Adultery and the Death Penalty

Are all adulterers suppoesd to die in the bible? When looking at Lev 20:10 and Deut 22:22 some people assume this means that ALL adultery is punishable by death. The story in John 8:1-11, about the woman caught in adultery being judged by Jesus, is usually what comes into the modern mind. However, there are alternatives to death based on the conditions in which the adultery is discovered. Jesus said in Matt 19:9 that divorce is allowed if someone commits adultery. This is based on Deut 24:1 which says that a man can divorce his wife if uncleanness is found in her. The Hebrew word translated as uncleanness is ervah (עֶרְוָה). This “uncleanness” or indecency, likely refers to some kind of wickedness like badmouthing, attempting to poison her husband, committing adultery, etc. Anything that breaks the marriage covenant and adultery definitely breaks the marriage covenant.

So the question is why would a man divorce a cheating wife if the cheater is supposed to be stoned to death along with their lover anyway? There is no point in divorcing them if they are going to die. One could argue that the divorce happens so that the faithful spouse won’t be counted as a divorcee but instead, a widow to avoid the shame of being cheated on, but those titles don’t make much difference in the long run, since everyone will know why they became widowed, so that argument falls short. If one looks closely at Deut 22:22 it says that a man and woman who are “caught in the act” of adultery are to be put to death. This means that the death penalty can only be executed if they are caught which makes sense because you need proof via witnesses that the adultery was committed. Deut 17:6 and Deut 19:15 both say that the death penalty executions require two or three witnesses. So if there is an affair but the participants don’t get caught in the act, then they can’t be killed, even if one of them confesses.

So the divorce scenario is more for when a person discovers after the fact that their spouse cheated. Furthermore, if a man is suspicious that his wife cheated she can be put through a ritual at the Tabernacle in which God judges her innocence as she drinks special water (Numbers ch. 5). If she is innocent nothing happens but if she is guilty, she simply becomes barren rather than dying. Based on this one can conclude that God doesn’t want to kill all adulterers absolutely, because when he directly gets involved in judgment he only makes an adulterous woman barren rather than killing her. Further evidence of this concept is in Ezekiel 18:23 where God says he takes no pleasure in punishing the wicked and he would prefer they repent and turn to righteousness and they will receive mercy. He continues in verse 24 that on the other hand, if a righteous person turns bad, their good deeds will be forgotten and they will be punished. So repentance is the ultimate key to salvation.

This lets us know that if two people commit adultery but aren’t caught then it can be considered an act of mercy by God. His desire is that they stop the affair and bring offerings for their guilt and sin to the temple and never do it again. If the woman in the affair is questioned by her husband, then she should tell the truth. The worse that can happen is that she gets divorced. Maybe her husband will show her mercy like Hosea and Gomer in Hosea chapters 1-3 and take her back anyway. However, if she lies and he has her tested at the Tabernacle, then she will be made barren and possibly divorced. Even if he doesn’t divorce her, then she will live with the shame of being barren, which in ancient may have been considered worse than death for a woman.

Long story short, not everyone got stoned to death all the time, that only happened under very specific circumstances. This was the problem with the trial of the Adulteress that was brought before Jesus in John 8:1-11. They can only punish adulterers that are caught in the act, but the “witnesses” only brought forth a woman, but not the man. This made them false witnesses. More on that story here.