Question about OT Text on Adultery

Question about OT Text on Adultery October 23, 2014

A reader:

I’ve been reading through the Bible, and I came across this passage in Wisdom which really bugged me, and I was wondering if you could help me make sense of it? It’s from Wisdom 3:11-19:

 For whoever despises wisdom and instruction is miserable. Their hope is vain, their labors are unprofitable, and their works are useless.

Their wives are foolish, and their children evil;
their offspring are accursed.

For blessed is the barren woman who is undefiled,
who has not entered into a sinful union;
she will have fruit when God examines souls…

But children of adulterers will not come to maturity, and the offspring of an unlawful union will perish

Even if they live long they will be held of no account, and finally their old age will be without honor. 

If they die young, they will have no hope and no consolation in the day of decision.
For the end of an unrighteous generation is grievous.

The part that’s really bothering me is that it seems to to be saying children of adultery are evil and cursed. Especially the last verse when it says the children will have no hope in the day of decision, which I assume means judgment day? Sounds like they’re being judged and damned for their parents sins…

I can understand temporal punishment and suffering the consequences of the sins of a parent, but it really sounds like eternal punishment here.

Am I misunderstanding it? I feel like I am, but I don’t know how else to read it. Any help you can give would be greatly appreciated.

Always bear in mind that when you are reading the OT you are reading incomplete revelation.  The Old Testament itself makes this clear when for instance Jeremiah tells Israel that the day is coming when God will make a new covenant with Israel, not like the Mosaic covenant and the prophet tell Israel to await the coming of Messiah who will reveal things hidden from the foundation of the world.  So the Old Covenant is always point forward to Christ and the New is always looking back to the Old.

One of the things that the Old Covenant writers are often struggling with is the mystery of original sin and what we might call “corporate personality”: the mysterious way in which the sins of the fathers afflict future progeny.  On the one hand, sins of parents affect descendants (the sin of Adam being the supreme example).  On the other hand, each is responsible for his own life (as an amazed Ezekiel will announce in Ezekiel 18 when he repudiates the idea that a son is somehow guilty of a particular actual sin simply because his father committed it, or vice versa).

The Christian revelation, of course, will emphasize both truths as well.  All are sinners “in Adam”.  But that does not mean the child bears guilt if his parents are adulterers.  But the adultery will still hurt and affect the child in various ways.  Among these are the fact that one’s social standing (through most of human history) will be injured by cultures who social and legal structures will regard him as “illegitimate” etc.  It is this “day of decision” to which, in all likelihood, Wisdom is looking: the illegitimate child’s “day in court” in which he will likely lose whatever case he brings for inheritance.  With this goes all kinds of other ills, of course, including the kind of anger and bitterness that goes with getting the short end of the stick in culture with zero social safety nets for disinherited children (Recall the fate of the disinherited Ishmael or Esau and the latter’s heartrending cry, “Bless me!  Me also!” after Jacob stole his birthright.)

So I don’t think Wisdom has in mind the notion of eternal judgment here, but is instead thinking of earthly judgments that the children of adultery were, in general, likely to receive.  Adultery will, of course, take on a spiritual dimension as well in the Old Testament: becoming a symbol of the relationship between faithless Israel and her cuckolded God.  The “children” of such a relation were, in this reading, Israelites who themselves whored after other gods and follow the lead provided by her kings and priests in worshipping the Baals.  There’s a reason Jezebel’s name has become a synonym for both a temptress and an idolator.  Proverbs will flesh out this parallel by comparing the adulterous woman to tempter who leads the unwary away from God and wisdom and wise woman is Wisdom herself, the companion of God himself as he framed and built the universe.  The Christian tradition will see in that “woman” (Sophia in Greek) is an image of the Spirit of Christ “the wisdom and power of God”. So the Christian tradition will see the relationship between Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church in profoundly nuptial terms and apostasy as a kind of adultery (just as the prophets did).

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  • Elmwood

    the old testament if read isolated and taken literally, is full of crazy sh*t, which is why you need to read it with the light of reason and the new testament.

    • Joseph J. Pippet

      JMJ Elmwood. You have insulted your God with your words, His word is Not what you called it, You Foolish creature, Shame on you. He shall hold you Accountable! Respectfully with Love.

      • jroberts548

        When something good happens at work, do you make your daughter into a burnt offering? Do you bake bread on dung piles? Are your enemies’ members like those of stallions and their emissions like wild horses? Do you smash babies’ heads on rocks?

        In short, have you ever read any of the old testament? Taken literally and in isolation (i.e., the exact opposite of how the bible is meant to be read), the OT is full of crazy shit.

        • Senor Common Sense

          Or maybe the more respectful way to speak of the very Word of God is to say that people’s misinterpretations of the Old Testament is what is the Casa loco de poop.

  • jroberts548
  • anna lisa

    So, what we are talking about are not actual children, but the kinds of vices which spring forth from idolatry. Idolatry happens today as well, whenever we replace God with sinful wants, needs and compulsions.

  • Phoenix_Lion

    I take it also at its word. Children from an adutrous relationship are filled with problems. I won’t get into them here but just look at today’s society which is being filled up by them. Now the Good News of the New Testament is that Christ can change and save them. In the Old Testament they didn’t have this Grace so it was almost impossible of salvation from this. Of course God could and did still shower His Grace on many with this curse upon them.

  • fredx2

    “For whoever despises wisdom and instruction is miserable… their offspring are accursed.”

    The offspring are accursed because they had a parent who despised wisdom, and therefore brought the offspring up to believe stupid things, and formed them terribly. They are not accursed by God, they are accursed by having a terrible parent who inflicts their stupidity on the kids. We see this all the time.

  • LH

    Shouldn’t this question be brought to the attention of a priest?

  • Dennis Neylon

    What is most important to remember is that the rules and law of the Old Testament applies to the Isrealites and their descendents. Since very few Christians today can trace their lineage to the Isrealites, we are subject to the teachings of Christ. Under His teaching, sins do not pass from one generation to the next; each of us is responsible for our own sins, which, like all sins, are forgiven by the Christ’s shed blood.

  • I have always thought that the Old Testament has to be read as a journey, not as a fixed code. It’s the story of Mankind’s growing relationship with God as He begins to unfold His revelation to us.

    The journey included false starts and mistakes. Some of the things that appear in the Old Testament seem counter-intuitive to Christianity when they are taken out of that context. But God’s Revelation was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, who revealed the rest of everything that God wanted us to know about Him. Everything in the Old testament must be interpreted through the prism of Christ’s teaching that has passed down to us in the New Testament and in Sacred Tradition. All the commandments were replaced with the single commandment: “Love …..”. Love knows nothing about cursing or condemning innocent offspring.