When Jesus exaggerates on divorce, part two

(Read part one for a foundation on what Jesus said on divorce in Matthew and the background on why he used exaggeration or overstatement to make a point.) In my first post, we looked at Jesus' words on divorce to the pharisees in Matthew 19: “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.”

I asserted that Jesus wasn't make a hyper-literal statement on divorce; he was making a point. And I mentioned what has often become the standard evangelical response: "No one should divorce, ever, unless their spouse cheats on them; then they can get divorced and remarried." 

To be honest, I have sensed for years that coupling this admonition from Jesus with Paul's words in 1 Corinthians on the freedom to divorce an unbelieving spouse who deserts you was wholly inadequate. (Not to mention the fact that Jesus and Paul seem to contradict each other!) 

As a chaplain, an interim pastor, and a theology student, I watched with astonishment as the number of my friends who had endured or were enduring abusive "Christian marriages" began to rise. I listened as a seminary professor told a story of deciding to support a woman who was divorcing her husband because he physically abused her multiple times—the abuse finally resulting in her need for emergency surgery. (She is fortunate that she lived to tell her story.)

I don't think the professor was ever convinced the divorce was "right" or "allowed" biblically; he just couldn't condone the treatment of this woman.

And as I begin to study the Bible more deeply—and to read about the 1st century Jewish Greco-Roman context into which Jesus and Paul spoke, I began to see things differently. I have begun to grasp two things: 1) the Bible doesn't give a "no-fault" divorce as an option—you can divorce and remarry only if a spouse breaks their vows; 2) the OT laws on divorce always protect the victim.

The picture painted of a God of justice who fights for the oppressed throughout the Old and New Testaments does not need to be checked at the door when an evangelical considers cause for divorce and remarriage. In fact, I've become convinced that it must not be.

Here are two reasons why:

  1. Jesus was employing exaggeration/overstatement in Matthew 19. In Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament, Robert H. Stein asserts that "a statement which is interpreted by another Evangelist in a nonliteral way may contain exaggeration." What does this have to do with Matthew 19? It appears it is quite likely that Matthew was expressing the meaning of Jesus' exaggerated statement to the pharisees in a way that was least likely to be misunderstood. Why? Because when this statement of Jesus is quoted in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18, there is NO exception. Not even adultery "appeared" to be grounds for divorce. It is as if Jesus is replying to the pharisees (who were seeking divorce for "any cause") that he is not so concerned with exceptions as he is "zealous for the perfect purpose of God." Jesus is not setting down a new legal dictum for the religious Jews to follow, but an overstatement that exposes their hardness of heart. [1]
  2. First century Jews would not have understood Jesus as abolishing the Old Testament laws on divorce, but as commenting on them. During the time of Jesus, a divorce debate raged: did Deuteronomy 24:1-4 say a man could divorce his wife for indecency/sexual unfaithfulness or for "any cause?"Those Pharisees who followed the teaching of the Rabbi Hillel "understood the passage to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any cause, even burning his toast." Clearly, Hillelites were smoking something! Talk about a creative translation. [Ahem.]  Those following the school of thought of Rabbi Shammai believed that a man could divorce his wife for the cause of unfaithfulness. [2]

    Did you notice that Jesus bypassed their debate entirely and pointed back to the original purpose of marriage, that the two shall become one?

    For a comprehensive look at New Testament scholar David Instone-Brewer's assessment of what the Bible and Jesus are saying on divorce, you can watch this quirky video that shows "The Four Causes for Biblical Divorce." This is an excellent way to catch the "continuity" of what the Bible is telling us about divorce. Additionally, here's a link to Instone-Brewer's entire video series on subjects ranging from the any-cause divorce of the first century to "Did Moses permit divorce or did Moses and God permit it?" You're welcome!

Next week: practical and theological reflections on how the church can do better on the issue of abuse and divorce.

Your turn: What are your conclusions on divorce based on the Bible's laws and commands? Why do you think the church has such a hard time entering into the reality of abuse and divorce?

[1] Stein, Robert H. Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: BakerBooks, 1996: 171-174.

[2] The IVP New Testament Commentary: Matthew. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

When Jesus Exaggerates, part 1

Many Wednesdays, I'll be taking an "underneath-the-hood" look at Scripture, pushing us to go deeper and to read the Bible for what it is, not for what we want it to be. "Your heavenly Father will evaluate you based on how you wrestled with His Word and whether you were obedient to what you discovered," wrote our hermeneutics professor. I could almost hear the small online class breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Our debate forums were filled with discussions on what the Bible says about divorce, women in ministry, the essential meaning of the Old Testament word hokmah or wisdom, and how literary devices or forms change the meaning of what we are reading in God's Word. Sometimes we felt like we were making educated guesses and best choices, all while realizing we viewed Scripture through a Western, modern lens.  It's enough to make a Bible student run for cover and pray for mercy!

Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New TestamentWhat a relief to realize that those things we can understand and evaluate provide enough light for us to travel the path, if we are faithful to study, discover, and to humbly admit when we aren't entirely sure. One of the areas in which we have often—quite frankly—missed the boat, may be when we go to interpret the words attributed to our Savior himself. In our giddiness to meet this flesh-and-blood Jesus in the gospels, we have often imposed a structure on his words that would have been foreign to the original Jewish and Greek hearers. Indeed, it would have been foreign to Jesus himself.

So while we want to be careful not to water-down the firm words of Jesus in the gospels, we also want to make sure we understand what he means when he exaggerates. And exaggerate he does, as a way of making a point. Let's talk about the first  two ways he does this from the book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament:

" A statement which is literally impossible may contain an exaggeration." Since a statement can be physically impossible or logically impossible, let's examine two examples:

1. physically impossible "But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Matthew 6:4

Paradox alert: Jesus wants us to make a conscious effort not to know what we are consciously doing! Right. You knew this instinctively, but someone new to the Bible might not. As for the next one...

2. logically impossible "All things are possible to him who believes." Mark 9:23

Not quite so easy, eh? Many a new Bible student has been deceived into thinking they should be able to make something happen through faith when in fact "all things are simply not possible for the believer." For instance—you and I cannot become God. How about "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:48 // Classic hyperbole, a goal to reach for, a thing God is doing in us as he grows us into his own likeness. Take these at face value and you will be disappointed, maybe even despairing. Take them as statements of exaggeration, and you will be challenged to live in the tension of a grace-filled life.

(This post based on observations from the book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament. Check amazon.com or half.com. One of the most helpful and accessible books I've seen on this topic.)

Comments: Can you name a saying or teaching of Jesus in which you have wondered if he is exaggerating? 

Next week: When statements of Jesus appear to conflict with each other, he may be exaggerating. (Why does Jesus tell us to "pray in secret" while also giving us the very-corporate "Lord's prayer?")