True or False? “Jesus speaks of divorce being permissible, and his reason for such is that our hearts can be hard.”
[July 6, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
A pastor (Phillip) wrote to us:
Jesus speaks of divorce being permissible, and His reason for such is that our hearts can be hard.
It is evident that this pastor has imbibed the menagerie of muddled ideas which is taken as divorce doctrine in most of the evangelical church. (A menagerie is a collection of wild animals kept in captivity for exhibition.)
The ‘received truth’ that most pastors teach as the doctrine of divorce is actually a cobbling together of false interpretations — the wild animals — arrived at by avoiding some texts and over-focusing on other texts and mis-joining the dots. It is largely held together by the binding agent of male privilege. And it has the patina of age and tradition to give it the lustre of ‘orthodox authenticity’.
In my opinion, this pastor needs to read my book. I will hopefully whet his appetite by giving here the parts of the book which demolish the above notion of his. Adapted from Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion [*Affiliate link], Barbara Roberts, pp 65-66 [Boldface in the quote below added in this blog post except for the first heading / sentence.]:
Jesus said Deuteronomy 24 was given because of men’s hardness of heart.
The teaching of Jesus indicates that men in Moses’ time were sometimes employing divorce without justification for trivial or treacherous reasons. Jesus taught that Moses gave Deuteronomy 24 in the context of men hardheartedly divorcing their wives: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives.” (Matt 19:8 ESV).
Jesus made this comment because some Pharisees posed him a question about the interpretation of erwat dabar (Deut 24:1 — the Hebrew phrase is often translated ‘some uncleanness’). All rabbinic schools in Jesus’ day presumed (I would say wrongly) that Deuteronomy 24:1 designated legitimate grounds for divorce. Agreeing on this wrong presumption, the rabbis proceeded to argue over what the legitimate grounds were. Rather than taking sides in the Pharisees’ debate, Jesus tackled their belief that erwat dabar [some uncleanness] must designate legitimate grounds. He did this using a two-pronged argument:
Firstly he pointed them back to the “one flesh” principle from Genesis….He brought up Genesis to show that the Pharisees had wrongly interpreted Deuteronomy 24. If they had given the Genesis texts their due weight, they would not have twisted Deuteronomy 24:1 into a ground for divorce.
Secondly he explained that “hardness of heart” was the reason Moses gave the passage in Deuteronomy 24. Jesus said Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives. The people with hard hearts were those divorcing their wives, which means the callous individuals in question must have been male. If we read this verse literally, without presupposition or bias, we find it was principally male hardness of heart that led to Moses’ ruling against the initial couple’s remarriage [in verse 4].
This is an important point because some commentators mistakenly say that Moses permitted divorce because women were hard-heartedly committing sexual sin. Often they argue backwards from the situation in the first century, where some rabbis believed erwat dabar meant nothing but adultery, and, since Jesus also allowed divorce for sexual immorality (Matt 19:9), those rabbis must have been right. However, erwat dabar cannot simply equate with adultery committed by a wife because the Mosaic penalty for proven adultery was capital punishment. Jesus does not implicate women as the primary sinners. He does not say, “Moses, because of the hardness of their hearts [the wives‘ hearts], permitted you to divorce your wives.” Nor does he implicate Israelites in general by saying, “Moses, because of your hardness of heart, permitted those divorces.” As it stands, Jesus’ sentence specifically implicates hardhearted husbands.
Yes, Moses “permitted” the Israelites to divorce their wives, but it does not follow that either “despising a wife” [v. 2] or “finding some uncleanness in her” [v. 1] are permissible grounds for divorce. We looked earlier in this chapter at the divorce passages in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 21. These were prescribed and affirmed in order to protect wives from serious abuse or neglect. In contrast, many of the divorces described (but not prescribed) in Deuteronomy 24:1 [or v. 2] were merely tolerated by Moses. We know God is long-suffering towards sin, but he is neither the author nor approver of sin. Therefore we know Moses would not have approved of treacherous divorce or indulged those who wished to engage in it. Clearly Moses suffered (reluctantly tolerated) males divorcing their wives, and he issued the regulation in verse four to prevent a terrible consequence that ensued when men hard-heartedly engaged in divorce.
Deuteronomy 24:1 was NOT a law setting out grounds for divorce. It is erroneous to think that Moses gave a law that positively allowed or condoned divorce for hardness of heart. It is erroneous to say that Jesus permitted divorce for hardness of heart. (And btw, it is also erroneous to say that Moses gave a divorce concession which Jesus later annulled. Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).
(Matthew 19:7-8 KJ21) (7) [The Pharisees] said unto Him, “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement and to put her away?” (8) He said unto them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to put away your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. [Emphasis added.]
Moses suffered Israelites hardhearted divorce taking place, but he did not condone it; he did not give positive permission for it; he did not make a concession to it. He only described it in order to regulate an abomination (Deut 24:4) which sometimes ensued from it: the use of divorce and remarriage in a way that was analogous to pimping and prostitution (this analogy will be explained below).
Undoing the misconceptions of centuries is not easy; it takes repeated applications of the solvent of truth to dislodge false ideas from people’s minds when they have been passed down as ‘received truth’ for centuries. Truth must be reiterated, falsehood exposed and refuted time and time again, before the truth constellates firmly in people’s minds. So allow me to repeat how vital it is to pay attention to the gender specific language in Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:8 (KJ21) —
He said unto them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to put away your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. [Emphasis added.]
Whose hearts does Jesus say are hard in this verse? It’s not the wives. It’s the husbands. The men who were divorcing their wives. Men had frequently been callously, hardheartedly divorcing their wives in Moses day — and men were still doing it in Jesus day.
Moses had prohibited the worst sequellae of men’s hardhearted divorce practices (Deut 24:1-4). Jesus tore strips off the hard-hearted men who twisted Deuteronomy 24:1 into an excuse for themselves to toss away their wives at whim.
In effect, Jesus told the haughty Pharisees: “Moses gave this teaching in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 because of your hardness of heart. He did not license such divorce to indulge you in your inflated belief in male privilege and entitlement. He did not give formal approval to men who chose to callously discard their wives. From the beginning it was not so. If you scoundrels had interpreted Deuteronomy 24 in the light of Genesis 2, you would never have drawn the conclusions you have!”
So is it true what our correspondent Phillip says?
Jesus speaks of divorce being permissible, and His reason for such is that our hearts can be hard.
It is approximately one part true and three parts false. The part that is true is this: Jesus spoke of divorce being permissible.
The part that is not true is all the rest. Jesus didn’t give hardheartedness as a ground for legitimate divorce. He gave the example of sexual immorality as a legitimate ground for divorce (but He didn’t say it is the ONLY ground). Paul later said that desertion (and abuse is form of desertion) was another legitimate grounds.
Jesus affirmed that Moses suffered men hard-heartedly discarding their wives. Moses had described hard-hearted divorce by men in the context of drawing the line at a man remarrying the woman he had cast aside if she had been in a subsequent marriage which had (for whatever reason) terminated.
That kind of male-initiated divorce and remarriage is legal in Sharia Law, and is practised today in places where Sharia Law holds sway. The husband takes his wife to the imam. He divorces her with the imam as witness. He passes her (for a fee) to another man who marries her (with the imam as witness). The second man spends the night with her, divorces her the next day, and the first husband marries her again. This is men pimping and using women as prostitutes, but it’s dressed up as divorce and remarriage. That is the abomination Moses drew the line at!
Maybe the hard-hearted men in Moses day were not exchanging money and were not typically staying in the second marriage for only one night, but even if no money was exchanged and the second marriage lasted a reasonable time: the practice is still an abomination, largely because it so degrades women.
Jesus did not say the reason for divorce being permissible “is that our hearts can be hard.” He did not teach that hard-heartedness is a legitimate reason for divorce. He did not use gender-mutualising language “our hearts can be hard” when discussing the subject. Rather, He castigated men who hardheartedly divorced their wives and he denounced them for twisting Scripture to fabricate religious pretexts for their wicked behaviour.
Some of the above has been adapted from Not Under Bondage [*Affiliate link] pp. 78, 89, 90, 112.
[July 6, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to July 6, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to July 6, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to July 6, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (July 6, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]