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Jesus, Divorce & Abuse

For anyone who has gone through a divorce, it's a painful process. I talk a lot in my book, "Once Upon a Nightmare" about vows and when it's okay to leave an abusive situation. I talk about how God's desire for us and our relationships are not that they should be harmful or soul-sucking, but rather edifying and life-giving. I've been through a divorce and I know how painful it is, even when the person you're divorcing is scary and dangerous. It's still hard. What I don't go into as much in my books is Jesus' very limited discourse on the issue of divorce, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to do so here.

The first question is: is divorce what God desires for human marital relationships?


Short answer: No. Of course not. But then you might also argue death itself was never part of that original desire for humanity and relationships, yet that's pretty unavoidable. A lot of stuff broke in the Garden of Eden. Not just our relationship with God, but with each other.


Yet anyone who reads the Gospels of Matthew and Mark knows Jesus has some thoughts about divorce. At face value, the words seem rather stern. Unless it's due to adultery - no divorce allowed. Period.


Well, like everything in life, the issue at play here is a little more complicated.


Let's start by looking at what Jesus says in this texts about the topic:


Some, testing him, asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘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 they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” - Mark 10:2-12
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." - Matthew 5:31-32
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery." - Luke 16:18

Now first off, the context into which each of these is spoken in terms of the narrative are different. In Mark's gospel, the leadership is trying to trip him up. It's literally a trap. John the Baptist lost his head when he accused Herod of adultery for divorcing his wife and marrying his brother's wife, Herodias. They're hoping to catch Jesus in a similar way, but he refuses to play their game and rather than telling the leadership that, yes, what Herod did was adultery, he simply states their hardness of heart has allowed this form of cavalier divorce to take place, and appeals to the created order and intention for marriage--that marriage is something not meant to be set aside casually or easily. After all, becoming one flesh means hacking off a part of yourself if you get divorce, and indeed, if you've been through a divorce, that's very much what it feels like. That your very being is being ripped apart.


But he side-steps the trap by bypassing the issue of Mosaic law all together and appealing to the original intent in the Garden of Eden, and that the law only exists because they refuse to abide by that original intent. It's only to his disciples that he later states that remarrying after a divorce is indeed adultery, affirming John the Baptist's criticism of Herod. Jesus clearly is not on board with Herod's actions and considers the fact that he set his first wife aside in order to marry his brother's wife an act of adultery.


But can we apply Jesus' disdain for Herod and Herodias' actions to all divorces? To all circumstances? To all times and places?


Before I answer that let's look at some of the other places Jesus talks about divorce.


In Luke's Gospel it's much briefer and is tacked onto the end of Jesus talking about the leaders trying to justify themselves in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. But more importantly, it's in the context of a conversation about money and God's law. The word Jesus uses for divorce is a form of “apoluo" which means to “send away.” Jesus was teaching that everyone who sends his wife away and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman who has been sent away from her husband commits adultery. This is seemingly addressing the Deuteronomy 24 "loophole" that allows a man to give his wife a bill of divorce for any reason. Originally, this was meant to be a protection for a woman to some degree. You see, while a man was permitted to have sex with women other than his wife according to Jewish law, women were not. They had to be exclusive. So if the husband decides he wants to take another wife, or just generally decides that his wife is annoying him and he wants to divorce her, he could just get rid of her. But if she was still legally his wife, this left her in a precarious position. In theory, the bill of divorce would allow her to remarry under Jewish law, thus when she is "sent away" with a bill of divorce this would mean she could at least find another husband.


But the men were finding ways to even abuse that. One of the few protections the woman did have in marriage was her marriage contract, known as a ketubot. The ketubot outlined the duties of the husband to her and stated how much a husband owed his wife, both financially and conjugally. According to Jewish law, a woman could demand a divorce if her husband failed to live up to those contractual duties. Women could even argue it was grounds for divorce from their husbands if he was found to be impotent or sterile. Now, demanding a divorce did not mean she could actually initiate the divorce. She could not draw up the bill of divorce and hand it to him, and thus end the marriage. The man had to be the one to serve his wife with the divorce decree known as the get (again based on their understanding of Deuteronomy 24). It required her going to the Rabbis and essentially making her case of abuse, neglect, impotency, etc, in order to get the Rabbinic court to demand that her husband initiate the divorce proceedings. If he refused, the court could resort to beating and flogging him until he gave her the get.


But the issue at hand is the loophole they thought they found to get themselves out of having paying the financial ketubot. Matthew's gospel on this matter actually helps clarify more than Luke's because it specifically mentions the issue that was being argued over regarding Deuteronomy 24, which was what were the grounds for divorcing one's wife?


"Except on the ground of sexual immorality" in Matthew's version is the key point he's likely addressing in Luke's as well. There was an ongoing Rabbinical debate about the reasons behind why a man could initiate divorce. Jesus is making reference to the law in Deuteronomy 24 that states: "and it comes to pass that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some matter of indecency in her." The Rabbinic debate that surrounded this text was whether or not the "indecency" was sexual in nature or if it could be any annoyance, like burning dinner, that would give the husband cause to divorce his wife. If there was legitimate "cause" he didn't have to pay.


In Matthew's gospel, the reference to this "except in cases of sexual immorality" is settling that debate. No, just because your wife annoys you is not grounds for divorce. But in both contexts, he's trying to put a stop to this practice of sending your wife away for no real reason other than you got bored with her. In Luke's context, specifically, the financial aspect of it was likely front and center for him.


Ultimately, Jesus does not like what is at the heart of this divorce law in each of the references, and as Thomas Long points out in his Matthew commentary, "Jesus allows no room for divorce in a culture in which the manner in which divorce is practiced is an assault on the value of persons, an abuse of power, or a trivialising of faithful commitments...Marriage is intended to be a communion between two people that expresses, in their mutual fidelity, the faithfulness of God. It is intended to be a place of safety, nurture, and honour for person."


Divorce was an abuse of power over a woman, and Jesus is pretty disgusted by the ways in which this is getting carried out.


Furthermore, the part in all of these texts that is frequently overlooked is that Jesus accuses the men of being adulterers as much as the women would be if they either remarried or if the man married a divorced woman. The reason this gets overlooked is that most don't realize that according to Jewish law, the only one who had to be exclusive in the marital relationship was the woman. Men were only considered guilty of adultery if they slept with another married woman. (David taking multiple wives when he slept with Bathsheba was not the issue: the problem was, she was a married woman) So even the "do not commit adultery" issue was seen as a primarily an issue of property, like coveting. (Hence the coveting your neighbor's wife led to adultery because she was someone else's property.) In theory, the Rabbis speculated that there was no real limit to the number of wives a man could have, but practically speaking, in order to fulfill their conjugal marital contract with each wife, four was probably the limit, giving each wife one week to fulfill that duty. Jesus is taking issue with that practice as well (even though most likely, most ordinary men could not afford to financially support more than one wife; hence why this was practiced primarily only by the patriarchs and kings) by calling out the fact that men stepping outside the exclusive nature of their marriage was also an act of adultery.


This adds more context to the scene in John 8 where the men drag the woman out in front of Jesus who they had set up to be caught in "adultery" but don't bring the man forward--it's because unless that woman was married, he was not guilty of adultery according to Jewish law. Technically, however, if she was not married, she was not guilty of adultery, either. Adultery, again, was about the offense being done to the person you were married to. So either the woman being tossed in front of him was being wrongly accused of adultery, or they were choosing to only hold the married woman, not the man, accountable. Either way--it's an absurd injustice that Jesus calls out. (Given Jesus tells her to sin no more, it's likely then that she, too, was married.)


So the Luke text in particular is in the context of the leadership claiming to be scrupulously religious while in actuality they were grossly immoral.


To add even more 'ick' to the Deuteronomy text, it should be noted that verse 4 states that should a man divorce his wife in this manner, she remarries, then her second husband divorces her and the original husband remarries her, she is defiled and thus it's forbidden to do that.


Rachel Biane in her book "Women and Jewish Law" suggests this prohibition was to stop the practice of "wife swapping," where you could, in theory at least, divorce your wife one day, give her to a friend who then would marry her, sleep with her, then divorce her and send her back to the original husband who would remarry her. Essentially this was a man prostituting his wife out, legally, to another man. This isn't even swingers territory where at least both the man and the woman are typically on board with this arrangement. It's once again abuse of power the man had over the woman. Jesus likely references this practice when he talks in Matthew 25 about the times of Noah, how they were "marrying and giving in marriage."


At any rate, clearly the context in each of these cases addresses the abusive nature of how divorce was being practiced and the unjust way in which it affected the women. So is this prohibition for all times and all places? I mean, doesn't Paul appeal to these statements regarding divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 for the Christian community when he tells husbands and wives not to get divorced, allowing only the exception that if an unbelieving spouse chooses to leave the marriage, then let them go?


Doesn't the fact that it's considered adultery to remarry mean if you do get divorced, you can't remarry another person?


The problem with that is that it again winds up harming women, especially women who are in abusive relationships. Even in today's world, women still find themselves in precarious financial situations typically if they try to divorce an abusive husband. Many women are stay at home wives/mothers without a source of income and dependent completely on their husband. Or if they do work, it's many times limited to part time. This is why so many women stay in their abusive marriages. They literally cannot afford to get out of them. In my own divorce, I had a well-established career, owned my own home that was not in my husband's name, and had access to resources that most women do not.


In Jesus' day, telling a woman she could not remarry or she'd be committing adultery was a devastating situation for her. Especially if the husband was using the loophole of Deuteronomy 24 to not have to pay her any part of the money from the marriage contract. While certainly some women had their own wealth, owned property, and even ran some sort of business, more often than not they were still dependent on their husbands for survival. To be cast aside in a divorce and then told that you are now committing adultery just to survive seems a rather callous move on Jesus' part.


Is this what Jesus intends? Is Jesus telling women stay in abusive, loveless, harmful relationships? Is that really what God wants?


Unfortunately, we don't get further discourse from Jesus on this topic. We only get his one-off comment in the three synoptic gospels that are, primarily, addressing the application of Jewish law,


But here's the thing, at least in the Matthew version, there is the acknowledgement that sometimes, there really are good reasons to get divorced, even if it isn't the "ideal." He still offers up the stipulation that if the wife is stepping out sexually, yeah, you can divorce her and remarry and that's okay.


Despite his appeal in Mark's gospel to the Garden of Eden, Jesus knows the Garden of Eden scenario is long-gone. We live in a broken world. We live in a world where things are not always that black and white, and we live into the gray more often than not. In the idyllic setting of the Garden, yes, men cleaved to their wives, cared for them, worked alongside them, and the relationship was mutually edifying and beneficial. Ideally, this is how marriage should work outside the Garden as well.


Yet, we all know it doesn't much of the time.


As I pointed out at the beginning, a lot of things changed when humanity left the Garden. Death entered into the equation, and while physical death entered in, so did the reality of relationship death.


While Jesus isn't going to give us a more thorough teaching on this topic and we can't ask questions about how he would view other circumstances, what we can do is look to how Jesus treated divorced women. In particular, his encounter with the Samaritan woman, who, even as a Samaritan, still followed Mosaic law. She is not admonished for the fact that she is, by Jesus' own definition, an adulteress. When he points out that she is right in saying she has no husband, that she has in fact had five husbands and the man she's living with is not her husband, he doesn't yell "Adulteress! Go and be reconciled to your first husband so that you can go and sin no more!" (Assuming of course she was divorced and all five previous husbands hadn't died. We don't really know the particulars of her circumstances. But let's just say the likelihood that she had five husbands die on her was pretty remote.) Most likely, she'd been a victim of the same issue that was being addressed in the divorce texts: her husbands had found some random fault or another woman and therefore issued her a bill of divorce, kicked her out, and she was forced to move on to her next husband, or in the final case, simply living with a man. Jesus doesn't even admonish her for living with a man she's not married to.


So how do we apply these statements in Matthew, Mark and Luke to our own day, our own circumstances? Are they for all times and all places? If Jesus had grace for the Samaritan woman, does he possibly have grace for us as well?


Again I think it's important to note that in each of these contexts, Jesus is going after how divorce is being abused by the men, not the women. How his discourse is directed at the men, not the women. In fact, the one time he has an opportunity to say something to a woman about her divorced state, he chooses not to. Even when she's caught in an adulteress affair--he does not condemn her (not that he approved of what she was doing, mind you, but he absolutely recognized the set up for what it was) and instead offers her grace.


It should also be noted that Jesus is acting like a Talmudic sage even before the Talmud existed. He was entering into a widely debated topic in the Rabbinic Jewish community that had a lot of different opinions and expressing his own opinion, usually when pressed by certain bad-faith actors on how to understand this. I don't think his intent when entering this discussion was for those words to then be transferred into a rigid law with no nuance or exceptions. I don't think his intent was to trap women in bad situations, rather it was to try and stop them from being put into a bad situation. By declaring that the man was forcing her into adultery through his actions, that had to be a. bit of a shocking statement to Jesus' audience, as they clearly thought their little writ of divorce absolved them from any wrong-doing.


Therefore I firmly believe it is the intent of the divorce in these circumstances that Jesus has problems with. Jesus does not like what is at the heart of this divorce law, and as Thomas Long points out in his Matthew commentary, "Jesus allows no room for divorce in a culture in which the manner in which divorce is practiced is an assault on the value of persons, an abuse of power, or a trivialising of faithful commitments...Marriage is intended to be a communion between two people that expresses, in their mutual fidelity, the faithfulness of God. It is intended to be a place of safety, nurture, and honour."


When we approach these words of Jesus about divorce resulting in adultery if one remarries, I think we need some much-needed wisdom in applying those words for today when dealing with an untenable, abusive, loveless relationship. His words were not meant to be a rigid law that could never be discussed, debated or challenged.


Bottom line: what is the heart of Jesus in such a matter? Following the letter of the law, or the heart of the law? Does Jesus care about abuse victims? Does Jesus and by extension God care about the health, wellness and safety of anyone who is an abusive marriage?


I will always fall on the side that says yes, Jesus absolutely cares about these things. That Jesus cares about both men and women living lives that reflect His Kingdom. Being in an abusive, loveless, toxic marriage does not reflect the Kingdom of God. Period.






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