Yeshua on Divorce, Remarriage and Adultery.
Yeshua on Divorce, Remarriage and Adultery.
Generally speaking, much of the church has misunderstood Yeshua´s statements on divorce, and the church has typically increased, rather than relieved, the suffering and scandal of Christians who have left abusive marriages. This is not right.
If we want to genuinely understand Yeshua´s teachings on divorce, particularly his teaching in response to the question posed to him by the Pharisees, we need to have some understanding of the issues concerning divorce that the Jews of Yeshua´s day were discussing.
Herod Antipas and Herodias.
The Pharisees were testing Yeshua with their question about divorce (Matt. 19:3; Mark 10:2). They may have been trying to trick Yeshua into saying something scathing about Herod Antipas (ruler of Galilee) and his new wife Herodias. The couple had recently divorced their previous partners so that they could marry each other, and they were the ‘talk of town’.
John the Baptist was executed because of his vocal criticism about their divorces and subsequent marriage (Mark 6:17ff cf. Luke 3:19-20). Were the Pharisees hoping Jesus could be got rid of in the same way?
The example of Herod Antipas and Herodias could well be the context for Yeshua´s teaching on divorce which can be paraphrased as: “you must not divorce your spouse so that you can marry someone else, as that is tantamount to adultery” (cf. Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Matt. 5:31-32; Matt. 19:9).
Similarly, the immediate context of Malachi 2:16, in the Old Testament, “suggests that the divorce in view is that of one Jewish person by another in order to undertake subsequent marriages.”
Shammai and Hillel.
But there was more behind the Pharisees’ question. The Pharisees were currently engaged in a debate about the legitimate grounds for divorce in light of Deuteronomy 24:1.
The Rabbinic document Mishnah Gittin gives us insight into the opposing views on divorce of the Shammaite Pharisees and Hillelite Pharisees in the first and early second centuries. (Shammai (50 BCE–30 CE) and Hillel (110 BCE–7 CE) were highly influential Jewish scholars.)
The School of Shammai says: “A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her”, for it is written, “Because he has found in her indecency in anything” (Deut. 24:1). The School of Hillel says: “Even if she spoiled a dish for him”, for it is written, “Because he has found in her indecency in anything”. Rabbi Akiva says: “Even if he found another fairer than she”, for it is written, “And it shall be if she find no favour in his eyes” (Deut. 24:1).
Mishnah Gittin 9.10.
The School of Shammai rightly focused on the word “indecency” in Deuteronomy 24:1. The school of Hillel unjustly focused on the word “anything”. Some wives were unfairly treated and seriously disadvantaged by divorce for any reason, one reason even being that a husband “found another fairer than she”.
The Pharisees’ debate was unfairly focused on the husbands’ rights. The well-being of wives does not seem to have been a consideration. Yet, while the law was unfairly biased towards husbands, wives could seek a divorce. David Instone-Brewer summarises the situation in first-century CE Judaism:
Only a man could enact a divorce, but this did not mean that women could not initiate a divorce . . . The principles that divorce could be enacted only by a man was based on the law that said that a man should write out the get or “divorce certificate” (Deut. 24:1). This resulted in the principles that a man had to enter into divorce voluntarily, but a woman could be divorced against her will.
The Pharisees may have wanted to get into a debate with Yeshua on one of their pet topics, but Yeshua succinctly answered their question and took the conversation in a different direction, all the way back to creation.
Yeshua and Moses.
A further possibility is that the Pharisees asked their question hoping that they would trick Yeshua into speaking against the law of Moses, in particular Deuteronomy 24:1, and thus discredit him. If this was their hope, they would have been disappointed as Yeshua immediately quotes from Genesis in his reply. (The book of Genesis is part of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch, also known as the ‘law of Moses’.)
In Matthew 19:4-6 Yeshua tells the Pharisees:
Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate (Matt. 19:4-6; cf. Gen 1:27; 2:24; 5:2).
In Genesis 2:18-25 we are given a glimpse at God’s ideal model for marriage: one man and one woman, perfectly suited to one another, joined in an intimate and exclusive, mutual and safe, life-long partnership. This is what husbands and wives should aspire to. Sadly, however, many marriages do not live up to this ideal.
When a bride and groom make their wedding vows today, they make a covenant upheld by certain promises: to love, honour, cherish, etc. But some people, even professing Christians, habitually break these promises. A few even do the opposite of love, honour, and cherish.
When a spouse consistently and repeatedly breaks the wedding vows he or she has made, the marriage covenant breaks and the one-flesh union fractures, and this may lead to divorce. It is important to note, however, that a legal divorce usually occurs long after the marriage covenant has already been broken by broken promises.
Divorce and Adultery.
In his comments on divorce given to the Pharisees, Yeshua specifically addressed the Pharisees’ debate on divorce (Matt. 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12). His comments were not meant to be a comprehensive statement on divorce, or a comprehensive statement of all the permissible reasons for divorce. Rather, Jesus correctly interprets Deuteronomy 24:1, he reminds the Pharisees of the ideal in marriage, and he explains that divorcing one person in order to marry another person is immoral and adulterous.
It is plausible, even probable, that all of Yeshua´s statements about adultery, in respect to divorce and remarriage, were given in the context of someone divorcing one person with the express aim of marrying another particular person (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18). If so, it means that someone who divorces their spouse because of betrayal or abuse, but later finds a new partner and marries, is not committing adultery.
Divorce and our Duty of Care.
Yeshua´s reply to the Pharisees had the potential to protect married women. Jesus would not have wanted wives to be divorced and dumped by their husbands for no real reason. As mentioned in my previous article, a divorced woman could be vulnerable in Bible times.
The Bible expresses a clear mandate that we are to protect vulnerable people from injustice. A faulty understanding of Jesus’ teaching on divorce cannot be used to overturn this basic principle. We completely miss the point of Yeshua´s remarks to the Pharisees, and elsewhere, if we insist a spouse remain with an abusive partner in a harmful marriage. Instead, we are to provide consolation, care and support.
Marg Mowczko lives north of Sydney, Australia, in a house filled with three generations of family. She strongly believes that if we are in Christ we are part of the New Creation and a part of a community where old social paradigms of hierarchies and caste systems have no place (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 3:28). Marg has an MA in Early Christian and Jewish Studies from Macquarie University, as well as a BTh.
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