Divorce on the Old Testament

Divorce was not commonplace in Israel and there are no examples of divorce in the narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible. A husband might divorce his wife for any reason, but in practice childlessness and adultery are the two chief causes of divorce. In most cases childlessness is dealt with through a second wife or a concubine rather than divorce. For example, Abraham and Hagar (Gen 16), Jacob and Bilah (Gen 30:1-8), Elkanah and Penniah (1 Sam 1).

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is the only divorce text in the Law, but there was considerable diversity of opinion on how to interpret the “shameful thing” Deuteronomy 24. The problem in Deuteronomy 24 is the definition of “indecency” (ESV). This was the subject of sometimes fierce debate among teachers of the Law within the Pharisaical tradition. The Hebrew word (עֶרְוָה) refers to something shameful (such as nakedness), but it is used often for sexual sin (Lev 18:6-19 uses this word 24 times for sexual sins, “to uncover the nakedness”).

By the first century, there were two views on the meaning of the “shameful thing.” One view followed the great rabbi Shammai and understood this to refer to a women was caught in adultery or found not to be a virgin at marriage. Only in this case was a man permitted to divorce his wife. This is the situation Joseph was in when he discovered his betrothed wife Mary was already pregnant. He wanted to “divorce her quietly” not only because he was a righteous man, but also because the situation would have been cultural shameful to him.

The other view followed the rabbi Hillel and taught that man could divorce his wife for any reason. The phrase “indecent” was interpreted as “find favor,” thus if the wife no longer finds favor in the husband’s eye she could be divorced. Hillel said if a wife ruined dinner, a man could write a certificate of divorce.  There is not much evidence this ever happened, but the point is Hillel permitted divorce for reasons other than adultery.

M.Git 9:10 And the House of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his dish, “since it is said, ‘because he has found in her indecency in anything.’” R. Aqiba says, “Even if he found someone else prettier than she, since it is said, ‘and it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes.’” The Mishnah goes further, allowing for divorce if the wife becomes deaf (m.Yebam 14:1), if she develops epilepsy, tetanus, warts, or leprosy, or failed in her duties about the home. In addition, a man can divorce his wife if she has a physical deformity, including a wedge shaped head, a turnip shaped head, or even if she has poor posture and thinning hair! As one might expect, the woman does not have the same right to divorce her balding, warty husband.

One potential check on divorce was that most marriages were arranged by the parents and wedding contracts protected the wife from an easy divorce (return of dowry, a penalty if adultery was not a factor). If a man made a frivolous charge against his wife in order to divorce her, he was liable to be sued and lose reputation and honor, as well as paying penalty to support his ex-wife. Until the first century A.D., even Roman women rarely were able to divorce their husbands.

Divorce was discouraged in the wisdom tradition. Proverbs 5:15-20 and Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 develop this creation mandate to encourage the person of wisdom to enjoy their spouse exclusively. In addition, the Song of Solomon 8:6-7 praises exclusive love within a marriage. The Second Temple period wisdom literature was more direct. Written about 200 B. C., Sirach 7:19 and 7:26 is a warning against a hasty divorce, yet 25:25-26 permits a man to divorce an “evil wife.” These sayings are directed at the husband, it is almost certain Sirach would not have expected a woman to divorce her husband.

Sirach 7:19 (NRSV) Do not dismiss a wise and good wife, for her charm is worth more than gold.

Sirach 7:26 (NRSV) Do you have a wife who pleases you? Do not divorce her; but do not trust yourself to one whom you detest.

Sirach 25:25–26 (NRSV) Allow no outlet to water, and no boldness of speech to an evil wife. 26 If she does not go as you direct, separate her from yourself.

Jesus does not follow the trajectory which resulted in the any-reason divorce. Rather he seems to focus on the positive view of marriage in which partners are devoted to one another for life. How does this background help understand Jesus’s teaching on divorce in Matthew 5:31-32?

Last Call for Biblical Studies Carnival Links for September 2018

Summer Carnival

Celebrate the end of long hot summer with the September 2018 Biblical Studies Carnival hosted by Jim West, the Grand Poobah of Biblio-blogging. Jim has hosted many carnivals and often has focused on some particular issue or theme. Not sure what he has planned for this carnival, but he is asking for readers to send him nominations for the best and brightest blog posts on biblical or theological topics, biblical languages, Church history, archaeology, or anything else you think worthy of inclusion in this Month’s carnival. Contact him on Zwinglius Redivivus  or direct message him on Twitter @drjewest, or you can try his FaceBook group, Biblical Studies Discussion List. He may have Pinterest and Etsy account as well.

Looking ahead to the last few months of the year, Jacob Prahlow @prahlowjacob hosts in October 2018 (Due November 1) at Pursuing Veritas. Bob MacDonald @drmacdonald will host in November 2018 (Due December 1) at Dust. I am sure they would appreciate some help as their carnival time draws close.

At this point I have no one for December 2018 (Due January 1) and the 2019 carnival schedule completely open. I would like to have a volunteer for December and start filling in the 2019 schedule. If you are a new blogger, hosting a carnival is a great way to get some exposure. I would also like to see some veterans host again. Contact me via email plong42@gmail.com, or DM on Twitter @plong42 or leave a comment here and I can contact you.

Jesus and Divorce – Matthew 5:31-32

This is the third of Jesus’s six comments on legal matters. The first two (murder and adultery) took a command from the Decalogue and extended it to the thoughts and motivations which lay behind the particular sinful act. So, “do not murder” becomes “control your angry thoughts” and “do not commit adultery” becomes “control you lustful thoughts.” With his comments on divorce, Jesus enters into a rabbinic discussion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the meaning of the “indecent thing” in 24:1. He will then deal with making (and breaking) oaths (5:33-37).

As Scot McKnight points out, the reason for Jesus’s “utter horror” about divorce is his understanding of love and marriage based on the Hebrew Bible (Sermon, 95). Marriage is grounded in the creation of man and woman. Humans were designed by God marry and create families. There are examples of men and women enjoying live and marriage in the wisdom literature. In Ecclesiastes 9:9 the writer tells his readers to “enjoy life with your wife whim you love.” The Song of Solomon celebrates the joy of marriage in a way that makes some readers blush.

Jesus deals with divorce by grounding the idea of marriage in the creation. Humans were designed to enter into lifelong relationships, spiritual unions which create families and foster a community where children are raised. He alludes to the creation of humans as male and female (Gen 1:27) and quotes Genesis 2:24 as support for marriage.  In the context of Genesis humans were designed to work and they were designed to build communities around the ideal family. This is the way things work best, although in the present world they are corrupted by sin.

Since marriage is embedded in creation itself, it is foolish to try to live in another way. (A related question is the issue of a person choosing not to marry at all. It is not my point here to say the only way someone can be happy and wise is to marry, see below o  Matthew 19). People often choose to do the less-than-ideal thing and often indulge in foolishness with wild abandon!

With respect to the application of this teaching, the ideal for humans is a life-long marriage, but sin corrupts everything and sometimes things happen which prevent us from reaching that ideal.

Jesus intended divorce to be a rarity, but the fact he teaches on the issue indicates he knew it would happen. Like the wisdom tradition, he recognizes that God has designed humans to have marriage relationships, but he also recognizes human frailty (hard-heartedness) results in a breakdown of what God has intended.  No one goes into a marriage expecting it to fail, but sometimes it does.  A person experiencing marriage problems ought to be treated with grace and acceptance, in the same way we might accept a person who is an alcoholic as we help them to deal with their problem.

In a contemporary context, there are far more things breaking down marriages than adultery. If there is any abuse of either the wife or the children, the wife should separate for the safety of herself and children. Divorce and remarriage is one of those things which is “not the way God created us to be” and our sinful world makes it very difficult to live our lives fully to the ideal to which we have been create.

Jesus gives a similar teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-12. In response to a question from a group of Pharisees Jesus draws attention to the creation story and the original intention of marriage. If God’s intention was for a marriage to continue “until death do us part,” then the Pharisees ask why Moses permitted divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus repeats what he said in the Sermon on the Mount but adds the observation Moses added the possibility of divorce because the human heart is hard (19:8).

This might have surprised the disciples, who wonder if it is better not to marry (v. 10). Jesus responds to this with one of the more enigmatic sayings in Matthew” there are some people who are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (v. 11-12). Not all can accept this voluntary celibacy, but those who can, Jesus says, should accept it.

With respect to modern application, this verse has been used far beyond Jesus’s original intent to defend traditional marriage or to prevent a woman from leaving an abusive marriage. In order to understand Jesus, we need to learn something about the state of marriage and divorce in Second Temple Judaism, read his brief comments in that context before drawing reasonable application to contemporary practice.

Historically, has the church missed the point on marriage and divorce?  How can contemporary Christianity help develop a biblical view of marriage and reach out to people who have experienced the pain of divorce?

Adultery in Your Heart – Matthew 5:27-30

Similar to murder, Jesus addresses not just the sin of adultery but also the internal process behind the act of adultery. It is unlikely many people in his original audience were serial adulterers and no one would have considered adultery to a positive influence on society.

Adultery does not happen by accident. There is a period of temptation that occurs before the actual action itself. But where does that process start? I would suggest one’s view of marriage and relationships between the sexes are shaped from a very young age. If a young man is taught adultery is acceptable in some situations or he observes sexual harassment and mistreatment of women regularly, then it is likely those behaviors will be normative for him.

The source of the problem of adultery seems to be “looking where one ought not look,” a point made in the Second Temple wisdom book Sirach. Sirach is instructing young men and he is certainly not politically correct from a modern perspective. (If his words offend, try switching the pronouns, instead of “Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman” change it to “Turn away your eyes from a shapely man.” It works either way.)

Sirach 9:1–9 (NRSV)  Do not be jealous of the wife of your bosom, or you will teach her an evil lesson to your own hurt. 2 Do not give yourself to a woman and let her trample down your strength. 3 Do not go near a loose woman, or you will fall into her snares. 4 Do not dally with a singing girl, or you will be caught by her tricks. 5 Do not look intently at a virgin, or you may stumble and incur penalties for her. 6 Do not give yourself to prostitutes, or you may lose your inheritance. 7 Do not look around in the streets of a city, or wander about in its deserted sections. 8 Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not gaze at beauty belonging to another; many have been seduced by a woman’s beauty, and by it passion is kindled like a fire. 9 Never dine with another man’s wife, or revel with her at wine; or your heart may turn aside to her, and in blood you may be plunged into destruction.

Just like the previous expansion of “do not murder” to include the mental processes behind murder, Jesus points to the internal thoughts and attitudes which lead to adultery. Rather than “looking where one ought not,” perhaps it should be “thinking what one ought not.” I had a friend in high school who was told by his parents it was okay to look, but not touch. This led to a series of seriously bad choices for him over the years. Jesus is clear: it is impossible to separate thoughts from actions. Internal anger will come out as rage and destructive words. Lust will develop into some external behavior.

For most younger people in the west, sexual attitudes are formed online where pornography is easily discovered. The worldview of pornography is damaging to both men and women and skews a biblical view of sexual relationships and marriage. The Bible celebrates sexual relationships (although that does seem to be the case for some Christian teaching).

What goes on inside someone’s head is impossible to see, we tend to think that no one knows or cares that we have thought impure thoughts. Jesus explodes this by comparing those private thoughts to the act of adultery itself. As with Jesus’s teaching on anger, it is important to at least observe he is teaching all his disciples to control their internal lust, both men and women. Although men are usually the problem, female disciples of Jesus are called to the same high standards as the men.

Jesus uses some very strong language to describe how we are to handle this problem. If this is taken literally all men would have been blinded in junior high school. This verse does not teach self-mutilation as a cure for sin.

Jesus is saying, in effect, “don’t let your eyes make you sin.” Don’t put yourself in a position to look lustfully. Jesus often uses hyperbole to shock his audience, to pluck out an eye is an exaggeration since a blind man can still lust. The prime example of this is David, who saw Bathsheba and then committed adultery.  Should he have “plucked” his eye out?  No, but he should have had the sense not to be in that position to see Bathsheba in the first place.

The problem for the modern reader is how to draw implications of Jesus’s teaching to new situations. As I write this, the #MeToo movement is still developing and the alleged immoral behavior of a Supreme Court candidate is in the headlines.

Is it narrow-minded to apply Jesus’s words to the epidemic of sexual harassment women have faced for generations? A commitment to marital fidelity often results in people calling you a prude, a Puritan, etc. But if Jesus was correct about internal anger, is he also correct about the dangerous effects of internal lustful thoughts?

Dealing with Anger between Family – Matthew 5:23-26

Rather than continue in a state of anger, Jesus tells his disciples to reconcile with their fellow disciple before going to worship (5: 23-24). “Brother” ought to be understood as referring to all disciples, certainly women are included in the command to reconcile. But did Jesus intend for reconciliation to be restricted to only fellow disciples? Likely not, but if there is some offense between followers of Jesus reconciliation ought to be the highest priority.

That Jesus uses familial language should not be a surprise since he conceived of his followers as a family unit. For example, he considered those who do the will of the Father to be his brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:46-50). Peter says the twelve have left everything to follow Jesus, including “brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands” (Matthew 19:27-30). Jesus’s disciples are a new family so though ought to deal with disruptions as a good family does, by seeking reconciliation.

Jesus says a fellow disciple “has something against you,” implying the disciple has indeed wronged a fellow disciple. Since the one who has done the wrong needs to reach out and begin the process of reconciliation, the person knows they are in the wrong and are causing a disruption within the family.

Reconciliation is to create a sense of harmony between two parties, to “restore normal relations” (BDAG). Matthew uses διαλλάσσομαι, only used here in the New Testament, but the word is related to καταλλάσσω a few more times. The word group is sometimes used in a political context where two parties have become estranged and need a third party to act as a go between and restore the relationship.

Jesus offers a simple process for seeking reconciliation between disciples.

First, reconciliation requires recognition of an offense. In verse 23 the worshiper remembers they have offended or hurt someone. The main reason people do not seek reconciliation is they think they were in the right and they are waiting for the other person to come to them and apologize!

Second, reconciliation should be the first priority. The worshiper sets aside their sacrifice and seeks reconciliation. McKnight points out the need for reconciliation between Jesus’s disciples trumps even offering a sacrifice at the Temple! (Sermon 79). It would be easy to put off an admission of guilt with a hundred “good excuses,” but Jesus says to set everything aside and seek reconciliation.

Third, reconciliation can happen when the offender reaches out to the one offend, “go to the person.” It seems obvious, but someone might admit guilt in their heart and pray for the other person and think they are now reconciled. Jesus says to go the person, face them and admit you are wrong. This is extremely humbling and difficult and it is important this happens face-to-face.

Fourth, reconciliation must come quickly (v. 25). The longer one waits to seek out the person they wronged, the more difficult reconciliation becomes. This is partially because both sides become entrenched in their belief they are in the right!

In Matthew 5:23-26 Jesus is describing personal reconciliation between disciples. If the disciple of Jesus is really dealing with anger in their heart, then they will deal with any anger they have toward another member of Jesus’s family or the anger they are causing among the disciples of Jesus.

Should we draw the implication that larger groups need to find some sort of reconciliation? I can easily think of examples of splits within a church which are in desperate need of reconciliation, often after many years of anger and resentment. This could be applied to denominational splits and the possibility of reconciliation between people of similar faiths.

Going even further, reconciliation may be needed between people who have been the victim of sexual harassment or racial prejudice. How can Jesus’s process for reconciliation be applied to these larger, systemic issues?

Anger and Murder – Matthew 5:21-26

Matthew 5:21–22 (ESV) “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

In the next few sections of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus interprets some well-known teaching from the Law. The first two are drawn from the Ten Commandments. In each case Jesus quotes the commandment and then extends the commandment to include the inner thoughts as well as the external actions. As McKnight points out, Jesus does not disagree with the original command, but he does object to the way the command has been interpreted by other Jewish teachers. For McKnight, Jesus’s interpretations reveal “a fuller expression of God’s will for God’s people” (Sermon, 76). Jesus focuses on the underlying motivation for murder, specifically anger. In each of the three parts of this saying, as the level of anger rises, so too does the penalty.

First, Jesus says a person who is angry with a brother is “under judgment.” The penalty for taking another person’s life varies in the Law. If a person accidentally kills another they may face a penalty but they would not be subject to capital punishment. But the penalty for premeditated murder was execution. Numbers 35:16-21 gives a series of examples of killing to properly define murder and in each case the murderer is to be put to death. The shocking element of this saying is equating anger and premeditated murder. Although anger is always considered foolish in the wisdom literature, it is never thought to be the moral equivalent of murder.

Second, if anyone calls his brother raca he is liable before the council.  Raca is fairly common Aramaic word (רֵיקָא or רֵיקָה, or ῥακά in Greek) meaning “numskull” or “fool” (BDAG). Sometimes pastors will state the word is particularly foul; I have occasionally said raca is a four-letter F–word in order to tease out the shock value. But even with this there is some flexibility, some people would have to be extremely angry to drop an f-bomb on someone, others use the word so frequently it is no longer a shock.

However, at the time of Jesus the word may not have had quite that level of insult. It was “a colloquial term of rather gentle cheek and generally used in familiar surroundings” (BDAG). The ESV therefore translates the word as “insults” his brother to avoid the confusion of the use of an Aramaic word.

Appearing before the “council” is an allusion to the Sanhedrin, analogous to highest court for the Jews. This is to say something like “you will be taken before the Supreme Court if you insult your neighbor.”

Finally, Jesus warns his disciples that calling someone “you fool” result in the dangers of hellfire!  We would expect that the third statement in the progression is the strongest expression of anger, especially since the judgement attached is the fires of Hell. The phrase “you fool” is not very strong in English, but in Jesus speech it may have been. The Greek word (μωρός) is where the English word “moron” comes from, but it would be a mistake to import the contemporary English sense of the word here. Jesus means something like a “foolish rebel.” Moses used this word in Numbers 20:10 when he was extremely angry with the people of Israel who continued to test God by complaining about water.

Jesus wants to shock his listeners, the word spoken in anger is so insulting it brings immediate apocalyptic judgment. The “fires of hell” is the usual translation for the word ghenna, the Valley of Hinnom. This valley associated with Molech worship before King Josiah destroyed the altars and turned the location into a garbage pit. Since the garbage was always on smoldering and stinking it became a metaphor for eternal judgment.

Jesus clearly says if you are angry enough to use insulting and hurtful language, then you are in danger of not entering into the kingdom of Heaven (the opposite of entering into Gehenna).

This does not mean “never get angry” since there are many things in this life which ought to anger us. Even Jesus was angry with the money changers at the temple. God is frequently angry with his people in the Hebrew Bible. It is the cause of our anger which is a problem, but also what we do with that anger once it rises. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says his disciples will deal with anger differently than the rest of the world. They will seek reconciliation rather than revenge. More importantly they will deal with the internal causes of anger before lashing out at people.

Is Jesus telling his disciples to never get angry? How does the true disciple of Jesus live in a world which is deeply troubling and avoid the kind of anger Jesus describes here? How can a true disciple of Jesus respond to the troubling evil we witness in daily life (via the national news, through popular media, etc.) Social media makes it so easy to respond in anger without penalty, should the true disciple of Jesus simply avoid contact with the world?

Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Law – Matthew 5:17-20

Jesus begins by making it clear he is not abolishing the Law, but rather demonstrating how to keep the Law properly. It is possible, Scot McKnight suggest, that Jesus has been accused of breaking the Law or teaching things which nullified the Law. There are several examples of the Pharisees questioning Jesus about certain practices such as eating with sinners (Matt 9:1-11), fasting (Matt 9:14), and Sabbath (Matt 12:1-13).

The word fulfill in in contrast to annulling the Law, “far from undercutting the role of the Law and the Prophets, is to enable God’s people to live out the Law more effectively” (Nolland, Matthew, 218). For Jesus the Law is God’s eternal word. The heaven and earth itself will pass away before the Law does.

Jesus is not abolishing the commands of the Law at all. The righteousness of the true disciple of Jesus must exceed even the Pharisees. The Pharisees were known for “building a wall” around the Law so that they would not break the Law in ignorance. For example, the Law did not require a tithe on herbs such as mint, dill, or cumin. But the Pharisee tithed on everything, including these plants. Later in Matthew Jesus will call this “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel” (Matt 23:23-24).

Sometimes the Pharisees are mis-characterized as hyper-legalists who demanded all Jews following their interpretation of the Law. Contemporary preaching makes them sound like Puritans (or the men from A Handmaid’s Tale). It is important to understand the motivation for much of the teaching of the Pharisees: they wanted to obey the Law since it was God’s holy and perfect will. They did not obey out of fear, but as a response to God’s grace given to all Israel. For a Jew living in the Second Temple Period, the Pharisees were not the “bad guys” (in contrast to contemporary Christian preaching).

To have “more righteousness than the Pharisees” does not mean “have more rules than the Pharisees.” They increased the number of rules and traditions to build their wall around the Law, Jesus wants his disciples to seek the heart of the Law. What are the principles found in the Law which reflect the heart of God? What are the principles behind a particular command which God demands of his people at in time in salvation history?

Scot McKnight suggests this section of the Sermon on the Mount is a new way of reading Scripture. For McKnight, Jesus is setting himself up as a lens through which Scripture should be read. Jesus “had the audacity to think he was the messiah and taught a Messianic ethic” (Sermon on the Mount, 67). This messianic re-interpretation of the Law was radical and resulted in conflict with the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Imagine if Jesus showed up in a typical Bible College or Seminary classroom (or a plenary session at the Evangelical Theological Society) and told the professors they were reading the Bible wrong and were “blind guides”(Matt 23:16) or hypocrites who look good on the outside but are “full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt 23:27-28). I am certain they would question Jesus in the same way the Pharisees did (Where is your authority? Where did you get your degree? Where are your scholarly publications?)

This is not a kind of “find Jesus in the Old Testament” hermeneutic. Jesus fulfills the entire theological story of the Old Testament. He is the climax of the story since everything in the Law and prophets point towards him.

Jesus really is teaching his disciples how to understand the Law and apply it in a new context (like the Pharisee), but not by multiplying commands. Jesus demands his disciples go deeper than a list of rules and seek the true heart of God behind the Law. He will give two examples of this new way to read the Law in the next two paragraphs of the Sermon on the Mount by re-reading two of the Ten Commandments.