What Did Jesus Really Say About Divorce?

Part 3 in the Series:

Lies I Learned in Church: Divorce

By Don Enevoldsen

IMG_0647Jesus made it a matter of routine to take the side of those victimized by misapplication of the Law. The case of the woman caught in adultery is a classic example. The “teachers of the law,” that is, those who knew the Scriptures better than anyone, and who probably had memorized the entire Torah, dragged her into the presence of Jesus in an effort to ensnare him. “Teacher,” they said, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:3-4).

Their hope was to embarrass Jesus by forcing him to either depart from compassion and condemn the woman in accordance with the Law, thereby alienating him from his followers, or by giving a compassionate response and proving that he had no regard for the Law. It is noteworthy that their motivation did not seem to include actual enforcement of the Law, redemption for transgressors of the Law, or any form of help, growth or improvement of society. Their only purpose was getting rid of Jesus, whom they perceived as a threat to their status and their power.

Of course, Jesus managed to maintain the tenets of the Law and compassionately defend the target of religious abuse at the same time. He pointed out their equal share in guilt. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” he remonstrated (John 8:7). The hypocrisy of their accusations, shown by the fact that they had not brought parallel accusations against the man who had committed adultery with her, became too blatant in that moment for them to ignore.

Unlike the lawyers, Jesus looked past the letter of the Law and sought the intent behind it. Using it to trap him had nothing to do with the intent of the Law. And while the woman might well have been guilty, their treatment of her was more an abuse of power than an attempt to protect innocent parties in a relationship gone wrong.

One does not have to read very long in the Gospel accounts of Jesus to find a pattern to the way he approached Bible interpretation and life in general. Whatever a person finds in scripture and whatever he does in life should lead to life and growth, not to constriction, suffocation and misery. Jesus summed up his approach in a memorable encounter with another teacher of the Law who asked him what the greatest commandment was.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

This principle was at the core of the comments Jesus made about divorce. When this is kept in mind, not only do his words make sense, it becomes obvious they were perfectly in sync with what we saw in Malachi. God hates malicious violence done to other human beings. This fact lies behind everything God has ever said and every law he has ever given, whether the law concerns adultery, murder, keeping the Sabbath or getting divorced.

Jesus spoke about divorce on two occasions—in the Sermon on the Mount and again when confronted with a question by some Pharisees. In the latter case, they brought up a subject that was a heated topic of debate in rabbinical circles during the first century, specifically a disagreement between the prominent Rabbis Shammai and Hillel. The issue in question concerned the Old Testament law about divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1.

“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…”

The debate was over the meaning of the phrase “something indecent.” The House of Shammai said it meant sexual immorality. Rabbi Hillel argued, “He may divorce her even if she has merely spoilt his food,” since coming home to a burnt dinner was worthy in his interpretation to be labeled indecent. A third voice in the discussion was Rabbi Akiba, another first century interpreter of Jewish law, who said a man was justified in divorcing his wife “even if he finds another woman more beautiful than she is” (Talmud Gittin 90a; Sifre on Deuteronomy 269).

This was the backdrop to the question posed to Jesus. “Is it lawful,” they asked, “for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3). They wanted to know if Jesus followed Shammai or Hillel.

As usual, Jesus cut directly to the heart of the matter, though we have difficulty seeing the main point because of the predisposition we have learned toward the subject of divorce, the same predisposition we had to tackle last week in Malachi 2. We have always read it a certain way and no other perspective even occurs to us.

Jesus began his answer with a declaration that God never intended anyone to get divorced.

“‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’” (Matthew 19:4-6)

Since this passage is almost always read as a law dictated from the mouth of Jesus, fit to be solemnly recited at weddings as a warning or admonition, and not as an explanation by Jesus of God’s intent, I want to suggest a paraphrase to emphasize the point Jesus made, a point consistent with his understanding of the Law as “Love God” and “Love each other,” but quite a bit different than what we usually think about when we hear this verse.

God created male and female. What we usually read in the next sentence is a sort of commandment to husbands: “Thou shalt leave your parents and cleave to your wife.” I would suggest, however, that we might see this more as an explanation of the dynamics of marriage, that is, why we seek marriage in the first place.

Human beings are created with a drive that can be best described with terms like “romantic” or “sexual.” We instinctively know that it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18), and we are driven to do something about it. “For this reason” a man will leave his parents and seek marriage and family. He is compelled by his basic nature. This irresistible drive is at the core of songs, stories and myths of every culture in history.

That’s how God intended it to be. “What God has joined together” by wiring human beings to feel they are incomplete and lacking if they are not in romantic companionship implies more than a divine seal of approval at the moment a minister says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” He designed a powerful bond that is not easily or lightly broken. “What God has joined together, let no one separate,” implies more than a command. It is a description of how we are made and why we are so consumed with romance.

The Pharisees didn’t get the point. Or more to the point, they panicked. Jesus had just challenged the worldview in which they could dispose of wives they were tired of in a manner that appeared sanctimonious, righteous and upstanding.

“Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” they gasped (Matthew 19:7). As Malachi had done before him, Jesus pointed to the perversion and obstinacy of sinful human beings as the problem, not whether a woman had lost her looks or couldn’t cook.

“Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’” (Matthew 19:8-9)

At this point, we should look at the Greek words used in these verses. Not surprisingly, they parallel the Hebrew words used in Malachi. The word for official divorce is apostasion, and like its Hebrew counterpart, kerytut, it appears joined with the word for a document. It always is written as “certificate of divorce.”

Apostasion is used only once in these verses. Everywhere else that we see “divorce” the word is apoluo, which means exactly the same as the Hebrew word shalach, that is, “send away.” (If you missed the definitions of these words from last week, I would advise you to read through that post, “God Hates Violence, Not Divorce”.) Like shalach, apoluo refers not so much to the legal divorce as to the sending away associated with divorce. It also did not require a legal divorce certificate for a husband to “send away” or kick his wife out of the house and onto the street.

Everything we discussed in regard to divorce and separation in Malachi applies to this New Testament passage. Because men could have more than one wife, they could send away their first wife, putting her on the street and circumventing the requirement that she have her dowry returned to her, and they could still remarry. The wife, on the other hand, could not force him to issue a divorce certificate, could not get her dowry returned, and could not remarry until she was legally divorced.

The culture had changed a little. It was less likely that a man in first century Jerusalem would have more than one wife than a man in Malachi’s day. It was still legal, but didn’t happen often. What was the same was the malevolence associated with the way many husbands treated their wives. Jesus pointedly associated divorce with hardness of heart. “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hearts were hard.”

The Greek word is sklerokardia, which means obstinacy and perverseness. Jesus essentially said that anyone who “sends away” his wife out of obstinacy and perverseness is guilty of unfaithfulness. The law of divorce was not so much a concession to human imperfection. It was a means of protection for women against abusive husbands.

The Pharisees wanted Jesus to commit to either Shammai or Hillel, but he took the discussion several layers deeper than they wanted. He exposed their perverseness behind the debate. He came close to agreeing with Shammai that divorce should not be for just any reason at all, but his focus was on the violence done to spouses, not on the legal quibbling over the wording of the Law.

The same tone lies behind the other passage in which Jesus discussed divorce. It was part of the Sermon on the Mount in which his point was that the attitude mattered more than the action. If you are angry without cause, that is as bad as murder (Matthew 5:21-26). If you entertain lust, that attitude is as destructive as the physical act of adultery (Matthew 5:27-30). And if you set out to do harm to your spouse, then divorce is equivalent to adultery.

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

Again, the words used mirror the declaration in Malachi. Anyone who “sends away” his wife, that is, anyone who separates from his wife, must give her a certificate of divorce. Otherwise, if she marries someone else, she is committing adultery because she has not been legally divorced from her first husband. Not by mistake, Jesus identified her as a “victim” of adultery, not a perpetrator of unfaithfulness.

When the context and the language is examined, we find that Jesus, like his Father, hated violence done to a spouse far more than he hated divorce. And as was always the case, he spoke up for those who were the targets of vindictiveness and abuse.

Compare that attitude with the way divorce is approached in evangelical churches today. “God hates divorce” is the overriding rule. As a result, women are encouraged to submit to whatever they must in order to keep the marriage together. A husband might be physically abusive to her, or emotionally abusive, but we counsel her that God hates divorce, and there is no way out. Unfortunately, such advice only validates the abusive behavior. Once he knows he will never be held accountable for his actions and will never have to worry about losing his wife, there is no reason to change his behavior. The letter of the Law maintains a situation diametrically opposed to the two basic rules of Jesus for righteousness: Love God and love each other.

I hope you see a pattern developing here. Jesus promoted life. His application and interpretation of scripture always rested on this understanding. And when those who were allowed no voice in society were oppressed—like the woman accused of adultery—he intervened on their behalf. For Jesus, loving God and loving others was not a description of a warm, fuzzy feeling. It was the compelling drive to value the lives of others through meaningful action.

Next week, we’ll look at the other places in the New Testament where divorce is mentioned. Paul had a few words on the subject as well.

Next, part four: What Did Paul Really Say About Divorce?

Go to the beginning of the series, Lies I Learned in Church: Divorce: Does God Hate Divorce?

Do you have an additional thought on this subject? Please join the discussion and share your insights.


What Did Jesus Really Say About Divorce?

2 thoughts on “What Did Jesus Really Say About Divorce?

  • April 12, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    Some of that sounds familiar to me. Very interesting. So you’re saying that the command “love your neighbor as yourself” applies even to husband and wife at all times and in all situations?

    • April 12, 2015 at 11:25 pm

      I have heard that somewhere before, Jerry. I know it’s in the Bible, but seems like I read something like that in a book by Jerry Brown, if I recall correctly.


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