Matthew 19:3-12 (AD 30)
The Pharisees had a habit of deliberately mangling Scripture and then demanding Jesus publicly unmangle in a way that would make him look bad to either them, regular people, or preferably both.
In this example they used some verses from Deuteronomy:
“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…”, if she marries again, and if that husband divorces her, she can’t then go back to the first husband. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
This is a classic case of a command that came in response to something bad that was happening. In this case, women were being treated as a commodity, even as a temporary wife who would be passed to someone else for a time before going back to her original husband. Some people felt like as long as the official ‘divorce’ paperwork was done, it was legit. Obviously it wasn’t, and God addressed it through prohibition of returning to the first husband. (Bearing in mind that mistreatment and sexual unfaithfulness were already against the law, this concreted up what some people erroneously felt was a gap in the law.)
However, even God’s concreting of an imaginary gap was being turned on its head. The original Hebrew word translated ‘indecent’ clearly referred to nakedness with an implication of sexual sin, and was being given as the grounds for divorce. However, some people in Jesus’ day were arguing that men had carte blanche to get rid of an unwanted wife so long as they felt she was indecent in some way. That was being twisted further to say that any behaviour they didn’t like in their wife was indecent, and therefore grounds for divorce – hence the phrase, “for any and every reason” in the question (v.3).
Jesus’ reply (v.4-6) didn’t merely answer the spoken question of divorce, but the unspoken, wanton misunderstanding of what marriage is.
Marriage was designed by God to be between a man and a woman for life – an indissoluble union. The reason that permission for divorce was given was because people were hard-hearted, and desired divorce when that union was ruptured through adultery. In contrast to a popular view at the time, God did not command divorce in the case of adultery. On the contrary, God’s attitude to his own faithless people and the example through the prophet Hosea was the opposite: God sticks with his faithless people and his desire is for faithful spouses to stick by their faithless spouses. However, divorce was and is permissible by God where there is unfaithfulness.
The disciples’ response to this may seem startling – they were not familiar with such a narrow window for legitimate divorce, and suggested that if marriage was that hard to get out of, maybe people shouldn’t get married at all. At which point Jesus affirmed singleness, both voluntary and involuntary, as a godly state full of potential to serve and glorify God. Paul echoed that in 1 Corinthians 7.
I want to close with God’s words to Hosea about 750 years before Jesus’ time on earth. God didn’t say to Hosea, ‘don’t divorce her’ as if it was the piece of paper that was the issue.
“Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress” (Hosea 3:1).
Thank God that his instructions to Hosea mirror the way he treats us every day.