Marriage was instituted by God to be monogamous (one man and one woman), heterosexual (one man and one woman), public (leaving and cleaving) and unitary (one flesh).
Such is the teaching of Genesis 2:24 — ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’ — and reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:4-6.
Sin spoiled all this. It brought death, and this meant that the one flesh union would be broken on the death of one of the spouses. This abnormality resulting from sin was the probable reason why the High Priest was forbidden to marry a widow (Leviticus 21:13-14).
Old Testament teaching
Divorce also became part of the human scene. The Mosaic Law regulated this in various ways. It codified the need for the giving of a divorce certificate (Deuteronomy 24:1); forbade a man who had divorced his wife to remarry her, if she had subsequently married and again been divorced or widowed (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
It prohibited a priest from marrying a divorced woman (Leviticus 21:7). It forbade a man to divorce a woman if, after marrying her, he alleged that she had lost her virginity before marriage and this charge was proved to be unfounded (Deuteronomy 22:13-19); and also forbade a man who had raped a woman and subsequently married her from ever divorcing her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
In addition to these provisions, there was also legislation concerning the ritual to be followed where a husband suspected his wife of adultery (Numbers 5:11-31); capital punishment for certain sexual sins where the actual commission of those sins was witnessed by two people (cf. Leviticus 18 – 20 with Deuteronomy 17:6-7); and legislation which allowed a slave wife to obtain a divorce from a husband who was ill-treating her (Exodus 21:7-11; Deuteronomy 21:10-14).
The fact that the Mosaic Law did not outlaw bigamy is also part of the total background to its teaching on divorce (Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 21:15-17) — the Law did not set forth the ideal in every situation. At points, it took account of where people were at in their failings.
This is also clear from Jesus’ words: ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard’ (Matthew 19:8). The Israelites assumed that it was alright to divorce their wives, as long as they followed the correct procedures. But Malachi taught that Mosaic permission was not the same as divine pleasure (Malachi 2:13-16).
Jesus’ teaching may be summarised as follows:
1. Jesus did not seek to give comprehensive teaching on divorce, nor did he address the question, ‘Is it ever permissible to divorce?’ Rather, he attacked the male-dominated divorce practices of his day, which sought respectability under cover of the giving of the divorce certificate referred to in Deuteronomy 24:1 (Matthew 5:31-32; Luke 16:18).
2. Jesus taught that he would fulfil the Law and the Prophets. Therefore, the theocratic framework laid down by Moses with its priests and legal system, would inevitably be finished (cf. Hebrews 7:12).
Since the Mosaic teaching on divorce assumes this theocratic framework (e.g., the ritual in Numbers 5:11-31; the rules relating to the execution of sinners guilty of certain sexual sins), aspects of its teaching on divorce inevitably cease with the passing of that framework. Accordingly, Jesus’ teaching stands not only in contrast to that of the scribes and Pharisees, but also to that of the Mosaic covenant.
3. Jesus taught that divorce breaks the one-flesh union between husband and wife. This is clear from Matthew 19:4-6: ‘And he answered and said to them, have you not read that he who made them at the beginning made them male and female,and said, for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate’.
The joining together by God at marriage is what is not to be put asunder. Jesus utters this prohibition in response to the question as to whether it is lawful to put away one’s wife. Therefore, divorce breaks the one flesh union.
Jesus is not saying that breaking this union is impossible to do (i.e., Jesus is not saying that a couple are still married in God’s sight even after divorce). Rather, he is saying it should not be done.
4. The breaking of a specific marriage by divorce entails, according to Jesus, adultery. Jesus redefined adultery: ‘But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28). Adultery could be committed with a look, and by an unmarried man with an unmarried woman.
Jesus’ redefinition means that anything which undermines marriage in general, or a specific marriage in particular, constitutes adultery. Hence, it can be committed with a divorce certificate too (Matthew 5:31-32)! Thus in Matthew 5:32 the woman ‘is caused to suffer adultery’ (the second verb is in the passive).
Jesus’ words in Luke 16:18 and Matthew 5:31-32 have within their sights the way in which women were used by men. This is why the man who remarries the divorced woman in Matthew 5:32 is guilty of adultery too.
5. Jesus stated that there was one exception to this: where the divorce was on the basis of illicit sexual activity on the part of the spouse who is divorced.
The clause translated in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 (‘And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery’) as ‘except for’ are truly words of exception. This exceptive clause does not mean, as some seek to argue, ‘even in the case of’.
Moreover, in the context of divorce, the Greek word porneia, translated in the KJV as ‘fornication’, denotes illicit sexual activity.
Its meaning is not to be confined to one of the following explanations sometimes given to it: marriage within prohibited degrees; marriage by a Jew to a non-Jew; unfaithfulness during the betrothal period; the equivalent of the ‘indecent thing’ of Deuteronomy 24:1; spiritual idolatry; prostitution.
Porneia may include some (though by no means all) of these mentioned cases, but cannot be confined to them. Any illicit sexual activity in and of itself constitutes adultery. Consequently, where a divorce was effected for illicit sexual activity, the husband was not sinning.
6. Where the marriage was ended by a divorce for illicit sexual activity, the divorcing partner was free to remarry.
This follows from the fact that, although Jesus condemned the divorce practice of his day, he accepted the concept of divorce which was current and also found in the Old Testament. Furthermore, the effects of the exceptive clause in Matthew 19:9 mean that remarriage in such cases is not adulterous.
To be concluded