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Examining the Teachings of Jesus:

By: Jamison Wallington

The Theology of Divorce in the Book of Matthew


Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this reason a man and shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? So the, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate. (Matthew 19:4-6, NKJV, Italics Original) It is a fact, albeit without a reference for this article, that some 50% of marriages will end in divorce in America. 50% of couples will reverse the words of Christ as quoted above that the two shall be one instead the one shall become two again. But is this feasible? Is it really possible to divorce yourself from your spouse and become a separate entity, a separate person while the other is still living? While this article will only briefly touch on the theology of the book of Matthew and will not venture into examining a systematic theology of the Bible as a whole, it is the belief of this author that Matthews theology does not promote this current trend in America divorce. This article starts with Jesus words in Matthew 19 for a very specific reason instead of starting with Matthew 5, which will be examined later. Matthew 19 starts with the words Have you not read which in the book of Matthew implies that this is the command, or statement, from God as recorded in the Jewish Scriptures (the Torah) or the Pentateuch for the Christian Bible.1 Additionally, this phrase is used by Jesus when He introduces a topic that the answer should be obvious by the hearer since it is from an OT reference. 2 This is in contradiction to how Matthew 5:27 opens which is You have heard that it was said of those of old... Indicating that this was the tradition of the Jewish leaders thus passed orally at the time and perhaps not written and showing that it was mans law not Gods ordained will for mankind.3 Therefore, this author prefers to start with what Jesus quotes as Gods standard and then apply the text in Matthew 5 where Jesus intensifies, as the reader will note, the requirements than what the Pharisees even considered. Before we get any further into the discussion of the divorce topic, it should be noted that Matthew 19 is in response to a question of the Pharisees. In verse 3, Jesus is tested by the Pharisees asking Him: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason? As we will see in the examination of Matthew 19, the Pharisees were attempting to trick Jesus into contradicting the Law of Moses (the Torah, see above) and therefore not only lose credibility amongst His followers, but also have grounds for blasphemy. With this background information in mind, Jesus begins His answer by quoting two Old Testament texts, Gen. 1-2. Christs first statement is Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female (Matt. 19:4b). This is more or less a paraphrase of Gen. 1:27 where the creation account records: So God created man in His own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them. (Gen. 1:27, NKJV). Jesus establishes that God is the creator of both sexes, both male and female are His creation and both are made in His image (a topic outside the scope of this article). By establishing that God made the two, we see that there are definitely two beings (man and woman) in the mind of Christ in His reply. Christ continues saying: and for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife (Matt. 19:5a) This is a quotation from Gen. 2:24 which states that Therefore a man shall leave his father
1 Ranko Stefanovic, NTST617 Theology of Matthew Class Notes, Fall 2013. 2 R. T. France, The New International Commentary on the New Testament The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdsman Publishing Co., 2007), 716. 3 Ibid, Stefanovic.

and mother and be joined to his wife... What is the reason that Christ is talking about? The Therefore in Gen. 2;24 continues the line of thought from the preceding verses which, if you examine them, show the creation of a wife for Adam, Eve. This part of the text, both in Genesis and in Matthew also shows the precedence that a wife has over Adams, or the mans, own parents. Thus, the marriage relationship is a union which is higher regarded than the previous parental-son relationship. Christ finishes Gen. 2:24 by saying that and they shall become one flesh. This phrase helps the reader understand that the reason that the parental relationship is secondary to the marriage relationship is because of this oneness. A man and his wife are no longer seen as two separate people because they are joined together, glued4 to each other whereas a son and his parents are not one flesh but a family unit. The marriage relationship is stronger than the parental bond and its importance cannot be overstated. Jesus concludes His argument by saying that So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate. (Matt. 19:6). It was the understanding of the Jews that even though Moses wrote the Torah, it was acknowledged as Gods will.5 What Christ is saying is that God has set up the union between the man and woman and it is to usurp the function [and authority] of God by whose creative order [marriage] was set up, and who has decreed that it shall be a permanent one flesh union.6 The word let in let not man separate is in the imperative tense showi ng that this division in marriage should not happen keep in mind that this doesnt mean it is impossible, but that marriage was designed by God in a fashion that what He joined must not be broken. Therefore, if one separates the marriage bond, the marriage glue, it is a direct violation of Gods authority and that individual, or those individuals, place themselves as god(s) in their own lives rejecting the Creator God and His command. 7 What Jesus has done in the preceding verses is reject the teachings of two popular Rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. Hillel said that divorce was permissible for any reason of the husbands disappointment with the wife, such as breaking a dish. However, Shammai said that a husband could not divorce his wife unless he found some indecency with her however this indecency should not be confused with adultery, but rather with if a woman was found conversing with another man or spinning in the streets with bare arms.8 Jesus has then ignored this debate and instead focused on Gods will and imperative command for marriage. The Pharisees, unhappy with Christs answer, ask the question of Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away? (Matt.19:7, emphasis mine). The text for this permission from Moses is found in Deut. 24:1-4 and reads When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (Duet. 24:1, NKJV). The major issue in this verse is that the Pharisees were taking the Law of Moses and interpreting it as a command even though the Deuteronomic text does not necessarily imply a command, but rather than a permission because of human sinfulness.9 This brings us quickly to Jesus reply in Matthew 19:8 that Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. Jesus responds and corrects the interpretation in Deuteronomy by Matthew recording that divorce was permitted, not commanded. The difference is important for this discussion. Previously we noted how it was Gods command that man and wife should not be divided (see above) and now Jesus seemingly downgrades the permission of Moses as a human deviation from the divine standard. However, before the reader accept that as truth, we must remember that The Jews in the first century interpreted the Laws of Moses as the Laws of God. Therefore, it is noted that Jesus is not
4 France, 717. 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid, 718. 7 Ibid. 8 David E. Garland, Reading Matthew A Literary and Theological Commentary, Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 202. 9 France, 719.

arguing about which text, Genesis or Deuteronomy, is correct, but that The Deuteronomic legislation is a response to human failure.10 The idea of divorce is permitted to bring a solution to a problem that was already occurring because of the hardness of [their] hearts. The phrase hardness of [their] hearts. is not as concerned with human-to-human relationships as it is to human-God relationship. This phrase brings to mind the account in Exodus of Pharaoh and the hardness of his heart and informs the hearer of Jesus words that it [hardness of the heart] is a term for rebellion against the God to whom obedience is due.11 In other words, divorce was permitted not because it was Gods will, but as a response to the open disobedience to Gods will of the one-flesh concept in Genesis because of human sinfulness.12 Jesus corrects the misunderstanding of the text further by showing that the Pharisees were taking divorce as a starting point by thinking that they could divorce their wife if they were unhappy or found indecency with her rather than what was intended by Moses, and permitted by God, in Deuteronomy 24 which is that it was a response to sinful behavior but that the preference [is to] the original purpose of God as expressed i n Genesis.13 Before addressing perhaps the most crucial area which is where divorce is permitted in the case of adultery, we must first examine the larger and preceding context of Matthew to further understand his theology. Prior to chapter 19, Matthew writes in chapter 18 about the importance and necessity of forgiveness. While this could be a topic for an article itself a brief survey is in order. Chapter 18 is riddled with the necessity of the disciples and followers of Christ, the greater ones to car e for and watch out for the children, or the lesser ones the ones new to the faith. Chapter 18 opens with the understanding that the kingdom of God is given to children and it is given because of their humility and their ability to forgive, the main theme in chapter 18.14 Chapter 18 then progresses into the dangers of pushing a new believer out of the fellowship of believers (Matthew 18:6-14). Additionally, chapter 18 provides instructions on how to treat those that sin against the church and this pericope ends with the necessity that if they are removed from fellowship, they should be sought after with great love as Jesus cared for the tax collectors and heathens. (Matthew 18:15-20). Lastly, a parable on the immense forgiveness that God bestows on humanity and how humanity should further bestow this upon each other is given in Matthew 18:21-35. In Matthew 18:35, Jesus tells his hearers that God the Father will forgive you only if you, from your heart, forgive others. What does all this have to do with our examination of divorce in chapter 19? It is the belief of this author that, upon examining the main two lines of Rabbinic thought of Hillel and Shammai (see above) that the case for divorce for any reason, besides sexual adultery, is due to a lack of forgiveness. Further, because of not forgiving a woman (in this case) of breaking a dish or for some other selfish reason, such as a man desiring to marry another woman, is unforgiving and God will not forgive the husbands sin against his wife (Matt. 18:35). Lastly, this article will examine what Jesus says in Matthew 19:9 and Matthew 5:31-32. Matthew 19:9 says And I [Jesus] say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery. Jesus opens this part of His response with And I say to you indicating Jesus authority from God to provide this teaching.15 In other words, Jesus is in line with Gods will by what He is now going to say. In summary, Jesus says that a marriage should not be

10 Ibid, emphasis mine. 11 Ibid, 720. 12 Ibid. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid, Stefanovic. 15 France, 720.

terminated except for sexual unfaithfulness, and that if it is, the subsequent marriage of either party will be adulterous.16 Before we examine this verse in light of Matthew 5, it should be noted that it could be misunderstood that Jesus is taking the Shammite position, that of the right of the man to divorce his wife for something shameful. However, this is not the case, although Jesus and the Shammite are closely related, they are not the same thing. Jesus allows for divorce only for sexual unfaithfulness whereas the Shammite position allows for various shameful (see above) acts supposedly against the man.17 Matthew 5:31-32 reads: Furthermore 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 . As was noted in the discussion of Matthew 19, Jesus recognizes that divorce rejects Gods will of the one-flesh discussed in Genesis. The understanding of divorce in the first century allowed, as we have seen, a marriage to be dissolved legally. The termination of a marriage already destroyed by the act of adultery was thus not so much divorce (a mans voluntary repudiation of his wife) as the necessary recognition that the original marriage no longer existed, that a new one-flesh union was already [established].18 In other words, the issue at hand is that adultery is already a breaking of Gods divine will of the marriage relationship and therefore divorce (which in reality doesnt include adultery since adultery can be understood as a breaking of marriage prior to the legal divorce separation) is prohibited by Jesus because any other reason to break the one-flesh was not legitimate and thus the marriage would remain valid, causing both partners (those breaking the one flesh for any reason beside adultery) to actually commit adultery. Where does this leave us at the end of the discussion? Adultery is committed prior to the legal separation (divorce) of each partner, thus adultery is the only exception for a divorce certificate due to the hardness of the heart and rebellion against Gods will by the offending partner. Jesus does not sanction divorce (cf. Mark 10:2-12 & Luke 16:18) and those that have been divorced are going against not only Gods will, but also Jesus teaching. However, God has permitted divorce, as was seen through Matthew 19 by observing Deut. 24, in order to provide a solution to humanitys sinfulness. In practicality it should be noted that those individuals who are divorced and are no longer meeting Gods Creation standard of one-flesh do still have responsibility towards each other. In Matthew 18 we saw the importance of forgiveness, whether that equates to remaining married to an offending partner, remarriage of an offending partner or forgiveness of the hurt caused by the offending partner, without this forgiveness, God is unable to forgive the husband/wife. Additionally and especially when children are involved, both the divorced husband and wife have a responsibility towards those children, a topic outside the scope of this paper, but is also established in the Creation account of those engaged in a one-flesh relationship to multiply and fill the earth. (Gen. 1:28).

16 Ibid. 17 Ibid. 18 Ibid, 211.