The adulteress

A character that appears throughout the Bible and is key in understanding the struggle between good and evil is the adulteress. The seventh of the Ten Commandments states, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). Although adultery was typically associated with women that broke wedlock (H5003), the Mosaic Law indicated that both the man and the woman were to be punished for the sin of adultery. Leviticus 20:10 states, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” King Solomon warned the people of Israel about the dangers of committing adultery. Solomon said, “Whoever commits adultery with a woman lacks understanding; He who does so destroys his own soul” (Proverbs 6:32, NKJV). The Hebrew word that is translated understanding, leb (labe) means “the heart.” In the Hebrew language, “The heart includes not only the motives, feelings, affections, and desires, but also the will, the aims, the principles, the thoughts, and the intellect of man. In fact, it embraces the whole inner man, the head never being regarded as the seat of intelligence. While it is the source of all action and the center of all thought and feeling the heart is also described as receptive to the influences both from the outer world and from God Himself” (H3820). From that standpoint, a man that lacks understanding might be described as someone that doesn’t know God or a person that is not open to the influence of the Holy Spirit. Solomon said whoever commits adultery “destroys his own soul” (Proverbs 6:32, NKJV). The soul like the heart is associated with the inner person. “The soul of man, that immaterial part, which moves into the after life [the body is buried and decomposes] needs atonement to enter into God’s presence upon death” (H5315). The destruction of the soul doesn’t mean that committing adultery will cause your soul to be dissolved by death or that your soul will be extinguished by some other means. The soul is immortal and was designed for everlasting life (G5590), but it can be ruined or you might say completely corrupted to the point that it is no longer useful to God and Solomon said committing adultery is one of the ways that can happen.

Solomon’s warning against the adulteress began with some advice about how to avoid being taken in by her flattery. Solomon said:

My son, keep my words
    and treasure up my commandments with you;
keep my commandments and live;
    keep my teaching as the apple of your eye;
bind them on your fingers;
    write them on the tablet of your heart.
Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
    and call insight your intimate friend,
to keep you from the forbidden woman,
    from the adulteress with her smooth words. (Proverbs 7:1-5)

Solomon suggested binding the commandments on your fingers as well as writing them on the tablet of your heart. What Solomon was talking about was using memory devices to keep the Ten Commandments at the forefront of your mind. It’s probably not a coincidence that God gave the Israelites Ten Commandments and ten fingers that they could use to remember them.

Solomon also referred to the adulteress as “the forbidden woman” (Proverbs 7:5). The Hebrew word Solomon used, zuwr (zoor) means “to turn aside (especially for lodging)” (H2114). Solomon later described the forbidden woman as being, “dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart” (Proverbs 7:10). In this instance, Solomon used a word for committing adultery that is associated with idolatry (H2181). The Hebrew word zanah (zaw-nawˊ) “means ‘to go a whoring, commit fornication, be a harlot, serve other gods.’ This is the regular term denoting prostitution throughout the history of Hebrew, with special nuances coming out of the religious experience of ancient Israel. It is used for the first time in the text at the conclusion of the story of the rape of Dinah by Shechem, as her brothers excuse their revenge by asking: ‘Should he deal with our sister as with a harlot?’ While the term means ‘to commit fornication,’ whether by male or by female, it is to be noted that it is almost never used to describe sexual misconduct on the part of a male in the Old Testament. Part of the reason lies in the differing attitude in ancient Israel concerning sexual activity by men and women. The main reason, however, is the fact that this term is used most frequently to describe ‘spiritual prostitution’ in which Israel turned from God to strange gods” (H2181).

When God renewed his covenant with Israel, after they had made a golden calf and worshipped it (Exodus 32:1-6), he warned the people about spiritual prostitution. God said:

“Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.” (Exodus 34:10-16)

God identifies himself in this passage with the name Jealous and tells Moses that he “is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). The word jealous has a somewhat negative connotation, but “God is not tainted with the negative connotation of the verb. His holiness does not tolerate competitors or those who sin against him” (H7065). God’s jealousy is associated with a consuming fire that destroys whatever is opposed to his holiness (Deuteronomy 4:23-24), but the driving force behind God’s jealousy is the perfect love that caused him to sacrifice his only begotten Son in order to pay the penalty for our sins (John 3:16). The Song of Solomon 8:6-7 depicts the zealousness of God’s love and his desire for it to be reciprocated by others. It states:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm.
For love is as strong as death,
    its jealousy as enduring as the grave.
Love flashes like fire,
    the brightest kind of flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
    nor can rivers drown it.
If a man tried to buy love
    with all his wealth,
    his offer would be utterly scorned. (NLT)

Solomon’s description of love as something that flashes like a fire, the brightest kind of flame (Song of Solomon 8:6) makes it clear that God’s passion for his people is not just the result of a strong emotional attachment, but also an enduring devotion that cannot be quenched.

Moses reminded the Israelites of God’s love for them when he instructed them to obey his commandments and to remain faithful to his covenant. Moses said:

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today. And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers. He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock, in the land that he swore to your fathers to give you.” (Deuteronomy 7:6-13)

The Hebrew word that is translated steadfast love in Deuteronomy 7:9 and 7:12, chesed (khehˊ-sed) is one of the most important terms in the vocabulary of Old Testament theology and ethics. “In general, one may identify three basic meanings of the word, which always interact: ‘strength,’ ‘steadfastness,’ and ‘love.’ Any understanding of the word that fails to suggest all three inevitably loses some of its richness. ‘Love’ by itself easily becomes sentimentalized or universalized apart from the covenant. Yet ‘strength’ or ‘steadfastness’ suggests only the fulfillment of a legal or other obligation. The word refers primarily to mutual and reciprocal rights and obligations between the parties of a relationship (especially Yahweh and Israel)…Checed implies personal involvement and commitment in a relationship beyond the rule of law” (H2617).

The seriousness of worshipping other gods is demonstrated in the sin’s punishment of stoning the person to death. Deuteronomy 17:2-6 states:

“If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.”

Throughout the Old Testament the Israelites demonstrated their unwillingness to be faithful to God. Even Solomon, who was in many ways the most successful king over Israel, was involved in idolatry (1 Kings 11:4-8). The prophet Hosea, whose ministry extended from about 770 to 725 BC, was called to exemplify the relationship between God and Israel through his marriage to a harlot (Introduction to the book of Hosea). Hosea 3:1 states, “And the LORD said to me, ‘Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.”

Solomon’s depiction of the adulteress indicated that she was making an intention effort to lead others astray. Solomon said:

For at the window of my house
    I have looked out through my lattice,
and I have seen among the simple,
    I have perceived among the youths,
    a young man lacking sense,
passing along the street near her corner,
    taking the road to her house
in the twilight, in the evening,
    at the time of night and darkness.

And behold, the woman meets him,
    dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart.
She is loud and wayward;
    her feet do not stay at home;
now in the street, now in the market,
    and at every corner she lies in wait. (Proverbs 7:6-12)

Solomon used several words in this passage that are associated with spiritual activity. The young man that went to meet the adulteress was lacking sense; his heart was not open to the influence of the Holy Spirit (H3820). The young man was passing along the street near her corner; he had crossed over the boundary of right and entered the forbidden land of the wrong (H5674). The young man was taking the road to her house; he participated in the adulteress’ life-style (H1870) and the young man went “in the evening, at the time of night and darkness” (Proverbs 7:9); he intended to relinquish his spiritual protection and keep what he was doing a secret (H3915/H653).

Solomon portrayed the young man’s decision to commit adultery as being trapped in a life or death situation and cautioned him against taking that first step. Solomon said:

With much seductive speech she persuades him;
    with her smooth talk she compels him.
All at once he follows her,
    as an ox goes to the slaughter,
or as a stag is caught fast
    till an arrow pierces its liver;
as a bird rushes into a snare;
    he does not know that it will cost him his life.

And now, O sons, listen to me,
    and be attentive to the words of my mouth.
Let not your heart turn aside to her ways;
    do not stray into her paths,
for many a victim has she laid low,
    and all her slain are a mighty throng.
Her house is the way to Sheol,
    going down to the chambers of death. (Proverbs 7:21-27)

Solomon referred to the words the adulteress used to convince the young man to do what she wanted him to as seductive speech and smooth talk. The essence of these types of communication is that they are easy to listen to, what you might call ticking your fancy or making you feel good about yourself, but it is clear that Solomon was concerned about the effect of adulteress’ words on the young man’s spiritual perception.

The underlying message of Solomon’s warning against committing adultery was the spiritual prostitution that believers become susceptible to when they listen to false teaching about God’s word. The Hebrew word that is translated seductive speech in Proverbs 7:21, leqach (lehˊ-kakh) “means teaching; instruction; persuasiveness; understanding, in the sense of something taken in” (H3948). An issue that came up at the time of Moses death was how the people would know if they were being lied to. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 states, “’But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” “The existence of prophets during the period of the monarchy necessitated a means by which to distinguish between a true prophet and a false one. Turbulent times, during which the people wanted to hear words of hope and security, produced outbreaks of prophets for hire and seers with optimistic lies. Shortly after Judah started going into exile in Babylon, but before the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah and Ezekiel had to contend with a rash of charlatans, upon whom they issued stern denunciations (Jeremiah 23:9-40; Ezekiel 13:1-23)” (note on Deuteronomy 18:20-22).

Moses told the people of Israel that God would raise up a prophet to take his place, someone that they could trust who would assure them of spiritual success. Moses told the Israelites, “And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him” (Deuteronomy 18:17-19). “The identity of this unnamed prophet is not revealed anywhere in the Old Testament. By Jesus’ day, the Jews had developed a clear expectation of a figure that would fulfill Moses’ words. Priests and Levites from Jerusalem asked John the Baptist if he was ‘the prophet,’ and he denied it (John 1:21). Peter identified ‘the prophet’ as a reference to the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 3:22, 23)” (note on Deuteronomy 18:15-19). Jesus fulfilled the test of a true prophet in that he predicted his own death and resurrection and it happened exactly as he said it would.

Jesus’ compassion toward a woman that was caught in the act of adultery showed that God was not so much interested in punishing the sinner as he was revealing the hardened condition of the religious experts’ hearts. John’s gospel tells us:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11)

The scribes and Pharisees wanted Jesus to condemn the woman who had been caught in adultery, but he wouldn’t do it. Instead, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground” (John 8:6). The King James Version of the Bible states in John 8:9, “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.” No one knows what Jesus wrote on the ground, but whatever it was, it caused everyone in the crowd to be convicted by their own conscience. Although it seemed at first that the adulteress was a wicked sinner that deserved to be put to death, it turned out that no one was able to condemn her and so, Jesus liberated her from the power and punishment of her sin (G1659).

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