The Historical Context
[From Noel] The radical changes in our culture since Bible times make it difficult to appreciate how different the debate about marriage and divorce was in Jesus’ time. Under Levitical Law a woman could not initiate a marriage and certainly not initiate a divorce. A woman in Jesus’ time had almost no legal rights of any kind. It was her father (or an older male relative) who negotiated her marriage and once she was married she was dependent on her new husband (and her new family) to provide for her. In Israel, men were free to marry as many women as they wanted. The Bible is remarkably silent on the issue of polygamy but what is clear is that it was not God’s idea from the beginning. In Genesis 2:24 God describes marriage as one man and one woman joined together. The apostle Paul coins a phrase later in Titus 1:6 for a man with healthy sexual relationships as a “‘one woman’ man.”
Sadly, it was the practice of some men at the time the law was being written (during the time of Moses) to marry women in order to ‘legally’ have sex with them and then abandon them when they were no longer pleasing. Since these women could not instigate a divorce and they could not do legal (legitimate) work in the ancient world, they were trapped in these loveless marriages, unable to provide for themselves. They were banned from being married again (since they were already married), and would be in danger of starving to death. In Deut 24:1-4 Moses allows a woman in this situation to be divorced from her husband, thus she was protected from being abandoned forever. There was the possibility (however unlikely) that she could remarry and not starve to death. This is what Moses was allowing the Israelites to do, “because of the hardness of their hearts.” This was the practice that God hated (Mal. 2: 16). He wanted marriage to be a beautiful covenant union that illustrated the union God wanted with mankind: faithful singular commitment for life.
God hates the dehumanization of women and their systematic abuse by a legal system that denies them human rights. That is what the Bible teaches. God hates when people are objectified, mistreated or abused. To take the Old Testament and interpret it in a way that traps women in abusive relationships is literally to turn it on it’s head. That is 100% the opposite of what God has intended by what he has said in the law.
What Jesus teaches about divorce is summarized in Matthew 5: 31-32
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 sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Remember that divorce is legal when Jesus said this. Deut 24:1-4 was the law when Jesus was alive and it is unconditional. Jesus is not teaching here the new rules for divorce. He is saying that divorce is contrary to the purpose of marriage in the first place. When we treat Bible verses like Matt 5:31-32 like the ‘new rules’ for divorce we fall prey to the rule / exception moral reasoning style of the Pharisees rather than the teaching of Jesus. Jesus is not writing a new set of conditions but instead is claiming that divorce and remarriage are linked with adultery as cause is to effect. Jesus is saying that if one is free in ending his marriage then he is much more vulnerable to be tempted to covet another man’s wife (Ex. 20: 17) rather than to remain committed to one’s own. If marriage really is a one-man / one-woman bond that is indissoluble except by death, then they have no choice but to dig deep and recommit to their marriage, rather than seek greener pastures. Secondly, the shattering of one’s original marriage commitment frequently leads to weaker marriage commitments the second and third and fourth times around. Once the sacred meaning of the marriage covenant has been broken, especially through adultery, the second or third marriage is unlikely to recover that meaning.
Our culture today has a tragically damaged view of marriage that has become even more warped and twisted. Marriage is often called a contract between two parties but that’s not the way it should be. Marriage was meant to be a covenant and not a contract. Here we need to talk about the broader context:
A contract is a legal agreement that is:
• Witnessed by the two participants
• Stipulated by conditions of the two parties
• A contract says, “I will do this if you do that.”
On the other hand a covenant is
• Witnessed by God
• Defined by the devotion of the two parties
• A covenant says, “I will do this, regardless what you do”
God has made an everlasting covenant with humanity that he will love us unconditionally. God sent his son Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for sin and deliver us from the death sentence we were under. Jesus died on a cross and was buried and three days later rose from the dead, having conquered sin and death.
Becoming a Christian is identifying Jesus as God’s Son. When you say you’re a Christian you are saying that you trust Jesus to redeem you from your sin and you are baptized, in faith, into his death. You are raised out of the water just like Jesus was raised out of a tomb.
Marriage is just like that. It is a commitment that is not conditional on compliance but is conditional on the character of the person who made the agreement. God’s character is completely trustworthy. He doesn’t just speak the truth, God IS TRUTH! Marriage was meant to be like that.
My promise to be faithful to Julie wasn’t conditional on her being faithful, but on my being true. I will love Julie forever because I want to be true to my promise. Even if she is not faithful, I want to be true to my promise. If our marriage is a healthy one then she has made a similar promise.
Marriage is meant to be a miniature example of the faithful relationship that God desires for us. One that is steadfast and eternal; Committed in love to each other forever.