Outside of the Ten Commandments, this Scripture on divorce is probably the most read in Deuteronomy. Let’s read it:
“If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something improper about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house. If after leaving his house she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the second man hates her, writes her a divorce certificate, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house if he dies, the first husband who sent her away may not marry her again after she has been defiled, because that would be detestable to the LORD. You must not bring guilt on the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance” (Deut 24:1-4).
Schools of Interpretation
Moses seems to give permission here for divorce. That is if the husband “finds something improper about her.”
Over the millennia Jews discussed what was meant by “improper.” There eventually unfolded two schools of thought. The School of Shammai believed that it had to be a very serious offense, worth a divorce. The school Hillel said that is she so much as burnt toast, that a man could legally divorce her.
Lest we be so quick to condemn the school of Hillel, Shammai believed that it was wrong to lie about about whether a bride on her wedding day was ugly or not. Hillel believed that all women were beautiful on their wedding day. Could you imagine as a woman on your wedding day being told you were ugly because it was honest? Just stay silent if that’s the case!
What Jesus Said Interpreting This
Anyway, Jesus did weigh in on this (Mt 19:3-12):
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Jesus points out, that Moses allowed divorcee “because their hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” As in this is not the intention of God.
Without a doubt Jesus was familiar with the schools of thought of Hillel and Shammai, and he doesn’t pick. But he does uphold the ideal of unity before God. And the shocker in Jesus’ teaching? It wasn’t the women’s faults who were under the magnifying glass, but it was theirs.
Divorce was allowed under Moses because it was the men who had the problem. Their hearts were hard. Prior to this the sin of the men hadn’t really entered the equation. Jesus was actually holding the men responsible which was a brand new revelation. Not only that, but he told them that if they just divorced their wife, except for unfaithfulness, then if they remarried it was an act of adultery.
Of course this has brought volumes and volumes of books and discussions for centuries. What did Jesus mean? Is it Ok to divorce? What about abuse? What about remarriage? How much was this cultural for the times and how much is eternal?
These are not small issues. I have friends who are going through a divorce now, wrestling with this issue. It’s an everyday thought of what constitutes abuse worthy of divorce?
Taking Matthew 19 in Context
What I see in the context of Matthew 19 was that Jesus’ was standing up for women (19:1-12), children (Mt 19:13-5) and the poor (Mt 19:16-22). And those are three demographics that have not always been treated well. The Lord was provoking the people to treat them with dignity, respect and care while at the same time confronting their own hardness of hearts
- With their wives–your hearts are hard
- With children – let them come to me as the kingdom of heaven belongs to them
- With poor – give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven
For sure Jesus was upholding the unity of marriage, the high responsibility of covenant and more. But there was a shocking twist.
The Shocking Twist
For thousands of years since Moses wrote this, the focus was all about the women and their behevior. The light of responsibility was shown away from the men. What Jesus was doing was utterly jolting. He was confronting the men telling them the problem was their hearts were hard, and that they were looking for ways out, not ways to grow up. He was calling them to stand up and care for their wives. It was a breath-taking reversal.
Not that the women didn’t have issues, they did. If they went down the road of sexual immorality, this was was a permissible place for divorce.
Also Jesus was not trying to make a hard, rigid law that sexual infidelity was the only reason ever for divorce. I personally believe if a woman is being beat up by her husband, she should leave him. The law was meant to care and protect women, not trap them in abusive situations.
What Jesus was doing was switching the discussion. Instead of the blame culture that had been circling around this topic, he was pointing to the issue of self-responsibility.
The point is This.
What I see in Deuteronomy was that there was a focus on the issue of a man remarrying his original wife after her second husband has divorced her or passed away. And the Lord says no. He is not to go back to her when she has been with another man in marriage. That was the point of this writing, not that he was saying divorce was easy and allowed.
But the context Jesus was discussing was in a discussion with the men. And he was saying to them care for your wives. Be good to them. Easy divorce is not God’s original intent. To marry is to unite. It is not contract, it is union.
Blaming will not fulfill the purposes of God. Each has responsibility.