Isn’t adultery the only ground for divorce?
People often think Jesus said adultery was the only grounds for divorce, but we’ve misunderstood what Jesus said in Matthew 19 because we haven’t understood the cultural background. When the Pharisees tested Jesus by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” they were alluding to a dispute between two rabbinic schools, the Hillelite school and the Shammaite school. If we listen to the phrase “any cause” as if we were Jesus’ audience in the first century AD who were familiar with that dispute between the rabbis, it makes an enormous difference to our understanding of the passage.
To understand another society takes time and thought, so bear with me while I describe the cultural background. It’s important to realize that both schools of rabbis (Hillelites and Shammaites) assumed the first verse of Deuteronomy chapter 24 was an entitling law which expressly permitted a man to divorce his wife. Their only difference was this: Hillelites said it allowed a man to divorce his wife for “any matter”, whereas Shammaites said it only allowed a man to divorce his wife for adultery (sexual immorality).
David Instone-Brewer has shown how in Jesus’ day, the Jews saw rationale for divorce in a number of different scriptures:
(1) Exodus 21:10-11 the Jews said this gave rationale for divorce if one spouse seriously mistreated the other (and this applied to either sex)
(2) Genesis 1:28 (be fruitful and multiply) permitted divorce for a wife’s infertility
(3) Deuteronomy 24:1 permitted men (but not women) to initiate divorce for either
a) any cause – according to the Hillelites, or
b) sexual immorality – according to the Shammaites
In Jesus’ day, “divorce for any cause” or “any-matter divorce” was thus an expression meaning “divorce based on the Hillelite interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1.”
To obtain Hillelite divorce on the ground of Deuteronomy 24:1, the burden of proof was non-existent — “any cause” being so all-embracing that divorce was granted even if the wife burnt the dinner. In contrast, Shammaites required proof of the wife’s adultery before granting a divorce based on Deuteronomy 24:1.
The custom and practice with dowry is another important thing to understand about that culture. When a woman got married, her father gave a dowry to the woman’s husband. It was money or assets to be held in trust by the husband as head of the household, but was generally considered the wife’s property in the event of the marriage breaking down. But different types for divorce had different consequences for how the dowry was handled. In Hillelite (“any matter”) divorce, the dowry went to the wife — one of the main purposes of the dowry was to give the woman a kind of nest egg; she could rely on it for her financial security if the marriage terminated. But if the wife was convicted of sexual misconduct in a Shammaite divorce, the woman was penalized by forfeiting her dowry and the dowry was given to the husband as compensation. Thus, because the different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1 had different financial implications, the term “any-matter divorce” would have been an extremely well known expression in Jesus’ day. It was probably more familiar to first century Jews than the term “no-fault divorce” is for us.
Men did not always use the Shammaite method when seeking divorce for a wife’s adultery. A man might use the Hillelite method if he suspected his wife had been sexually unfaithful but didn’t have enough evidence to prove it in a Shammaite court. He might also go the Hillelite route if he couldn’t be bothered proving adultery just for the sake of being awarded the dowry (a dowry might be too small to justify expensive litigation). He might even choose the Hillelite route to avoid shaming his wife in a public trial (it appears Joseph contemplated this when Mary became pregnant). Thus, a man might use either Shammaite or Hillelite methods when obtaining divorce for adultery: the Shammaite method for proven adultery; the Hillelite method for unproven adultery.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” they meant “Who has the right interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 – the Hillelites or the Shammaites?” They tried to trap Jesus into saying publicly that one side was correct, because they had figured that whichever side he favored, it would have given them ammunition with which to confound his enterprise. Jesus was facing a trap question from enemies. Moreover, their question dealt only with competing interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1, and not with the other scriptural rationales for divorce recognized by the Jews. For these two reasons, it is highly unlikely that Jesus would have answered them with a comprehensive teaching on all aspects of divorce and remarriage. So we must not think that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 is a global teaching about all kinds of divorce, or that it trumps all other Bible teaching on divorce.
I agree with Instone-Brewer thus far.
Update: [added Dec 2020] — Since I first published this post I am less certain that Exodus 21 gives grounds for divorce because I have learned that Exodus 21 has probably been mistranslated in many Bibles. [end of update]
In my book Not Under Bondage I argue that Jesus took neither side of the Shammaite / Hillelite debate; rather, he condemned both sides.
Jesus showed that both the Hillelites and Shammaites were wrong to assume that verse one of Deuteronomy 24 was an entitling law, an express permission for a man to divorce his wife.
To do this, Jesus first quoted the “one flesh” teaching from Genesis 2:24 and declared its implication: “What God has joined together, let no man separate.”
Secondly, Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Let us read that sentence again with some words in bold: “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” By the words Jesus chose, he was clearly referring to men’s hardness of heart. The gender of the sentence is clear. And this is consistent with the Mosaic regulation, for if we read the passage in its entirety – Deuteronomy 24 verses one to four – we find it was designed to prohibit a heinous, extreme, scenario: when a man divorces his wife and then remarries her after she’s been married to someone else and her second marriage has terminated.
Let’s say Bill divorces Mary. Mary then marries Tom but that marriage also ends (either Tom dies or he divorces her). Bill then remarries Mary. Such behavior on Bill’s part would be trashing the institution of marriage and showing callous disrespect for Mary. The fact that he was prepared to re-marry her indicates that she hadn’t done anything worthy of dismissal in the first place and he’d been a perfidious scoundrel to dismiss her. God does not want the institution of marriage to be treated so lightly. No wonder Moses said, “That is an abomination before the Lord. You shall not bring sin upon the land.” (Deut. 24:4)
In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Moses did not condone male divorce or make indulgent concessions to men; he merely recognized that men were divorcing their wives despite all God’s guidance about how personal relationships ought to be conducted. He narrated the ‘case study’ in verses 1-3 (which mentioned the practice of male divorce) in order to promulgate the law in verse four: the regulation aimed to prevent an abominable end-product that sometimes ensued when men hard-heartedly engaged in divorce.
In effect, Jesus told the Pharisees: “Moses did not give this passage in Deuteronomy 24 to license male divorce, but because men were divorcing in hardness of heart and he sought to restrain an abominable end-product of such conduct. From the beginning it was not so. The point of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is not verse one, but verse four. If you (both Hillelites and Shammaites) had interpreted Deuteronomy 24 in the light of Genesis 2, you would never have drawn the conclusions you have!”
Can you hear Jesus outrage at the Pharisees? He wasn’t siding with the Shammaite school, as so many commentators have supposed; he was pouring scorn on both schools of Pharisees, the Hillelites AND the Shammaites. No wonder the disciples were so dismayed that they said, “If that is the case, it would be better for a man not to marry!” The Pharisees had crafted loopholes of male privilege from Deuteronomy 24:1, and Jesus had just closed the loopholes tight. Jesus’ declaration left no wriggle room, and he shamed the Pharisees for their twisting of the scriptures. If any Pharisee had a mite of conscience left, he would have been red faced. But most of the Pharisees probably just burned with inward fury.
After delivering that bombshell to men, Jesus went on, “Whoever divorces his wife except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Reading this in the light of the explanation above, we can tease out and paraphrase Jesus’ meaning as follows:
The Hillelites and Shammaites both allow divorce for a wife’s adultery. I [Jesus] agree with the Jewish consensus that adultery is a legitimate ground for divorce and the innocent partner may remarry without guilt. But that doesn’t mean I completely agree with the Shammaites, because they’ve twisted scripture when they say Deuteronomy 24:1 expressly permits divorce for adultery. Deuteronomy 24:1 in itself permits nothing: it is merely pre-law narrative; the law is laid down in Deuteronomy 24:4.
All of you know that Hillelites put no restrictions on men divorcing their wives because they count “any matter” as ground for divorce. I’m telling you that, generally speaking, this “any matter” interpretation is a wicked pretext that men are using to divorce good wives.
When a man uses the “any matter” system to divorce an adulterous wife, he’s obtaining a legitimate divorce in that the grounds are adultery, but except for such cases, this “any matter” system is illegitimate. A man who casts off his wife using “any matter” as a pretext for illegitimate divorce, and then marries another, is guilty of adultery no matter how nicely the divorce papers have been drawn up and signed by smug Hillelite lawyers!
Let’s pull together the key points from our study of Matthew 19:
- Jesus noted that adultery was a valid reason for divorce, but strongly refuted the idea that this was verified by Deuteronomy 24:1.
- Jesus condemned the treacherous divorce enabled by the Hillelites which was granted without question to men, for any trivial reason.
- Jesus’ answer was directed only at the rabbis’ two distortions of Deuteronomy 24:1.
- Jesus made no comment on the other scriptural rationales for divorce which were followed by the Jews.
- Matthew 19 is not a global teaching about all divorce. Therefore it does not trump all other Bible teaching on divorce.
- Jesus never said adultery was the only grounds for divorce. It is very sad that this has been misunderstood, giving rise to immense confusion, stigma and hurt.
To find out more about my book Not Under Bondage, see Not Under Bondage.