Divorce: Matthew 5:31-32

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 5:31-32 (NRSV)

As we noted in the previous section on covetousness, the practice of temporary marriage was something present in many ancient cultures, and ancient Judaism was no exception.

In two places in the Talmud, a Rabbi Rav and Rabbi Rav Nahman are recorded as soliciting short term marriages with single Jewish women in towns as they traveled, prompting a flurry of later explanations for how two such holy men could conduct themselves in this way.

This was not unique to Judaism by any stretch.  The practice has a tumultuous history in Persia and Babylon before that.  We even see it in ancient Egypt, China, and among the Celts.  In Judaism, we find the practice found sanctuary due to a particularly odd section of case law in the Torah:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (NRSV)

Notice a couple of things about this.  First of all, it is legal to divorce a woman if the man “finds something objectionable about her.”  Second, even if the woman’s second husband dies, she cannot remarry the first man because “she has been defiled” and this would be “abhorrent to the Lord.”

Interesting side note, we hear a lot about how the Old Testament refers to homosexuality as an abomination, but you don’t hear a lot from the Remarrying Your First Husband folks, which, by the way, is 100% legal in the United States and has been for a long time.

But it is this law that permitted a very freewheeling view of marriage and divorce that, if someone were so inclined, a “holy” man could engage in short marriages for sexual gratification and/or divorce anytime something happened he didn’t like.  In the first century, this had enormous effects in that woman’s life, because not only was her family not supporting her, the odds of her getting remarried were very slim.  She was “defiled.”

By the time we get to Jesus’ day, two Jewish schools of thought had risen up around divorce – the House of Shammai which held divorce could only happen because of serious offenses, such as adultery, and the House of Hillel which held that a man could divorce his wife for just about anything.  Burning meat was cited as a specific example.

This is not just some random topic thrown into the Sermon on the Mount.  It flows right out of the same consideration given in the previous section when talking about looking at a woman for the purposes of craving and taking her, and this is a very live issue in Jesus’ day, which is why a group of Pharisees tries to trap Jesus with it in Matthew 19.

Jesus, taking the position of the House of Shammai, informs the crowd that anyone who engages in this practice is committing adultery, even if it is technically legal by the written code, and therefore subject to judgement, just like the people in the previous section.  Casting away your wife for the purposes of your own gratification puts you squarely in the Oppressor category and outside the Faithful People of God / New Israel / New Creation category.

Even for his time, we have to recognize that Jesus is not laying down a new case law with stricter terms.  In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, Paul wrestles through the thorny issues of what can happen when someone becomes a believer, but their spouse does not.  Well, if Jesus were laying down a new, universal case law, that would be completely unnecessary.  All questions about divorce would come down to this:

Has your spouse committed adultery?
YES: It’s ok to divorce them.
NO: It’s not ok to divorce them.

In fact, Paul’s instructions would be in conflict with Jesus’ new case law, and his note about how the Lord did not speak to this situation would be wholly inappropriate.

However, Paul is aware that Jesus is not laying out a universal case that covers every possible situation, but is rather addressing a very live issue in the community of believers that had very real consequences for all participants – spiritual, political, and economic.

We ought not, then, assume that Jesus’ teaching has nothing that reaches outside of its specific historical context, as though divorce for trivial reasons and/or to provide “lawful” sexual gratification with many women is perfectly fine, now.

No, Jesus hearkens back to marriage being a leaving of an old way of living with old bonds to form a new bond – a bond so tight it can be described as being a new family, becoming one flesh.  The prophets refer to God being faithful to his marriage to Israel despite Israel’s serial adultery.  Paul will describe marriage as an embodiment of the mystery of the mystic union between Jesus and his followers.  While we understand that marriage is not literally God’s bond with his people and neither of the two participants are Jesus, the marriage bond is obviously meant to be something serious that surpasses our momentary fluctuations.

God chastised men in Israel for their divorces through the prophet Malachi, saying that they had exposed to danger the women they were supposed to protect (not entirely unlike our situation in this passage).  And of course, John’s apocalyptic vision of the consummated new creation is a marriage.

So, on the one hand, we know from Paul that these images and grounds and whatnot are not absolutes that can cover every bit of the messiness that is human relationships.  Even Jesus in his most strident allows divorce on the grounds of adultery.  To borrow Jesus’ thoughts on the Sabbath, marriage was made for man, not man for marriage.

But on the other hand, we also see the covenant bond holding things together, described in terms that are not just transcendent of the human relationship, but also carries from age to age to age.  It is only against the context of a serious, consuming bond that Paul can advise people not to marry if they can help it.  Jesus talks about people who have become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” with regard to marriage.  If you don’t intend to keep your bond, then it’s better to avoid marriage altogether, and Paul and Jesus are in total agreement on that point.  Obviously neither of them thinks a marriage should never be dissolved, but it is a serious dynamic that is present in God’s people long before Jesus and long after the crisis they will face in the first century.

Consider This

  1. Obviously divorce is emotionally damaging.  Are there other damaging effects that should give someone pause before divorcing in the kingdom of God?
  2. Have we as a church traded one club for another, using Jesus’ teaching here on divorce to force marriages to continue despite being profoundly unhealthy for one or both members?
  3. Have we as a church idolized marriage?  Do we do a good enough job of warning people beforehand, encouraging them to singleness, or do we try to get everyone married that we can?