Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Part 4 – The Teaching of Jesus

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

The central message of Jesus on divorce is this: “don’t do it.” He commands his followers not to separate what God has joined together. However, Jesus didn’t stop there; he said much more on the topic, and on marriage in general. Here is a summary, which I will elaborate on in this post:

  1. The Law teaches monogamy
  2. Marriage should be lifelong
  3. Divorce is not mandatory
  4. Divorce is allowed in some cases
  5. Marriage is not mandatory
  6. Divorce for “any cause” is invalid

All (or most) of the above six points may sound obvious and uncontroversial to our ears; on the contrary, they were anything but that in the first century. In every item but #4, Jesus was disagreeing with the conventional contemporary understanding, a fact which will be important as we proceed.

1. The Law teaches monogamy

In Mark 10.2, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” On the surface, this appears to be an odd (and even irrelevant) question, because this exact question was not debated by anyone in the first century: the only answer was Yes. (See the various sources already cited in the previous posts. Again, the modern reader may disagree with the conclusion reached by the ancient interpreters, but history shows us that these ancient interpreters universally agreed that there were occasions when it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife and marry another. The only debates were which occasions were lawful.)

The question does make sense, given the background information above, if we add the phrase “for any cause,” which is precisely what is done in the parallel passage in Matthew 19.3. The addition of this phrase helps us understand that the Pharisees were wanting to see where Jesus came down in the dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel.

Jesus responded by using the question to teach on the proper view of marriage. He first taught that marriage is between one man and one woman. Polygamy was still legal in Judaism at this time; it was uncommon but only officially forbidden in the 11th century, and not all Jews have accepted this ruling! (source /original). However, Jesus taught that all his contemporaries were wrong and polygamy was, in fact, a violation of the law. From this interaction we can see that Jesus is not afraid of disagreeing with traditional views of the law; when he saw that his contemporaries were misinterpreting or misunderstanding the law, he corrected them firmly and without hesitation.

2. Marriage should be lifelong

Jesus then stated that marriage should be lifelong; God’s desire is that human beings should not separate what he has joined together. The Pharisees responded in surprise to this statement; the prevailing interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 was that divorce was an expected response to a break of the marriage covenant, as we’ll see in the next point.

3. Divorce is not mandatory

The expectation at the time was that a man was obliged to divorce his wife if she were an adulteress (source/original). Jesus’ statement that humans should not separate what God has joined therefore came as a surprise, as we can see from the Pharisees’ question in Matthew 19.7: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate?” to which Jesus replied, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” Note the words command and allow; the Pharisees are implying that Moses commands a man to divorce his wife, and Jesus counters that Moses only allows it but doesn’t command it. The text of Deuteronomy 24.1 is ambiguous; in the ESV it’s phrased as a series of hypothetical statements. The KJV gets closer to the debate between the Pharisees and Jesus when it says, “then let him write her a bill of divorcement.” Even here we can see that the wording is vague, but Jesus gives us the correct interpretation: divorce is not required, but it is allowed. Again, Jesus demonstrates that he is quite willing to disagree with the traditional or popular interpretation.

So far, we’ve seen that Jesus disagreed with the conventional interpretation on polygamy, the duration of marriage, and the command to divorce. He is not afraid to tackle controversial issues and point out where his opponents were wrong.

4. Divorce is allowed in some cases

Up to this point, I bet everyone reading this post is in agreement. This next point, though, won’t be so easy.

While Jesus does not require divorce, he does acknowledge that divorce is allowed: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (Matthew 19.8). He also points out that this is not what God intended. Because this is a controversial interpretation, I will spend some extra time here defending it.

The term “hardness of heart” as used in both the Old and New Testaments suggests that it means “stubbornness” as opposed to “sinfulness” (Pharaoh in Exodus 4.21 and other passages is the classic example). That helps us understand the term, but it’s still not plain who is being stubborn and why. Is the one initiating the divorce being stubborn? Is the one who broke the marriage covenant being stubborn? Both? Something else?

The Old Testament passage which sheds light on this, and fits the context well, is found in Jeremiah chapters 3 and 4 (for a full treatment, see source). There are three reasons why I’m connecting Jeremiah to this debate:

  • Jeremiah is discussing both divorce and hardness of heart, the very topics Jesus is addressing
  • Jeremiah is wrestling with the idea that God has divorced Israel
  • Jeremiah alludes to the very passage under debate by Jesus and the Pharisees (Deuteronomy 24.1)

Here’s how Jeremiah begins his treatment of the subject:

If a man divorces his wife
and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife,
will he return to her?
Would not that land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers;
and would you return to me?
declares the LORD.

Jeremiah 3.1

We can see in verse 1 that Jeremiah is contemplating the idea that God has divorced Judah. In verse 3, Jeremiah notes Judah’s stubbornness when he says of her, “You have the forehead of a whore” (compare Ezekiel 3.7: “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart”).

Jeremiah refers to Judah’s hard heart when he begs Judah to return to the Lord:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD;
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah 4.4

Lastly, Jeremiah prophesies a future when Judah will repent and return: “they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart” (Jeremiah 3.17).

Jeremiah is here discussing divorce and stubbornness in the same context, just as Jesus is doing, and he’s addressing the same law Jesus is addressing. This line of reasoning is not conclusive; that is, Jesus does not directly quote Jeremiah, so he could be thinking of some other passage, but what other passage is there? These passages in Jeremiah 3 and 4, spoken in the context of God divorcing Israel and threatening to divorce Judah because of their stubborn refusal to honor the marriage covenant, lend credence to the conclusion that Jesus did have this passage in mind and therefore does allow for divorce in the case of a stubborn and unrepentant spouse who will not turn from his or her continued violation of the marriage covenant.

Before moving on to the next teaching of Jesus, I want to point out that God did, in fact, divorce Israel. The reason I bring this up is that I’ve heard Bible teachers claim that God didn’t divorce Israel, but continued to remain faithful. They use the example of Hosea as one who didn’t divorce his faithless wife, and make the claim that God is like that — and therefore, we must be that way also. In response, I’ve already pointed out that Jesus, in defiance of tradition, made the claim that divorce is not mandatory in the case of adultery; I fully agree, and I’ve encouraged those with unfaithful spouses to forgive and reconcile. However, it’s undeniable that God did divorce Israel; Jeremiah says as much:

She [Judah] saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.

Jeremiah 3.8

While Hosea never states that God has divorced Israel, Jeremiah makes it clear.

5. Marriage is not mandatory

There are two more teachings of Jesus to consider. The next one is that marriage is not mandatory, which by itself has no direct bearing on the subject of divorce and remarriage, but (as we shall see) it is relevant nonetheless.
Jesus taught, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19.12). This teaching may not seem controversial to us, but to a first century Jew the command to “go forth and multiply” was considered to be one of the commands given by God in the Law (source/original). It was the religious duty for every man to marry and have children; the scribes even debated just how many children, and of which gender, one should have in order to satisfy this command. It’s not going too far to say that this teaching of Jesus — that it was permissible not to marry and therefore not to have children — was shocking to his hearers! No wonder Jesus told his disciples, “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (also in verse 12).

The relevance of this teaching to our theme is this: once again, Jesus was not afraid to challenge conventional views on a subject.

6. Divorce for “any cause” is invalid

Jesus taught, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19.9). This is Jesus’ interpretation of Deuteronomy 24.1-4, in answer to the Pharisees; Jesus comes down (on the side of the school of Shammai) that there is no hidden “any cause” ground for divorce in this command. This statement alone was not controversial; after all, this topic was under debate and the Pharisees were curious as to where Jesus stood. However, the consequence of his interpretation was startling. Jesus, in contrast to both the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel, taught that anyone who obtained an “any cause” divorce was not validly divorced at all, so any subsequent marriage was adultery. As stated above, both schools accepted the rulings of the other; even if a Shammai rabbi thought the Hillel rabbi was wrong for granting a divorce, he still considered the divorce to be valid.

Jesus disagreed, and called everyone who was granted this type of divorce and subsequently remarried (and there were no doubt many persons fitting this description) an adulterer, which of course also made any children of that remarriage illegitimate. This had significant consequences: Jesus is saying the second marriage is not recognized by God because the divorce was not recognized by God. The couple was in persistent sin — not a one-time sin as we often see taught today. Because this second marriage was not a valid marriage, the children of that relationship were illegitimate. An illegitimate child carried a significant stigma under the Old Testament law: that child may not participate in the temple worship, nor can that child’s descendants for ten generations (Deuteronomy 23.2).

Once again Jesus is not afraid to challenge the status quo, to make highly controversial claims, and to call out sin when he sees it.

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