Jesus, marriage and divorce, part 2 — Matthew 19:7–9

The Kings Instructions

Advent 2021

In the previous post I wrote about what Jesus did nor say, the context was if was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. This time I am looking at what he did say about marriage and divorce. I have included the verses from the last blog for context.

A broken egg shell, split through the word marriage

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:3-9

The Pharisees were setting a trap. There were two main schools of thought amongst the Jews at the time of Jesus.

  • Rabbi Hillel:
    The husband could divorce his wife for almost any reason, hence the ‘for any cause’ in the Pharisees’ question.
  • Rabbi Shammai:
    Moses was speaking only about sexual sin.

Whichever of these Jesus sided with would upset the other side. But Jesus did not take a side, instead of talking about what Moses commanded, he takes it right back to creation. Some take Jesus’ answer to mean that marriage is for one man and one woman only. But Jesus did not introduce this concept, the pharisees did. The asked a question about one theoretical man who wishes to divorce his wife and one theoretical woman who he wishes to divorce.

Monogamy was not required in the Old Testament. Abraham had two wives, Joseph also had two wives plus two slave girls. Moses, after giving the law, took a second wife, David had seven wives (possibly more, plus concubines) and Solomon had a harem that included 700 wives and 300 concubines. To talk as if monogamy was the norm at the of Moses is unthinkable. If a man were to die without having children, his brother had to take that man’s wife so that she could have children to inherit her previous husband’s property. Even if that second husband were already married. There were situations where God’s commands through Moses expected relationships to be not one man one woman.

But Jesus takes it right back to creation, when there was only one man and one woman. The marriage relationship is supposed to reflect on the relationship between God and creation, later shpwn as the relationship between God and his chosen people on the Song of Solomon and between Christ and the Church in the New Testament. The meaning of ‘one flesh’ is about a couple being of one mind and heart. It’s not just about sex.

The Pharisees did not like Jesus’ answer. Everything was about the law of Moses to them, so they bring their argument forward to Moses. The Pharisees said that Moses commanded a man to divorce his wife under certain circumstances. Jesus replied that Moses had permitted it. There is only one commandment concerning marriage, You shall not commit adultery, which Jesus alludes to here. God does not want people to live in broken relationships, Paul adds to this when he notes that neglect was allowable as a reason to divorce in ancient Israeli society and argues that if neglect is allowable then abuse must be allowed also.

God wants people to enjoy relationships, not to be imprisoned in them.

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