Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Jesus on divorce (Matthew 5)

Adapted from "Matthew: The Rabbinic Gospel."
Dr. Paul Manuel—1998

In Matt 5, Jesus contrasts a popular but superficial understanding of the Mosaic law on divorce ("It has been said") with the divine intention that stands behind the law ("But I tell you").
Matt 5:31 "It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
The precept states that divorce requires a certificate, which some took to be the only requirement.
Deut 24:1 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house...
In conjunction with a liberal interpretation of the term "indecent," certain men thought they could issue such a document on any grounds, but Jesus states that the certificate is valid only if the wife has been unfaithful.

Notice that Jesus speaks just about the man because, according to the legal procedure that God established, the man must validate the termination of the marriage by giving the woman a certificate of divorce, called a get (containing their names, the date, and the signatures of two witnesses). The legal system required that the man issue the document. Therefore, legally a husband could divorce his wife, but a wife could not divorce her husband.1 This does not mean that the wife was at the mercy of her husband's disfavor. A woman did have the right "to seek the aid of the Court to induce or compel her husband to grant her a [certificate of] divorce under certain conditions (as for instance...his apostasy...his unfaithfulness, if he refuses to [support] her, for cruelty towards her)" (Blackman 1983 3:391).

In Jesus' day, however, some were taking the legal procedure that made the man responsible to issue the get and interpreting it as giving him the right to divorce at his sole discretion. This was a question the two great rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai debated: What constitutes grounds for divorce? Hillel said "indecent" meant anything displeasing, even if she burned his dinner. In most legal discussions, Jesus sided with Hillel,2 but on this issue Jesus sides with Shammai,3 who said this term meant only unfaithfulness.4

Jesus' halakah, his ruling or decision on this matter, is two-fold: (1) God's intention is that marriage be permanent,5 and (2) divorce is permitted only under certain conditions. In Matt 5, Jesus limits the condition under which a man may divorce his wife—only if she has been unfaithful. Jesus does not, however, treat the issue fully here. He does not, for example, address the condition(s) under which a woman may seek the Court's help in obtaining a divorce. It was the men, not the women, who were abusing the system and violating the Torah (God's instruction), which is why Jesus limits his attention to this single aspect of divorce.

When Jesus concludes in v. 32 that "anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery," he may be referring to the statement the husband is required to make when he issues the get: "Behold, you are permitted [to be married] to any man" (m Git 9:3). According to Jesus, such a statement is not valid legally unless the wife has been unfaithful, in which case the act of immorality has already made her an adulteress, and the husband who divorces her does not then bear the responsibility of making her so if she subsequently marries another man (Gundry 1982:91). Lesser grounds than unfaithfulness, though, invalidate the husband's statement that releases the wife to remarry. Consequently, if the statement is invalid, so is the divorce, and "anyone who marries the [so-called] divorced woman commits adultery."

How then should this passage inform a believer's understanding of divorce? First, he should not take the extreme view that divorce is always wrong. In light of the exception Jesus makes here, one cannot adopt such a rigid position and still admit the integrity of the text. Second, he should not assume that adultery is the only permissible cause for divorce. Jesus' statement is not that general; he limits his discussion to a specific violation of Torah: the turning of the man's legal responsibility to issue the get into a personal right to divorce his wife whenever he wishes. Third, he should realize that this passage does not contain all God has to say on the matter.6 In order to develop a more complete understanding, the believer must consult other, related texts.7

For a pdf including Bibliography and Endnotes see here.

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Relevant and civil comments are welcome. Whether there will be any response depends on whether Dr. Manuel notices them and has the time and inclination to respond or, if not, whether I feel competent to do so.
Jim Skaggs