mean ‘taking,’ in the sense of taking possession of something, ‘woman,’ and ‘master,’ respectively” (Setel, 34).
[18] It is important to note that partner unions would not have been considered adulterous in Ancient Israel because the woman in question is not betrothed or married to another man. 
[19] In the 2000 Census of the United States, of the 105.5 million households in the United States, 52% were maintained by married couples (54.5 million), 5.5 million couples who were living together but who were not married, (up from 3.2 million in 1990). These unmarried-partner households were self-identified maintained by people who were “sharing living quarters and who also had a close personal relationship with each other.”
[20] Patrick D. Miller, The Ten commandments: Interpretation Resources for the use of Scripture in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2009., 279.

[21] (Accessed 12/10/10)
[22] Pittman, Frank, Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company) 1989, 20.

[23] Walter Brueggemann, "The Book of Exodus" in The New Interpreter's Bible. Vol. 1. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1994, 850.

[24]Arthur Fay Sueltz, , New Directions from the Ten Commandments, (New York: Harper and Row) 1976, 73.
[25]Thomas B. Dozeman, Commentary on Exodus, (Cambridge: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company) 2009, 485.
[26]Paul J Achtemeier, under “Idol,” in the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco) 1996, 448-449.

[28] Throughout this study, I have used the expression “in the 21st Century” to reflect a socially diverse, liberal, literate and practical American context. In short, I am preaching here to my own demographic. The presumptions made about society, and covenantal unions in society, are not meant to reflect or to speak to contemporary communities for whom social, religious or cultural norms might prohibit them.  This disclaimer is intended to explain the narrow focus of my language in this paper, it is not meant in any way to undermine the universality of my conclusions.