Did Jesus Disagree With Moses on Divorce?
Over the centuries, critics of the Bible have devoted their energies to attempting to pinpoint contradictions and discrepancies in an effort to discredit its claim to inspiration. On one occasion in the life of Jesus on Earth, the Pharisees confronted Him and demanded to know if the Law permitted a man to divorce his wife “for just any reason?” Jesus immediately directed their attention to two Old Testament verses that provided the proper answer: Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24—which provided a negative answer as evidenced by Jesus’ own divine commentary on the two verses: “So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). Observe carefully: humans have no right to separate what God Himself has joined together, unless He gives His approval to do so. Hence, wholesale, carte blanche divorce is not sanctioned by God. This view of divorce coincides with God’s true attitude toward divorce in His forthright declaration through the prophet Malachi: “For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce” (2:16).
Before Jesus could complete His response as to whether there are any exceptions to the general rule forbidding divorce, His questioners, no doubt stung by the stringency of Jesus’ answer, sought to justify their rejection of such a narrow viewpoint by calling attention to the Mosaic injunction in Deuteronomy 24: “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” Their words constitute an allusion to Deuteronomy 24. Read carefully the passage as it occurs in the Pentateuch:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
If this Old Testament passage provides a suitable answer to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus undoubtedly would have alluded to it. Instead, His response to their quibble clearly demonstrates that this passage does not provide the proper answer to their question concerning the propriety of divorce. He discounted the passage by offering a rebuttal to its applicability to the question at hand.
Moses Did Not Command Divorce
First, the Mosaic legislation, which included an acknowledgment that divorce was occurring in Israelite society, was a reflection of the hard hearts that existed at the time. No doubt, Egypt’s influence on the first two generations of Israelites included a relaxed view of divorce, establishing a practice that was underway even before God gave His covenant at Sinai. This acknowledgment in no way provided divine sanction for or approval of divorce. The Law neither commanded divorce nor established divorce as a right. After all, who would argue that God would overlook, sanction, or save those who possess hard hearts? Will anyone be in heaven that possesses a hard heart? To ask is to answer. Hence, Jesus’ pronouncement that the Mosaic provision pertained to “hard hearts” underscores the fact that it was not intended as a divine sanction of divorce—let alone a command (eneteilato) to do so. Such a command would, in fact, have been in direct conflict with God’s original intention as reflected in Jesus’ response on the occasion.
Meaning of “permitted”?
But if Moses did not “command” divorce, why did Jesus assert that Moses “allowed” it? What did He mean by His use of the term “allowed” (ESV/RSV), “suffered” (KJV/ASV), or “permitted” (NKJV/NASB)? The underlying word provided by Matthew is epetrepsen. This Greek word means “to allow someone to do something, allow, permit,”1 “to give over, to leave to the entire trust or management of any one; hence, to permit, allow, suffer.”2 The English words “allow” and “permit” do not necessarily imply permission or approval. For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “allow” as “1a: permit; 1b: to fail to restrain or prevent.” For the latter definition, this example of usage is given: “allow the dog to roam.”3 You may not want your dog to roam the neighborhood, yet do nothing to prevent it. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “allow” as “to give permission for someone to do something, or to not prevent something from happening.”4 And the American Heritage Dictionary gives as the first meaning of “allow”: “To let do or happen; permit.”5 The word does not include the idea of sanction, authorization, or approval—let alone forgiveness. God allowed divorce in the sense that He tolerated it—like He does the wicked behavior of the world’s population throughout history. He “puts up with it.” He allows it to go on—without implying endorsement. As Greek expositor Alexander Bruce clarified—“permitted, not enjoined.”6
This understanding is confirmed by two additional Greek terms that are similarly used. In Paul’s address to the idolatrous Athenian philosophers, he courageously declared: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). The Greek verb rendered “overlooked” (huperorao) is defined as “to overlook, disregard; to bear with,”7 “to indulgently take no notice of, overlook, disregard.”8 Paul was certainly not telling the Athenians that in the past God endorsed idolatry or did not reckon it as sin. Indeed, all those who entered eternity prior to Christianity in an idolatrous state will be eternally lost. Rather, Paul intended to impress his pagan audience with the fact that God had put up with a great deal of inexcusable polytheism through the centuries. But with the coming of Christianity, all who continued to worship false gods were under divine mandate to forsake their idolatry and turn to Christ.
The KJV translated the Greek word in this verse as “winked at”: “And the times of this ignorance God winked at.” What did “winked at” mean in 1611? Interestingly enough, William Shakespeare provides the answer. In his famous play Romeo & Juliet, the prince of Verona, Escalus, delivers a stinging rebuke to the grieving families who have gathered in the wake of the tragic deaths of their two children—deaths spawned by their two warring factions:
Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.9
Escalus had, in fact, on more than one occasion, intervened with stern rebukes to urge the warring factions to cease and desist their hostilities—but to no avail. Hence, he “winked” at their discords in the sense that he allowed, tolerated, and permitted them to continue without forcibly preventing them. He certainly did not endorse, approve, or forgive their discordant activities throughout the period in which they occurred. But he did not stop or physically restrain them. He had hoped that his repeated verbal admonitions would have been heeded.
A second Greek term that reinforces the proper meaning of Jesus’ use of the word “allowed/permitted” is the synonym which occurs three times in Paul’s dark portrait of the Gentile world in his letter to the Romans:
- “God also gave them up to uncleanness” (1:24).
- “God gave them up to vile passions” (1:26)
- “God gave them over to a debased mind” (1:28).
The Greek term rendered “gave them up/over” (paradidomi) means “to give over, hand over, deliver up, turn over” and includes the idea to “abandon” as in “he abandoned them to impurity.”10 In addition to the three occurrences in Romans 1, the same word occurs in Stephen’s great speech before the High Priest and Jewish council, in which he described the generation that exited Egypt and constructed a golden calf to worship: “Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven” (Acts 7:42). A variety of English translation renderings make clear the meaning:
- NRSV: “But God turned away from them and handed them over to worship the host of heaven”
- NCV/ICB/EXB: “But God turned against them and did not try to stop them from worshiping the sun, moon, and stars.”
- NIRV: “But God turned away from them. He let them go on worshiping the sun, moon and stars.”
- NOG: ““So God turned away from them and let them worship the sun, moon, and stars.”
- ERV: “But God turned against them and let them continue worshiping the army of false gods in the sky.”
- DARBY/NASB1995: “But God turned and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven.”
Once again, it is plain to see that Jesus, Paul, and Stephen all referred to the same point, i.e., that God can tolerate and allow people to “go their own way” without His allowance implying endorsement, approval, or forgiveness.
“From the Beginning”
Second, observe that Jesus next redirected His questioners’ attention back to the two verses given in His initial response to their question—verses that pertain to the very “beginning” of the human race when God articulated His intention regarding marriage. His remark (“from the beginning it was not so”—vs. 8) presses the fact that God’s will for marriage is ultimately seen at the Creation when God articulated the guiding principle that answers the Pharisees’ question. Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 are intended to be normative injunctions enjoined upon all people for all time. Greek scholar Marvin Vincent presses this very point when he observes that the use of the perfect tense in Matthew 19:8 indicates a past action that continues to be active: “Notwithstanding Moses’ permission, the case has not been so from the beginning until now. The original ordinance has never been abrogated nor superseded, but continues in force.”11 In other words, the sole exception—the only ground for legitimate divorce—from the Garden of Eden to our present day, has always been fornication.12 This firm reality explains why even God divorced His spiritual spouse—Israel—on the sole grounds of adultery (Jeremiah 3:6-8).
The Meaning of Moses’ Directive
Third, careful analysis of the text of Deuteronomy 24 yields additional insights that clarify the Lord’s outright rejection of the passage as prototypical. Observe that the verses in question are lodged in a context of a particular type of legal material found in the Law of Moses known as casuistic law. This format for conveying legal obligations is couched in what logicians refer to as a “hypothetical syllogistic” arrangement—“If…then….”—in which the “if” portion of the statement is known as the “antecedent” while the “then” segment is the “consequent.” Grammarians identify the two segments as the “protasis” and the “apodosis.”
A protasis may have multiple conditions, joined together in English by the conjunction “and.” In Hebrew grammar, the conjunction is a single letter (the waw) which is prefixed to the subsequent word. Context must determine what conditions are part of the protasis, and at what point in the series the apodosis commences. In the case of Deuteronomy, however, it is evident that the protasis continues through verse 3 and the protasis (“then…”) commences with verse 4. Here are the conditions of the protasis:
- When a man takes a wife and marries her
- and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her
- and he writes her a certificate of divorce, and puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house
- and she has departed from his house
- and goes and becomes another man’s wife
- and if the latter husband detests her
- and he writes her a certificate of divorce, and puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife…
Each occurrence of “and” as bolded above is a waw in the Hebrew text. The apodosis now commences:13
Then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Observe carefully that the seven conditions of verses 1-3 are hypothetical, that is, they envision what some person or persons might do. They are not commands. They are not instructions on how to achieve a divorce. They assume that the perpetrator of the actions has made up his mind to divorce his wife regardless of God’s will on the matter—the “hard heart” of which Jesus spoke. Such is typically the case with the conditions of a protasis. For example, consider a similar construction in Exodus 21:29—
If the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.
The four conditions of the protasis are not actions that are approved by God. They merely reflect circumstances that could potentially occur among people in a farm society. The apodosis is designed to provide God’s attempt to manage the unpleasant situation by providing after-the-fact assistance—not indicate God’s sanction of the events that led up to the dilemma at hand. Far from providing authority for divorce, Deuteronomy 24 was intended to be a limitation on divorce—an attempt to minimize and lessen its frequency. In the process, it served as a measure designed to address the mistreatment of women: “It prevented the husband from later claiming rights over this ex-wife.”14
Having disposed of the Pharisees’ quibble concerning Deuteronomy 24, Jesus brought His response to its logical climax by applying God’s original marriage law to the specific matter of divorce: “And (kai—“but”) I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (vs. 9). In sharp contrast to the apparent widespread practice of divorce among the Jews of Jesus’ day, Jesus insisted that the original will of God, going all the way back to the beginning of the human race, was for a man and woman to remain married to each other for life. He forthrightly declared that the only way for that first marriage to terminate in a divorce that God approves is for one of the spouses (the innocent party) to divorce the other (the fornicator), solely on the ground of sexual infidelity. Jesus clarified for all people for all time Deity’s will concerning divorce: the one and only ground for divorce is illicit sexual intercourse. Hence, Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ original question (“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”) was “no.”
1 Fredrick Danker (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago), third edition, p. 385, italics in orig.
2 Wesley J. Perschbacher, ed. (1990), The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson), p. 167.
3 The Merriam Webster Dictionary online, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/allow.
4 Cambridge Dictionary online, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/allow.
5 American Heritage Dictionary, https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=allow.
6 Alexander Bruce (no date), The Synoptic Gospels in The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:246.
7 Perschbacher, p. 418.
8 Danker, p. 1034, italics in orig.
9 Act V, Scene iii, line 290ff. Other occurrences in Shakespeare of the use of “winked” are found in Cymbeline, V.iv.192; Hamlet, II.ii.137; Henry 5, V.ii.300; and King John, IV.ii.211. See https://www.shakespeareswords.com/Public/Searchresults.aspx?search=winking&WholeWordSearch=True.
10 Danker, p. 762; Perschbacher, p. 306.
11 Marvin Vincent (1946), Word Studies in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:108, italics in orig.
12 No doubt Moses did not explicitly articulate this fact in his recounting of the events in the Garden since Adam and Eve were the only people on Earth and, hence, incapable of committing adultery.
13 A number of English translations demonstrate awareness of these grammatical principles and the commencement of the apodosis at verse 4. Among those that insert “then” at the beginning of verse 4 are the ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, RSV, NAB, and the Geneva Bible. The CEB has “in this case,” the CJB has “In such a case,” and the EHV has “in these circumstances.” The EXB, GNT, ICB, and NCV have “In either case.”
14 Jack Lewis (1978), “From the Beginning It Was Not So…” in Your Marriage Can Be Great, ed. Thomas Warren (Jonesboro, AR: National Christian Press), p. 415.
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