Is Looking at Pornography Adultery?

Under the Law of Moses, a wife was considered to belong to her husband. To quote Joseph Smith, the full Law of God had in mind that women “should be [a husband’s] bosom companions, the nearest and dearest objects on earth in every sense of the word” (Lyman Omer Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints [Logan, Utah: The Utah Journal Co., 1888]). To quote the Law:

“You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely against your neighbor. You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor” (Exo. 20:14 – 17, NLT, emphasis added).

The theme of these instructions from the Messenger of the Lord is the avoidance of harming others by the improper use of their property, intellectual or personal. In the Greek Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) the word used for ‘covet’—as in ‘you must not covet your neighbor’s wife’—is ἐπιθυμέω (epithuméō), a word which appears in many non-sexual contexts throughout the scriptures, including but note limited to (said verb underlined):

“For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17, ESV);

“And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer'” (Luke 22:15, ESV);

“I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel” (Acts 20:33, ESV); and

“And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16, ESV).

Most importantly, it is also used in the following famous saying of the Lord Jesus Christ:

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:27 – 28).

In support of this view, the word used for ‘woman’ in his discourse is the Greek γυναῖκα (gynaika “wife”). This is significant for it frames the rebuke within the context of harming a neighbor by improperly using or possessing his belongings, among which was his wife. With these interpretations in place, consider some alternate “purist” translations of the admonition to not look upon a man’s wife to covet possession of her:

Bible Version​Matt. 5:28 Translation:
Contemporary English VersionI tell you if you look at another [man’s wife] and want her, you are already unfaithful in your thoughts
Good News TranslationNow I tell you: anyone who looks at a [man’s wife] and wants to possess her is guilty of committing adultery with her in his heart
NET Bible​I say to you that whoever looks at a [man’s wife] to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart
Literal Standard VersionI say to you that everyone who is looking on a [man’s wife] to desire her, already committed adultery with her in his heart
Smith’s Literal TranslationI say to you, That every one seeing a [man’s wife], to eagerly desire her, has already committed adultery with her, in his heart
Lamsa BibleI say to you, that whoever looks at a [man’s wife] with the desire to covet her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart
Anderson New TestamentI say to you, Whoever looks upon a [man’s wife] to cherish desire for her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart

This echoes the sin of David with Bathsheba, wherein he specifically desired Bathsheba while she was yet another man’s wife. Under the precepts of this purist view of Jesus’ doctrinal exposition on adultery, David’s adultery was not in the moment of seeing the bathing beauty (some Jewish traditions speak of that moment being one of revelation as he knew she would become the ancestress of the heir to his throne, the Messiah) but in the moment of deciding he would take her from Uriah by his own plan. The sin of robbing Uriah was communicated to David by way of an analogy through the prophet Nathan wherein Bathsheba is compared to a little lamb owned by a poor man:

“[God] sent Nathan the prophet to tell this story to David: ‘A rich man and a poor man lived in the same town. The rich man owned a lot of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had only one little lamb that he had bought and raised. The lamb became a pet for him and his children. He even let it eat from his plate and drink from his cup and sleep on his lap. The lamb was like one of his own children. One day someone came to visit the rich man, but the rich man didn’t want to kill any of his own sheep or cattle and serve it to the visitor. So he stole the poor man’s lamb and served it instead.’
“David was furious with the rich man and said to Nathan, ‘I swear by the living LORD that the man who did this deserves to die! And because he didn’t have pity on the poor man, he will have to pay four times what the lamb was worth.’
“Then Nathan told David: ‘You are that rich man! Now listen to what the LORD God of Israel says to you: “I chose you to be the king of Israel. I kept you safe from Saul and even gave you his house and his wives. I let you rule Israel and Judah, and if that had not been enough, I would have given you much more. Why did you disobey me and do such a horrible thing? You murdered Uriah the Hittite by letting the Ammonites kill him, so you could take his wife”‘” (2 Sam. 12:1 – 9, CEV).

This accords doctrinally with the Law of Moses, which defines adultery as unmarried sexual intercourse by a married woman but not by an unmarried woman:

“People of Israel, if a man is caught having sex with someone else’s wife, you must put them both to death. That way, you will get rid of the evil they have done in Israel.
“If a man is caught in town having sex with an engaged woman who isn’t screaming for help, they both must be put to death. The man is guilty of having sex with a married woman. And the woman is guilty because she didn’t call for help, even though she was inside a town and people were nearby. Take them both to the town gate and stone them to death. You must get rid of the evil they brought into your community.
“If an engaged woman is raped out in the country, only the man will be put to death. Do not punish the woman at all; she has done nothing wrong, and certainly nothing deserving death. This crime is like murder, because the woman was alone out in the country when the man attacked her. She screamed, but there was no one to help her.
“Suppose a woman isn’t engaged to be married, and a man forces her to have sex with him. If he is caught, they will be forced to get married. He must give her father 50 pieces of silver as a bride-price and can never divorce her.
“A man must not marry a woman who was married to his father. This would be a disgrace to his father” (Deut. 22:22 – 30, CEV).

Note that in these instructions, the moment a woman is engaged to be married, she is considered to belong to a specific man as her head and possession of her by any other man is adultery. According to Jesus’ strict interpretation of the Law of God (manifest also in Matt. 5:31 – 32), the threshold for adultery was not when the man physically attempted to take possession of the engaged or married woman through sexual intercourse, but he crossed the line when he saw the woman and concocted the diabolical plan in his heart—or, arguably more rarely, when the woman concocted the plan.

A careful reading of the Law then shows that it is not a sin for a man to look upon and desire a bride in the form of an unwed virgin, even if he already has a wife. This, strictly speaking, is accorded in modern revelation that exonerates “the Law and the prophets” in this thing:

“And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified. But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified” (D&C 132:61 – 63, emphasis added).

So is looking at pornography the same as adultery? Scripturally, the answer is a definitive no. Does this mean that the Lord condones a man having unvirtuous thoughts or wandering, unchaste eyes for virgins and pornographic voyeurisms? Quite the opposite. The man so dispossessed of his God-given light and truth will sooner find himself burning with an insatiable desire alone in darkness than he will ever find himself surrounded by eternal, carnal pleasures as he may assume. Knowing this, Job declared how he sought diligently to avoid filthy thoughts:

“I made a covenant with my eyes not to look with lust at a young woman…. If my heart has been seduced by a woman, or if I have lusted for my neighbor’s wife, then let my wife serve another man; let other men sleep with her. For lust is a shameful sin, a crime that should be punished. It is a fire that burns all the way to hell. It would wipe out everything I own” (Job 31:1, 9 – 12, NLT).

Job knew the Law of Moses as Jesus did and desired to be above the temptation of adultery by keeping his interactions with even eligible women (‘a young woman’) strictly virtuous so that he might not even approach the temptation of a neighbor’s wife, which would be true adultery. Becoming the head of a woman (see 1 Cor. 11:3) is one of the most solemn and weighty responsibilities God has given his sons, and only those who have been faithful over a few things, such as their own thoughts and the partial Law of Moses, will God make rulers over many under the full Law of God:

“I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me” (Jacob 2:28). “I give unto you a commandment, that ye suffer none of these things to enter into your heart; for it is better that ye should deny yourselves of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross, than that ye should be cast into hell” (3 Ne. 12:29 – 30); [instead,] “let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven” (D&C 121:45).

Failing these commandments, or failing to diligently repent, husbands of Israel—like King David—will fall short of the glory and companionship they could have had, as Joseph Smith taught:

“Many would awake in the morning of the resurrection sadly disappointed; for they, by transgression, would have neither wives nor children, for they surely would be taken from them, and given to those who should prove themselves worthy” (Littlefield, Reminiscences).

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