Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Some Notes on Divorce

In the gospel account by Matthew, we are given a picture in which Yahshua begins his ministry, and shortly thereafter having his credentials and teachings challenged by the then-reigning religious establishment. This is no different than what we do in the modern day when a new teacher comes along: we "test" him, probing him with questions to see where he stands on various issues.

We see this happening in Yahshua's ministry. The first eight chapters of Matthew tell us of Yahshua's background and early ministry. By chapter nine, he has attracted the attention of the religious leaders. Several times over the next few chapters he has run-ins with the Establishment.

Part of this friction was a normal, healthy examination of what the new guy had to say.

Yahshua was not the only popular rabbi in his culture. Rabbi Hillel was running his school in Jerusalem about the time Yahshua was born, and Rabbi Shammai had been born just a generation or two before that. Both of these rabbis were very influential on the thinking in Yahshua's day. These two schools had different interpretations of how divorce was to be handled.

According to :
A husband could take another wife or concubine without consulting his first wife, and she was expected not only to welcome them into her home but also to live in harmony with them. Only the husband had the right of divorce. Moses permitted divorce if the husband found "some indecency in her" (Deut. 24:1, NASB). There were two schools of interpretation over the meaning of Moses' divorce law. The school of Shammai held that "some indecency" meant unchastity. The followers of Hillel, however, maintained that a husband was justified in turning his wife out of house and home for any reason of displeasure, even if he chanced to find more pleasure in another woman! The only stipulation was that he had to give her the sum of money prescribed in the marriage contract, which served as a form of alimony and child support. If she violated any number of rules, however, such as allowing a man to speak to her in public, she would forfeit the money. In practice, a divorced woman rarely was paid anything.
So when we get to Matthew 19 and find the Pharisees asking Yahshua his beliefs concerning divorce, they weren't necessarily trying to trick him in some way; rather, it appears to be an honest attempt to find out if this new rabbi agrees with the school of Hillel or the school of Shammai.

Yahshua's answer was that he agreed with the school of Shammai: "...whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery" (19:9 HCSB).

But rather than appealing to Shammai's interpretation of the Law, he went directly to the Biblical text itself (19:4ff HCSB):
Haven't you read," He replied, "that He who created them in the beginning made them male and female , 5 and He also said:

For this reason a man will leave
his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two will become one flesh ?

6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate."
When they pressed him further, asking why Moses then allowed divorce at all, Yahshua responded that it was because men are hard-hearted and always looking for the next skirt. He then answered more directly the question they had been asking, by revealing his belief that Shammai was correct, and Hillel wrong.

His disciples were apparently fans of the Hillel doctrine, because they challenged Yahshua: "If it's like this, I'd rather stay single!" (19:10, paraphrased).

And Yahshua's response is sobering: "If you can live celibate, great. If not, then live by the rules."

If I'm understanding the account properly, Yahshua is not making a blanket statement that divorce is always wrong except in very narrowly-defined situations; he's saying that divorce needs a real reason, not a mamby-pamby excuse for a man to kick another human being out into the cold for his own selfish reasons.

Think about what would happen to such a "used" woman alone in that culture. How would she put food in her mouth? Where would she live? What self-respecting citizen would befriend her? Prostitution would be about the only solution she'd have. Yahshua implied this result earlier in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:32):
[E]veryone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
In other words, a divorce for the sake of the husband's convenience taints everyone involved.

Would Yahshua be so strictly against divorce in the 21st Century Western world, in which women have much more independence than they did in his day? I'm not smart enough to say one way or the other, but I suspect he would, for two reasons:

1) God hates divorce - Malachi 2:16

2) Yahshua did not appeal to the results of divorce as a reason to avoid it, but rather to the original design of marriage. That appeal would still apply in all cultures, regardless of the results of divorce.


Anonymous said...

Greetings, I have a couple of observations that may or may not help.

First--go back to the original language and if not then look at the translations that are close to the original.
Translations reflect"the signs of the tmes" not necessarily the most accurate translation.

Try the asv--it is one of the more literal. Actually God does not hate divorce--He hated the Jewish men putting away their wives and marrying again with out following the law.


Chyntt said...

How fascinating! Thank you, Richard!

Although I've read this verse in several versions, I'm just now approaching it in my newest version, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which puts a totally different spin on Malachi 2:16:

First, here it is in a more traditional version, the NIV:

"I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment," says the LORD Almighty.So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.

And now, from the HCSB:

"If he hates and divorces [his wife]," says the LORD God of Israel, "he covers his garment with injustice," says the LORD of Hosts. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously.

A modern paraphrase, The Message:

"I hate divorce," says the God of Israel. God-of-the-Angel-Armies says, "I hate the violent dismembering of the 'one flesh' of marriage." So watch yourselves. Don't let your guard down. Don't cheat.

The ASV:

For I hate putting away, saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, and him that covereth his garment with violence, saith Jehovah of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.

And the English Standard Version:

"For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless."