verse XIX – The “D” Word – Divorce
Many years ago I gave counsel to a person who stood before an ordination board and was mercilessly questioned about a divorce that had taken place some twenty-five years previous – a marriage in which this person was horribly physically and emotionally abused. They wanted to know if adultery had taken place, presumably to find an allowance for the divorce, as if physical and emotional abuse wasn’t enough.
It is sad when people who have been entrusted with the Word of God, the Word of Life, and the care of His people do not rightly handle the Word of Truth. How do we understand divorce, specifically within the messianic faith? Is divorce the unpardonable sin that disqualifies one from service within the Body of Messiah? Is a divorcee to remain celibate, never to marry again? Let’s turn our attention to divorce, specifically in light of the teaching of the New Testament.
What’s He talking about?
Messiah Yeshua/Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:31-32, “It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Well, that seems difficult to argue with. Actually, I’m not one to argue with the Messiah, but I often have to argue in response to how we understand and then teach His words.
If we do not read these verses about divorce carefully, the context in which they are given escapes us. Unfortunately, how the Bible is formatted generates as much confusion as the words themselves – as Yeshua’s teaching on divorce is not a change of subject in this narrative, but a continuation of His thought regarding adultery. As the text reads, “Furthermore” or “Again it has been said…” which connects the preceding words with what He is about to say. It is not a change of subject, but a continuation of His words concerning lust or wrongful appetites.
Sorting this matter out.
In Matthew 19:3, the Pharisees, testing Yeshua, ask Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” This question has some backstory to it, but suffice to say, there were two prominent opinions regarding divorce at that time, and one that was generally followed. Much of first century Judaism, and to some extent later rabbinic Judaism, was largely informed by the opinions of two “houses” of rabbinic authorities – Shammai and Hillel. Shammai was known for his strict interpretation of the Torah/Law in most questions, while Hillel was considered less so.
Everyone’s got an opinion.
Shammai’s opinion regarding divorce was this, except for grave matrimonial offense, divorce was not permissible. Hillel’s opinion, however, allowed men to divorce their wives for any reason they desired – even burnt food.
From the answer that Yeshua provides in Matthew 19, which is consistent with the institution of marriage in Genesis 2, He upholds the highest possible view of marriage as a holy institution established by the Lord God: as marriage was to be monogamous, heterosexual and permanent.
Why did Yeshua not affirm the teaching of Moses? Because, as He says, “Moses, because of your hardness of hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). The basis of Moses’ concession regarding divorce was to protect the bride, not the groom – because without the גט (pronounced ‘get’), the woman would not be allowed to remarry, leaving her without status and security.
Don’t we “get” it?
The essential language of a גט reads, “You are hereby permitted to all men;” meaning she is no longer a married woman, and the laws regarding adultery do not apply with regard to her previous husband. Yeshua, however, in our opening text from Matthew 5:31-32, and in Matthew 19, speaks to the heart of the issue of divorce brought to Him: lust.
The Lord, as we read in the Bible, holds the institution of marriage in the highest regard – setting marriage within the creation narrative, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become on flesh” (Gen. 2:24).
It’s not a command.
It might be assumed that in the Torah we are given a command of “divorce” in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 from the Lord – when we actually find that it was permitted by Moses in a very specific case, “a matter of uncoveredness.” Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz explains, “What we have here is no law instituting or commanding divorce. This institution is taken for granted. We are merely given one regulation in regard to it; that a man who has divorced his wife may not remarry her, if her second husband divorced her or died.”
In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, a man was permitted to issues a certificate of divorce because it was found that his bride had already given herself to someone else, or as a median was sexually assaulted – Yeshua has something to say about this.
Yeshua’s comment on divorce in Matthew 5:31-32 followed His instruction concerning lust and adultery. We find then, that He is connecting divorce to the desire of a man to take another woman because the man is lusting after her.
Yeshua is using marriage and divorce to illuminate the avenue by which people committed adultery – divorce one person because of lust for another. He is saying lust, as an issue of the heart, is not grounds for divorce – lusting after someone is not grounds to destroy what God has created.
What the Church has taught incorrectly for years is that a divorced person cannot remarry, but that was the purpose of the “certificate of divorce,” to declare, in this case for a woman, that she was legally able to marry another. What Yeshua is saying to those asking in Matthew 19:8-9 is that because lust for another has caused you to divorce your wife, you commit adultery, thus causing her to commit adultery as well – as there was no justification for divorce in the first place. Additionally, Yeshua is also consistent with Moses, in speaking to the hardness of man’s heart in the case of a woman found not to be a virgin – shouldn’t the man attempt to find out what happened to his wife before they were married and not immediately turn to divorce?
To be clear.
Allow me to be abundantly clear here: the Lord hates divorce (Mal. 2:16) – but He loves the sinner, a well-worn adage to be sure, but true nonetheless. Let me assure you, that divorce is not the unpardonable sin; and neither is adultery the only grounds for divorce found in the Bible.
The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, is addressing, as he is throughout the epistle, issues that have come up within the Corinthian congregation. Paul speaking by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote, “But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace.”
These words are not to be taken lightly, and they demand serious attention. Was Paul contradicting or disobeying the words of Yeshua? Heaven forbid! Where Yeshua was speaking to the hardness of man’s heart, Paul was speaking to the brokenness of their hearts.
Paul is recognizing circumstances beyond ones desire or control. In this case, abandonment. Paul finds this to be a breaking of covenant, as if the one flesh joined together has died. Can we find other cases where covenant breaking, besides adultery, might come into play? What about physical abuse? Mental cruelty? Are we really, speaking to pastors here, to send an abused woman back into a house of abuse where the man has not repented and submitted to godly accountability? Are we the ones being abused? Would Jesus leave an abused individual in a situation of abuse? Does the abused have to wait until the abuser commits adultery to rightfully file for divorce? It seems to me that we need to pray for the mercy of heaven, with an eye towards His grace, and not on the “letter” of what we believe the New Testament is saying, which apparently can kill as well when wrongly applied.
So when your spouse is unfaithful, Jesus gives you the answer. Furthermore, when your spouse has deserted you, Paul gives a reasoned response. I would add in light of the New Covenant revelation, if your spouse is abusing you, you find an answer for that as well. In all these cases, remarrying will not grieve the Holy Spirit, and by doing so under pastoral care and direction, should not grieve us either – or ordination boards.
Yes, divorce is a sin; but doesn’t God forgive sin? Or is it only with approved sins that we are willing to trust heavens forgiveness? Alight, I concede the point, I’m being fresh; but, I’ve counseled too many people in horrific situations over the years, looking for relief, only to be subject to someone’s limited scriptural view on the matter.
Dr. John Frame wrote this regarding spousal abuse and divorce, “Spousal abuse is inconsistent with marital fidelity. Not every inconsistency is ground for divorce, surely. But sometimes violation of marital vows becomes so severe that no real commitment remains.”
King David is the only person in the Bible called a “man after God’s own heart;” but he was also an adulterer and murderer. Nevertheless, through the grace of God he became a forgiven man and the Lord used him mightily. We sing the psalms and quote the poetic verse, week after week, of an adulterer and murderer. Why? We trust that the Lord forgave him. Surely the Lord can forgive the divorcee as well.
Granted, there are situations in marital discord that do not raise to a level of scriptural divorce, as Dr. Frame notes. I’ve seen many submit to marital counseling, actually beginning with biblical counseling, and witnessed them be shepherded to a renewed marriage. That being said, we need to discuss those dark areas of the human experience, and be prepared to address them when they come through our doors and into our lives.
Another sensitive subject to consider, study and pray about. By ourselves we are hopeless; but in Messiah, we are ever hopeful.
Shalom. Be well.