In chapter 5 of Instone-Brewer’s (I-B) Divorce and Remarriage in the Church we come to Jesus’ reactions to the “any cause” debate raised by the religious leaders. I-B suggests that prior to the time of Jesus, divorce was only allowed for failure to provide clothing, sex, and food–and could be initiated by either a male or female (I am suspicious as to whether women really could initiate divorce…). But by the time of Jesus’ ministry, Hillel, a popularized the “any cause” divorce by his mis-reading of Deutronomy24:1. Hillel and his followers proposed two grounds for divorce: sexual immorality and “any cause” based on some fault other than immorality. I-B reports that women were in favor of the “any cause” clause. If a woman was divorced for immorality (or allegations thereof) she could be killed or at minimum lose her rights to her marriage inheritance. But the “any cause” divorce was quietly done and mean she would probably get some of her inheritance. I-B suggests that Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary quietly followed the “any cause” clause,
Joseph did not want to put Mary through the disgrace of a public trial, so he decided to use the quiet “any cause” divorce that did not require any proof of wrongdoing. Matthew considered that this would be the action of a “just man,” because Joseph could have ensured that he didn’t have to pay Mary’s marriage inheritance if he had decided to prove her guilty of adultery in court. (p. 57)
Countering Hillel was Shammai and his followers, who only saw sexual immorality as a reason for divorce. I-B reports that this controversy “was a matter of huge public debate” (ibid). So, we come to Matt. 19:3 where the rabbis ask Jesus his opinion on the matter. Is it lawful to divorce for any cause, they ask. I-B does not think that our commentators and translations get it right. The rabbis are not asking Jesus if divorce is okay but if “any cause” divorce is okay–based on his reading of this contemporary debate among the rabbis. But what of Mark 10 where the text doesn’t include the “any cause” type language? Here I-B suggests the analogy of someone asking if it is okay for a minor to drink. Here we all understand the question is about alcohol and not drinking liquid. I-B suggests the audience would never consider that what Moses enacted as law would be unlawful. Divorce is allowed, but is “any cause” divorce allowed?
Jesus ignores the debate and tells both groups their mistake per I-B. But when he directly answers, Jesus supports Shimmai’s position and rejects the “any cause” divorce.
I-B points out that most biblical scholars get hung up on the meaning of porneia and miss the context of the rabbinical debates of the day. Jesus, says I-B is only answering the specific question of how to interpret Deut 24:1 and NOT nullifying the other legitimate reasons for divorce that we looked at in previous posts (abandonment, failure to provide food, clothing, and conjugal love). Jesus answers the question at hand but focuses on marriage rather than divorce. I-B again uses the illustration of telling his wife to “just wear the dress” and having her think he means she shouldn’t wear shoes.
The rest of the chapter considers some other parts of Jesus’ teaching. He supports monogamy and when the rabbis try to suggest Moses commands divorce, Jesus retorts and says that Moses allowed it but did not command it (verse 8). I-B suggests that the rabbis heard the “because of your hardheartedness” like this: They heard him quoting Jeremiah 4:4 where divorce and stubbornness are mentioned together.
Jesus thought that people were being too quick to divorce, so he reminds them that Moses meant divorce to occur only when there was “hardheartedness”–that is, a stubborn refusal to repent and stop breaking marriage vows. (p. 63)
I-B reports that the disciples’ response reveals the bombshell of Jesus’ teaching (verse 10). If its like this, maybe it’s better not to marry.” Jesus is radical by suggesting that marriage was optional. Apparently, Jews always saw it as compulsory due to the command to be fruitful.
So, Jesus denies the “any cause” divorce and even suggests that attempts to divorce are not valid and therefore remarriage is an act of adultery. If you are following along in the book, be sure to re-read I-B’s summary of what he thinks is going on in Matt 19 on pp 65-66. He also reminds readers that the Gospel accounts cannot possibly contain all that was said but are shortened to get to the main point.
Mark wrote first and abbreviated the debate as much as possible, but Matthew wrote later, when the debate was more or less over and was less well known. He knew his readers might get confused, so he helped them out by putting a few details back in. (p. 67)
So, what do you do with these proposed ideas about the context in which Jesus is speaking? Are you suspicious that the church could have missed this context for so long? Even I-B raises this question and promises to answer it in a later chapter. If you do use this lens (that Jesus rejects the any cause divorce but supports the sexual immorality cause) then I think it begs the question whether Jesus would agree with hardheartedness as a cause for divorce as well (which I-B wants to have at the bottom of all appropriate divorces; we should forgive even adultery, but divorce only when stubborn refusal to repent is the issue). If that was his point, why was this not clearer in the text. On the other hand, contumacy has long been seen as the cause for divorce (excommunication) from the church. One is not cut off from the church because of any type of sin, but because of a pattern of stubborn refusal to repent and turn.