Interview with David Instone-Brewer, author of “Divorce & Remarriage in the Bible”
David Instone-Brewer is the author of two books on the topic of divorce: Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, and Divorce and Remarriage in the Church [*Affiliate links].
See his website at Instone-Brewer.
David says of himself: “I work at Tyndale House, a research institute in Cambridge UK which specializes in biblical studies. My personal presuppositions are that Jesus is who he claimed to be in the Gospels, and that these accounts represent what actually happened. To understand Jesus we have to know something about Jews of the time, and to understand the Gospels it helps a great deal if we read them like a 1st century Jew or Gentile — the people for whom they were written. My specialist area of research is early rabbinic Judaism.” (condensed from his biography at Bible Scandals
We are thrilled to present an interview with David. The blog team formulated the questions and David graciously responded via email. Our questions are in italics; David’s answers are in Roman font.
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1. Many people will likely discover your work because they are in difficult marriage situations and suddenly find themselves confronted by the doctrine that divorce is not allowed for abuse or neglect. Many times they will find your work in contrast to the teaching/ruling of their own churches, leaving them with no pastoral guidance in applying your findings. Do you have advice for those who have no trustworthy pastoral guidance on how to make a divorce decision in situations of neglect or abuse?
I have been really impressed by believers who have decided to follow Scripture whatever the consequences for themselves. So many people have been taught that the Bible says you cannot get a divorce from a partner who is guilty of beating or cheating, and that this is the only possible interpretation. The amazing thing is that they remain faithful to what they have been told the Bible says, and continue to suffer as a result.
How can you tell if another interpretation is correct? This is really tricky when you want something to be true. For myself it is easy: – I’m a scholar who applies logic, historical data and sophisticated linguistic analysis. And (most of all) I’m happily married and no-one among my brother & sisters or their children or other family members is divorced (perhaps we are the last family on earth to enjoy this privilege). So I have no ulterior motive for coming to a particular conclusion. All I want to do is understand the Bible better.
I would suggest that people read different interpretations and ask themselves the following:
- Do I feel at peace about this when I pray?
Is it based on the Bible?
Does the Bible make more sense or less sense when understood this way?
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2. This blog is attended by abuse survivors who have almost universally found their churches antagonistic to their pleas. Because of choosing to divorce their tormenters, some have been kicked out of their fellowships, or the leaders has made them feel so uncomfortable that they leave voluntarily. As a pastor, do you have anything you’d like to say to the pastors/church leaders who think this is a right course of action?
It is always right to try to support a marriage, and there is nothing wrong with preaching the Bible as you understand it. But we are called to support people, not to support institutions. So when there is the choice of either rescuing a person who is broken or rescuing a marriage which is broken, rescue the person. You are not condoning the breakup of a marriage if the marriage is already broken, but if you stop the person from leaving an abusive situation you may not be able to heal the wounds that result.
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3. Of the letters and emails you receive from readers, what proportion of them are related to situations of domestic abuse?
I don’t keep count, and usually people don’t go into their problems because I discourage this. I want them to look cooly at the facts of what the Bible says, rather than decide on the basis of what they are going through. One thing that surprised me (but may not surprise you) are the men who are abused by wives. I can’t imagine what it is like to fend off physical attacks, even to the point of broken bones, without retaliating – especially when you know you are stronger than your opponent.
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4. When I (Ps Crippen) explained your study of rabbinics and how it illuminated the Scriptural term “any cause” to someone, their response was – “Why would God make His Word so difficult for us to understand? Why would God require the study of rabbinics, which is not a practicality for the average Christian, necessary in order for us to understand this term?” How do you deal with this kind of response?
I agree that this is very difficult. However, we have to remember all the time that we read Scripture over the shoulders of those it was first given to. The New Testament was written for believers living in the first century who read and thought in Greek. It wasn’t written in classical Greek, but in the same kind of Greek that mothers used in letters to their children. In order to understand this, translators have to learn the ancient language, and the ancient cultures.
Our English Bibles do not tell us that “God’s nose grew hot”, even though this phrase occurs very often in the Hebrew Old Testament – the translators know that in ancient culture this meant “God was angry”, so that’s how they translate it. Similarly, if we know there was a debate in the early 1st century about a ground for divorce called “Any Cause”, we should understand the question to Jesus as being about “the Any Cause divorce” and not about “divorce for any cause”.
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5. Isn’t the study of treaties and covenants in pagan cultures surrounding Old Testament Israel in order to understand Scripture an admission that the biblical authors borrowed customs from their world, rather than recording divine revelation?
The Bible is a set of records of God speaking to people over a period of many centuries a couple of millennia ago in cultures very different to our own. The fact that this is written in a foreign culture and language doesn’t indicate that the authors are borrowing anything. It indicates that God is graciously speaking to humanity using their own language and their own culture.
To promote lifelong support between couples, God used the language and structures of marriage – an institution which already existed. But some aspects of the culture of the time had to change, and God gave a law which was significantly different than anything in surrounding cultures. The culture of the time did not allow women to have freedom from marriages which were abusive or neglectful, so God told Moses that men had to give their wives a certificate of freedom if they broke their marriage vows by abandoning their wives and marrying someone else. God changed the culture of the time when it wasn’t right, but affirmed the parts of the culture which was right.
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6. You argue in your books that Jesus agreed with the first century Jewish acceptance of divorce for neglect and abuse (based on Ex 21) and that we can be confident of Jesus’ acceptance of this because that doctrine was not contested in the first century. You say that all Jewish religious teachers accepted divorce for neglect and abuse and Jesus can be assumed to do so as well because he never challenged the religious leaders on it. Some have rejected your argument on the grounds that it is an argument from silence. We know your address that objection in your books, but since it is such a common objection, do you have anything to add to even more strongly rebut that objection? How do you answer such people?
An argument from silence can be a very weak argument but it can also be a very strong argument. Some Church of Christ leaders argue Christians should not use musical instruments in worship because musical instruments aren’t mentioned in worship in the New Testament, except in heaven. That’s a weak argument from silence, because the Bible never says that musical instruments should be banned. However, there are also strong arguments from silence, for example we can say that Jesus was opposed to rape and sex outside of marriage – even though he never mentioned these. We can say this because all Jews believed this, because it was clearly taught in the Old Testament, and because Jesus never opposed it. Of course this argument from silence would be much stronger if Jesus was actually asked about this issue, but unfortunately he wasn’t.
When it comes to divorce, the argument from silence can be very strong. The Old Testament taught that divorce was allowed, and all Jews agreed with this, as confirmed in marriage certificates which have survived from the time, so if Jesus doesn’t deny it we have a strong argument from silence that he agreed with it. Moreover, the argument is much stronger than his agreement with the laws on rape and pre-marital sex because Jesus is actually asked about the subject. And the argument from silence becomes cast-iron when we see how Jesus responded to the question about divorce, because he used the occasion to address a bunch of other issues where he disagreed with other Jews at the time.
If Jesus was teaching “no divorce for neglect”, then he would be contradicting the Old Testament, and current Jewish teaching, and he would be invalidating the wording of the marriage certificates of everyone listening to him. If he really did mean to do this, he can’t keep silent. This was the perfect time to speak up, and yet he said nothing. I find it very difficult to conclude that he was denying his Father’s teaching in the Old Testament merely because he didn’t actually say that he agreed with it.
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7. Won’t your conclusions about marriage and divorce, particularly divorce for the Exodus 21 neglect/abuse issues, encourage people to divorce one another with even more frequency?
I don’t encourage anyone to divorce, and I advise ministers always to look for ways to save a marriage. Jesus tells believers to forgive and forgive and forgive again, and only allows divorce for ‘hardhearted’ breaking of marriage vows. Of course there will be those who apply this kind of thing legalistically – some will say you have to forgive 70×7 times, and others will say they can demand a divorce if their partner steps on their foot accidentally.
The rabbis tried to fix this problem with rules about how much neglect was enough, how many times they should try to renew conjugal relations and other complex regulations. I don’t know if any number of rules will stop people at either end of these legalistic spectrums from demanding silly things. But the Biblical principles are clear – marriage should be supported and work expended by the couple and their friends to heal marriages; but ultimately the victim of broken marriage vows can be released.
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8. Concerning Exodus 21, some have argued that it is only about slave wives or concubines and does not apply to full wives. Can you address the issue of concubines vs. full wives: what their respective rights/positions were and how this would affect divorce? Would the dismissal of a concubine require a certificate of divorce?
The pattern of law in the OT is that the most minor issue is addressed so that the more major ones are implied. For example, picking up sticks on a Sabbath was declared to be ‘work’, so this implies that anything more strenuous was also ‘work’. An ox has a right to a reward from its labour, so this implied that any farm worker or any other worker also has this right. This example is applied twice in the NT to church ministers. Modern law uses the same principles. The law defines the age at which someone is responsible for theft or damage, which implies that anyone older is also responsible. The law defines what kind of injury is considered to be grievous bodily harm, and anything worse is automatically included.
So when we are told that a slave wife has certain rights, these imply that anyone more important than her also has these rights.
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9. A major reason for rejection of the a fortiori argument that rights given to slaves are certainly also applicable to those of a higher social status is that it is too “liberal.” What would you say to those who make that assertion?
[Note to our readers: Wikipedia defines an a fortiori argument as an “argument from a stronger reason.” For example, if it has been established that a person is deceased (the stronger reason), then one can with equal or greater certainty argue that the person is not breathing.]
It would certainly be illiberal to say that a right given to one person is not also given to another, though usually this kind of reasoning goes in the other direction: free men have these rights, but slaves do not. The societies surrounding Israel had legal systems where the rich had many privileges and few punishments and the poor faced the death penalty for almost everything. Israel’s law was completely different – everyone from the king to the widow was equal under the law. Modern law is based on this.
I can’t think of any ancient legal system that said the poor had rights which weren’t extended to the rich. It would be a very strange way to interpret Biblical law, and contrary to the normal pattern of law in the Old Testament.
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10. What are your thoughts on William Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic, particularly in how such an approach to interpreting scripture might be applied, rightly or wrongly, to the doctrine of divorce?
Do you mean William Webb who invented the rules of Rugby Football? No? Then I suppose you mean the one who wrote “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals”. He uses the language of “redemptive movement” in the same way that others speak of “ethical trajectory”. That is, he looks for change in Bible teaching which imply God is trying to push us gradually in a certain direction. So the OT gives more rights to slaves than surrounding cultures, but doesn’t actually ban it, and the NT teaches that slaves are equal to free people without actually saying that we should free them. When you plot this on a moral graph it implies that we should gradually work towards the goal of Galatians 3.28 where everyone is equal including foreigners, slaves and women.
This is an interesting argument, but also tricky to apply. For example, you could argue that the OT allowing marriage with non-believers if they don’t try to convert other Israelites (e.g. Solomon’s wives) and to foreigners (e.g. Ruth and Rahab) so long as they don’t belong to the five prohibited nations. The NT however prohibits marriage to non-believers. The trajectory of this could imply that in the future we should also prohibit marriage to foreigners.
On divorce, many people apply a trajectory in this way: The OT allows divorce for four grounds, but Jesus allowed it for only one ground (adultery) and Paul also allowed it for only one ground (abandonment by a non-believer). Therefore we should apply a trajectory and reduce the grounds for divorce to zero.
To make sense of this they assume another trajectory. The OT Jews were ‘hardhearted’ so marriages often broke up, whereas Jesus’ followers were much more obedient (except with regard to adultery) and Paul’s followers were filled with the spirit so divorces only occurred due to the sin of their non-believing partners (whom they married before the Gospel arrived). Now that we have the chance to marry only believers, there is no need for divorce because both partners live sinless lives.
This is absurd on too many levels.
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11. Some have argued that divorce was only for the betrothal period and there is no provision for divorce after the vows are said, though this doesn’t seem to fit Deuteronomy 24. Where did the view that divorce was only for the betrothal period come from?
This is based on understanding the word “porneia” in a very narrow sense. This word is used for everything from sex with prostitutes to thoughts about adultery – which is how it became the term ‘pornography’. But if we assume it means only sex before marriage, then we can conclude that Jesus meant divorce could only occur if consummation had not yet happened. This unlikely theory gained some credence when the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered, because the Damascus Document appears to use the Hebrew word zimah (the OT equivalent of porneia) with a similarly restricted meaning. However, as more scrolls were discovered, the consensus of scholars was that this early reading was a misunderstanding, but somehow the theory stuck.
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12. It is asserted that because Christ and the church can never be divorced, man/woman marriages can’t either because that violates the picture. Could you address this issue?
The whole point of a contract (known as a ‘covenant’ in old English) is that it can be broken. If either side fails to keep their side of the contract, the contract is broken. If the shop doesn’t deliver, you don’t have to pay, and if you don’t pay the shop doesn’t have to deliver. Or if a nation state doesn’t pay tribute, they no longer enjoy peace and are invaded. The amazing thing about the New Covenant in Ezekiel and Jeremiah was that it couldn’t be broken. No matter what we do, God still loves us and saves us.
It is the same with the marriage of Christ and the church. Christ is special – he isn’t like any other groom. He will love his bride and save her whatever her faults. Other marriages can fail, but Christ’s marriage to the church is completely different.
If we don’t recognize that contrast, we lose most of the awesomeness of this teaching.
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13. The traditional (1662) Anglican marriage service said that marriage is “an honourable estate, instituted of God, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church” and it gives three purposes for marriage – three reasons why it was ordained by God – “First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body. Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”
These days, some conservative Christians are teaching that marriage has another purpose, one which is even more important than procreation, prevention of sin, and companionship. They have morphed the notion that marriage “signifies unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church” and turned this signifying quality into one of the purposes of marriage. They are going so far as to say that the foremost purpose of marriage is illustrative: to illustrate to the world the covenant love of God. This teaching is causing victims of abuse to stay in dreadful marriages out of a desire to not besmirch the name of God. What would you say to those who assert that a primary purpose of marriage is to illustrate the covenant love of God for the church?
Let’s see how this works for another equally significant image of God’s love for us.
God adopts us as his children. Does this mean that we have to support the institution of adoption in order to maintain the significance of this relationship with God? If no children were adopted, would God continue to adopt us? Was adoption invented in order to signify this relationship?
We have to bear in mind that adoption only happens when bad things happen: parents die, or reject their children, or (in Roman society) children decide to reject their parents in order to be adopted by a richer or more influential parent. Must we make sure that parents continue to die, or that families continue to split up in order to maintain this significant image?
This is all absurd, because adoption is an image of God’s love. It does not produce God’s love, and the absense of adoption doesn’t mean that God won’t love us.
In the same way, God uses marriage as an image of his commitment to us. His commitment won’t diminish even if no-one ever gets married again.