Matthew 5:27-28,  adultery in your heart

1. Parallel passages

In Matt 5:27, Jesus quotes the seventh of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18).  However, the teaching of Matt 5:28, “that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (WEB), has no parallel in the other gospels.

2. Provenance

Vermes (2004, 429), impressed by Matt 5:29-30’s stress on willingly sacrificing all for the Kingdom, treats the broader saying, Matt 5:27-30, as a single unit, considering it a genuine hyperbolic interpretation of the type so typical of Jesus. Josephus independently confirms that the principal behind Matt 5:28 is a tenet of first-century C.E. Judaism (see below), thus establishing the credibility of a radical Rabbi having said it at around that time. 

3. The concept of adultery

In the Pentateuch

The dating of the book of Job is uncertain, but both its vocabulary and the characteristics of its central figure place its events within the era of the patriarchs (Crenshaw 1996, 863). The Hebrew Bible’s earliest reference to adultery may therefore be the one found in Job 24:15, where, developing the theme of rebellion against the way of righteousness, the passage shares the Ten Commandments’ progression from murder to adultery. It is particularly relevant in the current context because of its concern for the way of righteousness and its association of adultery with the eye.

13These are of those who rebel against the light. They don’t know its ways, nor stay in its paths.  14The murderer rises with the light. He kills the poor and needy. In the night he is like a thief.  15The eye also of the adulterer waits for the twilight, saying, ‘No eye shall see me.’ He disguises his face.  16In the dark they dig through houses. They shut themselves up in the daytime. They don’t know the light.  17For the morning is to all of them like thick darkness, for they know the terrors of the thick darkness.”

(Job 24:13-17 WEB)

If Job does not provide the chronologically earliest use of the term adultery in the Hebrew Bible, then that honour must go to Exodus, where it appears first in the ten commandments (Exod 20:14; cf. Deut 5:18). Neither Job 24:15 nor Exod 20:14, however, shed light on what constituted adultery. Both assume that the reader already knows, though, for those in doubt, some clarification is to be found in Leviticus. 

The Levitical list of punishments for sexual immorality (Lev 20:17-21) borrows a phrase from the Noahic account as it speaks of uncovering the nakedness of family members (Gen 9:22-3). Alongside all the condemnations of uncovering, the term adultery is reserved for a man uncovering his brother’s wife (Lev 20:10). The context clarifies that such uncovering relates to proscribed sexual activity and, although the biblical focus is on the sexual transgressions of men, both partners were complicit in the act (Lev 20:10) and a woman could also be adulterous (e.g. Pr 30:20, Hos 3:1)

Whilst the Hebrew Bible defines adultery as an action, it is no stranger to the idea that it could begin with the eye, for example, David’s sinful relations with Bathsheba were born out of gazing long enough to note her beauty and let it arouse desire within him (2 Sam 11:2). Within some Hebrew and Gnostic traditions a similar progression is envisaged within Gen 3:6 (e.g. see Zohar 136), with the description of the  woman’s actions containing an allusion to sexual sin. When she saw the tree from the Serpent’s perspective she coveted (תַאֲוָה־) it with her eye, that led to desire (נֶחְמָד), and the desire birthed the deed. One can certainly see how such an idea might have arisen, for her actions do revolve around the visual sense in the same way as Matt 5:28. Moreover, the tenth commandment uses אָוָה (ʾāwâ) for most forms of covetousness but חמד (chamad) for coveting a wife.

Amongst the prophets

The prophets clarify how Leviticus’s reference to a brother was interpreted. From passages, such as Ezek 16:32, “A wife who commits adultery! who takes strangers instead of her husband! ” (WEB) and Jer 29:23, “they have worked folly in Israel, and have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives” (WEB), it is clearly in the wider sense of fellow Israelite. 

In the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible the theme of adultery often serves as a metaphor for idolatry. The link between illicit sexual relations and espousing other gods comes to prominence in the account of Judah and Tamar, when Tamar exposed Judah’s use of temple prostitutes, to wrest his authority from him and force him to provide her dead husband’s inheritance (Gen 38:13-15, 24-26). It surfaces again during the Exodus, when Israel began to fornicate with the women of Moab (Num 25:1) and  Phineas’ prompt action saved Israel, resulting in the Levitical covenant of priesthood (Num 25:7-8). Later, as various prophets develop the theme of Israel as God’s bride, God likened their chasing after foreign gods to the behaviour of an adulterous wife (c.f. Hos 3:1). For example, in the prophecy of Jeremiah:

8I saw, when, for this very cause that backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a bill of divorce, yet treacherous Judah, her sister, didn’t fear; but she also went and played the prostitute.  9It happened through the lightness of her prostitution, that the land was polluted, and she committed adultery with stones and with stocks.”

(Jer 3:8-9 WEB)

Jeremiah criticises Judah for lusting after foreign nations (Jer 13:27) and, in particularly graphic terms, he combines the theme of adultery with that of lust for your neighbour’s wife:

7How can I pardon you? Your children have forsaken me, and sworn by what are no gods. When I had fed them to the full, they committed adultery, and assembled themselves in troops at the prostitutes’ houses.  8They were as fed horses roaming at large: everyone neighed after his neighbor’s wife.”

(Jer 5:7-8)

In the centuries that preceded Jesus

The idea of avoiding visually activated fornication in the heart is found at least two centuries before Jesus, in Jubilees (Vermes 2004, 357), where Abraham commands “See that no woman commits fornication with her eyes or her heart” (Jub 20:4 [Charles]). In the same book is preserved the idea that the sons of God, of Gen 6.2, were angelic Watchers, sent to instruct mankind in righteousness (Jub 4:15), but who fell because they lusted after those who were not of their own kind, i.e. the daughters of men (Jub 4:22)

The idea of committing sexual sin with the eyes is also found in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, where Issachar is given the words “Except my wife I have not known any woman. I never committed fornication by the uplifting of my eyes” (Test Iss 7:2 [Charles])

The texts of the Qumran community often use following after lustful eyes as a metaphor for betraying God. Examples cited by Vermes (2004, 205) include:

For the members of their community, following the path of righteousness required keeping your eyes under control, hence the author of the Damascus document promises revelation, “that you may walk perfectly in all His ways and not follow the guilty inclinations and after the eyes of lust” (4Q265-73, aka CD 2:16 [Vermes]).

Amongst first century Judaism

For the first century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus, the lax attitude to adultery found amongst the gods of other nations was one reason, amongst many, to consider such portrayals of divinity laughable (Ag. Ap. 2.242). He also suggested that, as far as the Jews were concerned, the thought of a sin was a wicked as the deed (Ag. Ap. 2.183, 217). Similarly, Philo of Alexandria considered that, in the case of adultery, “even before the corruption of the body the soul is accustomed to alienation from virtue” (Decalogue 124 [Yonge]).

4. Linking lust, adultery, and the eye

Significant words

The qualifying phrase “to lust after” uses the word ἐπιθυμῆσαι, from ἐπιθυμέω (epithymeō = desire greatly, or lust after). It is doubtful whether the Sermon’s earliest Greek-speaking readers could have heard this word, linked to adultery and in the Sermon’s Ten-Commandments context, without thinking of the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exod 20:17 WEB), for in the Septuagint epithymeō translates חמד (chamad = covet). Hence, lustful gazing already stood condemned, in the strongest possible terms, though as an act of covetousness rather than of adultery.  However, apart from in Exod 20:17 (and its parallel in Deut 5:21), the word חמד is seldom used in the Hebrew Bible and very rarely in the context of sexual sin.

Verse 28 contains another significant word, μοιχεύω (moicheuō=adultery). Adultery is not often spoken of in the Hebrew Bible. Hence, in the Septuagint, where μοιχεύω translates the root נאף (naʾaph) and the related  נאוף (niʾuph), it occurs in only Ex 20:14 (Ex 20:13 LXX), Lev 20:10, Deut 5:17, Sir 23:33, Hos 4:13-14, 7:4, Jer 3:9, Ezek 23:43. If one assumes that Jesus had in mind the Hebrew text, then neither of the equivalent terms (נאף and  נאוף) are all that common, as they occur less than thirty times in total. 

The use in Matt 5:27-28 of both ἐπιθυμέω and μοιχεύω, together with their Septuagint equivalence to unusual Hebrew words, suggests that Jesus drew upon a text that uses both חמד and נאף. Two clear candidates emerge, with both words being found in Proverbs’ warning against adultery (Prov 6:20-35) and also in Ezekiel’s portrayal of the metaphorical adulterous sisters Oholah and Oholibah (Ezek 23:1-49). Of the two, the passage in Proverbs is the more interesting for it is wisdom teaching, the most frequent sub-genre found within the Sermon on the Mount (see summary of Vermes assessment of the genre of the Sermon). Not only that, but the Provers passage relates it’s advice relates to the way of righteousness, a consistent theme within the Sermon.

Proverbs 6, the way of life, lust, and adultery

Proverbs 6:23-25 first presents God’s commandments as a lamp (cf. Matt 5:15) and God’s reproofs as a way of life, i.e. a way of righteousness. It then counsels its reader to avoid lusting (חמד) after immoral women:

23 For the commandment is a lamp,
and the law is light.
Reproofs of instruction are the way of life,
24 to keep you from the immoral woman,
from the flattery of the wayward wife’s tongue.
25 Don’t lust after her beauty in your heart,
neither let her captivate you with her eyelids.”

(Prov 6:23-25 WEB)

Later the passage confirms that it is speaking of adultery (נאף) as it concludes He who commits adultery with a woman is void of understanding. He who does it destroys his own soul (Pr 6:32 WEB). This is particularly noteworthy, given the Sermon on the Mount’s reference to being cast into Gehennah (Matt 5:29-30) and Jesus’ statement that God is able to destroy the soul in Gehennah (Matt 10:28).

In the Septuagint Prov 6:25 has a slightly different emphasis, “Let not the desire of beauty overcome thee, neither be thou caught by thine eyes, neither be captivated with her eyelids” (Prov 6:25 LXX [Brenton]), thereby effectively equating lust in the heart with ensnaring by your own eyes. The reference to being caught (ἀγρεύω=agreuō, to catch or hunt) is interesting, given the use of σκανδαλίζω (skandalizo) in Matt 5:29-30. For σκανδαλίζω, so often translated “sin” (e.g. in ESV & NIV84), carried a second primary meaning. The first being “to offend”, but the second is “to cause to stumble” (Thomas 1998a, n.p.), for σκανδαλίζω comes from the word σκάνδαλον (skandalon) which was used of a snare, or the bait-stick of a trap (Thomas 1998b, n.p.). How Jesus implies one should deal with such ensnarement is explored further in the notes on Matt 5:28-29.

Lust and adultery in Ezekiel 23

In Ezek 23:1-49, the prophet uses a metaphorical pair of sisters, Oholah and Oholibah to reflect upon the spiritual adultery of Samaria and Judah, often referring to it as whoring and tying it very firmly to looking upon strangers. Whilst perhaps not as pertinent to Matt 5:28-29 as Prov 6:23-25, by word association this passage still forms part of the context to the teaching of Matt 5:31-32, for it was onlyOholibah-like behaviour that had ever prompted God to divorce Judah. Three times the passages uses the root חמד (chamad = covet) as it emphasises how Judah coveted relationship with another deity. The word turns up in verses 6, 12 and 23: 

For both sisters, their initial response to these lust-worthy young men had been the same. The WEB’s rather tame translation of עגב (ʿagab), as “doted” being more forcefully rendered “lusted” in versions such as the NIV84 or ESV. Both sisters had taken the same way (Ezek 23:13) and the prophet went on to explain the part that their eyes had played in that:

 14She increased her prostitution; for she saw men portrayed on the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed with vermilion,  15dressed with girdles on their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them princes to look on, after the likeness of the Babylonians in Chaldea, the land of their birth.  16As soon as she saw them she doted on them, and sent messengers to them into Chaldea.”

(Ezek 23:12-21 WEB)

In the Septuagint, the first half of that verse is probably closer to “as soon as she lay hold of them with her eyes” (personal translation), clarifying that the eye was the offending organ in this case and thereby providing a bridge to Matt 5:29.  

The doting, and its associated prostitution (Ezek 23:18-19), is clearly metaphorical for espousing other deities, for Ezekiel goes on to tie this adultery (נאף) to idolatry with the words: “For they have committed adultery, and blood is in their hands; and with their idols have they committed adultery” (Ezek 23:37a WEB). In Ezek 23:3 the prophet emphasises that both sisters had formerly played the whore in Egypt and, in Ezek 23:19, he suggests that they are harking back to the days when the God’s of Egypt provided satisfaction for their cravings (cf. Num 11:4-5). Furthermore, the poetic parallelism in Ezekiel’s prophecy reinforces the link between fixing the eyes and yearning for the idolatrous ways of Egypt, as follows: 

“Thus will I make your lewdness to cease from you,
          and your prostitution brought from the land of Egypt;
so that you shall not lift up your eyes to them,
          nor remember Egypt any more”

(Ezek 23:27 WEB)

The prophecy sums up the outcome for the two sisters as follows:  

“Righteous men, they shall judge them with the judgment of adulteresses, and with the judgment of women who shed blood; because they are adulteresses, and blood is in their hands”

(Ezek 23:45 WEB)

The sentiments expressed in Ezekiel 23 are not unique, for the prophet was revisiting a theme he had introduces somewhat earlier. In chapter 20, Ezekiel brings God’s justification of the extreme action he has taken against his own people. From this, we discover that  failure to resist the visual temptation presented by the idols of Egypt has prompted God’s action (Ezek 20:7-9). Moreover, this explanation is set in the context of the giving of God’s commandments (Ezek 20:11) and an encouragement for his children to walk according to them rather than the rebellious way of their fathers.

Ezekiel also clearly links the eye with Judah’s prostitution/adultery in Ezek 6:9, where he also mentions the parallel waywardness of their heart:

“Those of you that escape shall remember me among the nations where they shall be carried captive, how that I have been broken with their lewd heart, which has departed from me, and with their eyes, which play the prostitute after their idols: and they shall loathe themselves in their own sight for the evils which they have committed in all their abominations.”

(Ezek 6:9 WEB)

5. Related New Testament texts

General comments on adultery

The commandment against adultery is revisited elsewhere amongst the gospels (e.g. Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20) and the letters (e.g. Rom 13:9, Jas 2:11), but nowhere is that command linked to vision in quite the same way as here.

Jesus’ use of Ezekiel

From his repeated self-application of the title Son of Man, it is impossible to avoid comparison of the prophetic ministry of Jesus and that of Ezekiel.

When, during John’s imprisonment, people rejected both John’s own authority and that of John the Baptist, Jesus himself explored this comparison, painting a picture himself that drew upon God’s description of the role of Ezekiel in Ezek 33:30-33, a musician playing a tune that gets ignored:

16But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call to their companions  17and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance. We mourned for you, and you didn’t lament.’  18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’  19The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”

(Matt 11:16-19 WEB)

The word, עגב (ʿagab), used for “doted” throughout Ezek 23:1-20 to describe the cause of Judah’s spiritual adultery (Ezek 23:5, 7, 9; Ezek 23:11-12, 16, 20), is encountered rarely elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. However, it crops up again in Ezek 33:30-33, where the Lord encourages the prophet:

“ 31They come to you as the people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, but don’t do them; for with their mouth they show much love [עֲגָבִים], but their heart goes after their gain.  32Behold, you are to them as a very lovely [עֲגָבִים] song of one who has a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they don’t do them.  33When this comes to pass, (behold, it comes), then shall they know that a prophet has been among them.”

(Ezek 33:30-33 HNV, Hebrew annotations inserted)

Thus, if Jesus saw his early ministry in terms that evoke Ezek 33:30-33, it is reasonable to suggest that saw himself ministering to a nation that had gone the way of Ezekiel’s Judah and to which the warnings of Ezek 23:1-20 certainly applied.

The rich young ruler

The relevance of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler (Matt 19:16-22) to Matt 5:29 lies in the evidence it provides concerning the state of Judah. For here is proof that at least one powerful and pious Israeli had accepted the need to avoid sexual sin, whilst choosing to overlook the tenth commandment’s challenge to his covetous heart (note how he fails to query Jesus’ omission of it). The antidote Jesus provided for this spiritual blindness was for the young man to humble himself and accept Jesus’ authority. Its the same solution implied in Matt 5:28.

A passing remark in 2 Peter 2:14-15

Peter makes passing reference to the concept of the adulterous eye in his description of those who have chosen the way that leads to destruction:

12But these, as unreasoning creatures, born natural animals to be taken and destroyed” . . . “14having eyes full of adultery, and who can’t cease from sin; enticing unsettled souls; having a heart trained in greed; children of cursing;  15forsaking the right way, they went astray, having followed the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of wrongdoing”

(2 Peter 2:12, 14-15 WEB)

6. Some additional Christian perspectives

For Vermes (2004, 348-349), this passage is indicative that the Kingdom was to take absolute priority and its message employs the sort of hyperbolic imagery that is typical of Jesus, yet takes it to extremes in Matt 19:12’s advocacy of self-mutilation (Vermes 2004, 396).

Stott (1992, 87) emphasises the biblical perspective that sexual relations in the right context are wholesome, thus the prohibition is not against simply looking at a woman. However, he then concludes, “we all know the difference between looking and lusting” (Stott 1992, 87), before seeking to broaden Jesus’ scope to encompass any type of immorality by either sex. He notes the mention of the eyes and heart in Job 31:1, 7 and suggests that Job exemplifies an individual who has not fallen into the sin outlined in Matt 5:28 (Stott 1992, 88)

7. The attitude of later Judaism

Vermes suggests that: “in the language of the rabbis ‘to follow the eyes’ means to fornicate, and ‘bawdy thoughts’ carry heavier guilt than the resulting adultery (Sifre on Num 15:39; bYoma 29a)” (Vermes 2004, 205).