What are your thoughts on adultery in the Old Testament? Many sources claim that it only refers to a man having relations with a married woman, and that a married man having relations with an unmarried woman is not adultery but just fornication? Seems that many books hold to this view of adultery in the old testament based on OT passages. But Jesus clearly indicate that adultery applied both ways. What are your thoughts about reading the New Testament into the Old? And would those who argue that adultery is only relations with a married woman, be arguing from silence? i.e. just because the OT text only calls adultery an act with a married woman, does that mean that it does not work the other way? What about Oholah and Oholibah in Eze 23 and 24 who are clearly called adulterous?
Thanks for writing, David.
The words ‘adultery’ and ‘fornication’ in the Bible are distinct in meaning from each other, but at times may overlap. Whether this occurs or not depends on the context of the passages in question.
The Use of ‘Adultery’
Adultery is a sexual act that violates the covenant of marriage. There are, however, other occasions when the word is used in a more spiritual sense. ‘Adultery’ sometimes can refer to idolatry. Ezekiel 23 is one of those cases (From what I can gather, ‘adultery’ is not used in Ezekiel 24). In Ezekiel 23, God is presenting a metaphor for Samaria and Jerusalem and comparing them to two adulterous sisters. These sisters were married (figuratively speaking) to God and were engaging in sexual sin and taking up idols. This sort of usage also occurs in Revelation 2:22. These are the only two examples of this kind of usage for ‘adultery’ that I can think of. Adultery can also occur in the heart because as far as God is concerned, lusting after another man’s wife or another woman’s husband is as bad as a physical act of sexual immorality (Matthew 5:28). Given that the man who lusts after another man’s wife does not have to be married in order to commit adultery, it is easy to see that an act of adultery does not necessitate that both parties are married.
The Use of ‘Fornication’
Fornication refers to sexual immorality (although it can also be used for ‘idolatry’ and is more commonly used in this way than adultery is). I have seen many scholars and laypeople define fornication as sexual sin that takes place outside of marriage. I do not know how anyone could get this definition from scripture.
Is Fornication the Same as Adultery?
While the definition of fornication is different than the definition of adultery, there are times when the usage of the word ‘fornication’ can overlap with ‘adultery.’ For instance, in Matthew 5:32 Jesus says, “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality [fornication], makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Clearly, in this scenario, the husband may justly divorce his wife if any type of sexual immorality takes place. Fornication is more of a general term than adultery (which has a more specific meaning). Because fornication can refer to sexual immorality in general, it may be said that any committing of adultery is a form of fornication; however, the terms are distinct from each other in the sense that they both have distinct definitions. The debate about whether or not adultery and fornication are one in the same has raged for a long time because the right questions are usually not asked in this debate. Is adultery always fornication? Yes. Based on Matthew 5:32, there is no basis to think otherwise. Is fornication always adultery? No. The Bible refers to a variety of sexual sins that take place between unmarried people. Can the terms be used synonymously? Yes, but only if an act that can be considered adultery is referenced in the passage in question. Are the terms universally synonymous? No because there are sexual sins in the Bible that do not involve married people.
Should the New Testament Take Primacy in Hermeneutics?
As far as reading the New Testament in the Old Testament, the New Testament is usually more clear on a given subject than the Old Testament (because this is when God’s plan for salvation fully manifests and proceeds on to the visions of end times) 1. When comparing a passage from the Old to New Testament, it is best that we keep the analogy of faith in mind. We must let scripture interpret scripture. When I compare verses in the New Testament and the Old Testament to one another, I always let the most clear passage take primacy. Indeed, there is no hermeneutical principle that can be deduced from scripture that mandates to always interpret the Old Testament by letting the New Testament take primacy over the Old Testament.
- The Old Testament is more clear on matters of Typology than the New Testament because there can be no antitype without a type.
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