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.