Here is part 4 of the divorce series where we finally get to look at the words of Jesus. I’ve explained and attempted to support the assumptions I’m bringing to this passage elsewhere in the series: the preface, part 1, part 2 and part 3. In sum, this is what those posts attempt to demonstrate:
- Deuteronomy 24:1 contains God’s instructions for getting a divorce, and if God has a way, his way is good, and holy, and just, which means divorce–done God’s way–can be good, holy, and just.
- A biblically legal divorce by definition allows for remarriage without committing adultery. Remarriage is not defiling except under the circumstance described in Deuteronomy 24:2-4.
- “Putting away” is not a synonym for “divorce” in Jewish culture. To be divorced means to be torah-legally free to remarry. To be “put away” means to be married to a spouse who has sent his wife away or a spouse who has departed from the house. The remaining spouse is described as an agunah, a person bound or chained to the marriage though the spouse is gone.
So, in short, that’s the framework that helps me make sense of the Matthew 19 passage, but I encourage you to look at the earlier posts to consider why I’m asserting those things and then search it out on your own to see if these things be true.
Moving on to Matt 19:3, we read,
The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
This question regards putting away, not divorce. I won’t rehash the Hillel/Shammai controversy that contextualizes the question further. You can find lots on that elsewhere if you’re interested. The Pharisees assume putting away or sending away a spouse is fine. They are asking, essentially, where Jesus draws the line: can a wife be sent away for any reason, like for burning dinner, or not? Keep in mind, they don’t care what Jesus thinks; they just want to try to make him look dumb or trip him with legal details to expose him as a fraud.
Continuing, in Matt 19:4-6
And he [Jesus] answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made [them] at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
First, don’t miss “have ye not read,” which is a serious insult launched at these guys who have devoted their lives to reading, studying, and memorizing the torah and everything the sages have said about the torah. Jesus is addressing them as if they lack the most basic familiarity with Genesis. He’s publicly humiliating them.
But looking at what he says at the end, we see a rare thing happen here: Jesus actually does directly answer their question. They ask if a man can send a woman away for any reason, and Jesus replies (see the final quoted line) that man cannot separate the one-flesh union created by God through marriage.
In other words–let’s not rashly take this beyond what it means just because it’s so beautiful and so often quoted at weddings—Jesus says marriages are a work of God. You can’t walk away (or send someone away) and think you’ve undone what God has done. Mere mortals do not have the power to undo what God did. Zoom in and you’ll notice it does not say that God cannot take apart what he joined. Zoom in even more and you’ll see the word for “asunder” is chorizo, one of the two words used for putting away (the other being apolyo), not apostasion, the word for legal divorce.
I know we’ve all read it as though nothing could part two people, but really, the text does not make that claim. Jesus says man alone cannot part two married people. He is castigating the practice of “putting away” and answering “no” to their original question.
The exchange continues with a bait and switch approach in verse 7:
They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
So they first asked him about this extra-biblical “putting away,” men abandoning their wives. Jesus counters by insulting their knowledge of scripture and giving them an elementary impromptu bible study. In response, they come back at him with something biblical, probably to save face: the writing of the divorcement coupled with putting away, which is a legal divorce in Deuteronomy. (No, post-marital friendships with benefits are not legal in the torah.) The Pharisees here want to do what just about every Jew and Christian still tries to do today: pit Jesus against Moses. Let’s see how Jesus handles it in verse 8:
He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
Jesus says nothing about divorce; he skips that entirely and goes to the problem of putting away. The word of God predates Moses even though parts of it were written down by Moses, so don’t be misled that “from the beginning” means “before the torah,” because the torah exists outside of time. So when and where did Moses suffer people to put away their wives? We have no record of it—other than Pharisees’ testimony that Moses allowed it and Jesus’ confirmation that yes, in fact, Moses did allow it because people are callous and cruel, and it must have seemed to him like the lesser of two evils.
After Sinai, Moses spent his life settling disputes and making rulings. Every word he spoke is not recorded in the Torah. I think it’s a cool endorsement of the validity of the oral tradition that the Pharisees got this one right. On one hand, we can’t discount everything the sages have been handed down from the past sages just because it isn’t in the Torah; on the other hand, you don’t have to turn the traditions of men into the doctrines of God.
Just because Teacher So-and-So did something doesn’t mean God did it or said it. This is a point Pharisees got wrong, and this is the distinction I believe Jesus is making here. It’s consistent with the text in terms of the specific issue of divorce and putting away, and it’s consistent with Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees when he confronts them: they do away with the law of God and follow the teachings of their human teachers instead. You could say I’m making an argument from silence because Moses’ ruling on putting away is not in the torah–only God’s rulings on marriage and divorce are in the torah–but I don’t think it is an argument from silence because Jesus himself says that Moses did allow this practice.
But let’s continue with Jesus’ words in verse 9:
And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except [it be] for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
Here Jesus counters their “put away his wife for every cause” idea with a hardball return to the torah: in essence he is saying that marriages are binding, which means adultery laws apply–even to the men. It is not shocking that Jesus affirms that indeed, married women, women who do not have a get, women who are legally married are committing adultery if they marry another man without ending the first binding marriage. What is shocking about this is its counter-cultural focus on the men being considered adulterers.
Women were always considered adulterers if they were put away (meaning not divorced) and they remarried. Their children were considered illegitimate. It is worse to be an agunah as a woman than a man.
Men, on the other hand, were allowed to remarry even though they had sent a wife away without granting her a divorce. Culturally, they were not considered adulterers, and their children were legitimate.
Jesus is making a ruling here: married men cannot send away one spouse and then marry another; it’s adultery. And they can’t swap wives, can’t marry a woman who is not divorced who another man put out of his house: it’s adultery. They all thought, even the disciples as you’ll see, that the men could do both those things without being guilty of adultery.
I can’t speak to the “except for fornication” issue right now other than to point out that this is the rule Joseph, Mary’s husband, was contemplating following when he found out Mary was with child while they were betrothed. He was going to put her away privately, and it would have been within the scope of this exception Jesus was talking about, so the exception predates this scene–another point to explore another time.
Watch the disciples’ jaws drop in verse 10:
His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with [his] wife, it is not good to marry.
Notice, “the case of the man” is what throws them. The idea that men could walk away from their wives was taken for granted. Where someone would draw the line was up for debate, but no one (else) was calling the men adulterers for doing it!
To finish the passage, verses 11-12 say,
But he said unto them, All [men] cannot receive this saying, save [they] to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from [their] mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive [it], let him receive [it].
To me, this reads like Jesus throwing up his hands and asking who is going to walk in this? Who is going to take this to heart? Not many, and besides, marrying is not for everyone (another counter-cultural assertion).
Upon review, the only ones who bring up the concept of a legal divorce in Matthew 19 are the Pharisees in response to Jesus’ criticism of their lack of torah knowledge. Jesus never speaks to the issue of divorce in this passage. He talks about abandonment and adulterous remarriage under those conditions. And he says, as Paul confirms in I Cor 7, that we should not be departing from (abandoning) our spouses!
Elsewhere in the Gospels
Before some careful reader cites Matt 5:32 as evidence that I’ve made this all up because the verse describes a woman put away and then calls her divorced, let me make this note about the original. The words translated as “put away” and “divorced” are the same word, so there is a mistranslation here. Divorce and put away are not synonyms. So to read it consistently, you’d have to say:
whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced put away committeth adultery.
The distinction between divorcement (legal) and putting away (but still legally married) is maintained in the Greek in comparable gospel accounts. Do check it out if you have time and let me know if you find any discrepancies.
The God (Jesus)-Paul Consensus
Having heard Jesus argue that to the Pharisees and having heard Paul tell us Jesus said it, it is really not news to read it again here: Jesus is against the practice of abandoning spouses, and he’s verifying that putting away is not a substitute for a legal divorce. Marrying a person who is already married but “put away” (not legally divorced) is adultery.
General thoughts on the whole thing
Am I invested in this interpretation? Yes and no. No, because I’m not so invested as to not be interested in other views and in being corrected. Yes, because there are some things that fit better when the cultural distinction between putting away and divorce comes into view.
- For one, it let’s Jesus be the Son of God, which he is. Why would Jesus contradict the law given to Moses? He wouldn’t. God not only gave permission to divorce, but he also explains different scenarios and tells how to go about divorcing and how to handle remarriage when you do (Deut 24).
- It’s fearfully and wonderfully consistent between the torah, the prophets, the gospels, and the letters. What Jesus commands you not to do (as Paul recited in 1 Cor 7) is depart, leave without granting a divorce. And that’s exactly what he already said in Malachi, and it is also what he said in Deuteronomy when he said to give the woman a writing of divorcement.
Practical note on divorce
Before I go, one last thing: just because there is a way to divorce according to the torah, that doesn’t mean you should do it or encourage others to do it. You can get through terrible unhappiness, disappointment, and discord in your marriage. But if divorce happens, you are not wicked or backslidden or falling away from God.
I haven’t talked about abuse in the torah, but it is in there, and if you are being threatened or abused, get out now. God goes beyond granting permission to giving you a direct order to go: you are his, and you are not allowed to be a passive participant in your own abuse. You don’t have the right to stay–even if you want to. Go.
Fighting the mystery of iniquity,