Jesus and Torah: Divorce

Jesus and Torah: Divorce

Jesus and Torah: Divorce.

It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matt. 5:31-32).

With this short teaching on divorce, Jesus decided to enter a rabbinic controversy, a hot topic in rabbinic circles during that time. Mosiac Law was clear in Deuteronomy 24: If a man wanted to divorce his wife for any reason, he could do so as long as he wrote up a certificate of dismissal, a “get.” This formal letter of divorce made it official and acceptable in the eyes of the Law of Moses and in civil law. A man didn’t need any reason in particular to expel his wife from the marriage. It could be that he didn’t like her cooking, or he didn’t like the way she looked, or whatever. A man could divorce his wife for any reason. During that time, of course, a woman could not divorce her husband. This part of the Law was actually supposed to help the wife from being unjustly thrown out of the house. Also, when a husband served divorce papers, he was required to return his wife’s dowry. The wife could then leave the house with some financial support.

The rabbinic debate came down to two main sides… the conservative side and the liberal side. The conservatives were those who believed that there was only one legitimate reason for a divorce, adultery. The liberals believed in taking Moses at His literal word and saying that a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever. But the problem during Jesus’ time was that many men were taking advantage of the literal Law, and not even consider the spirit of the law. Many men were simply divorcing his wife so he could remarry another woman, for any reason. So Jesus weighed in on the conversative side, since the Law of Moses was being abused by so many men in Jewish society. Jesus once again, consistent in His teachings thus far in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, wanted the people to consider the spirit of the Law.

Jesus expanded on his thinking regarding divorce and marriage in Matt. 19:1-9. In this story, the Pharisees wanted to entrap Jesus regarding this Law of divorce. They wanted Jesus to say something critical of Moses’ Law just to get him trouble with the Jewish authorities. In this passage, Jesus said that the Mosaic Law was only a concession to the hard-heartedness of men, that divorce so easily accomplished was not God’s intention when He ordained marriage. It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t cite Moses or other rabbis as his authority on this. Jesus went back to creation, quoting Genesis 2:23-24. Jesus said that God instituted marriage, and thus it was a sacred union between husband and wife. Marriage was nothing to be careless about. Marriage was intended from the start to be permanent and binding, a joining of a man and a woman, a union in which the two become one flesh. And thus it is not to be torn asunder by the whims of man. Jesus implied that in a divorce, it’s as if the unity of two as one is cut in two, like a body being torn in half. That’s how radical divorce is spiritually and emotionally. No one would want to tear a body in half, and so no one should want to tear asunder two as one. Unless it was profoundly needed, Jesus thought that divorce in reality looked like that, a major amputation.

So Jesus sided with the conservative side on this issue. He believed that adultery, a major betrayal, was the only legitimate reason for a divorce, as serious as divorce is in God’s eyes. “What God has joined together, let no one separate.“, says Jesus in Matt. 19:6. Divorce is permissible only in profoundly serious circumstances, any act of betrayal such as abandonment, abuse and unfaithfulness. Examples like those seem to be in the spirit of the law, as far as I’m concerned. The Greek word for divorce means “to break fellowship.” A marriage is the most sacred fellowship there is between two people, a sacramental union that is intended to last a lifetime unless dire circumstances unfortunately visit the marriage.