The Double Standard, Men as Victims of Adultery, Prostitution, and Jesus: A Look at Proverbs 6:26

In reading commentaries for my post The Stereotype of the Nagging, Contentious Wife, I ran across an interpretation of Proverbs 6:26 that I’m not convinced is entirely accurate. This is the verse that seems to say it’s okay for a man to visit a prostitute, though he’d better stay away from another man’s wife. I don’t know about you, but it would not be okay with me if my husband dallied with any other woman, no matter who she was or how she made a living.[1]

For a prostitute can be had for a loaf of bread, but another man’s wife preys on your very life. (Prov. 6:26, NIV)

The comparison between the toll exacted on a man for having sex with a married woman versus a prostitute appears to imply that sleeping with the second is no big deal.[2] Even though it’s not entirely clear how to translate the Hebrew (it may mean that a prostitute reduces a man to a loaf of bread), becoming a pauper is not as bad as losing your life.[3]

What’s going on here? Tremper Longman III explains it like this:

The final section of this passage focuses on the inevitability of punishment for those who have a physically intimate relationship with a woman married to another man. …One might question why this would be the case since sleeping with a prostitute also intrudes on the man’s marriage with his wife. …It is not that sleeping with a prostitute is right, but that the other is doubly wrong. Two marriage relationships are shattered.[4]

While Longman’s assessment makes sense, it does not reflect the cultural assumptions in place at the time. No doubt sleeping with a prostitute is wrong and adultery is doubly wrong, but that is not the point of this verse. Rather, it highlights the reality of the sexual double standard at the time.

Longman’s comment got me thinking that maybe some of my readers aren’t aware of how expectations of sexual purity were different for men and women during Old Testament times. So I thought I’d write about that today.

The Double Standard

The distinction may be seen most clearly in that the Old Testament never mentions the marital status of a man involved in sexual indiscretion. Whether the man was married was, in fact, of no consequence; the only issue was the status of the female. Adultery was understood as “sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who was married or betrothed to another man,”[5] but never as sex between a married man and a single woman.

This double standard is apparent in Deuteronomy 22:25-29 that details differing consequences for rape, based on the woman’s marital status. If the woman was pledged to be married, the man was guilty of violating “another man’s wife” and subject to the penalty due adulterers, which was death. If she was not pledged to anyone – and this is the kicker – the man was simply required to pay her father the bride price and marry her.

Rather than being punishable by law, the man’s actions were legitimized through marriage. His marital status, in contrast, is never mentioned as a consideration. Neither is there note of any harm done to his first wife, if he has one, through his unfaithfulness and subsequent polygyny.

Similarly, it was the woman’s status that determined the penalty if the encounter was deemed consensual.[6] If she was betrothed, both were considered adulterers and stoned to death (Deut. 22:23-24). If she was unattached, once again the man was required to pay the girl’s father and marry her, with no possibility of divorce (Ex. 22:16-17). And if the man was the one who was already married, we are to presume that now he simply had to provide for another wife. As long as the woman in question was “single” neither party was guilty of adultery.

This perspective is evidenced in more general principles. For example, whereas  “a young woman was required to remain a virgin until the consummation of her marriage … there is no mention of a corresponding requirement of male virginity.”[7] Even after a man was married, sexual fidelity to his wife was neither expected nor enforced.[8]

Why this laxness regarding men’s extracurricular sexual activity, but not women’s?

Well, one of the primary purposes of the sexual boundaries encoded in the Old Testament was to preserve the integrity of the family line, not necessarily to establish an ultimate standard of holiness.[9] Adultery on the part of the wife was prohibited since her fidelity was essential to this process but, at least in terms of his own household, the man’s was not.[10] The point was to ensure a man that any children born in his household were indeed his progeny (the identity of the mother was obvious and therefore needed no legal protection).[11]

As a consequence, as far as the practical sexual ethics of the Old Testament are concerned a man’s sexual exploits were only considered “wrong,” i.e. worthy of punishment, if he put the family line of another man in jeopardy. The ideal of one woman and one man for life was neither encoded in the law nor enshrined in common practice, though Genesis 2 makes clear that was God’s original intent.

Men as Victims of Adultery

Hence there was no law that even implied a husband could commit adultery against his wife; a man could only commit adultery against another man (by sleeping with that man’s wife or betrothed). In the same way, a woman’s sexual indiscretion was always against a man, most often her husband but sometimes her father (if she was unmarried).

Neither a man’s nor a woman’s adultery was ever understood as being committed against a woman. This is why it didn’t matter if the male adulterer was married or not. Legally, in the Old Testament, adultery was always an offense against a man.

If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbor – both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. (Lev. 20:10, italics added)

If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. (Deut. 22:22, italics added)

So, for example, if Bathsheba had not already been married, David would not have been guilty of adultery.[12] David’s “crime” consisted in taking “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” (2 Sam. 12:10), not in his unfaithfulness to his own wives. In no Old Testament scenario would Ahinoam, Abigail, Maakah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, or Michal have been considered victims of David’s adultery.

In fact, no one viewed women as victims of adultery in those days. Rather, women were the cause of adultery and men the victims.[13] Not that this was ever God’s view of the matter; it was simply the interpretive lens of this ancient world.

Prostitution

Back to our problematic verse, Proverbs 6:26. In concert with this sexual double standard, there was an implicit acceptance of prostitutes and prostitution even in Israel.[14] The fact that Hebrew men were not permitted to sell their daughters as harlots (Lev. 19:29) tells us the practice was neither sanctioned by God nor condoned by society. Nevertheless, it persisted.[15]

So a man could visit a prostitute without breaking the law or committing adultery, even if he was married.[16] A Hebrew woman, however, could be stoned or burned to death for offering herself as a prostitute, particularly if a male relative took offense at her activities.[17]

This is the background to Proverbs 6:26. The verse is not about purity or morality in the way we would think of those things, but about pragmatic issues. While visiting a prostitute was not what parents might desire for their son, it was an acceptable compromise. A prostitute may cost money, but is not dangerous like the “unchaste wife,” creatively described by Bruce Waltke as the “deadly quick-silver lady” and “huntress waiting to trap her prey” who “stalk[s] the streets to seduce young men.”[18]

Jesus

Though a lot had changed since Old Testament times, a general attitude that favored men with respect to sexual ethics was still widespread during Jesus’ lifetime, and may be what lies behind some of his encounters with the religious leaders.

For example, while an upstanding First Century Jewish man would not be caught dead committing actual adultery, in some circles ipso facto adultery through serial divorce and remarriage was perfectly respectable.[19] Jesus slams this double standard and legalistic workaround of God’s design for human sexuality.[20]

In Matthew 5:32 Jesus does this slamming in a remarkable way. The verse is usually translated something like this:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt. 5:32, NIV 1984)

The part translated “become an adulteress” is, unexpectedly, a passive verb. The normal meaning of a passive verb is that the subject of the verb is the recipient of the action, rather than the one performing it.[21] The updated NIV is the only translation I’ve seen that attempts to bring the passive voice of this verb into its translation, rendering it as follows:[22]

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery. (Matt. 5:32, NIV 2011)

Jesus not only says this practice is immoral, he also claims it is a crime against a wife. What a change from Old Testament sexual ethics where it was legally impossible for a woman to be the victim of her husband’s adultery. No wonder even the disciples thought Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce was crazy.[23]

When reading the Old Testament we need to remember that while some of its ethics represent absolutes, others reflect practical concerns. We also need to make sure we don’t take the sometimes one-sided view of Old Testament texts and employ it to blame one gender for all the evils in the world, but instead recognize that both men and women can and do harm one another.

So, yeah; a woman can be the victim of adultery. Who knew?


[1] Scripture gives very little attention to prostitution as sex slavery, though there is a nod to it in the fact that fathers are forbidden to turn their daughters into prostitutes. Yet for the most part prostitution is addressed as though the woman freely chose that line of work. One wonders how often this was truly the case.

[2] Tremper Longman III notes: “A prostitute will cost money, but a relationship with another man’s wife may well cost the son his life,” Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), loc. 3754, Kindle. Bruce Waltke writes: “Specifically, he [the son] needs protection from the smooth-talking, unfaithful wife. The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1-15 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), loc. 9249, Kindle.

[3] The KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET, and ASV, among others, translate along these lines.

[4] Longman, loc. 3772.

[5] B. L. Bandstra and A. D. Verhey, “Sex,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), vol. 4, ed. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 438.

[6] The woman was obligated to cry out to prove that she did not consent but was given the benefit of the doubt if the encounter occurred where no one could hear her.

[7] Bandstra and Verhey, 438.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Another was to forbid sexual acts that were considered aberrations, such as incest, bestiality and homosexuality.

[10] See my post Cheating Wives, the Double Standard and a Bizarre Bible Passage on Num. 5:11-31 for an illustration of how this priority worked out in the OT legal code.

[11] This is not an unreasonable expectation, yet it shifted the focus form marital fidelity to more practical issues. This, in turn, made room for the double standard, an obvious deviation from God’s best.

[12] According to Old Testament standards with its tolerance of polygyny.

[13] The book of Proverbs, in particular, presents this view of things. Recent commentators, however, recognize that this is at best only half of the story.

[14] Bruce Waltke notes that “Foreign prostitutes are tacitly accepted in the Old Testament as part of the tawdry scenery,” loc. 9309.

[15] F. E. Hirsch and J. K. Grider, “Crime,” in ISBE, vol. 1, ed. G. Bromiley (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1979), 816.

[16] Note that both female and male temple prostitutes, an abomination in Israel yet part of the landscape at various times, were solely for the service of men, never women.

[17] See the account of Judah and Tamar in Gen. 38. Judah’s men thought nothing of the fact that he had visited a prostitute. Though Judah was widowed by this time so his behavior might be viewed as somehow “excusable,” so was Tamar. Yet Judah as Tamar’s father-in-law had the power to prescribe the death penalty for her while completely overlooking his own indiscretion. Fortunately, Tamar was savvy enough to protect herself in advance by keeping Judah’s seal and staff.

[18] Waltke,  Proverbs 1-15, loc. 3431; Proverbs 15-31,loc. 5225, 5239. See also Hirsch and Grider, 816. While the description is faithful to the tone of the original, it does not acknowledge the one-sidedness of painting women as the sexual predators, especially in the ancient world where this was not typical. Yet even in today’s world where women are also sexually aggressive, men are statistically more likely to victimize women than the other way around. For these reasons I find Waltke’s terminology unhelpful.

[19] See Matt. 19:1-12, especially v. 3.

[20] Even in the Old Testament God rejected this double standard that favored men. See Hos. 4:13-14 where God says he will not punish the women for becoming prostitutes or adulteresses “because the men themselves consort with harlots and sacrifice with shrine prostitutes.” So while an equal standard is harder to find in the Old Testament, it does exist and clearly expresses God’s perspective.

[21] For example, “I murdered” is active and “I was murdered” is passive. The difficulty with translation arises from the fact that in English we can say “I committed adultery” (active) but not “I was committed adultery” (passive). The problem stems from a limitation of the English language.

[22] In Mark 10:12 Jesus addresses the situation where a wife divorces her husband without cause to marry another man. In this case, since she initiated the divorce, she is guilty of adultery. So it’s not that a woman couldn’t be guilty of adultery but rather that, in fact, sometimes she was the victim and not the perpetrator. Jesus’ point in all these teachings is not to split hairs over when divorce may or may not be “allowed,” but rather to emphasize God’s original intent for marriage as a lifelong, loving commitment between one man and one woman. Jesus was slamming the casual attitude of Jewish men who put away their wife because another woman (probably younger and more beautiful) caught their eye.

[23] Matt. 19:1-12.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: