In MDR4 we discussed the core issue Pharisees and Jesus discussed, – Hillel’s teaching about ‘any cause’-divorce. Since we now already are in Mat. 19, I really want to take some of the points and teaching Jesus do here, about marriage in their discussion.
It may be that Jesus tried to ignore the Pharisees question, and focuses on what is more important, namely the actual marriage. Whatever, He brings Pharisees question to a much wider perspective, and in that way show them God’s meaning of the marriage itself, but also point out their misinterpretation of the law(s). As in the previous posts, this will help us to understand more what lies behind this discussion in Mat. 19:1-12, and how we look at divorce in the Christian society.
When the ‘Hillel-ist’ Pharisees (who follows Hillel teaching) asked Jesus if He accepts ‘any cause’-divorce; “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” Jesus answers:
“Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” (Mat. 19:4-6 NASB)
One may ask why Jesus bring the Pharisees all the way back to Gen. 2:24. Not only did the Pharisees interpret Deut. 24:1-4 to support their practice of ‘any cause’-divorce, as we saw in previous posts, but they was also engaged in polygamy, which can be traced all the way back to Abraham’s time.
It was not unusual among the Jews to be engage in polygamy in the first century, so when Jesus now pointed out for the Pharisees that God limited marriage to only one wife (and one man), it was probably a slap in their face. In fact, Israel was the only area in the entire Roman Empire where Romans allowed this practice, for namely, the Romans did not allowed polygamy.
Jesus focusing on being married to one wife/husband and become one with him/her. Thus, he tells them that monogamy is God’s ideal from the beginning. When God presented both, “man and woman” as singular, it also tells them that in the perfect Eden, marriage involved just two people. For us it may seem insignificant He stressed this, when we are so used to live in a monogamy society and never experienced anything else, but for the 1st century Jews who viewed polygamy as accepted and used, this was controversial.
Jesus continues to announce; breaking up a marriage is serious, because He (God) has heard their matrimonial promise and has joined them with the blessing; “Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate.” (Mat. 19:6 (b)). The phrase, “let no man separate” does not mean that it is totally impossible to be separateed (divorced), even in the eyes of God (More explanation in end of ESG3).
Presumably, this leads Pharisees back to their own questions, but they are now asking the question a bit differently in the light of the new information they have acquired. It was kind a ‘why’ this if the other is not correct either. Why did Moses command that we should when God says we should not?
“Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Mat. 19:7 NASB)
They simply ask Jesus about why Moses commanded this. Also here did Jesus come with a surprising answer to them. He says that divorce is not mandatory, and points again to the marriage origin.
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” (Mat. 19:8 NASB)
According to Jewish law led sexual immorality to divorce, and they interpreted Deut. 24:1 to mean that Moses commanded that they should divorce their wife(s) by sexual immorality. In that way it became a mandatory action. Their interpretation was also supported by the fact that sexual immorality was mortal sin, and stoning to death where the outcome. In other words; marriage ended there by sexual infidelity.
The death penalty (stoning) for adultery was not always carried out or was not always applied throughout the history. This is God’s realistic and loving way to deal with the consequences of human sinfulness: the victim of infidelity should have the choice to end the marriage or not.
Since polygamy1 was accepted and practiced among the Jews in the first century, husbands couldn’t be accused of sexual immorality. Thus, it happened that women rarely was able to issue a certificate of divorce. They had ability to do it, but I’ll leave it this time.
God will certainly not that we divorce if we can avoid it, rather forgive each other. But it says nowhere that we should forgive whatever, but as Jesus says in Luke. 17:4, that we should forgive the repentant party.
3 “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent, ’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4 NASB)
In all of us it is a limit to how many times we should forgive, and it seams that all depends on if there is a repentant party or not. It is often by others ‘hard hearts’ (not repentant) that we start to let go of forgiveness. It’s where God also let go of forgiveness too.
The ‘hard hearted’ is precisely what Jesus explains to the Pharisees here, and they understood it very well what Jesus was talking about. This was not a difficult question for the one who knows the Scripture into the heart, and the word ‘hard hearts’, which means stubbornness, Jesus retrieves from Jer. 4:4. To se this more clearly, I quote Septuagint translation2 in English below to show where the word ‘hard hearts’ comes from.
“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and circumcise your hard-heartedness” (Jer. 4:4 Septuagint.)
Just to bring a bit more meat on the bone of what Jeremiah says here: Israel is the wife (Jer. 2: 2). She committed adultery with other gods (Jer. 2: 20-26), so God was forced to divorce her (Jer. 3: 1-8). Judah was warned that she goes the same way as Israel (Jer. 3: 10-14) and that she was ‘hard-hearted’ (stubborn) in their infidelity. In other words, she (Judah) did not regretted her infidelity. (Jer. 4: 3-4).
In this story, is it that Judah was separated from God, and we know what happened to Israel, she was divorced. I know there are many who ask if God is divorced, and the answer is, yes. We will return to this.
I may come back to the theme of God’s divorce with Israel, and the separation of Judah, as it contains the glorious gospel. Yet, it links seriously also to the question of divorce, remarriage and marriage for our part now.
When Jesus says, “From the beginning it was not so.” (Mat.19:8), He pointed back at the Garden of Eden where there was no sin. It is so that when sin came into our life, our marriage also started to get problems, so Moses allowed ‘divorce by broken marriage vows, although divorce is not desirable.
This teaching from Jesus, and other teachings as we will come to, gives us a clue that a marriage can be dissolved. Not that Jesus allows divorce, He taught actually against it, but Jesus contradicts the idea that marriage is ontologically insoluble. Meaning, He contradicts the idea; “that in God’s eye one remains married with the original spouse even after the divorce.” (This is the foundation which some can say that re-married is sexual immorality).
We shall forgive a person 7 times 70 who repents, but we are not set to keep a promise who is broken again and again with a hard heart (stubbornness). As God was forced to divorce Israel, we also can get into a situations where we are forced to break a contract (read: marriage). But remember, as God also chose not to divorce Judah, we can also choose not to divorce our partner.
Further in vers 9 we can read:
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9 NASB)
We was at this verse at the end of previous post, ESG4, but let me quickly say that Jesus explains that of those who use ‘any cause’ divorce and then marries another commits adultery. And he who marries this woman who was ‘any cause’-divorced, commits adultery because she is technically still married.
When the disciples hear Jesus rejected ‘any cause’-practice and had also heard his teaching about forgiveness, it appears that they were slightly taken aback. I think they realized that marriage was more serious than they first thought, and that they could not be divorced just as they wanted to, so they said to Jesus:
“If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” (Mat. 19:10 NASB).
In the answer Jesus now gives to his disciples, there is yet another controversial teaching for his disciples, and for all the Jews at the time.
“Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” (Mat. 19:11-12 NASB)
Not only did Jesus said earlier that divorce is not mandatory, but also says here that marriages isn’t mandatory too. Jews had the idea that marriage was mandatory because of the command in Gen. 1:28 “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” (Gen. 1:28).
You can just imagine the shock they got when He says “there are eunuchs who have made themselves to it for heaven’s sake,” and further “He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” What He do is to contradicts all living Jews at that time by proclaiming marriage is not mandatory, – marriage is optional!
Until now, and as we also will see later, is that Jesus did not rejected the Old Testament laws, but rather the new interpretations that had come up and had thwarted the Old Testament (OT) moral principle. Jesus has here solved some miss-interpretations of OT by answering, not just regarding divorce, but also marriage and what it consists of.
There are still some questions that are still unanswered here. What about those who are divorced and are already remarried with a new partner? Should they be separated from their new partner and go back again to their old partner? What we know now is that Jesus rejects the “new” non-Biblical ‘any cause’-divorce and accepted divorce by sexual immorality (Deut. 24: 1-4), but not only by sexual immorality (Mat. 19: 8). We will try to answer some of these questions and others in next posts.
1 – Polygamy – Polygamy did not happened often because of poverty or lack of support to the second wife among many.
2 – Septuagint translation – The official Jewish translation of the Old Testament to Greek (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septuagint)
MDR stands for Marriage – Divorce – Remarriage. A shortcut I choose to use on this series where I deal with some christian problems in the questions of marriage, divorce and remarriage.
Bible Verses are taken from NASB, unless otherwise noted.