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ADULTERY (Heb. נִאוּף, ni'uf; sometimes, loosely, זְנוּת, zenut; זְנוּנִים, zenunim; lit. "fornication, whoredom"). Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married woman, or one engaged by payment of the brideprice, and a man other than her husband.

Biblical Period

The extramarital intercourse of a married man is not per se a crime in biblical or later Jewish law. This distinction stems from the economic aspect of Israelite marriage: the wife was the husband's possession (of a special sort, see *Marriage), and adultery constituted a violation of the husband's exclusive right to her; the wife, as the husband's possession, had no such right to him. Adultery is prohibited in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17), where it is listed between murder and theft (cf. Jer. 7:9; Ezek. 16:38; Hos. 4:2; Ps. 50:18; Prov. 6:30 ff.; Job 24:14–15) among offenses against one's fellow. Like all sexual wrongs, it defiles those who commit it (Lev. 18:20; Num. 5:13). It is termed "(the) great sin" in Genesis 20:9 and in Egyptian and Ugaritic texts (cf. [ha]-ʿAverah, "[the] transgression," for sexual crimes in rabbinic texts, e.g., Av. Zar. 3a). Its gravity is underscored by its being punishable by the death penalty for both the man and the woman (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). Stoning by the public, a procedure often prescribed for crimes felt to threaten the well-being of the nation as a whole, among which were sexual crimes (Lev. 18:24–27; 20:22; Deut. 24:4; cf. Jer. 3:1–2), is mentioned in Deuteronomy 22:24; cf. Ezekiel 16:40; 23:46–47 (cf. John 8:3–7). Other punishments are reflected in non-legal texts. Burning is mentioned in Gen. 38:24 (cf. Lev. 21:9). Stripping, known in ancient Near Eastern divorce procedure, is reflected in the metaphor of Hos. 2:5 and mentioned in Ezekiel 16:37, 39; 23:26. The mutilation mentioned in Ezekiel 16:39; 23:25 does not seem to reflect Israelite practice, but rather the legal traditions of Mesopotamia, where Ezekiel lived (cf. 23:24: "[the nations] shall judge you according to their laws," and, cf. The Middle Assyrian Laws, 15 in Pritchard, Texts, 181; the same punishment for adulteresses in Egypt is attested by Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca, 1:18, according to G.A. Cooke, The Book of Ezekiel, 254).

Other ancient Near Eastern law collections also prescribe the death penalty for adulterers, but, treating adultery as an offense against the husband alone, permit the aggrieved husband to waive or mitigate the punishment (The Code of Hammurapi, 129, in: Pritchard, Texts, 171; The Middle Assyrian Laws, 14–16, in: Pritchard, Texts, 181; The Hittite Laws, 197–98, in: Pritchard, Texts, 196). Biblical law allows no such mitigation. Because the marriage bond is divinely sanctioned (cf. Mal. 2:14; Prov. 2:17) and the prohibition of adultery is of divine origin, God as well as the husband is offended by adultery (cf. Gen. 20:6; 39:8–9; Ps. 51:6), and an offense against God cannot be pardoned by man. Mesopotamian religious literature also views adultery as offensive to the gods, but, unlike the situation in Israel, this religious conception is not reflected in Mesopotamian legal literature.

Whether the severe provisions of the law were actually carried out in biblical times cannot be ascertained. Proverbs 6:23–35, warning of the harm and disgrace which will befall the adulterer, and Job. 31:11, which terms adultery "an assessable transgression" (E.A. Speiser, JBL, 82 (1963), pp. 301–306) seem to assume that the crime could be composed monetarily at the husband's discretion. But whether passages from the wisdom literature, with its strong international literary ties, reflect actual practice in Israel is a moot question.

As in other cases (see M. Greenberg, IDB, 1 (1962), 739), here too, biblical law distinguishes between intentional and unintentional acts. In the Priestly Code, the final clause in Numbers 5:13 (lit. "she was not caught"; cf. the use of the word in Deut. 22:28) may mean that a woman who has had extramarital intercourse is guilty only if she was not forced. In the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 22:23–27), the presumption of consent on the part of the engaged girl is treated: If in the open country where no help would be available in response to a cry from the girl, she is presumed to have been forced and only her attacker is executed; if the crime occurred in the city, where help would presumably have been afforded her had she cried out, she is presumed to have consented, and is stoned with her paramour. No such presumptive distinction is made in this passage regarding the married woman: she and her lover must die in any case (Deut. 22:22; unlike The Hittite Laws, 197, in: Pritchard, Texts, 196, which makes this very distinction for married women). According to J.J. Finkelstein (JAOS, 86 (1966), 366 ff.; JCS, 22 (1968–9), 13), the absence of such a distinction may reflect reality: the experience of daily life may have shown that married women who had had extramarital intercourse were likely to have been seeking sexual experience. While payment of a brideprice established a marriage tie constitutive of adultery, the "designation" of a slave woman to marry a man (free women are engaged by brideprice while slave women are designated for marriage by their masters; cf. Ex. 21:8) does not establish such a tie before the woman has been redeemed or freed. Hence a designated slave woman and her paramour are not executed, but the paramour must pay an indemnity and bring a guilt offering (Lev. 19:20–22). The question of the slave woman's consent is not raised in the law, presumably because she is not a legal person and her consent is legally immaterial.

Evidence for prosecution of adultery is scant in the Bible. Some passages suggest the husband's initiative in prosecuting (Num. 5:11–31; cf. Prov. 6:32–35), while another might be construed as reflecting public initiative (Deut. 22:22; cf. Sus. 28–41, 60 ff.). None of these passages is decisive. If a husband in a fit of jealousy but without evidence suspects his wife of adultery, the case is turned over to God (by means of the "ritual for cases of jealousy," Num. 5:11–31; see *Ordeal of Jealousy) for decision and, where the wife is guilty, for punishment.


The theme of adultery appears in several biblical narratives. Abraham's and Isaac's wives were taken or nearly taken by foreigners who believed them to be the patriarchs' sisters (Gen. 12:10–20; 20:2 ff.; 26:6–11), but Genesis 20:4 and 26:10 deny that any sexual contact took place. It is noteworthy that these passages seem to assume that these foreigners would sooner commit murder than adultery, "the great sin." Tamar's fornication (Gen. 38) might be viewed as technically adulterous, since she had already been assigned for Shelah. Potiphar's wife attempted to seduce Joseph, who refused to sin against his master and against God (Gen. 39:7–12). David committed adultery with Bath-Sheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite (II Sam. 11). The narrative about Hosea's marriage (Hos. 1) describes Hosea's wife as adulterous, but this is probably a legendary motif of the sort typical in third-person prophetic narratives (see *Hosea).

Adultery is one of the crimes with which the prophets, particularly Hosea (4:2; etc.) and Jeremiah (7:9; 23:10, 14; etc.), charged Israel. The adultery and ravishing of wives is mentioned among threatened punishments (Deut. 28:30; Amos 7:17).

The book of Proverbs warns extensively against the seductions of the adulterous woman (2:16–19; 5:1–14; 6:24–35; 7:5–27; cf. 30:20). She is a gadabout (a frequent description of promiscuous women in the ancient Near East: cf. Gen. 34:1; The Code of Hammurapi, 141, 143, in: Pritchard, Texts, 172; J.J. Finkelstein, JAOS, 86 (1966), 363, with nn. 28–29), rarely found in her own home (Prov. 7:11–12). She uses a smooth tongue to lure the foolish – like oxen to the slaughter – to her bed (2:16; 5:3; 6:24; 7:13 ff.). Adulterers seek the protection of darkness (7:9; cf. Job 24:15; Eccles. 23:18). The adulterer is more foolish than a thief, who will at least escape with his life (Prov. 6:30 ff.). Wisdom warns (6:20 ff.; 7:4 ff.) that traffic with the adulterous woman leads inevitably to loss of wealth (5:9–10) and life (2:18–19; 5:5; 6:32–35; 7:22–23, 26–27). One ought to "drink water from his own cistern" (5:15) and not from another's.


The exclusive loyalty which Israel must give God is analagous to the exclusive fidelity a wife owes her husband. Thus, Israelite religion seized upon the metaphor of marriage to express Israel's relationship with God and already in early texts employed language from the sphere of adultery to describe worship of other gods: Israel "goes a-whoring" (zanah) after other gods (Ex. 34:16; Num. 15:39–40) and YHWH, the "impassioned" or "jealous" (qanna) God, becomes "wrought up," or "jealous" (qanna) over Israel (Ex. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 5:9; cf. Num. 5:14); idolatry, like adultery, was described as "great sin" (Ex. 32:21, 30–31; II Kings 17:21). Later prophets, especially the author of Hosea 1–3 and after him Jeremiah (2:23; 3:1 ff.) and Ezekiel (16:1 ff.; 23:1 ff.), gave the metaphor full and explicit expression.


BIBLE: M. Greenberg, in: Sefer Y. Kaufmann (1960), 5–28; idem. in: IDB, 1 (1962), 739; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 36–37; S. Loewenstamm, in: BM, 13 (1962), 55–59; 18–19 (1964), 77–78; M. Weinfeld, ibid., 17 (1964), 58–63; E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws (1944), 163–75; L. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (1948), 194–215; G. Cohen, in: The Samuel Freedland Lectures (1966), 1–21; H.L. Ginsberg, in: Sefer Y. Kaufmann (1960), 58–65; J.J. Finkelstein, in: JAOS, 86 (1966), 355–72. JWEISH LAW: Buechler, in: MGWJ, 5 (1911), 196–219; idem, in: WZKM, 19 (1905), 91–138; V. Aptowitzer, in: JQR, 15 (1924/25), 79–82; ET, 2 (1942), 290–3; 4 (1952), 759–64; Sh. M. Paul, Studies in the Book of the Covenant in the Light of Cuneiform and Biblical Law (Leiden, 1970), 96–98. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Drori: "Inadvertent Adultery (Shegagah) in Jewish Law: Mistake of Law and Mistake of Fact," in: H. Ben-Menahem and N.S. Hect (eds.), Authority, Process, and Method – Studies in Jewish Law (1998), 231–67; A. Enker: "The Claim of Ignorance of the Law in Jewish Criminal Law," in: Mishpatim, 25 (1995), 87–128 (Heb.); idem, "Mistake of Law and Ignorance of Law in Jewish Criminal Law," in: Jewish Law Association Studies, 7 (1994), 41–50.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.