Both Moses and Jesus recognize that we sinners are going to fail in our marriages. So they allowed divorce with some regulations. Neither believed divorce is a righteous option. Divorce results from the fact that the parties involved are sinners. God intended marriage to be forever but divorce is a necessary evil because of our sin.
Divorce is a difficult topic. Exactly what this passage means and how we should apply has been highly debated throughout church history. My goal is to walk through this passage like any other passage, trying to understand what Jesus meant in context. To do that we have to deal with background, textual and grammatical issues.
This is only my perspective on how to understand what Jesus means in context. It’s not the only perspective; it’s the one that makes the most sense to me. I do not claim to be an expert.
Matthew 5:17-20 is the introduction to the second major section of this sermon. Jesus wants his disciples to avoid the kind of law keeping that the Pharisees practice: holding to the letter of the law while avoiding its genuine demands. He gives examples to explain how our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. 31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:27-32
- Most of the examples in this section begin: “you have heard it said” (Matt 5:21; Matt 5:27; Matt 5:33; Matt 5:38).
- Matthew 5:31-32 has an abbreviated version: “it was also said” (NASB: “it was said.”)
- That suggests Jesus is not starting a brand new thought, but rather he’s continuing his previous thought on adultery and we should understand them as one unit.
- The Pharisees considered themselves to be righteous because they had not legally committed adultery, though they had married, divorced and remarried.
- In response, Jesus first examines their heart attitude. Jesus tells his audience, you may not have legally committed the act, but inside you wanted to and resented God for denying you. You are an adulterous person by desire and attitude.
- Now Jesus makes a second point: Likewise, you Pharisees consider yourself righteous because you obtained a certificate of divorce first. But in reality you are pursuing a kind of legalized adultery.
Divorce in the Old Testament
6They [the priests] shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God. For they offer the LORD’s food offerings, the bread of their God; therefore they shall be holy. 7They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled, neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband, for the priest is holy to his God. – Leviticus 21:6-7
- Because of their unique role in the religious life of the nations, priests had keep a higher standard of religious purity and ritual cleanness.
- Members of the tribe of Levi were eligible to be assistants to the priests, singers and musicians, gate-keepers and guards, etc.
- Members of the house of Aaron were eligible to be priests. They drew lots to decide who would serve where. The priests conducted the sacrifices, grain offerings, etc.
- God decreed that priests are not to marry a prostitute or a divorced woman.
13And he [the high priest] shall take a wife in her virginity. 14A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people, 15that he may not profane his offspring among his people, for I am the LORD who sanctifies him.” – Leviticus 21:13-15
- The high priest has a more unique role in the priesthood and he has an extra restriction on marriage.
- The High Priest administered the Day of Atonement and acted as civil authority. He had to isolate for 7 days before the Day of Atonement, to avoid becoming defiled. He could declare someone else as High priest if he became defiled and that person also become High Priest for life.
- While there is nothing wrong with marrying a widow, for the purpose of the symbolic religious purity of the high priest, he is only to marry a virgin to keep his offspring holy.
- By limiting the high priest, God is not laying down an abiding moral principle that no man can ever marry a widow or a divorced woman. Rather the high priest is forbidden to marry such a women because he is responsible for carrying out the religious life of the nation of Israel.
Only a handful of passages in the Mosaic law refer to divorce (Dt 22:19; Dt 22:29; Dt 24:1-4; Lev 21:7; Lev 21:14; Lev 22:13; Num 30:9; Eze 44:22). To my knowledge, most of them like Leviticus 21, they assume that divorce is happening, and put some restriction on it. Many of those restrictions concern religious or ritual purity.
The passage Jesus quotes
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, 2and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4
- This passage is not intended to be a straightforward command about when divorce is allowed and how it is done. However, the Pharisees used this passage to figure out what was legal and what wasn’t.
- This passage forbids one particular situation: A woman is divorced by husband #1 and marries husband #2. At that point, husband #2 could divorce her and she could any man in Israel, except husband #1 or one of the priests.
- She isn’t defiled in such a way that no other man could marry her. She is only defiled in terms of one man in Israel: her original husband.
- To make clear how seriously God takes that new marriage bond, her first husband is forbidden to marry her again.
Joesphus wrote: “At this time I sent away [divorced] my wife being displeased with her behavior. Then I took as wife a woman from Crete. The man who wishes to be divorced from his wife for whatever cause and among people many such may arise must certify it in writing.” – Life of Josephus, 426
According to Josephus, Jewish men could divorce their wives, but wives could not divorce their husbands. Josephus writes, “[A wife sent a] bill of divorce, and dissolved her marriage with him, though this was not according to the Jewish laws; for with us it is lawful for a husband to do so; but a wife, if she departs from her husband, cannot of herself be married to another, unless her former husband put her away.” – Antiquities, 15.259
- Josephus was a 1st century Jewish historian who describes himself as a Pharisee. Joesphus describes his understanding of the Jewish practice of divorce and he himself was divorced.
- Since divorce was common, the Pharisees were interested in establishing exactly what the law required, so they could justify their behavior.
- Among the Pharisees, there was great debate over the phrase “some indecency” in Deuteronomy. 24:1
- One group followed the rabbi Hillel, who thought that some indecency meant for any cause at all e.g. a poorly cooked meal (Mishnah Giṭṭin 9:10).
- The other group followed the rabbi Shammiai, who thought “some indecency” meant immorality; typically that meant adultery, but it could extend to loose or immoral conduct (Mishnah Giṭṭin 9:10).
- At the time, only men could initiate a divorce. All a man had to do was write his wife a certificate of divorce and return her dowry.
- Though women couldn’t initiate divorce, they could force a divorce through adultery.
- Under Jewish law, adultery was punishable with death by stoning. However, at the time of Jesus, adultery frequently went unpunished because 1) the Jews were under Roman rule and forbidden to enforce their own laws; and 2) divorce and adultery were rampant.
- In Matthew 19:1-12, the Pharisees try to draw Jesus into this debate.
- The point of divorce in the culture at the time was to have the freedom to remarry. Remaining single for either party was not an option.
- In the Jewish writings we have a certificate of a divorce and it simply reads: “you are free to marry any man.”
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32
Passive or not?
- In that culture a divorced woman would have to remarry to survive. She didn’t have the option of remaining single in hopes that her husband would change his mind.
- The verb “commit adultery” is in the passive. The debate is how to translate it.
- Most translators argue that the passive here does not have a true passive sense and we should translate it ‘makes her commit adultery.’ Some older translations have the stronger translation of ‘makes her an adulteress.’
- If that is the best translation, Jesus is saying, the divorced wife is forced to commit sin in a sense, because she should never have been divorced in the first place, but she had no choice and she must remarry.
- Other translators take this verb as a true passive and translate it something like ‘makes her the victim of adultery.’
- If this is the best translation, the husband is causing his wife to be sinned against.
- The true passive makes more sense to me. Her husband has broken her marriage and she has become the victim of his adultery. He is not making her sin. He is sinning against her.
- Jesus makes two points: 1) if you divorce your wife to marry another woman, you are making your wife the victim of your adultery in some sense and 2) if you marry a divorced woman you are committing adultery in some sense because she should be joined to another.
- In a parallel passage in Mark 10:11-12, Mark adds there is no double standard. The same is true if the wife seeks the divorce.
Except for ?
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:32 ESV
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; – Matthew 5:23 NASB
- The Greek word in this phrase ‘except for immorality’ is porneia (Strong’s G4202 πορνεία) from which we get our word pornography.
- Depending on context, this word can be technical and specific, or it can be very broad and general. It can refer to specific violations of Jewish marriage customs. Or it can refer to general immorality of various kinds.
- Matthew includes this phrase both here and in Matthew 19(. Mark 10:11-12 & Luke 16:18 have no exceptions. Scholars debate the significance of this inclusion or omission.
- Some argue Jesus gave no exception (as Mark & Luke record) but Matthew “softened” the words of Jesus.
- Others argue that Matthew makes explicit what Mark and Luke assumed everyone knew.
- Others equate the phrase in Matthew with the phrase “some indecency” in Deuteronomy 24. Both phrases imply that the woman has done something to break the marriage bond (most likely adultery) and that changes the situation.
- Others argue that Jesus is correcting the law in Mark & Luke. Moses was too lenient and Jesus is setting the record straight.
- In my opinion, Matthew 19:1-12 makes it clear Jesus is not correcting the law. Divorce will happen, because sin will destroy marriages, but God intended marriages to be permanent.
Jesus argues: you Pharisees can’t turn adultery into righteousness by writing a certificate first. Your intent is to break a bond that God did not intend to be broken. You listeners have heard the Pharisees teach that you are righteous if you divorce your wife and marry the other women before sleeping with her. But I say to you everyone who divorces his wife and marries someone else – unless she has already abandoned the marriage – is committing adultery against his wife and is committing adultery by marrying the another woman.
Both Moses and Jesus recognize that we sinners are going to fail in our marriages and so they allowed divorce with some regulations. Neither believed divorce was a righteous option. Divorce results from the fact that both parties involved are sinners. God intended marriage to be forever but divorce is a necessary evil because of our sin.