Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Part 7 – Questions & Answers

Answers to common questions brought up as a response to my series on divorce and remarriage. It’s best to start with Part 1 here.

Questions addressed here:

  • Didn’t Jesus do away with the command of Moses which allowed divorce? If so, then why is it important what the Old Testament says?
  • What does “sexual immorality” mean in Matthew 19.9?
Didn’t Jesus do away with the command of Moses which allowed divorce? If so, then why is it important what the Old Testament says?

The claim that Jesus overturned the law of Moses is often asserted because of his statement in Matthew 19.8: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” As John Piper wrote, “Jesus did in fact reject, for his disciples, what Moses commanded” (source/original).

The New Testament does state that the Law is provisional (Galatians 3.19, 24). We know from this that the Law is not expected to be in place forever. Should we conclude, then, that Jesus was overturning laws one at a time during his earthly ministry?

Some might say that Jesus does just this, as demonstrated in the sermon on the mount. There Jesus uses the phrase, “You’ve heard it said…,” recites a law, and then ups the ante by teaching that it’s not enough to follow the letter of the law if our hearts are rebellious. This approach, however, ignores much of the Old Testament: consider that Jesus is not saying anything which is not already in the Law and the Prophets. For example, Jesus is not giving us new doctrine when he claims that God looks at our heart and not just our actions (Jeremiah 7.4 is one example of many.) He is often alluding to or repurposing what he has read in the Old Testament.

It’s worth noting that the conclusion in Piper’s quote above is very specific: in it, Piper claims that Jesus rejects “for his disciples” the command of Moses. The text, however, disagrees. Jesus is not limiting his statement to the disciples; he’s talking to the Pharisees. In verse 9, Jesus says, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Note that “you” in this sentence refers to the Pharisees, and by extension to all of Israel — not to his disciples alone. If Jesus is, in fact, rejecting this law, he’s doing it for everyone, not just his disciples. We can’t soften the claim that Jesus was overturning the law by saying he was doing so only for his disciples.

But did Jesus actually reject this law and apply that rejection to every Jew? Did he reduce the number of laws given by Moses? Jesus denies that this is his purpose in Matthew 5.17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” These interpreters appear to want to append to Jesus’ statement, “Except for that one law about divorce. Yeah, I’m abolishing that one.”

What does “sexual immorality” mean in Matthew 19.9?

The Greek word translated “sexual immorality” occurs 25 times in the New Testament. These passages don’t define exactly what is considered sexual immorality, but the context indicates that it is some sort of illicit sexual behavior, including but not limited to sex outside of marriage, forbidden sexual relationships, temple prostitution, and the like (source, pp.5-6). The term is not exactly synonymous with adultery; in some passages it is used alongside adultery, and in other passages it stands alone. It appears to be a broad term intending to cover a wide variety of inappropriate sexual activity, similar to what we would consider to be included in the English phrase.

There are attempts to define the word very narrowly. Some claim that in Matthew 19.9 it refers only to incest (source). This interpretation fails to understand the Old Testament laws concerning marriage, and causes Jesus to misunderstand them as well. Consider that the laws concerning incest in Leviticus 18 specifically state that that there are certain sexual relationships which are unlawful. This doesn’t mean that if a man marries his brother’s wife, he should divorce. On the contrary, the marriage is not lawful to begin with, so no divorce is necessary.

A prime example is in the case of Herod, who married his brother Phillip’s wife. John the Baptist made this claim to Herod: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6.18). Note that John did not claim that Herod should divorce her; instead, he said it was not lawful, no doubt referring to Leviticus 18.16: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife.” When a couple realizes their marriage is unlawful, they stop living as a couple. They don’t have to divorce — because there was never any lawful marriage. To have Jesus claim that a man should divorce his wife when there was no lawful marriage makes no sense, and neither does having Jesus claim that a subsequent marriage is adultery. There is no adultery after an incestuous “marriage,” because there was no lawful marriage to begin with. Attempts to limit “sexual immorality” to incest just doesn’t hold up.

Others claim that this term for “sexual immorality” refers only to sexual activity during the betrothal period (source, p.10). This attempt also fails to do justice to this word. The New Testament never limits the term to this one type of activity, so to do so in the case of Matthew 19.9 is an ad hoc interpretation. It’s much more likely that the term is an attempt by the gospel writer to translate the phrase “a matter of indecency” in Deuteronomy 24.1, the very passage under discussion in Matthew 19 where this Greek word is used. The Hebrew word is used in much the same way in the Old Testament as the Greek word is used in the New Testament, covering a variety of actions, including incest, inappropriate sexual activity, disgraceful or shameful behavior, etc. Just like its Greek counterpart, the Hebrew word is a broad term meant to cover a wide variety of inappropriate activity.

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