FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE
Leaving there, Jesus came into the hill-country of Judaea and to the district across the Jordan, and once again crowds came together to him. As his custom was, he again continued to teach them. Some Pharisees came to him and asked him if it was lawful for a man to put away his wife. They asked this question to test him. He asked them, “What commandment did Moses lay down for you?” They answered, “Moses allowed a man to write a bill of divorcement and then to put her away.” Jesus said to them, “It was to meet the hardness of your heart that he wrote this commandment for you. From the beginning of creation male and female he created them. For this cause a man will leave his father and his mother and will cleave to his wife. And the two will become one flesh, so that they are no longer two but one flesh. So then what God has joined together let not man separate.” In the house his disciples again asked him about this. He said to them, “Whoever puts away his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Jesus was pursuing his way south. He had left Galilee and had come into Judaea. He had not yet entered Jerusalem, but step by step and stage by stage he was approaching the final scene.
Certain Pharisees came with a question about divorce, by which they hoped to test him. There may have been more than one motive behind their question. Divorce was a burning question, a crux of rabbinic discussion, and it may well be that they honestly wished for Jesus’ opinion on it. They may have wished to test his orthodoxy. It may well be that Jesus had already had something to say on this matter. Matt.5:31-32, shows us Jesus speaking about marriage and re-marriage, and it may be that these Pharisees had the hope that he might contradict himself and entangle himself in his own words. It may be that they knew what he would answer and wished to involve him in enmity with Herod who had in fact divorced his wife and married another. It may well be that they wished to hear Jesus contradict the law of Moses, as indeed he did, and thereby to formulate a charge of heresy against him. One thing is certain–the question they asked Jesus was no academic one of interest only to the rabbinic schools. It was a question which dealt with one of the acutest issues of the time.
In theory nothing could be higher than the Jewish ideal of marriage. Chastity was held to be the greatest of all the virtues. “We find that God is long-suffering to every sin except the sin of unchastity.” “Unchastity causes the glory of God to depart.” “Every Jew must surrender his life rather than commit idolatry, murder or adultery.” “The very altar sheds tears when a man divorces the wife of his youth.” The ideal was there but practice fell very far short.
The basic fact that vitiated the whole situation was that in Jewish law a woman was regarded as a thing. She had no legal rights whatever but was at the complete disposal of the male head of the family. The result was that a man could divorce his wife on almost any grounds, while there were very few on which a woman could seek divorce. At best she could only ask her husband to divorce her. “A woman may be divorced with or without her will, but a man only with his will.” The only grounds on which a woman could claim a divorce were if her husband became a leper, if he engaged in a disgusting trade such as that of a tanner, if he ravished a virgin, or if he falsely accused her of prenuptial sin.
The law of Jewish divorce goes back to Deut.24:1. That passage was the foundation of the whole matter. It runs thus: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house.”
At first the bill of divorcement was very simple. It read like this: “Let this be from me thy writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that thou mayest marry whatsoever man thou wilt.” In later days the bill became more elaborate: “On the …….. day, of the …….. week, of the …….. month, year …….. of the world, according to the calculation in use in the town of ……… situated by the river …….. 11, A.B., son of C.D., and by whatsoever name I am called here, present this day ……… native of the town of …….. I acting of my free-will, and without any coercion, do repudiate, send back, and put away thee E.F., daughter of G.H., and by whatsoever name thou art called, and until this present time my wife. I send thee away now E.F., daughter of G.H., so that thou art free and thou canst at thy pleasure marry whom thou wilt and no one will hinder thee. This is thy letter of divorce, act of repudiation, certificate of separation, according to the law of Moses and of Israel.” In New Testament times this document took a skilled Rabbi to draw it up. It was afterwards proved by a court of three rabbis, and then lodged with the Sanhedrin. But the process of divorce remained on the whole exceedingly easy, and at the entire discretion of the man.
But the real crux of the problem was the interpretation of the law as it is in Deut.24:1. There it is laid down that a man can divorce his wife if he finds in her some indecency. How was that phrase to be interpreted? There were in this matter two schools of thought.
There was the school of Shammai. They interpreted the matter with utter strictness. A matter of indecency was adultery and adultery alone. Let a woman be as bad as Jezebel, unless she was guilty of adultery there could be no divorce.
The other school was the school of Hillel. They interpreted that crucial phrase as widely as possible. They said that it could mean if the wife spoiled a dish of food, if she spun in the streets, if she talked to a strange man, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband’s relations in his hearing, if she was a brawling woman, (who was defined as a woman whose voice could be heard in the next house). Rabbi Akiba even went the length of saying that it meant if a man found a woman who was fairer in his eyes than his wife was.
Human nature being as it is, it was the laxer view which prevailed. The result was that divorce for the most trivial reasons, or for no reason at all, was tragically common. To such a pass had things come that, in the time of Jesus, women hesitated to marry at all because marriage was so insecure. When Jesus spoke as he did he was speaking on a subject which was a burning issue, and he was striking a blow for women by seeking to restore marriage to the position it ought to have.
Certain things are to be noted. Jesus quoted the Mosaic regulation, and then he said that Moses laid that down only “to meet the hardness of your hearts.” That may mean one of two things. It may mean that Moses laid it down because it was the best that could be expected from people such as those for whom he was legislating. Or, it may mean that Moses laid it down in order to try to control a situation which even then was degenerating, that in fact it was not so much a permission to divorce as it was in the beginning an attempt to control divorce, to reduce it to some kind of law, and to make it more difficult.
In any event Jesus made it quite clear that he regarded Deut.24:1, as being laid down for a definite situation and being in no sense permanently binding. The authorities which he quoted went much further back. For his authorities he went right back to the Creation story and quoted Gen.1:27 and Gen.2:24. It was his view that in the very nature of things marriage was a permanency which indissolubly united two people in such a way that the bond could never be broken by any human laws and regulations. It was his belief that in the very constitution of the universe marriage is meant to be an absolute permanency and unity, and no Mosaic regulation dealing with a temporary situation could alter that.
The difficulty is that in the parallel account in Matthew there is a difference. In Mark, Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and remarriage is absolute. In Matt.19:3-9, he is shown as absolutely forbidding remarriage, but as permitting divorce on one ground–adultery. Almost certainly the Matthew version is correct, and it is indeed implied in Mark. It was Jewish law that adultery did in fact compulsorily dissolve any marriage. And the truth is that infidelity does in fact dissolve the bond of marriage. Once adultery has been committed the unity is in any case destroyed and divorce merely attests the fact.
The real essence of the passage is that Jesus insisted that the loose sexual morality of his day must be mended. Those who sought marriage only for pleasure must be reminded that marriage is also for responsibility. Those who regarded marriage simply as a means of gratifying their physical passions must be reminded that it was also a spiritual unity. Jesus was building a rampart round the home.
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