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The Pharisees question Jesus - James Tissot (1886)

When Jesus had finished teaching about forgiveness, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan river. Large crowds followed him and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

Jesus replied,

“Haven’t your read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

The woman taken in adultery - Guercino (1621)“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus explained,

“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry!”

Jesus replied,

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“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

What the story means to us today

Marriage isn’t the problem – sin is

For a moment, put divorce out of your head and consider the reasons behind divorces. One partner may have bullied the other, committed adultery, or lied. Maybe the love of money exceeds the love of another person. Maybe one partner is selfish. Maybe one lost their way and gave in to crime or addiction. Whatever the reason, the roots for divorce always center around some type of sin. Marriage isn’t the problem – sin is.

As Jesus noted, Moses’ laws permitted divorce for this very reason – because man’s heart had become “hard”. The inevitable question becomes, do you live with sin in a marriage or commit a sin by divorcing? It’s an unwinnable situation when the marriage deviates from God’s intended design.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Jesus teaching - Artist Unknown

But what if a husband strikes his wife? Or a wife cheats on a husband? Is divorce acceptable then?

When a sin is committed against a partner, it’s evidence that their love was never truly a soul-binding arrangement in the first place – they never truly became “one flesh” as God intended. In these instances, the marriage was nothing more than a legal agreement that broke down when the promises were broken. If the partners were truly “one flesh”, they would not hurt each other because the pain inflicted would equally affect both partners (and they certainly would not repeatedly hurt each other). On the other hand, if the sin sincerely hurts the sinner, it’s a sign that the partner is truly sorry for their error and the sinful act may be resolved with forgiveness.

Divorce for adultery according to Moses

It is a mistake to believe Moses allowed divorce specifically for adultery only. The verses tell us divorce was allowed in Moses’ day for “something indecent”. That “something” was not adultery, which was normally punishable by death (although the punishment was rarely carried out). It was any sin that was shocking or immoral.

What about an illegal marriage – e.g. a father marries his daughter? Is divorce acceptable then?

God’s feelings about divorce may be more easily understood by looking at an extreme example. If a marriage is illegal, for instance incestuous, would a divorce be acceptable to God? As mentioned above, if a marriage violates God’s laws, the couple were never truly one-flesh to begin with. Their marriage was nothing more than a legal agreement which in God’s eyes, was never a valid marriage in the first place.

The applicability of Moses’ laws in modern times

On aspect of confusion for new Christians is Old Testament laws that appear to be inapplicable today. The confusion primarily arises when a person does not recognize the different types of laws presented in the Old Testament.

The “laws” (or commands) in the Bible can be broken down into three easily discernible categories – Judicial or Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral. Judicial or Civil laws were specifically applicable to the Israelites at the time and included definitions of various crimes (e.g. adultery, murder) and their respective punishment (e.g. restitution, execution). Ceremonial laws defined the customs which constitute a symbolic representation of their spiritual practice and defined the behavior Israelites should follow to maintain a close, spiritual relationship with God. The third type of law, moral law, was (and is) related to the definition of moral standards that govern the acceptable behavior of the people.

In these verses, Jesus clearly tells us Old Testament laws are not always applicable today. When the Pharisees ask Jesus why Moses commanded a man give his wife a certificate of divorce, Jesus noted that the circumstances in Moses’ day were different. He explained that Moses gave the command because “your hearts were hard”. In Moses’ day, the laws God provided were appropriate for the time. Today, Old Testament moral laws are still applicable but New Testament laws guide our daily lives.

Is it better not to marry at all?

Jesus explains the strict requirements for divorce. Divorce is the result of sin and the sin is compounded when we break the arrangement God expects of us. The disciples assume the requirements are so strict, it is better to not marry at all. In other words, the disciples thought that marriage is not worth it unless the arrangement can be easily and freely broken.

Jesus explained,

“Not everyone can accept this statement, except those to whom it has been given. For there are some eunuchs who were born that way, some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.”

In other words, if a person cannot accept the permanence of marriage, it is better that they not marry at all. However, remaining celibate is difficult and as Paul later tells us, “it is better to marry than burn with desire”. Note however, that nothing in the verses claims that remaining unmarried is better than marriage. There is no spiritual advantage of either arrangement.

Jesus defense of women in the marital relationship

Jesus says,

“Any man who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Jesus spoke from a man’s point of view and in context with the times. In ancient Israel, only men were allowed to file for a divorce (although women could go through the court system and be granted a divorce from an abusive man). A man could divorce his wife for almost any reason. Hellelite rules let a man divorce a woman if she burned the bread. A Hillelite rabbi even said divorce was acceptable if the man found someone more beautiful. Jesus saw these rules as violations of God’s plan for man and woman. As Jesus pointed out,

“What God has joined together, let no man separate.”

Clearly divorce laws in ancient Israel violated God’s law.

Jesus Denounces the Scribes and Pharisees - etching by Friedrich Ludy (Unknown date)“The divorcee who marries another commits adultery”

Some translations say divorce is only unacceptable when someone “marries another”. In other words, divorce is not prohibited unless they remarry. This is not the correct interpretation. Divorce is never a God-ordained option.

Jesus’ travels are coming to an end

Jesus has left the area around Galilee for the last time. He travelled through Samaria and Perea and into Judea, the far southern end of the Jordan River where it empties into the Dead Sea. We know the crowds were clearly aware of his work in Galilee because Matthew tells us “large crowds followed him”.

The area Jesus finds himself in is located in the far southern boundaries of Israel, near the Egyptian border. Included in the area are Jerusalem and Bethlehem where Jesus was born. It is also the area that he will die and be resurrected in.

Jesus moves into Herod Antipas’ jurisdiction but does not fall for Pharisees’ trap

Jesus’ movements have now taken him into enemy territory and immediately, the Pharisees make an attempt to trap him. But Jesus does not take the bait by contradicting rabbinic rules that deem a divorce illegal unless based on sexual immorality. Instead, Jesus turns the argument back to the earliest chapters of Genesis, effectively neutralizing the Pharisees’ argument.

The science and history behind the story

Divorce laws in ancient Israel – the rules of Hillel vs. Shammai

According to rabbinic rules (e.g. halakah), a man could legally write a certificate of dismissal and divorce his wife but there were two rabbinic schools of thought at the time that differed dramatically. According to the House of Hillel, a divorce was permitted for almost any reason. However, for those that subscribed to the House of Shammai rules, divorce was only permitted in the case of sexual immorality.

Notes on Biblical translation

“Sexual immorality”

Jesus says,

“Anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.”

The original phrase for “sexual immorality” is “porneia”. The meaning of porneia is very broad. It may mean “marital unfaithfulness”, “premarital sex”, or “adultery”. It may also refer to a couple where one is not a Christian or a couple that later finds they are distantly related.

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Bible Text

NIV

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ v 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

Pharisees Saduccees Tempt Jesus - James Tissot (1886-1894)The NET Bible

Now when Jesus finished these sayings, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan River. 19:2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

19:3 Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” 19:4 He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, 19:5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 19:6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 19:7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 19:8 Jesus said to them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way. 19:9 Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” 19:10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the case of a husband with a wife, it is better not to marry!” 19:11 He said to them, “Not everyone can accept this statement, except those to whom it has been given. 19:12 For there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.”

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there.

3 The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”

4 And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 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’? 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”

8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I 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.”

10 His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: 12 For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.”

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

When Jesus had completed these teachings, he left Galilee and crossed the region of Judea on the other side of the Jordan. Great crowds followed him there, and he healed them.

3 One day the Pharisees were badgering him: “Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?”

4–6 He answered, “Haven’t you read in your Bible that the Creator originally made man and woman for each other, male and female? And because of this, a man leaves father and mother and is firmly bonded to his wife, becoming one flesh—no longer two bodies but one. Because God created this organic union of the two sexes, no one should desecrate his art by cutting them apart.”

7 They shot back in rebuttal, “If that’s so, why did Moses give instructions for divorce papers and divorce procedures?”

8–9 Jesus said, “Moses provided for divorce as a concession to your hard heartedness, but it is not part of God’s original plan. I’m holding you to the original plan, and holding you liable for adultery if you divorce your faithful wife and then marry someone else. I make an exception in cases where the spouse has committed adultery.”

10 Jesus’ disciples objected, “If those are the terms of marriage, we’re stuck. Why get married?”

11–12 But Jesus said, “Not everyone is mature enough to live a married life. It requires a certain aptitude and grace. Marriage isn’t for everyone. Some, from birth seemingly, never give marriage a thought. Others never get asked—or accepted. And some decide not to get married for kingdom reasons. But if you’re capable of growing into the largeness of marriage, do it.”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

And it came to pass, that when Jesus had finished these sayings, he departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judaea beyond Jordan; 2 And great multitudes followed him; and he healed them there. 3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? 8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. 10 His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. 11 But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. 12 For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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