The 7th Commandment
“You must not commit adultery”.
On the one hand, in the Old Testament, adultery was, for men as well as women, to be avoided. If found out, they could end up being stoned to death. On the other hand, men could provide themselves with a variety of ‘escape hatches’, such as having many wives (polygamy) and/or many mistresses (concubinage). As always in patriarchal societies, what applies to men, and what applies to women, is likely to be different.
Women were expected to be virgins at marriage, but not men. A husband could, at law, accuse his wife of not having being a virgin, but not a wife her husband. If the accusation was substantiated, the wife was stoned to death; if it was unsubstantiated, the man got off with a flogging or a fine. Sexual activity on the part of an unmarried woman, but not a man, was called ‘prostitution’, whether or not payment was involved, and the culprit’s punishment could be stoning to death or even being burned alive. Divorce could be initiated by a husband, but not a wife, and the reason need not be adultery, but could be ‘because she does not please him’. She burned his toast perhaps.
As usual, however, the Old Testament is well worth sticking with for almost always presenting a variety of very different points of view. In the book, ‘The Song of Songs’, we have both male and female sexuality, equally explored, uncritically presented and refreshingly celebrated. It cries out to be read! This, of course, has invariably been something of an embarrassment to those Rabbie Burns called the “unco guid”, who’ve tried to convince us that the book is actually about love between God and his people. Och aye, a likely story that!
As with other commandments, Jesus of Nazareth took things a bit further. Not only does he tell us not to commit adultery, but he says, ‘Don’t even think about it’! Now that’s a tall order, but perhaps our Buddhist friends can help us here. We shouldn’t pretend such thoughts don’t exist, but see them as being like clouds in the sky, detached from ourselves, and able to be dispassionately regarded as, left to themselves, they float away on life’s ongoing breeze …
In our society today, adultery is less of an issue. We don’t stone people to death, or burn them alive. But a woman is more likely to be tarred and have nasty names stuck on her, than a man is. PolIs suggest that a majority of people still regard lifelong marriages and/or partnerships as the ideal. There are valid arguments in relation to social harmony and stability, and the best start in life for children. But, as Polly Vernon wrote in the Observer, “Why do we persist in having affairs, and also persist in believing in monogamy, when we don’t seem to be comfortable with, or especially capable of, either?” That’s an interesting question but, alas, space has run out …..