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Response to happyslug (Reply #117)

Mon Mar 2, 2015, 08:16 AM

125. Some more on the subject of Jesus and divorce

I'll start with the basic Old Testament verse on the subject, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which says,

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another mans wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.


The certificate of divorce was largely a way of protecting the woman. Under the code of Hammurabi, a woman's first husband could come back and re-claim her if her second husband died or divorced her, but this passage in Deuteronomy forbade him to do so. Divorce's main purpose was to permit re-marriage so that a woman would not starve or be forced into prostitution.

The problem is the word "objectionable". The Hebrew can be translated as "sexual immorality," so here the basis for divorce is sexual infidelity. It can also mean the same as the English word. So which is the correct meaning in this passage?

Before continuing, I should also mention Exodus 21-11

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.


While this law initially covered a slave wife in a polygamous marriage, over time the rabbis decided that it also covered wives who were free and marriages that were monogamous. The rabbis decided that this law gave a wife rights to food and clothing (and shelter and so on), as well as sexual intimacy and affection. So if a wife was abused, neglected or abandoned, she has the right to a divorce and subsequent remarriage.

A few decades before Jesus was born, two rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, debated Deuteronomy 24. Hillel noted the text said a man could divorce his wife for "a cause of sexual immorality." Since rabbis believed that every word in Scripture was there for a reason, Hillel decided that this word "cause" must refer to other grounds for divorce besides sexual immorality. Hillel believed a man could leave his wife for any reason: wearing her hair unbound, burning the toast or renting two consecutive chick flicks from Netflix.

Shammai, on the other hand, thought that Deuteronomy 24 only referred to sexual immorality, and that this "any cause" divorce was wrong.

Hillel's "any cause" divorce was popular among Jewish men. It was much easier to get, though it could be more expensive. It is almost certainly what Joseph was thinking of when he considered divorcing Mary "quietly" in Matthew 1:19 -- "quietly" being a technical term. He would graciously refuse to charge her with her infidelity, and get an "any cause" divorce even though hed still have to pay the bride price.

So apparently, when Jesus mentions divorce in Matthew 19, he is stating his position on the Shammai/Hillel debate. He is not talking about the legitimacy of divorce in general. No rabbi would have asked, "Is it ever lawful for someone to divorce?"; it would have been like asking, "Is it lawful to do what Moses said in the law?"

Jesus sided with Shammai on the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. But Jesus and Paul (and Shammai) would have shared the rabbinic understanding that divorce is regrettable but permissible when the vow of fidelity, provision, or love has been broken and there is no repentance. This would include abuse and abandonment.

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