The Woman-Adulterer Motif by Deborah Rooke

According to the Bible, adultery is a serious sin. The Ten Commandments forbid it, and Leviticus and Deuteronomy say that couples who commit adultery must die. The prophets condemn adulterous men and women, the book of Proverbs warns against adultery, and the New Testament writers view adultery as sinful.

But on closer examination, the definition of adultery in much of the Hebrew Bible is one-sided. Men did not have to be faithful to one woman. They could have more than one wife (Deut 21:15), and even for married men, sleeping with unmarried or unbetrothed women did not count as adultery (Exod 22:16-17, Deut 22:28-29). Only men who slept with another man’s wife or fiancée could be punished for adultery, along with the woman concerned (Deut 22:22-26). But a woman had to be faithful to her husband alone and was expected to be a virgin until she married (Deut 22:13-21). This points to a society that valued men above women, in which men had social and political power and women’s role was to serve men’s interests.

One very important way in which men needed women was to produce sons who would carry on the family name, inherit the family’s land, and provide support in old age. But women might be barren or die in childbirth, and children, too, often died young. So a man might well need more than one wife at a time if he was to father sons who would survive to adulthood.

But he also needed to know that his sons were really his own: if his wife slept with another man, it threatened her husband’s line of descent and cast a slur on his manhood. It also challenged the convention that women were under men’s authority; so an adulterous woman was a very dangerous person. Just how dangerous is clear from the fact that, unlike the adulterous man, the adulterous woman is an independent motif of sinfulness, particularly in the Hebrew Bible.

The prophets Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all use the metaphor of an adulterous woman to condemn the people of Israel who have been unfaithful to Yahweh, their “husband,” by worshiping other gods. The metaphor reflects the male-female power dynamics that would have existed in a marriage: the all-powerful deity who is entitled to demand absolute loyalty is represented by the husband, the male, whereas the people, who are supposed to be obedient and dependent, are represented by the wife, the female. But there is no equivalent metaphor of an adulterous man.

Another significant example of the adulterous-woman motif appears in Num 5:11-31, where the law allows a man who suspects his wife of adultery to make her undergo an ordeal in front of the priest to test whether or not she has been unfaithful. No such ordeal exists for men. Similarly, the book of Proverbs warns young men against women who take advantage of their husbands’ absence to entice strangers into sexual relations (Prov 7:10-20). But no biblical book warns women against men who might try to entice them away from their husbands.

In the New Testament several writers warn men against adultery (e.g. 1Cor 6:9, Heb 13:4). But the only story that focuses on adultery uses the adulterous woman motif. In John 7:53-8:11, the Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery and ask Jesus if he thinks that she should die for her sin, as the Jewish law demands. But they do not mention her male partner, who is completely absent from the account. Clearly, in the male-focused world of the Bible, all adultery was a crime, but adulterous women were seen as much more dangerous and subversive than adulterous men.

Deborah Rooke, "Woman-Adulterer Motif ", n.p. [cited 24 Sep 2022]. Online:


Deborah Rooke

Deborah Rooke
Research Fellow, University of Oxford

Deborah Rooke is currently research fellow in Bible and music in the Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture, Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Deut 21:15

The Right of the Firstborn
15If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the f ... View more

Exod 22:16-17

Social and Religious Laws
16When a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her ... View more

Deut 22:28-29

28If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act,29the man who lay with her shall give fifty sheke ... View more

Deut 22:22-26

22If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evi ... View more

Deut 22:13-21

Laws concerning Sexual Relations
13Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her14and makes up charges against her, slandering her b ... View more

Num 5:11-31

Concerning an Unfaithful Wife
11The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:12Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any man's wife goes astray and is unfaithful to hi ... View more

Prov 7:10-20

10Then a woman comes toward him,
decked out like a prostitute, wily of heart.11She is loud and wayward;
her feet do not stay at home;12now in the street, now in ... View more

1Cor 6:9

9Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites,

Heb 13:4

4Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.

John 7:53-8:11

53Then each of them went home,Chapter 81while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him an ... View more

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