Pharisees come to Jesus with a question about divorce. This is another test from Pharisees, but it may not have malicious intent. They are interested in hearing Jesus’s view on a controversial topic current in the first century: under what circumstances is divorce permissible. Jesus made a statement on divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the Pharisees wanted some clarification. As John Meier said, “Jesus’s prohibition of divorce is nothing short of astounding” (Marginal Jew, 4:113) and “the teacher from Nazareth stands alone” (Marginal Jew, 4:116). See this post for Jewish views on Divorce in the first century.
Matthew 19-20 builds on the discipleship material in Matthew 18. The teaching in this section focuses on household obligations, beginning with divorce and remarriage. Davies and Allison suggest “19:1–20:28 can in fact be interpreted as a long Haustafel consisting of sayings of Jesus” (Matthew, 3:1). John Nolland calls 19:1-20:16 “Family and Possessions in View of the Kingdom” (Matthew, 763).
Complicating this discussion is the practice of divorce in the Jewish world, the Greco-Roman world, and how the church handled divorce in church history, and (more interesting to the modern reader), how conservative evangelical churches have changed with respect to divorce and remarriage over the last hundred years. Divorce is an intensely person issue since we all have experienced divorce, whether in our own marriage or in our family or close friends.
Jesus responds by grounding the idea of marriage in creation (Matthew 19:4-6). He combines two foundational verses from the creation story. He includes the phrase “from the beginning” as an introduction, then Genesis 1:27 (cf., 5:27), “male and female he created them,” and Genesis 2:4, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
The main point of these quotations of Genesis is to say, “didn’t God create humans doe monogamous relationships?” If a couple breaks up and them re-marries, is that not adultery? Genesis 2:4 was considered anti-polygamy and anti-divorce (Tosato, “On Genesis 2:24,” CBQ 52 : 409). Paul quotes the same verse in 1 Corinthians 6:16-17 in his argument against going to prostitutes. Like Paul, Jesus uses the verse to define the ideal marriage.
There are three clauses in the verse which need to be explained. First, the man leaves his parents. In Israelite society, a newly married couple lived with or near the husband’s family. Second, he must hold fast to his wife. The verb κολλάω has a wide range of uses, like the Hebrew דבק the use here has the sense of sticking with someone, or to be devoted to someone. In Romans 12:9 Paul uses the verb, “hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good.” The verb appears in Acts with the connotation of joining or associating with someone (9:26; Paul tried to join the disciples; and 10:28; Jews do not associate with Gentiles). Third, the two become one flesh. “Just as blood relations are one’s flesh and bone … so marriage creates a similar kinship relation between man and wife” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 3:11).
Jesus’s view is radical, but not too far from Qumran and the Book of Jubilees:
CD 4:19–21 The builders of the wall … will be caught in unchastity twice, by taking two wives in their lifetime whereas the principle of creation is “Male and female created he them”; also, those who entered the ark went into it two by two.
Jubilees 3.7 Therefore a man and woman shall be one. And therefore it shall be that a man will leave his father and his mother and he will join with his wife and they will become one flesh.
With these exceptions, Jesus does indeed have a more conservative opinion on divorce than most Jewish teachers of his day. But should this really surprise Matthew’s readers at this point of the book? Jesus has consistently demanded more from the heart of his true disciples than the Pharisees. Even if Jesus is dismissive the wide variety of traditions the Pharisees developed on purity, handwashing or the Sabbath, when discussing the Law, he has consistently demanded more from his disciples. Do not murder? I tell you don’t even get angry! Do not commit adultery? I tell you do not even lust in your heart!
Before moving on to Moses’s exception in 19:7-19, let me make two observations. First, sometimes divorce is necessary. For example, a woman in an abusive relationship needs to get out of that relationship for her own protection, especially if children are involved. There is nothing here (or anywhere in the Bible) which demands a woman stay faithful to an abusive husband. However, a husband should not divorce his wife if he no longer finds her attractive, and a wife should not divorce her husband if he got fat and lost his hair. There is nothing here about easy divorces for flippant reasons.
Second, Christians need to realize divorce happens. In the context of Matthew 19, being unmerciful is a grievous sin (Matt 18:21-35). In the immediate context of Jesus’s divorce statement in Matthew 5:31-32 is a clear teaching on anger and list that no human can claim to have achieved! If a Christian experiences the pain of a divorce, they are in need of mercy, comfort, support, not condemnation.