posted on Apr, 23 2021 @ 05:01 PM
“And the Pharisees came to him and tested him by asking ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’” (Matthew ch19 v3)
Of course they were not making this enquiry in good faith, proposing to follow his advice. The scribes and the Pharisees were prone to ask challenging
questions, following a regular strategy. They would know already that something in his teaching or in the conduct of bis disciples was at odds with
their own views. They assumed it would be offensive to other conservative believers, so they did what they could to bring it out into the open.
Presumably, then, Jesus had already been expressing his Father’s judgement on the question of divorce.
“He answered; Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave
his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? What therefore God has joined together, let no man put
The quoted verse (Genesis ch2 v24) clearly demands faithfulness from the husband. As Jesus points out, it rules out the legitimacy of divorce.
It also, incidentally, rules out polygamy, but that was not a current issue.
This moral had been anticipated in the words of Malachi;
“[Why does not the Lord accept our offerings?] Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have
been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant… For I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel, and covering one’s
garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless” (Malachi ch2 vv14-16).
“They said to him; Why, then, did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to put her away?” (v7)
In the first place, that claim is not true. There is only one reference in the laws, and this is what we find when we look at the wording;
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a
bill of divorce and puts it into her hand and sends it her out of his house…” (Deuteronomy ch24 v1).
This sentence beginning “When…” is not commanding the practice of divorce or even permitting it. Moses is simply describing the existing
practice, which developed independently, in order to introduce a regulation designed to mitigate one of the bad effects. He might have forbidden it
altogether if he thought that the people of the time would take any notice. Exactly the same is true of some of the other laws, like the ones which
are supposed to “permit” slavery, but I’ve already discussed that in other threads.
The regulation, which ought to be noted, says that if the divorced wife remarries, and then parts from or loses her second husband, then the first
husband is forbidden to take her back. This would be “an abomination before the Lord” which would “bring guilt upon the land”. Elsewhere,
prostitution is described in similar terms. The apparent principle behind the rule is that a marriage is “dead” once the wife has been with
another man, so a resumption of the relationship would be no better than fornication.
“He said to them; For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives…” (v8).
In other words, the practice of divorce developed out of male chauvinism. Men did it because they found it convenient. But it was nearly impossible
for the divorced wife to survive, economically, except by finding another husband or resorting to prostitution. When a man divorced his wife, the
woman would suffer. That is why Malachi calls it “violence”. So the current practice of divorce was anti-feminist, and the objection raised by
Jesus was pro-feminist. Modern feminists need to grasp that point before they give knee-jerk reactions to this teaching. He was on your side here.
The point about “hardness of heart” is reinforced by the reaction of the disciples;
“His disciples say unto him; If the case of a man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry” (v10, AV)
“The disciples said to him; If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (v10 RSV).
A catholic-minded reader could take the older translation of the last phrase out of context, as confirming the non-Biblical idea that permanent
celibacy is spiritually better than marriage.
But the modern version is a better translation, or at least a less misleading translation, of OU SYMPHEREI. They are indeed making the astoundingly
cynical and self-centred observation that it would be more convenient for a man not to marry at all, if he is going to be bound to his wife
permanently. That thought is the reason why divorce became a custom in the first place.
(One commentator suggests that their words might have been spoken “with a wry smile, which cannot be conveyed on the printed page. I’m not going
to take that seriously.)
It takes the response of Jesus to give a positive spin to the suggestion of voluntary celibacy. Even then, he limits it (as does Paul) to the
possibility that a man might give priority to the needs of the kingdom.
Jesus gives rulings on the subject of divorce, recorded in several gospels;
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her.
And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark ch10 vv11-12).
Luke ch16 v18 has the same two rulings, except that the second one is addressed to the man who marries her. The same variant is found in Matthew ch5
That verse in Matthew ch5 also has a third ruling; “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, makes her an
(The manuscripts of Matthew ch19 v9 offer some or all of these rulings, but the exact form of the verse varies among them. It seems to depend on the
“Makes her an adulteress” looks like a non-sequitur, at first glance, but it isn’t. As I observed earlier, a divorced woman was forced by
necessity to take up with another man or other men, which in itself turns her into an adulteress.
The exception relating to divorce “on the grounds of unchastity” is also logical. If she was an adulteress already, it can’t be said that the
divorce has made her one.
The same exception is part of the Matthew ch19 v9 version of “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery”. Some commentators
claim that this compromises the strictness of his condemnation of divorce. I think not, because it’s perfectly in keeping with the Deuteronomy
principle that the marriage is already “dead” once the first wife has been with another man.
In Deuteronomy, stoning is the normal penalty for adultery. So “found some indecency in her” would have to mean that the man suspects adultery but
cannot prove it. Even Deuteronomy does not anticipate divorce for any lesser cause. However, Matthew’s hint about “divorce for adultery” implies
that the custom of “stoning for adultery” was already beginning to lapse. But that must be a topic for a different occasion.