“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance” (Deut. 24:1-4).
The above text in Deuteronomy is the passage alluded to in both Mark 10:2-9 and Matthew 19:3-12, when the Pharisees question Jesus about divorce. Matthew 19 and Mark 10 probably refer to the same situation due to similar placement in the gospel narrative (i.e. both are placed just prior to the story of the rich young man and Jesus teaching on his coming death). It is likely that Jesus spoke on divorce on numerous occasions as the subject provided the Pharisees an opportunity for them to stump Jesus and catch him misrepresenting the Law of Moses.
In Matthew 19:3, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” If you just gloss over this question you might come away thinking that the Pharisees are asking what reasons are justifiable for a man to divorce his wife. I think the NIV actually represents what the Pharisees were getting at in their question quite well when it translates the question “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” The Pharisees were likely trying to get Jesus to side with one of two competing Jewish schools of thought on the issue of divorce.
These two competing rabbinic schools are known as the Hillel school and the Shammai school, both of which permitted the divorce of a woman by a man on the grounds of (erwat dabar) “some indecency” (Deut 24:1). However, Hillel and Shammai disagreed sharply on what was justly included in “something indecent.”
The Shammai school interpreted “some indecency” as some kind of gross indecency but they did not limit that indecency to adultery as many are inclined to do with the exception clauses in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. The Hillel school was much more liberal in what they included in “some indecency.” D.A. Carson in his commentary on Matthew in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary says, “Hillel extended the meaning beyond sin to all kinds of real or imagined offenses, including an improperly cooked meal.” Thus the Hillel school held that a husband could divorce his wife on the mere grounds of bad beef! The Pharisees likely hoped to corner Jesus by forcing him to pick a side in this long-standing debate so as to embroil him in further controversy. However, as Jesus so often does in the gospels, he doesn’t exactly pick a side but authoritatively and perfectly interprets the law in the face of opposition from the Pharisees.
In other words, I don’t think Jesus picks a side in this debate. In fact, I think Jesus opposes both the Hillel school and Shammai school when he calls remarriage after divorce adultery (Matt 5:32, 19:9; Mark 10:11-12)! I will go into more detail about the implications of Jesus’ teaching on remarriage in another post.
What I want to briefly focus on in this post is why divorce was clearly permitted by Moses as seen in Deut 24:1 and whether Jesus is bringing truly new teaching on divorce and remarriage. In other words, the big question of this post is does Deuteronomy 24 condone remarriage? If Deuteronomy 24 condones remarriage then we must deal with how to understand Jesus’ condemnation of remarriage in Mark 10, Matthew 5:19, and Luke 16:18.
Again, Jesus answers the Pharisees as he so often does by perfectly interpreting the law. Moses begins Deut 24 by saying “When a man takes a wife and marries her . . . and writes her a certificate of divorce” and then goes on to tell what will happen if she takes another husband. Moses is not teaching on the morality of divorce and remarriage in Deut 24, instead he is merely setting forth the proper response to the reality of divorce and remarriage within the community. Jesus points this out to the Pharisees when they question Him in both Mark 10 and Matthew 19. Jesus says “because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8, c.f. Mark 10:5). Thus Jesus rightly points out that Deuteronomy does stamp approval on divorce and remarriage but only gives some direction on how the Israelites ought to respond to the unfortunate reality of divorce and remarriage in their midst. Thus Jesus rightly tells us that Moses had to deal with divorce and remarriage because people had hard hearts. Thus even the presence of divorce in the camp of the Israelites was proof of the presence of indwelling sin the hearts of the Israelites.
Jesus grounds the sanctity of marriage in creation, signifying that from the very beginning, God’s intention for marriage was for the man and woman to become “one flesh” and therefore, “what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt 19:4-6, Mark 10:6-9). The unfortunate reality of dealing with the presence of divorce and remarriage in the camp of the Israelites is a result of the fall. Let us never forget that the presence of divorce and remarriage in our world is not the result of human evolution (i.e. no fault divorce etc.) but rather the result of the fall and the human sinful condition.
Despite the fact that Deuteronomy 24 is legislation responding to the presence of divorce in the camp, I do think that Deuteronomy does speak to the morality of divorce and remarriage in a couple of ways. Deut 24:1-4 is kind of hard to follow but I am going to try and make is simple by just pointing out a couple of things. In Deut 24:3, Moses says that it is an “abomination” for a woman to attempt to return to her first husband after her second husband dies. In fact this situation is legislated against, as Moses says that the woman’s “former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife” (24:3). The reason that Moses calls such remarriage “an abomination” is because the woman is already “defiled,” presumably through remarriage.
Thus I think it is clear that the OT does not support divorce on any and every ground as the Pharisees asked Jesus. In fact I think Deut 24 clearly indicates that divorce and remarriage are not God’s intention for his children as remarriage results in defilement and is an “abomination.” Further, Malachi 2:16 clearly tells us that God “hate[s] divorce.” Divorce and remarriage exist in our world because sin dwells deeply in our hearts. Thus to fight divorce we need a healthy understanding of our own sinfulness and the truth that Christ is the sole solution to our great sin problem.
Well, there is much much more to be said about divorce and remarriage. Although I am limited in what I can do in this blog, I intend to address the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 in a post to follow as well as briefly address some of Paul’s teaching on Romans 7 and 1 Corinthians 7 in another. I realize that these are touchy issues. The unfortunate reality of our time is that most people who read this article have been, in some way, affected by divorce. I hope you know that I am not unsympathetic to that. I merely want to do my best, in these posts, to set the bar on divorce and remarriage where Christ sets it in His Word.