marriage and divorce within christianity
marriage and divorce 1
Over the centuries one of the most sensitive and contentious issues with which the church has dealt is that of divorce and remarriage. The two reasons for this are pretty straight forward. First, marriages often go badly. There is anger, hatred, physical and mental abuse, abandonment as well as unfaithfulness. Secondly however, within the scriptures, divorce if it is allowed at all, appears to be not generally condoned. The struggle for the church then, has been how to balance these two competing realities: bad marriages on the one hand and the scriptures on the other.
Let’s begin with the scriptures. Divorce in the Old Testament is referenced in two passages; Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and Exodus 21:10-11. The Deuteronomy passage contains several important elements. First, a woman could be divorced for “some indecency.” The meaning of “some indecency” is not spelled out; however it usually referred to either shameful exposure of the human body or illicit sexual activity. Second, divorce was as simple as a husband giving his wife a piece of paper which stated they were no longer married. Third, if a woman was divorced she could remarry (just as could her husband). In fact she was allowed to remarry as many times as she was divorced, as long as she did not remarry her first husband. The Exodus passage allowed a wife to divorce a husband if he refused to care for her. Interestingly enough neither rabbis nor the church often discussed this passage…guess why.
In Second Temple Judaism (the time of Jesus) the Deuteronomy passage became a focal point of rabbinic interpretation. While the text appears to be pretty clear that reasons for a husband divorcing his wife are limited, the Hillel rabbinic school saw it otherwise. Their focus was not on the word for “indecency” but on the word that preceded it, “some.” They reasoned that Moses added that word in order to allow husbands to define what indecency meant. The result was that in the time of Jesus Judaism had the first “any
cause[i]” divorce. Any man could divorce his wife for any reason. There was, however a second group of rabbis, followers of Shammai, who claimed that the Hillel school got it wrong. They wanted to keep the words together as a single sentence, thus limiting divorce to infidelity. This was the debate which set the scene for Jesus’ comments on divorce.
There are two main references to Jesus speaking on divorce and remarriage. The oldest is in Mark 10:2-12. Here we witness Jesus being approached by the Pharisees who were trying to see on which side of the argument (Hillel or Shammai) Jesus fell, hoping to condemn him. Jesus’ response is to return to the most basic understanding of man-woman relationship in Genesis (1:27, 2:24). “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Notice that Jesus refuses to engage in argument over Deuteronomy 24. Instead he lifts up the ideal of creation. This is the part of the creation saga which offers us a glimpse of the way things ought to be in a perfect world. Jesus implies that divorce was allowed because human beings could not live into the perfection of God’s creation (vs.5). This same discussion is expanded in Matthew where Jesus comes down on the side of the Shammites when he allows divorce and remarriage for infidelity (indecency in Deuteronomy).
What the church has tended to do with these passages then is to turn them into a legalistic understanding of marriage and divorce. Both divorce and remarriage were unacceptable (except under certain circumstances which had to be documented and approved by the church). The question with which we will deal next week is; did Jesus intend an absolute ban on divorce and remarriage? To give a bit of assurance this week, I don’t believe this is what Jesus was actually after, and we will discuss the reasons for this conclusion in the next article.
[i] “What God Has Joined”, David Instone-Brewer; Christianity Today, October 2007
marriage and divorce 2
We will now look behind the scriptures at what I believe to be the intent of Judaism and Jesus as regards these issues. Our discussion will be based on my view that behind both Moses’ and Jesus’ words on marriage and divorce are two fundamental concepts. The first is the protection of the vulnerable (meaning women) and the second is the ideal of God’s new kingdom (which is a return to Eden).
We will look first at protecting the vulnerable. Protecting the vulnerable was a central part of the Law of Moses. The vulnerable included strangers, slaves, children and especially women. Without the protection of a father or a husband women were completely at risk. Prostitution and begging were often their only recourse when they were cast aside. Rather than allow men to simply cast aside their wives the process of divorce was intended to protect the women involved. The process was that a husband had to give his wife a letter of divorce which stated that he had no claims on her and allowed her to marry again. This process first prevented someone from casting out a wife in the heat of anger. Second it protected the wife’s reputation because it said the wife was in morally good standing. Finally it allowed the wife to marry again and thus find protection. While divorce was not seen as the best of all worlds, the Law of Moses understood that there were times when husbands and wives could not live together and thus allowed for divorce and remarriage; divorce and remarriage which protected the rights of the vulnerable.
We will now look at the New Testament context in more detail. Last week we examined the fact that in Jesus’ time there was a debate between those who believed in a strict interpretation of Moses commands (followers of Rabbi Shammai) and those who argued for an “any cause” divorce (followers of Rabbi Hillel). An additional piece of context was that Jesus was being asked the question about divorce in the midst of a very politically charged atmosphere. Jesus was traveling through the territory of Herod Antipas who had executed John the Baptist for condemning Herod’s marriage to his niece Herodias, who had also been the wife of Herod’s half-brother.
Thus when the question is posed to Jesus not only is he being asked to take sides in the rabbinic debate, he is also being asked to choose sides in the argument over Herod Antipas’s incestuous marriage (and thus possibly putting his life at risk).
As we noted last week Jesus does neither. Instead he focuses on the ideal of God’s Kingdom. In the ideal Kingdom men and women become one flesh and nothing ever divides them. This was God’s intent from the beginning. Jesus also notes that the reason God gave divorce and remarriage to Israel was because people could not live up to the ideal (they were hard of heart). To divorce and remarry was not God’s original intent. What we need to remember however is that there are other places where Jesus offers a contrast between reality and the ideal. Jesus tells his followers if they lust after a woman, they are committing adultery; if they hate someone they have committed murder; and whoever calls someone a fool will go to hell (Matthew 5:21-30). In other words, in the ideal kingdom there would be no divorce, lust, hate or derogatory comments about others. This is the world Jesus desires, but it also the world Jesus knows does not exist.
We witness Jesus dealing with the reality of the world when he encounters a woman who has been married five times. He does not condemn her but offers her eternal life (John 4:7-30). The gift of Jesus is that in the end grace trumps law. While Jesus desires the ideal, he understands that there are times when the ideal is not possible and so proclaims no law against divorce and remarriage. My guess is that few of us who have been or are married have entered marriage without the hope that it is a forever commitment. Unfortunately there are some marriages which cannot survive. As people of grace we at First Presbyterian understand this and so reaffirm that all are welcome, loved and eligible for membership and leadership regardless of whether they are single, married, divorced or remarried.