Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Understanding what Jesus said about divorce

This past Sunday, my Pastor preached on family and for about 10 minutes, he discussed divorce. He was talking about abuse in the marriage and he said "you need to protect yourself above all else." Then he went on to say that you should seperate for awhile, but do everything possible to not divorce. Then he left it at that and moved on. I was thinking to myself "how long should one stay seperated for?" I have known several women in abusive marriages and as christians we should always try to save the marriage but what if the man is unrelelnting? How long should a woman stay seperated? I couldn't stop thinking about this and I ended up not paying attention to the rest of the service. I kept wondering if Jesus expected women to stay in an abusive marriage. So I went to the internet to do some further study and her eis what I found, and what I think.

“Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce. But anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “ Deuteronomy 24 gave us some of the earliest records of divorce. In Matthew 5: 32 Jesus said “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.”
How many people have had this verse quoted to them in a way that caused them pain?
Is it possible that there is more about what Jesus was saying about divorce than what we find in the scriptures?  Maybe there is more to what it means to Jesus’ followers in the year 2012?
Divorce in the greek is apoluo. It means to loose, or unbind from, to send away. The roots are not in a “mutual” parting but in “one” unbinding, loosing, or sending another away. In that day, it was always the man who divorced his wife. I know it’s not right, but it was 3000 to 4000 years ago.
When Jesus used divorce, there was a huge debate going around the rabbis of His time. The debate was in regards to the verse in Deuteronomy 24:5. But that passage was based on a culture that had conditions, that were not in the same context as Jesus day. First of all, 3000-4000 years ago in the middle east, a wife was treated like a piece of property. The husband could get rid of her at any time, for any reason. If the wife was sent away, she would have no rights, no protection, no dignity, and no provisions. She literally had nothing. She was a “sent away” woman in a primitive and barbaric world where she had no way to provide for herself. So unfortunately, when most women were sent away they ended up being prostitutes.
Now, here comes the book of Deuteronomy. Here comes Moses. Moses never condoned divorce. He never said it was a good thing. He only acknowledged the reality of divorce. So Moses said that men must give their wives a certificate of divorce if they sent their wife away. (Deut 24) I want to point out two things about this “new” concept of giving the woman a certificate of divorce. The first thing, is that if a man had to go through the hassle of acquiring the materials for, writing out, and proclaiming the certificate, that maybe he would reconsider. Remember writing materials were quite expensive and not always readily available like they are today. The second thing it did, was it “restored” the virtue, the dignity, and honor of the woman, in a culture in which she would normally have none of. Now, I know a lot of my friends will say “Yes, that’s great but it is still barbaric and horrible.” I would agree. However, it was a huge step in that place, in that time, for women’s rights. For today’s standards in 2012 that would still be a terrible way to treat women. But in the days of Deuteronomy it was a very radical, empowering, pro-woman legislation, that was a progressive and revolutionary step forward. She was no longer just a cast off of society. She now had a legal “right”, she had dignity and honor like she did before.
Now, let’s go forward to Jesus’ day. Right before the “Jesus” movement, there were two great rabbis that stood out from the others. They were the “Lady Gaga” of their time, if you will. One of the rabbis name was hillel. The other was Shammai. These two rabbis dominated the scene in regards to how you were supposed to follow God. These guys were so huge that they each had their own schools of teaching. Hillel usually was a little more liberal or permissive in his views on scripture. Shammai, on the other hand was a little more restrictive. You could say that he was a little more on the conservative side of the scriptures. These two rabbis had different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24. This was very common in that day. In fact, a the way a rabbi interpreted the scriptures was called his “yoke.” Verse 24 says that a man can write a certificate of divorce if his wife becomes displeasing to him. So the next question would be, “What exactly is ‘displeasing’ mean?” The phrase “indecent” was translated from the word ervah dabar which means “nakedness of a thing.” That is what the phrase indecent really meant. So, the discussion was what was “nakedness of a thing” all about? Shammai focused on the “nakedness”  and Hillel focused on the “of a thing” part. So Shammai stated that a man could not divorce his wife unless he found out she was having an affair, because he has found in her, indecency in a matter. But Hillel said that he may divorce her, even if she burns his food, because he has found in her, indecency, in a matter. Normally, Shamai was less permissive, but not in the case of divorce.
First of all, some of you, who have been through a divorce, and some Christian beat you over the head with Matthew 5: 31,32. They might have told you that you were not following God’s will for your life. But if they didn’t explain the entire context of the debate that was happening in that culture, at that time, in which Jesus was speaking to, they could have hurt you. And even though they were “using” the scriptures to correct you, they were “wielding” that sword very inappropriately. When Jesus used the word divorce, he was going into one of the most controversial subjects of debate, of his day.
The question of divorce is “Who is Jesus going to side with?” Hillel or Shammai? Sometimes people think that Jesus just made everything up because He was God. This goes hand in hand with the notion that God just defies science to make things happen, as opposed to just using a higher level of science that we don’t understand. Jesus didn’t just make this stuff up. He was a first century, Jewish rabbi, who lived within a particular time and culture. When Jesus used the word divorce, He was going with the interpretations of Shammai. Jesus said that a man can send her away if she has committed adultery. But if she hasn’t then he cannot. And if he does, he must properly give her a certificate. Which means he must honor and giver dignity in the process. He is not allowed, at any point, treat her like a piece of property. You do NOT send a woman away because she burnt your eggs.
So in regards to Jesus and His position on divorce, He is saying “You don’t treat a woman like that.” Hillel is too rigid on this one. Shammai at least gives the woman her dignity.
For thousands of years, people throughout history have wrestled with the ugliness, complexity, and despair of divorce.
Paul states that if a non believer lives with a believer And the non believer leaves, the believer can let them go. So he expands on what Jesus was saying. But he didn’t stop there. He kept going. We went on to say “because God has called us to live in peace.”

I think that is huge. Paul isn’t just adding “one more” justified reason for divorce. If that was the case, he wouldn’t have gone on to talk about living in peace. That opens up a much bigger “grounds” for divorce. So, I think a valid question can be asked. That question is “Is there hope for peace in this marriage?”
Let me say that as a Christian, I think we should always seek to reconcile. No matter what the circumstances, I think we should always try to save the marriage. But that takes two. What if the other person is unwilling? What if the abuse continues? What if the abuser refuses to stop the abuse? Some would say that there should just be a time of separation. OK, but for how long? 6 months? 1 year? 3 years? How long does a person have to stay separated in “limbo” waiting for the other person to come around? Is that an example of living in peace? I don’t think it is. Is there a point, when staying together is actually more destructive to the peace in the family? Because God calls us to live in peace.
Are there some marriages, that maybe they just have too much junk, too much hurt, too much disappointment? And while we as Christians believe in healing, we believe in miracles, we believe in the power of God to change hearts, we believe that some things can be raised from the dead, perhaps sometimes, things DO die.
Let me again be very clear. We should always be about fidelity, reconciliation, honoring the vows, the commitment, as far as it is possible.
My wife and I own a gym together and we have a couple thousand members. Most of these members become friends with us. We do things with them, we get to know their family. I have seen couples be together, and there was never peace. There was constant strife, arguing, pitting the kids against the other spouse, etc. Then they got a divorce. We were sad for them. But then, sometimes, both of them re-married. They had both created warm and loving marriages the second time around. There was finally “peace.” Are we to assume that God wasn’t pleased with this? I don’t think so.
We should always be first and foremost, interested in reconciliation and recovery for the marriage. But then, we add to that, “peace.” As much as it is possible. So live with the profound respect for the sanctity of marriage and at the same time, with the reality and the honesty that sometimes, things just die and you have to call it what it is.
The implications of this can definitely go on, but I try not to have articles become too long or involved so I don’t lose the reader. In addition to that, the longer my articles are, the more chances for grammar errors I have. J
I want to end with this final point. I have seen several “well meaning” Christians wound people with scriptures like Matthew Chapter 5. But as I stated earlier, without full knowledge of the teachings of Hillel and Shamai, they would be missing over half of the context. It is very difficult for us to sometimes have a full understanding of the details of some of the scriptures. As Christians, should we not be careful and guarded with “our” interpretations of the scriptures? Because after all, they are just “our” interpretations, right?
Please look for my next blog which will cover my thoughts on this idea. “With over 130,000 different Christian doctrines, how do we know which ones are the correct interpretations of God’s will?”
As always, thanks for reading, 



  1. I just read down to the Hillel and Shammai area, which is pretty good for an agnostic atheist, or whatever I am.

    The story which sticks in my mind after all the drubbing by Christians is the Christ saying whoever isn't guilty, please throw the first stones, or something like the prostitutes.

    I appreciate the allegory, and know it could improve the life of many a Neanderthal being!

  2. I think for those who try and condemn or bash others with Bible verses they need to remember that with that comes love, forgiveness, and redemption! God did not create you to bash other people! We are the salt and the light of the earth we need to be lifting people and loving them, especially if they are going through tough times... they come to you for a reason, for love and comfort. Yes we need to hold others accountable if they are accepting to that but you need to check yourself before you go spouting things and breaking people down!