What Does the Bible Say about Marriage and Divorce?
To answer, we’ll look at:
What does the OT say?
What was the state of marriage and divorce in the first century?
What did Jesus teach about marriage and divorce?
The OT on Marriage and Divorce
God reveals His plan for marriage in Genesis 2, a chapter that recounts God creating man and woman. The reason why God created two biological sexes is “It is not good for man to be alone.” He created man and woman to be a complementary pair — we have inherent strengths and weaknesses which complement each other. Scripture consecrates the marriage relationship in verse 24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” As we will see in a few minutes, Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 when teaching on marriage and divorce.
Moses regulated divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. A man could divorce his wife “because he has found some uncleanness in her.” What exactly Moses means is not clear. The lack of clarity led the Rabbis to expend a tremendous amount of mental energy in attempts to define “some uncleanness.” Setting that aside, a man could divorce his wife if she did not measure up by writing a certificate of divorce and sending her on her way. She was free to remarry; if her second husband also divorced her, the first husband was not to remarry her — this was a sin in the eyes of God. As far as the law is concerned, this is the only passage that regulates divorce.
Malachi 2 is the final book of the Old Testament and it reveals precisely how God feels about divorce. Divorce was apparently rampant in Malachi’s day. God was furious with how men treated their wives “treacherously” — a word he uses three times in three verses. In Malachi 2:16, the prophet declares, “For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence.” As most anyone who has been through a divorce can attest, it is an emotionally violent action. Divorce leaves in its wake untold damage. For this reason, God hates divorce. He hates the dissolution of the union He consecrates and He hates the damage it leaves behind.
But one might wonder: if God allowed divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, why did He allow something He hates? This is a fair question that appears to be answered by Jesus later. Before we dive into the teachings of Jesus, let’s first set the stage.
The state of marriage and divorce in the first century
In the first century Roman world, the institution of marriage was in a troubled state. Emperor Augustus attempted to reform the institution during his reign; unfortunately, his reforms did little to stem the tide of divorce during the first century. Marriage had,
…once been a lifelong economic union, [but] was now among a hundred thousand Romans a passing adventure of no great spiritual significance, a loose contract for the mutual provision of physiological conveniences or political aid (Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, p. 363).
According to Seneca, women numbered the years of their lives by the number of their husbands – they divorced to marry and married to divorce. Martial observed a woman who married 10 husbands in the space of 30 days. According to the legal records of the time, 30 percent of upper-class marriages ended in divorce during the first century and though no records of the lower classes of society survive, most authorities agree that the upper-class is likely representative of society.
The state of marriage seems to be better among the Jews, although they, like the Romans, practiced a no-fault divorce. Remember Deuteronomy 24? A man could divorce his wife because of “some uncleanness.” What exactly that meant became the subject of an intense debate among the Rabbis. By the first century, two Rabbinical schools of thought prevailed: Hillel and Shammai. Hillel’s interpretation became the conventional wisdom in Jesus’s day: a man could divorce his wife for any reason. Shammai took a much more narrow view.
Shammai believed “some uncleanness” could be defined in three ways.
If marriage was infertile: infertility would stand in the way of fulfilling Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply;” any couple which had not produced offspring in 10 years was expected to divorce.
A husband could divorce his wife if she committed adultery based on Numbers 5:11-31 .
Shammai also believed a woman could divorce her husband if he neglected her along the lines of Exodus 21:10-11: If a husband deprived his wife of food, clothing, or conjugal rights, that woman was free to divorce her husband.
Hillel had a broad view of divorce; Shammai was much more narrow; in Jesus’s day, Hillel’s view of divorce was the prevailing view among the Jews — no-fault divorce or divorce for any reason.
Jesus’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage
In Matthew 19:3-9, Jesus returns us to God’s original design for marriage. He does so in response to the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” It appears the Pharisees were gauging how Jesus would compare with Hillel. Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 and concludes, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate,” which appears to condemn the entire practice of divorce.
The Pharisees want to know why Moses permitted divorce. Jesus says it was because of the hardness of men’s hearts. That’s a tough, but fair, appraisal of the practice of divorce — it generally occurs because either one or both parties have become hard-hearted. But this was not God’s intent from the beginning. God intended folks to remain married until one spouse died.
However, Jesus permitted divorce if one spouse commits adultery: Matthew 19:9, “And 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.” According to Jesus, adultery is the only acceptable grounds for divorce. And, if someone remarries after divorcing for reasons other than adultery, both the divorced person and their second spouse are guilty of adultery. This means adultery is involved in a divorce no matter what: either adultery is the cause for divorce or the result of remarriage. Unlike Shammai who added infertility and neglect to his list of permissible grounds, Jesus limits the grounds for divorce at one — adultery.
Paul echoes the teachings of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 7:10: “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord.” Paul refers us to the teachings of Jesus. As an apostle, he received the teachings of Jesus by the direction of the Holy Spirit. He wants us to know what he is about to say is from Jesus. “A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” Paul said Jesus advocated a husband and wife should remain together. If they separate or divorce, they should not remarry; they should seek reconciliation. And that really is the message of the NT: divorce should be exceedingly rare and it should happen for good reasons; if it does not happen for good reasons, then divorced spouses should seek reconciliation.
I know I have left a few questions unanswered.
What about when a woman or her children are abused by her husband? Does God permit divorce under those circumstances?
What about a Christian spouse who is married to a non-Christian? Should he or she remain married?
Is it okay for someone to remarry if their previous marriage ended for reasons other than adultery?
Lord willing, I will answer these, and other questions, in future posts.
As American culture continues to shift its views on the topics of marriage and divorce, I encourage you all to hold true to what the Bible teaches. I leave you with some words from the book of Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines.”