The Divorce Debate – In Matthew 19:6 Jesus says that man should not separate what God has joined together. What do we believe about divorce and remarriage today?
Comments welcome! Do comment on my blog, however, and not on Facebook ;-P
THE DIVORCE DEBATE
In Matthew 19:6 Jesus says that man should not separate what God has joined together. What do we believe about divorce and remarriage today?
Perhaps you have already made up your mind about divorce: you either believe it is a dreadful sin, or you feel it is definitely no terrible transgression. Or maybe, like me, you are not exactly sure what the Word says about divorce. Let’s explore!
DIVORCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
One of the first references to divorce in the Bible appears in Deuteronomy 24: 1-4:
“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord.”
At the time these words were spoken by Moses, the position of a wife in Jewish society was very precarious: her husband could order her out of his house during a mere fit of annoyance! Consequently, Moses established the practise of presenting a “certificate of divorce” (from the husband to the wife) in an attempt to banish the frivolous treatment of marriage…
This certificate of divorce protected married women by acknowledging the divorce as illegal: formerly, a woman who has been cast out by her husband and then married a second man, could be taken back by her first husband (if he suddenly decided to like her again!) and she would then be stigmatised as an adulteress, as the former marriage was never legally terminated. Note here that God recognises a legal divorce.
Secondly, marriage was kept sacred through the issuing of a certificate of divorce, as a man was not allowed to take a woman back after having signed the divorce letter: they had to think twice about letting their wives go for no good reason at all. It is “detestable in the eyes of the Lord” (verse 4) when marriage is treated with such flippancy (and it is therefore that the Bible teaches us you cannot go back to a first husband). The bottom line here is that marriage must never be trivialised – partners cannot come and go as they please.
But if we do get divorced, does it mean we are then “defiled”? Verse 4 states that a woman’s husband (who divorced her) was not allowed to marry her again after she “has been defiled.” Bishop Frank Retief (Church of England South Africa) explains that this does not mean the woman was unclean or in the wrong: after a woman’s divorce from her husband, she could not return to him, because to him she was defiled. The word ‘defiled’ must be understood in terms of her availability to her husband. This once again emphasises that we should not make light of the choices we make when we get married or divorced.
THE ANY-CAUSE DIVORCE
The above law (Deut 24: 1-4) was misinterpreted at the time by influential Hillelite rabbis who invented the ‘any cause divorce’ from a single word in verse 1: Moses allowed divorce when the husband found “something” indecent about his wife. These rabbis wondered why Moses used the word ‘something’ when he only needed to say ‘immorality’. They argued that any ‘thing’ (“something”), including a burnt meal (or bad morning hair!), could be a cause for divorce!
BUT JESUS SAID…
It is to this interpretation of the law by the Hillelite rabbis that Jesus refers in the New Testament. The Pharisees asked Jesus whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife “for any and every reason?” (Mat 19:3) Jesus answered, “what God has joined together, let man not separate”. Jesus’ answer to this is thus ‘no’ – marriage is not to be considered carelessly. Thinking of Deuteronomy 24, the Pharisees asked Jesus why Moses then permitted divorce? Jesus answered: “because your hearts were hardened” – a reference to husbands’ harsh treatment of their wives (and flippant treatment of marriage), casting them out of their homes at a whim.
Jesus also tells the Pharisees that man should not separate what God has joined together (verse 6). Bishop Frank Retief believes that this does not imply that God has joined everybody together simply through the act of being married: there are marriages that lie outside the will of God. Child, slave and incestuous marriages, bigamy, polygamy, physical or verbal abuse are not the will of God. Sometimes a situation is just patently wrong.
Exodus 21:10-11 allows divorce for neglect. The Lord said to Moses that everyone, even a slave wife, had three rights within marriage – the rights to food, clothing and love. If any of these were neglected, the wronged spouse had the right “to go free” (verse 11). The focus in this verse should be on “let no man” separate. How often do we not allow family or friends to interfere in our marriages?
What about New Testament scriptures stating that remarriage is sin? 1 Cor 7:10-11 proclaims: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not leave her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” Luke 16:18 says that “[a]nyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who married a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Did Jesus teach that remarriage is a transgression in God’s eyes? Many people argue that in Jewish society of Jesus’ day, remarriage was always assumed for the innocent party, as there is no condemnation for the innocent. They also believe that there are thousands of years between the context in which Jesus’ words were spoken and the time and culture that many of us live in today: we don’t exactly stone gay people today or insist on women wearing hats in church. Many believers also feel that not all marriages that take place fall within the will of God. On the other hand, there are those who feel that emphasizing that the Bible should be read in context is just an easy way out of guilt…
The notorious Malachi 2: 16 states: “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel, and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment, says the Lord Almighty.” God’s use of the word ‘hate’ clearly indicates that to God, marriage is sacred. Yet, God is not here condemning the divorced – he hates ‘divorce’, not the divorced. He hates everything that frustrates the goal of keeping a marriage in tact: abuse, neglect, adultery. God hates the violence and hurt caused by divorce: The Message states the latter part of verse 16 as: “I hate the violent dismembering of the ‘one flesh’ of marriage.”
In Ezekiel 16:59-60 the Lord says “[Y]ou have despised my oath by breaking my covenant…[y]et I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.” It is not only the divorced, but each one of us who needs this promise to be true.
* Retief, F. Divorce – Hope for the Hurting.
Comments welcome! Do comment on my blog, however, and not on Facebook ;-P