Divorce for any cause? (Part 3)

Divorce for any cause? (Part 3)

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”” (Matthew 19:3–9, ESV)

In this passage, the Pharisees are inviting Jesus to weigh in on a contemporary rabbinic discussion about how to interpret and apply Deuteronomy 24:1.

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house,” (Deuteronomy 24:1, ESV)

At that time, there were two major factions within the broader category called Pharisees identified by two of the most influential rabbinic figures of the Second Temple Period: Hillel (110 BC – 10 AD) and Shammai (50 BC – 30 AD). Later, R Aqiva ben Joseph (50 AD – 135 AD) weighed in on the same discussion. This excerpt from the Babylonian Talmud summarizes their various opinions. 

A. The House of Shammai say, “A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity,
B. “since it is said, ‘Because he has found in her indecency in anything’ (Deut. 24:1).”
C. And the House of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his dish,
D. “since it is said, ‘Because he has found in her indecency in anything.’ ”
E. R. Aqiba says, “Even if he found someone else prettier than she, since it is said, ‘And it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes’ (Deut. 24:1).” 
Neusner, J. (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary(Vol. 11b, p. 404). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Jesus’ response to this inquiry must be understood within this cultural religious and social context. Jesus isn’t here answering every question about divorce and remarriage. He is weighing in on “Option A” or “Option B” within a popular rabbinic discussion that had been ongoing for some time. If we are to read Jesus’ response within this contextual understanding, what might we note from his words?

First, we note that the discussion itself is, to some degree, relevant in any cultural religious context. It is pastorally important to have a sense regarding who can divorce who and for what reasons and within what context. That applies to me today as a leader within the church and I better pay attention to this passage. Not that I have control over who does what in this matter, but I am required to steward my voice and influence as a leader.

Next, we note that this is an incredibly patriarchal (male dominated) and misogynistic (woman oppressing) social context. The discussion doesn’t even conceive of the possibility of a woman divorcing her husband. A woman had no such legal standing and no right or ability to make any such decision. The Pharisees were trying to parse out how to understand and apply the letter of the law. If we were to approach Jesus’ words in the same way, we would conclude that husbands can divorce their wives (within certain criteria), but that wives cannot divorce their husbands (for Jesus does not mention any such possibility). If we were to approach this passage in such a Pharisaical way, we might end up supporting the continuation of the very patriarchal and misogynistic way of thinking that Jesus, here and elsewhere, makes so much progress in opposing.

But we must understand that Jesus’ words are not an endorsement of such patriarchy and misogyny; instead, Jesus’ words simply meet the discussion where it’s at, within its social and cultural setting, a setting that assumes male domination and views women as essentially property to be possessed and (in some instances), discarded. And this brings us to the next observation.

The heart of Jesus’ response is aimed at protecting women. Women were considered like property. The father would barter a price with the potential husband and the exchange would be made. The woman’s value was largely determined by the promise of her virginity. A non-virginal woman’s value was incredibly diminished. By definition, a divorced woman would be valued poorly within the culture. A new husband (if she could find one) would likely treat her, not just as property, but as less-than-valuable property. And, if she wasn’t able to marry again, her income earning and self-sustaining capacity would be incredibly limited.

For these reasons, we can see why Jesus responded the way he did. If Option A (Shammai’s teaching) is that a man cannot easily divorce his wife for any reason at all, but rather that she must have committed adultery to warrant divorcing her, and Option B (Hillel’s teaching) is that a wife can be discarded by her husband for any reason whatsoever, Jesus is going to side with Shammai and take Option A. Why? Because Option A mitigates the patriarchal and misogynistic damage to women within that culture. Option B would actually perpetuate it. Within that very limited range of options, within that very specific cultural context, that is Jesus’ answer. 

Next, we see that Jesus not only sides with Shammai in this discussion, but that he is very hard on Hillel’s side of things. Jesus’ response is quite harsh regarding a man who would think so little of a woman that he would flippantly discard her, knowing full well the ramifications such an act would have on her future life. A man who would marry a woman, then later divorce her because she burned dinner (or for some other trivial matter) and then marry another woman, can in no way justify his action by quoting Deuteronomy 24:1. His divorce is not legitimate. He has chosen to break covenant and is guilty of adultery.  Again, for Jesus, this isn’t about rules. It’s about the value of women in God’s eyes and the necessity of protecting them from hard-hearted men.

Which is exactly how Jesus explains the reason why Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife in the first place: Because of your hardness of heart. Because the hearts of men can be so hard toward women. Because of patriarchy. Because of misogyny. Divorce is not God’s original intent or design. Divorce is a legal accommodation to the brokenness of humanity. Jesus speaks to limit the destructive power of divorce on women. This passage isn’t so much Jesus’ answer to every question about divorce and re-marriage, but it does serve to reveal the heart of Jesus about every such question. Jesus is interested in protecting those that the rules and the enforcers of rules often fail to protect. 

God’s plan was never patriarchy or misogyny. In the beginning, God designed man and woman to experience marriage as oneness, not as hierarchy. Such covenantal relationships, built upon the foundation of God’s original design, are unlikely to ever need to answer questions about the legal loop-holes of divorce and remarriage. But where the hearts of men (or women!) are hardened, such discussions will continue to be relevant. And what should we do? We should protect people. We should protect the abused and the oppressed and the powerless. That’s what Jesus did.

One Reply to “Divorce for any cause? (Part 3)”

  1. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I have been under extreme persecution from my ex, whom I divorced not because of adultery, but because of other sins that made living as “one” impossible. Together we were a poor example of Christ and His Bride. I have learned so much since divorce about the dysfunctional dynamics of our relationship, and I am experiencing much grace and healing from God, but my ex regularly verbally condemns me for having left for reasons other than adultery. Ex says I had no Biblical grounds for leaving/divorcing. Ex calls me a hypocrite and fraud Christian because I “disobeyed” God by divorcing, and ex continuously disparages me and my faith walk to the children. Some of them believe like ex does and they no longer go to church with me. It’s so very sad.

    I believe there truly are some relationships that are so toxic that staying in them is more sinful than leaving. What a horrid example of love and commitment we show our children by staying in relationships/marriages that in no way portray the love of Christ. All for the sake of “staying married.” How many years should one stay yoked to a partner who is in no way interested in working to make things better? All the while exemplifying nothing even close to what Christ intended for marriage.

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