Matthew 5:17 Ministries

Yeshua’s judgment on marriage and divorce (Matthew 19:1–12)

Focus Passage: verses 1-6

Matthew 19:1–6 (CJB)
1 When Yeshua had finished talking about these things, he left the Galil and traveled down the east side of the Yarden River until he passed the border of Y’hudah. 2 Great crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
3 Some P’rushim came and tried to trap him by asking, “Is it permitted for a man to divorce his wife on any ground whatever?” 4 He replied, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, 5 and that he said, ‘For this reason a man should leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two are to become one flesh? 6 Thus they are no longer two, but one. So then, no one should split apart what God has joined together.”

A Theological And Legalistic Trap

After Yeshua had finished talking about some lessons in humility, he and his talmidim (disciples) would now journey closer to Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, as the group draws closer to Judea and Jerusalem, they are approached by some P’rushim (Pharisees). These legalistic rabbinic leaders had to be concerned, at least in some part, that this maverick rabbi was once again entering their turf. These leaders were coming, hoping to trap him with a classic theological question. Their question hit at the heart of a most critical mitzvah(commandment) in Judaism, marriage and conditions for divorce. At his point, it is evident that they were not sincerely seeking new truths about the Mashiach but were merely trying to justify their unbelief which often happens today.

As we can see, Judaism had a high understanding of marriage, but all schools within Judaism recognized the fact of divorce. Moses had made reluctant legislation to control its worst excesses, which allowed a man to divorce his wife on account of any trifling disagreement. There were essentially two primary schools of thought in Pharisaic Judaism at this time. The school of Rabbi Hillel (Beit-Hillel) was the more lenient, often taking a less strict interpretation of social issues. The opposing school was that of Rabbi Shammai (Beit-Shammai), who often took a more stringent and conservative view.

The difference between these two Jewish schools arose over the interpretation of ‘something indecent,’ which Moses had conceded could justify divorce. Shammai interpreted it as adultery; Hillel saw it as embracing many less severe things. The Pharisees were therefore seeking to get Jesus to side with either Shammai or Hillel and to show himself as either conservative or more liberal in sexual and marital ethics. It is significant to note that only the Pharisees (and not the Sadducees) are posing this current question.

The Meaning Of The Question

The controversial question centered on the much-debated phrase in the Torah, “ervat davar,” found in Devarim/Deuteronomy 24:1. The phrase alludes to a married man who found his wife offensive in some aspects. The Hebrew means “a thing of nakedness.” Shammai took a narrow view of the passage, interpreting it as sexual immorality, as the term strongly implies. Consequently, that branch of the P’rushim forbade divorce in any circumstance except adultery. On the other hand, Hillel interpreted the exact same phrase in the broadest sense possible, allowing divorce for almost anything that would be unpleasing to the husband. This could include such disrespectful acts as a wife not having her head covered in public or even the act of consistently burning her husband’s food!

Yeshua’s Response

Yeshua’s reply is most informative, not only to the people of his day but also to us. His response to the question is with a question of his own. “Haven’t you read?” He does not ask them for their personal view or even their rabbi’s opinion. It is not what is heard in rabbinic debate but what is read in the written Torah. He refused to let himself be drawn into their petty scheme. Instead of talking primarily about divorce, he goes behind that regulation of marriage’s failure to the purpose of marriage itself and continues his quote from the Torah.

He takes them straight back to the Maker’s instructions in Genesis 1:27; 2:24 and makes six strong points about marriage. First, it is designed by G-d. ‘The Creator. In his elaboration, Yeshua points out that man and woman are no longer two but one. The original Hebrew word echad, often translated as “one,” perfectly reflects the concept of unity. In marriage, the two people do not lose their individuality or uniqueness but are united in the spiritual covenant. It is this same Hebrew word, echad that G-d uses to describe his character! In the famous Shema passage (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:4), God tells us, “The LORD is our God, the LORD is One!”

Secondly, marriage is complementary: G-d’ made them male and female’ (4). It is not a unisex world. There are G-d-ordained differences and complements between the sexes. That is so obvious that it only needs to be stated today when homosexual and other forms of relationships have come to be seen as an equally valid alternative to marriage. The primary trouble is that it contradicts G-d’s complementarity design and purpose between the sexes.

Thirdly, marriage is intended to be permanent: ‘the two will become one flesh.’ The bonding is meant to provide a permanent relationship that will not be broken by anything indecent,’ whether interpreted by Shammai or Hillel. Here again, in an age of immense marital dissatisfaction and breakdown, we see G-d’s judgment on what we think is acceptable. Marriage is intended to be permanent, and any deviation from that is a declension from his purpose. Incidentally, the physical words used to describe the union, one flesh and united (literally ‘glued’), affirm the goodness of human sexuality, one of G-d’s most gracious gifts to his people, and not something believers should affect to disparage.

Fourthly, marriage is exclusive. The man is ‘united to his wife’ (5). He becomes one flesh with her. No longer is he to have a little fling on the side, nor is she. Each is pledged to find fulfillment in the other and to discover on earth a model, however inadequate, of the permanent relationship between G-d and the believer, which nothing can break.

Fifthly, marriage is nuclear. It means ‘leaving’ and ‘cleaving’ (5). It represents a fundamental transfer of allegiance from parents to spouses. There must be substantial distancing from the old generation to create the new. A new family unit is in the making. Of course, the new couple will, in many instances, draw a lot of support from their parents. But the fact remains: they are a new unit and need the freedom to behave as one.

Sixthly, marriage is not for everyone. This is the plain meaning of verses 10–12. The disciples were amazed at the rigor of his exposition of the purpose and nature of marriage. It was far more rigid than Shammai had ever been. There seemed no way out, then, of a disastrous union. If so, ‘it is better not to marry (10). But Jesus is not legislating. He is setting forth G-d’s purpose in marriage. He is going behind the casuistry on divorce, which was so beguiling as it is today.

The Heart Of Divorce

This explanation from Yeshua leads to some follow-up queries from the rabbis. Why would Moses give the commandment that a man should hand his wife a get(certificate/paper) and divorce her? The term in Deuteronomy 24:1 is “Sefer kritut/a document of cutting,” which is a graphic description of divorce—a cutting off of a relationship and a covenant.

Their question is obvious. Since divorce was never mentioned in the early Torah (B’resheet/Genesis 1–2), why does Moses later speak of the possibility of such an action (Devarim/Deuteronomy 24)?
Yeshua’s answer reconciles any conflicting views. It was not G-d’s original intention to even consider divorce, but he made a concession based on human realities. Moses allowed you to divorce (not commanded, because people’s hearts are so hardened.

Divorce was not how it was at the beginning. From the early covenant of B’resheet/Genesis, marriage was a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman. This has always been G-d’s perfect will, yet fallen human nature can often sabotage the beautiful plans of our Creator. If man and woman consistently had a soft heart toward the things of G-d, divorce should be nonexistent. But we all sin and fall short of the glory of G-d, often exemplified in breaking the mitzvot of the Torah. It is bad enough when we break the commandments, but too often, we have a hardened heart about our personal choices.

Marriage, Divorce, And Remarriage

In the case of marriage, things are complicated further. It has been said that it takes two committed people to make a good marriage, but only one to mess it up! No doubt, there is usually some degree of dual culpability in the case of a broken marriage. However, sometimes it may be the hardened heart of just one side. In light of this human reality, God allowed divorce later as a concession to make the best of a grievous sin. There are times when divorce is regrettably the best spiritual choice.

However, great care must be taken not to abuse the grounds of a biblical divorce. According to Yeshua, breaking the covenant is only allowed on the strictest basis of sexual immorality. If a man divorces his wife for any other reason and marries another woman, he becomes guilty of adultery! By his strong statement here, Yeshua is answering his rabbinic colleagues by agreeing with the conservative view of Beit-Shammai.

It should be noted that this is not the only place in the Torah or New Covenant where the grounds for divorce are discussed. Besides the sexual immorality mentioned here, Rabbi Sha’ul speaks of other possible biblical grounds for seeking a divorce. Since his primary ministry was to non-Jews, it is not surprising that Sha’ul speaks of a “non-believer” deserting a “believer.” If the non-believer wants a divorce, as is evident from their departure, then the believer is commanded to cooperate in the divorce (1 Corinthians 7:15).

However, if both spouses are Yeshua followers and end up in a divorce, neither one is to remarry. The apparent hope is that there may be reconciliation as they both keep faithful to their marriage vows and try to correct their troubled relationship (1 Corinthians 7:10–11). The only other clear case for acceptable remarriage is in the case of the death of a spouse. This frees the other spouse as they are no longer in an earthly covenant (Romans 7:1–3).

Closing Thoughts

Difficult though this is, we must remember two things. The ethics of the kingdom can’t be articulated in anything less than ideal terms. And yet the Adonai is consistently compassionate to those who fail, repent, and return to him for restoration. This passage follows hard on the heels of one that expresses G-d’s unbounded mercy and forgiveness. So, legalistic rigorism is just as inappropriate for the faith community as is casual divorce.