Teaching: What Does the Bible Say About Divorce?

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Original article can be found here.

The institution of marriage between a man and a woman goes back to the beginning of Creation and has been recognized by every culture as the foundation of both family and civilization itself. God created two sexes, “male and female” (Gen. 1:27, 5:2), and He did so for the mutual benefit of both genders. The man and the woman bring different strengths into the relationship, and by doing so strengthen both the relationship and the family. When the two sexes come together, God says they become one flesh (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Eph. 5:31; 1 Cor. 6:16). The book of Malachi points out that another reason God made the man and woman one flesh in the covenant of marriage was so that the children would be godly: “Has not the LORD made them [husband and wife] one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring” (Mal. 2:14 and 15).

Sadly, it sometimes happens in a marriage that the differences between a man and woman, instead of being appreciated and capitalized upon by the couple, are the cause of friction, division and even divorce. Marriage goes back to Genesis, but so do reasons for divorce. God understands that sometimes the relationship between a man and a woman becomes so hurtful that divorce is the only practical solution, and so He allowed for it in the Mosaic Law (Exod. 21:11; Deut. 24:1). Jesus Christ correctly stated that the foundational reason for divorce was people’s hardness of heart, but pointed out that God did not design marriage to end in divorce. Jesus said, “…Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8).

Christians have discussed and debated the subject of divorce for hundreds of years, and different groups have different beliefs about it. One of the more hurtful doctrines held by some groups is that God never allows divorce. These groups do not allow the same freedom that God allowed in the Law of Moses, and Jesus allowed for in his teachings; that there are times when divorce may be necessary for the health and safety of one of the partners or the children. Another false doctrine about divorce is that God allows for divorce only if one of the spouses has committed adultery. That belief comes from reading the words of Jesus without understanding the culture of his time or the entire scope of the Word of God, i.e., what else the Bible says about the subject.

To understand what Jesus said about divorce, we must read what he said in light of the context, the culture, and the Mosaic Law. We must never think that the Bible is like one of those books of unconnected wise sayings that some people have on their coffee tables. No verse stands on its own, but is interconnected with every other verse and with the general theme of the Bible. That means to really understand what the truth is on any subject we have to pay attention to how all the verses on the subject relate to each other, and that means we have to study the entire Bible. Jesus’ statements about divorce are recorded in Matthew 5:31 and 32, 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; and Luke 16:18, but there is also material in the Old Testament and other places in the New Testament that must be considered. As for the culture in Jesus’ time, the rabbinic school of the great Jewish teacher, Rabbi Hillel (ca. 60 B.C. – 20 A.D.), was teaching that a man could divorce his wife for anything she did that displeased him. It was a “no fault” system of divorce, and divorce was becoming a major social problem. We get a glimpse of the cultural problem of easy divorce in Jesus’ time by the question the Pharisees asked Jesus: “…Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matt. 19:3). Jesus answered them in a way that promoted marriage and the family (Matt. 19:4-9).

It is important to notice that Jesus is never recorded giving a complete teaching on marriage and divorce. Instead, he addressed the question he was asked and the cultural problem of his time, and tried to get people to look at the posture of their hearts and see the purpose of marriage from God’s perspective. Jesus never meant his teaching about marriage and divorce to be pulled from its cultural context and separated from the Law of Moses, which completed it. If Jesus had given a complete teaching on divorce, then he would have mentioned the rights granted to women under the Mosaic Law. Jesus did not mention women in his answer because he did not need to in order to emphasize God’s heart for marriage and relationship, or to reply to the question he had been asked. Jesus did not come to abolish the Mosaic Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17).

To understand God’s heart about marriage, we need Scripture and logic. It is clear from the Bible and history that the intent of marriage is to benefit both partners and to raise godly children. Nevertheless, there are times when the marriage becomes harmful to one or both of the partners, or the children. At that point the marriage may need to be dissolved, and in certain circumstances God allowed for the dissolution of the marriage. The book of Exodus contains important information about divorce. To fully understand the verses, however, we must be aware that the Law of Moses allowed for a man to have more than one wife (Exod. 21:10; Lev. 18:18; Deut. 21:15).

Exodus 21:10 and 11
(10) If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.
(11) If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

What we see clearly revealed in Exodus 21 is that when a man and a woman enter into a marriage covenant, each is responsible to provide for the other. What the woman would provide in the marriage is not specifically spelled out in Exodus because it was so well understood in the culture and because the woman did not usually have the power to divorce a man unless that privilege was specifically granted to her by local or current law or custom. In contrast to the assumed responsibilities of the woman, Exodus 21:11 specifically states that a man must provide food, clothing, and “marital rights,” or the woman is free to leave the relationship.

We must understand the three things listed in Exodus 21:11 in light of the Old Testament culture, not our modern culture. The “food” was the woman’s daily food that sustained her. Her “clothing” meant clothing, and also by extension, a place to stay, her shelter. Some poor people did not have enough money to own a house or tent, and slept under their heavy outer robes at night (Exod. 22:27), so “clothing” often meant both clothing and shelter. A man was responsible, as much as he was able, to provide clothing and shelter for his wife.

The third thing in the list, “marital rights,” refers to sexual intercourse. Although this hopefully included loving affection, in the context of the Old Testament culture, the most important thing it meant was that the woman would have the chance to have children. In an age when bank accounts, Social Security, hospitals, and retirement homes were non-existent, it was a woman’s children who provided her protection and care throughout her life and especially in her old age. A man who would not have sexual intercourse with his wife because he had another wife or wives thus subjected her to the danger of getting sick, hurt, or becoming elderly without any means of help and support. This was very cruel indeed, and God would not tolerate it. If a man treated his wife this poorly, the Law said she was free to leave.

Read the rest of the article here.

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(Comments have been turned off because I’ve been receiving some really odd, and incoherent comments lately. These teaching posts are meant to bless and educate you. The information is here, it’s up to you to accept, or deny, it).

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