Tag Archives: Barbara Roberts

Did Jesus Introduce a New Standard for Divorce?  (JDR-12)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage (JDR), where I’m currently walking through Matthew 19. To understand my goals in this series, please see my past posts, especially the first two:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)

“Moses Allowed You to Divorce” Suggests a Breakable Bond (JDR-8)

Why Did “Hardness of Heart” Cause God to Allow Divorce? (JDR-9)

“Hardness of Heart” and Jesus’ Audience, Then and Now (JDR-10)

“From the Beginning It Was Not So”—And Never Has Been (JDR-11)


Summary of this post:  I consider the relationship between (1) God’s creation standard for marriage, (2) what the law of Moses said about divorce, and (3) Jesus’ divorce teachings. Contrary to the assumptions of the Pharisees, the giving of the law did not make God’s creation standard irrelevant. Similarly, I argue, Jesus intended to clarify rather than overturn the law of Moses. His divorce teachings are consistent with those of Malachi, an earlier Jewish prophet who likewise affirmed the law of Moses. Thus, just as the creation account offers Christians today an essential vision of God’s ideal for marriage, so the OT divorce laws can help us understand his will for responding to hard-hearted covenant breakers.


Creation and the Law: Consecutive Standards, or Concurrent?

In my last post I explained why “in the beginning it was not so” is a bad translation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:8, which are better translated as “from the beginning it has not been so.” I’ll pick up where we left off by once again quoting Luck’s comments on the same clause:

Jesus is not trying to distinguish between a dispensation up to Moses, followed by a hiatus, in turn terminated by Jesus’ present teaching, but rather a continuing divine attitude that runs clear from the beginning of creation up to the point of the Lord’s speech—right through the time of Moses and the exercise of the Law![1]

We can display Luck’s argument visually by contrasting several timelines.

The Pharisees based their divorce teaching entirely on the legal portions of the law of Moses. If they thought about God’s creation purpose for marriage at all, they apparently assumed it had been superseded by Moses’ allowance of divorce, as this consecutive timeline suggests:

In this conception of things, the Jews were off the hook if they failed to live up to God’s creation purpose for marriage permanence, for its relevance had ended with the giving of the law of Moses.[2]

Jesus sharply rebuked this attitude, insisting instead that God’s creation purpose remained unchanged, despite God’s allowance of divorce in the law of Moses. In Jesus’ perspective, God’s primary will and his secondary will ran concurrently, so that Jesus could still call his hearers to God’s higher standard, despite Moses’ divorce allowance:We should not, however, draw too sharp a division between creation and law. In our English translations of the OT, the word law is traditionally used to translate the Hebrew word torah (tôrâ). In Hebrew thought, however, torah is often understood more broadly and could be better translated as instruction or teaching. When Jews spoke of “the Torah” they meant everything found in the books of Moses, including not only commands but also narrative portions—including the creation account. Consider Meier’s warning:

It is unfortunate that some commentators (betraying a theological concern with Law within a particular Christian context) speak in too sweeping a fashion of… Jesus opposing creation to Law. In reality, the creation narrative of Genesis is the beginning of the whole Torah, the whole Law, of Moses.[3]

Perhaps, ironically, we are guilty of a similar interpretive stumble as the Pharisees if we imagine that creation and law should not be taken together as parallel witnesses of God’s will, a complete Torah (teaching) that includes both his original purposes and his concessions.

The Law and Jesus: Consecutive Standards, or Concurrent?

The second timeline above clarifies that God’s creation purpose was not terminated when the law of Moses was given. The timeline leaves another question unanswered, however: Did Jesus mean to revoke God’s secondary will as given in the law of Moses? Was he eliminating all allowance for divorce when he reminded people of God’s original creation design for marriage? Was Jesus saying “it’s God’s primary will or nothing” now that his kingdom was at hand?

Some Bible teachers and scholars seem to think so. Consider again, for example, these words from Coblentz:

Under the Old Covenant God permitted [divorce] in anticipation of the New Testament era in which He would require a higher standard of righteousness… Under the New Covenant, hardhearted husbands and wives can be given new hearts by the transforming power of the Spirit. Jesus the heart-changer has come, and God’s standards for marriage can be restored to His intention “from the beginning.”[4]

The evangelical commentator Hagner expressed a similar view even more forcefully:

The Mosaic legislation in Deut 24:1–4 was… not normative but only secondary and temporary, an allowance dependent on the sinfulness of the people… The new era of the present kingdom of God involves a return to the idealism of the pre-fall Genesis narrative. The call of the kingdom is a call to the ethics of the perfect will of God (cf. the Sermon on the Mount), one that makes no provision for, or concession to, the weakness of the flesh.[5]

In timeline form, this view looks like this:

According to this view, the coming of the law did not overturn God’s creation standard about divorce. The new covenant, however, did overturn what the law of Moses taught about divorce.

Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus at his transfiguration (Matt. 17:3). Image: Transfiguration of Christ, c. 1560, a painting by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio).

Did Jesus Overturn the Law and Introduce New Divorce Teaching?

There is much that is attractive about this view, and it is at least partly right. The full NT witness makes it clear that Jesus did inaugurate a new covenant and that new covenant believers are no longer under the law of Moses in the same way that OT saints were.[6] It is also true that God’s Spirit gives believers new hearts and can empower them to honor God’s original creation design for marriage. That standard should certainly be the goal of every married Christian.

None of this, however, proves that Jesus was intentionally overturning the law of Moses when he gave his teachings on divorce. Nor does it prove that what Moses law taught about divorce no longer has any relevance for new covenant believers. The fact that the law of Moses could be given while God’s creation standard remained relevant should make us ask: Could the law of Moses remain relevant in some way while Jesus calls us back to God’s creation standard?

The answer is surely Yes, according to the literary and historical contexts of Jesus’ divorce teachings. In both Matthew 5 and Luke 16, Jesus introduced his teaching on divorce by emphasizing the abiding relevance of the law.[7] Similarly, in Jesus’ divorce debate with the Pharisees, they “tested” him using the standard of the law: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife…?” (Matt. 19:3). If Jesus had contradicted or overturned the law, his enemies would have pounced.[8]

But they don’t pounce, because “Jesus avoids nullifying Deuteronomy. Instead, he affirms the validity of both Genesis and Deuteronomy as (respectively) ‘creation prototype and wilderness proviso.’”[9] In answer to the Pharisees’ question, “Is it lawful?” Jesus essentially answers, “Yes—but you’re avoiding another question that’s even more important: ‘Is it consistent with God’s original and highest will?’”[10] With this answer, he avoids their trap, refusing to either approve their selfish divorces or contradict the law of Moses.

But what about the new covenant? Didn’t it overturn the law of Moses?

Given what one hears from some Bible teachers,[11] it can come as a surprise to notice that Jesus never appealed to the new covenant when teaching on divorce. He only pointed backwards to creation, never forward to the coming of the Spirit. Despite brief contextual references to the present inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven,[12] in his divorce teaching “Jesus [did] not appeal to the new eschatological situation brought about by the arrival of the kingdom of God… but rather to God’s purposes in creation.”[13]

In sum, Jesus presented his divorce teaching as a clarification of existing truth, not as something new. He seemed to think that what he was teaching about divorce was what Jewish leaders should have been teaching all along, before he ever arrived on the scene.

Jesus and Malachi: Two Jewish Prophets Address Divorce

Indeed, Malachi— the last OT prophet to teach on divorce—did just that. I would argue that Jesus said nothing in his Matthew 19 divorce teaching that was different in essence than what the prophet Malachi had already said over 400 years earlier. Put differently, everything Jesus said about divorce and remarriage in the Matthew 19 account either had already been taught by Malachi or fits perfectly with what he wrote.

Note the similarities:

  • A central concern for both Malachi and Jesus was men who practiced “aversion divorce”—divorcing wives without valid cause, often because they wanted new ones.
  • Malachi began his discourse on divorce by asking “Has not one God created us?”, presenting this as an argument against being “faithless to one another” (Mal. 2:10; cf. 2:15). Jesus similarly began with creation: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Matt. 19:4; cf. 19:5, 8), using that as a basis for preserving marriages.
  • Malachi emphasized that marriage was a “covenant” (Mal. 2:14). Jesus likewise emphasized the covenantal expressions “hold fast” and “one flesh” (Matt. 19:5-6).
  • Both described aversion divorce as being an affront against God himself, who is described as the one who unites a husband and a wife (Mal. 2:14-15; Matt. 19:6).
  • Both honored wives, recognizing their dignity and legal rights more than was common in Jewish culture. For example, both warned that aversion divorce was a crime against one’s wife (Mal. 2:14; Matt. 19:9; cf. Mark 10:11, “against her”).
  • Finally, the central term in Malachi’s critique of divorce was “faithless” (or “unfaithfulness,” NIV; Mal. 2:10, 11, 14, 15, 16) which foreshadowed Jesus’ more pointed punchline that he who divorces and remarries “commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9; cf. Matt. 5:32; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18).

Stuart says the following about the divorces in Malachi’s day:

Their aversion-divorce decrees were pure “unfaithfulness.” This divorce that they were practicing was just as much “unfaithfulness” as if they were committing adultery.

And did not Jesus say just this about aversion divorce? His words are entirely consistent with the view of marriage enunciated in Malachi’s third disputation: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).[14]

Given these similarities, Carson suggests that “Jesus aligns himself with the prophet Malachi”[15] and some commentators have even suggested that Jesus, in his debate with the Pharisees, was using Malachi to interpret Deuteronomy 24.[16] Whether or not Jesus was indeed thinking of Malachi as he taught on divorce, the similarities between their prophetic warnings are evident.[17]

This raises important questions. When Malachi rebuked aversion divorce so sharply, was he overturning the divorce allowance found within the law of Moses? This hardly seems feasible, since OT prophets functioned as covenant enforcers, holding Israel accountable to keep God’s law from the heart.

What, then, about Jesus? If Malachi was not overturning Moses’ divorce allowance,[18] and if Jesus’ words “are entirely consistent with the view of marriage enunciated in” Malachi, then what basis do we have to conclude that Jesus intended to overturn Moses’ divorce allowance? Isn’t it more consistent to see him, like the latter prophets, urging Israel to keep “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness… without neglecting” the legal details they so often emphasized or abused (Matt. 23:23)?

Here’s what Malachi said about divorce (Mal. 10-16 ESV). Some parts of his message are very difficult to translate (notice all the footnotes in vv. 15-16) but the heartbeat of his message is clear and is consistent with Jesus’ later teachings.

Does the Law of Moses Speak to Christians Today?

But what about the Christian today, who is a member of Jesus’ new covenant community in a way that Jesus’ original audience of Pharisees never was? Does the law of Moses, with its divorce allowances and commands, have any relevance for us?

A good approach, it seems to me, is to acknowledge both continuity and discontinuity regarding the law of Moses for the Christian today. On the one hand, we are no longer members of the Mosaic covenant and therefore not directly under its law. On the other hand, the law of Moses still reveals eternal realities about the heart of God and about his concern for justice, mercy, and faithfulness in marriage. Just as we affirm many things the law of Moses says about sexuality in general[19] while relaxing or adapting others,[20] so the Mosaic divorce permissions and commands still have some relevance for us today.

All parts of the Torah remain “profitable” for the Christian today (2 Tim. 3:16). Just as the creation account offers an image of God’s ideal for marriage, so the OT divorce laws can help us understand his will for responding to hard-hearted covenant breakers. Hard hearts, after all, exist as much today as they did in the days of Moses and Jesus.

No, we should not use OT laws to override clear NT teachings. But neither should we assume a total break with all that the OT law teaches about divorce. Jesus didn’t—and neither, for that matter, did Paul (see Rom. 7:2).

Expressed as a timeline, the view I am proposing could look like this, with a dashed line showing a that the law of Moses still has indirect relevance for the Christian today:

Some of us aren’t as comfortable with a dashed line as with a solid line or a period. Black-and-white law can be more convenient than ambiguity. The view I’m proposing requires us to seek God’s heart and not merely his rules, important as they are.

Conclusion: Final Quotes to Ponder

I want to wrap up this long post with a couple long quotes from authors who share my reading of Matthew 19:8. First, here again is our text:

“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so [has not been so].”

Here is Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary:

This text has been understood in two main ways. (1) Jesus opposes Moses, cancels Deuteronomy’s permission, and so contrasts divorce with God’s will “from the very beginning.” Deut 24 is not God’s will for Jesus at all; it is only Moses’ concession. Or (2) Jesus demotes Moses’ concession, subordinating Deuteronomy’s “Second Law” to Genesis’s “First Law.” Yet, this argument concedes, Deut 24 is God’s permitted, “second” will for some persons.

I understand the text in the second sense because Jesus does not say, antithetically, “You have heard of old, ‘Because of your hard-heartedness Moses permitted you to divorce your wives,’ but I say to you, this must no longer be the case.” Jesus does not substitute; he subordinates. He does not replace Moses’ teaching with his own but subjects Deuteronomy to Genesis. But Deuteronomy remains. Deuteronomy is the subordinated, concessioned, qualified, but still valid will of God… Matthew’s Jesus takes both laws, places them in a clear first and second place, and then seeks in every way possible to move his disciples to seek God’s first will.

…Jesus read Scripture discriminately, even hierarchically, placing some texts over others in authority. Scripture was not flat to Jesus; it had peaks and valleys, higher truth and subordinate truth…

Genesis (the “Beginning” Book) gives us God’s pristine will on marriage; Deuteronomy gives us God’s permissive will for failed marriage; Genesis is Primary Will, Deuteronomy is Secondary Will. For those to whom Jesus is Lord, these two teachings—of Genesis and of Deuteronomy—will not be seen as two equal or even close options, but as the Lord’s passionately-to-be-sought highest will and as his only finally, penitently-to-be-accepted last resort.[21]

Barbara Roberts views the Mosaic witness more holistically than Bruner, without setting creation against law code. She also adds crucial words affirming innocent spouses. Yet she agrees with Bruner’s main point—and mine—that Jesus did not replace Moses’ teaching with his own:

It is not the case that Jesus simply abrogated the Mosaic divorce law and instituted a new, more stringent divorce rule for kingdom living. The Mosaic Law had always set forth the divine intention that marriage was a lifelong committed relationship. It had sought to protect a vulnerable, innocent spouse from a callous or unfaithful spouse, and had allowed the use of disciplinary divorce. It had sought to deter people from treacherous, cavalier and impulsive divorce and remarriage.

Jesus did not change any of this; he simply called for a full and proper adherence to God’s standards for marriage. He condemned the legalistic approaches of his own day, which had legitimized treacherous divorce. And he declared that treacherous divorce with ensuing marriage is equivalent to adultery and a breach of the seventh commandment. If this appeared to be changing the standard, it was only because the Jews had so poorly adhered to the standard.[22]

I realize some readers will remain unconvinced. For some, anything short of an absolute enforcement of God’s creation standard against divorce feels like an unjustifiable compromise, unsuited to the new covenant and the kingdom of God. For such readers, I’ll share one more quote. It is pregnant. I invite you to ponder this:

It is true that from the beginning men did not divorce their wives… We may note in passing that, from the beginning, neither was there a separation from bed and board.[23]


If you made it this far, thanks much for reading! Up next is Matthew 19:9, which is Jesus’ climatic statement on divorce in this whole account. I have lots of thoughts I hope to share on this verse but don’t have any blog posts drafted yet, so you may have to wait a couple months for my next post. Meanwhile, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks again!


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[1] William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 157-58. Available online: https://bible.org/series/divorce-and-re-marriage-recovering-biblical-view.

[2] Kauffman’s use of the phrase “in the beginning” suggests a similar interpretation: “Moses permitted man to give a writing of divorcement, but it was not so in the beginning, neither is it under the Gospel.” Daniel Kauffman, Bible Doctrine, (Scottsdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1914), 452. Available online: https://books.google.com/books/about/Bible_Doctrine.html?id=NmkCQ0br9OUC

[3] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. IV, Law and Love (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 177, n. 143.

[4] John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 21-23. I want to also take this opportunity to underscore that, having met John Coblentz personally and heard him speak, I deeply respect him.

[5] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 33B (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995), 548–549. Blomberg expressed a similar view: “Jesus does not challenge their logic, only the permanence of the Mosaic law. God’s provisions for divorce were temporary, based on the calloused rebellion of fallen humanity against God. He did not originally create people to divorce each other, and he therefore does not intend for those whom he re-creates—the community of Jesus’ followers—to practice divorce. As in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims a higher standard of righteousness for his followers than the law of Moses. This distinction suggests that we must be more lenient with non-Christians who divorce but also that we may not include ‘hard-heartedness’ as a legitimate excuse for Christians divorcing.” Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 1992), 291.

[6] See Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:17-26; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 7:12; etc.

[7] See Matt. 5:17-20 and Luke 16:16-17. The latter passage presents two balancing realities. On the one hand, “the Law and the Prophets” are either superseded or fulfilled by “the good news of the kingdom of God.” On the other hand, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void,” and one way to understand the sequence of Luke’s account is that Jesus presented his teaching on divorce as evidence of the latter reality—as an example of a teaching of the Law that the Pharisees were failing to observe, a teaching that remained relevant with the coming of the kingdom.

[8] See Matt. 12:2, 10; 22:17; cf. Acts 6:11,13; 21:28; 25:8.

[9] Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts, Matthew, Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 259, quoting F. Scott Spencer, “Scripture, Hermeneutics, and Matthew’s Jesus,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, Vol. 64, No. 4 (2010), 377.

[10] I am disagreeing here with Kuruvilla’s commentary on Mark’s account: “Jesus is questioned about whether or not divorce is lawful at all… In response, Jesus sends his examiners back to Genesis to first understand the nature of marriage. To address divorce, Jesus appeals to the one-flesh union as the basis of comprehending marriage. On this basis, He declares that man should not separate what God has joined together. The answer to the Pharisees’ question about divorce being lawful is evidently ‘no.’ The reader is urged to carefully re-examine the above passage [Mk. 10:2-12] to fully appreciate this point: Jesus was undercutting the Mosaic law’s tolerance of divorce. What the Mosaic law merely restricted, Jesus now forbids.” Finny Kuruvilla, “Until Death Do Us Part: Is Remarriage Biblically Sanctioned After Divorce?” (essay), (Anchor Cross Publishing, July 13, 2014), 6, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/570e3c2f8259b563851efcf8/t/5911288c4402435d4e08c196/1494296716383/essay_remarriage.pdf

[11] See Coblentz and Hagner above. See also Daniel Kauffman’s reference to divorce not being permitted “under the Gospel” in a quote in my last post. Edwards’s suggestion is also questionable: “Mark 10:1-12 is a blueprint for an entirely new norm of marriage.” James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 305.

[12] Mentioned in Matthew’s account (Matt. 19:12) but not by Mark. In both the Sermon on the Mount and near Luke’s record of Jesus’ divorce teaching, though the kingdom of heaven/God is mentioned, Jesus underscores the enduring relevance of the law as a moral standard (cf. Matt. 5:17-20; Lk. 16:16-17).

[13] Robert H. Stein, Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 456.

[14] Douglas Stuart, “Malachi,” The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, Vol. 3, ed. Thomas Edward McComiskey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 1338. Stuart later says the following about Malachi’s divorce teaching: “Because of its reinforcement in the teaching of Christ, it cannot be dismissed as no longer binding on New Covenant believers” (1344).

[15] “Jesus aligns himself with the prophet Malachi who quotes Yahweh as saying, ‘I hate divorce’ (2:16), and also refers to creation (2:14–15)” (Carson, D. A.. Matthew (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary) . Zondervan. Kindle Edition.).

[16] “[Malachi] 2.10-16… begins with a reference to God’s creation of humanity (v. 10: ‘Did not one God create us?’) and continues a few verses later with an apparent allusion to Gen. 2.24: ‘Did he not make one?’… It has therefore been argued that the rejection of divorce is based upon a reading of the creation story… This sets Malachi’s criticism of divorce squarely beside the same two verses quoted in the gospels… In view of this, we find attractive Sigal’s suggestion… that ‘Jesus exegetes Deut. 24.1 in the light of Malakhi.’” See W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, Vol. III (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 12. The quote from Sigal can be found in Phillip Sigal, The Halakhah of Jesus of Nazareth According to the Gospel of Matthew, Studies in Biblical Literature, No. 18 (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007 [orig. pub. 1986]), 116: “Jesus stands with Malachi and in line with Malachi’s admonition to ‘remember the Torah of Moses.’ Jesus exegetes Deut. 24:1 in the light of Malachi… Jesus is not thereby annulling Deut. 24:1. He is only exegeting it.”

[17] There are differences, too, though arguably not contradictory ones: Malachi warns against marrying pagan wives, a problem Jesus never mentions. And, unlike Malachi, Jesus mentions “divorce certificates” (alluding to Deut. 24:1).

[18] Stuart (“Malachi,” 1343) says, “Moses and Malachi come at the issue of divorce from different angles. Moses allows it under certain conditions. Malachi condemns it except under certain conditions. But inasmuch as those conditions appear to be identical, employing even the same essential vocabulary in definition of the actions involved, their respective doctrines are compatible.”

[19] For example, adultery, incest, and rape are still wrong.

[20] For example, the death penalty is no longer prescribed for adultery, sex during menstruation is reduced to a question of personal dignity, and polygamy is discouraged.

[21] Frederick Dale Bruner, Mathew: A Commentary; Volume 2: The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 , rev. and exp. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 260-61. Davies and Allison, quoting Cranfield, present a view which is virtually identical to Bruner’s. See W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Vol. III (London: T&T Clark, 1997), 14. Google preview: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Matthew/ZXIV2WOTVvMC?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=%22from%20the%20beginning%22

[22] Barbara Roberts, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Maschil Press, 2008), 88.

[23] Guy Duty, Divorce and Remarriage: A Christian View (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1983), 68-69. Unfortunately, Duty reads “from the beginning” as if it meant “in the beginning.” Yet, his point remains valid: Separation from bed and board (“moving out” without divorcing) is no more a part of God’s original design or perfect will than divorce is. Yet, who among us would argue it should never be done? Therefore, merely noting that something was not part of God’s original design does not prove it is always wrong. We do not live in Eden, and requiring others to live as if they do can cause great harm. It is clear Jesus was urging us to follow the creation ideal and rebuking those who are to blame for breaking it. This does not mean, however, that he was ruling out making accommodations for situations where others have already broken that creation ideal.


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“Hardness of Heart” and Jesus’ Audience, Then and Now (JDR-10)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, which starts with a walk through Matthew 19. Having considered the question Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? I am now considering a “should” question: Did Jesus believe divorce and remarriage are always wrong? Here are my posts so far:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)

“Moses Allowed You to Divorce” Suggests a Breakable Bond (JDR-8)

Why Did “Hardness of Heart” Cause God to Allow Divorce? (JDR-9)


Summary of this post:  Jesus accused a specific audience of “hardness of heart”: men who believed they had a right to divorce their wives for virtually any reason—something I’ve never heard any Christian teach. Nearly all Jewish men in Jesus’ day believed this; there is no historical evidence the divorce debate between the “liberal” Hillelites and “conservative” Shammaites had yet begun. Further, Jesus was responding to one particular proof text used by these men—Deuteronomy 24:1. It was the abuse of this text that drew Jesus’ ire, not the proper use of other OT divorce laws designed to protect women. Given this context, we are not justified in saying that everyone who seeks divorce has a hard heart.


Whose Hearts Were Hard?

In my last post I began discussing Jesus’ explanation for why God allowed divorce under the law of Moses: “because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). As Israel repeatedly showed hardness of heart, God gave them more laws, including ones about divorce. These laws were both a concession to human weakness and a protection for those with hard-hearted spouses.

In this post I want to be more precise: Whose hearts, specifically, were hard? Whom was Jesus accusing of hardness of heart?

Let me begin answering this question by sharing several bad “translations” of Jesus’ words.

Jesus did not say this: “Because of Israel’s hardness of heart, Moses allowed them to practice divorce.” No, Jesus directed his rebuke directly to the Pharisees in front of him: “Because of your hardness of heart…” Meier notes the force of Jesus’ rebuke:

By claiming that Moses wrote this commandment for “you” (i.e., the Pharisees) to expose “your” hardness of heart, …Jesus implicitly lumps the Pharisees together with the rebellious Israelites of the wilderness generation. The Mosaic Law they presume to cite as experts actually bears witness against them.[1]

Nor did Jesus say this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to practice divorce.” That is more general than Jesus’ words. And he certainly did not say this: “Because of the hardness of your wives’ hearts, Moses allowed you to divorce them.”

Rather, Jesus said this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” In sum, Jesus was addressing his rebuke directly to the persons before him: men who were wrongfully divorcing their wives.[2]

Roberts makes the same point:

The people with hard hearts were those divorcing their wives, which means the callous individuals in question must have been male… Jesus… does not say, “Moses, because of the hardness of their hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives.” Nor does he implicate Israelites in general by saying, “Moses, because of your hardness of heart, permitted those divorces.” As it stands, Jesus’ sentence specifically implicates hardhearted husbands.”[3]

Before we extend Jesus’ rebuke of hardness of heart to everyone considering divorce, we should ask why Jesus accused these husbands of hardness of heart. Why were they divorcing? What did they believe about divorce?

Image from Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing, distributed by FreeBibleimages.

What Did Jesus’ Audience Believe about Divorce?

Jesus’ teachings against divorce were given in a specific historical context. In all four records we have of Jesus teaching on divorce (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18) he was correcting the false teachings of the same group: men who were arguing that God’s law gave them the right to divorce their wives for virtually any reason they might mention.

Most modern writers say that two views on divorce were debated by Jews in Jesus’ day—the view of Rabbi Hillel, a “liberal” who said Deuteronomy 24 gives grounds for “any-cause” divorce (cf. Matt. 19:3) and the view of Rabbi Shammai, a “conservative” who said Deuteronomy permits divorce only on the grounds of adultery.[4] Wenham clarifies that “on the issue of divorce, it was the Hillelites who were upholding tradition, and the Shammaites who were challenging it.” In fact, “to limit the husband’s right to divorce whenever he chose and for any reason was for most Jews a shocking limitation on male freedom.”[5]

Wenham’s clarification is crucial but may not go far enough. It’s possible that the debate between the Hillelites and the Shammaites had not even yet begun in Jesus’ day. Luck observes that “Josephus does not mention the distinction [between Hillel and Shammai], merely stating the position of Hillel as if it were the only position in vogue.”[6] Meier surveys Jewish intertestamental writings on divorce at length and concludes that “the mainline tradition begun in the OT and witnessed in Philo, Josephus, and the School of Hillel” allowed divorce for “practically any reason.”[7] The only known possible exception (besides Jesus) is the Essenes, a mystic Jewish sect, but this is disputed; Meier concludes that “their position on divorce remains a question mark.”[8]

Given this evidence, some of the best-informed scholars warn against assuming Jesus was responding to the Hillel – Shammai divorce debate. Here, for example, is Meier (see footnote for more):

Nowhere in pre-70 Judaism is there any clear attestation of a detailed discussion or debate on which grounds for divorce are deemed sufficient. Therefore, despite the almost universal tendency on the part of NT exegetes to explain Jesus’ prohibition of divorce against the “background” of the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this tendency may actually be a prime example of the anachronistic use of later texts to explain earlier ones. That is, a text written down for the first time at the beginning of the 3d century A.D. (the Mishna) is called upon to elucidate a teaching of Jesus reaching back to the early part of the 1st century A.D.[9]

What does this all mean for our question about Jesus’ original audience? When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for hardness of heart, he was addressing the sort of man who thought he had a right to divorce a wife if she had burned his supper or even simply if he wanted to replace her with a more beautiful one.

The Abuse of Deuteronomy 24:1 as a Proof Text

Further, in at least three of the four passages where Jesus teaches on divorce,[10] he was directly responding to a badly-distorted interpretation of one particular proof text that men were using to justify their divorces—Deuteronomy 24:1, the only text in the law of Moses to mention a “certificate of divorce.” This is evident, for example, in Matthew 5:31, where Jesus quotes a misinterpretation of that passage: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.”

The same is true in Matthew 19 and in the parallel account in Mark 10. When Jesus said, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (Matt. 19:8), he was referring most directly to Deuteronomy 24:1, the text just cited by the Pharisees (“Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” Matt. 19:7).

If Jesus meant to comment also on OT laws that directly commanded divorce (Ex. 21:10-11 and Deut. 21:14), then his statement makes best sense as an explanation of why these laws were necessary: Abused wives needed release from hardhearted husbands. Significantly, we have no record of Jesus rebuking wives who asked for divorce certificates to escape abusive or criminally negligent husbands.

In short, it was the abuse of Deuteronomy as a proof text justifying any-cause divorce that drew Jesus’ ire, not the proper use of other OT divorce laws designed to protect women.

Context is King!
Context is king! (Image by svklimkin from Pixabay.)

Applying Jesus’ Warning about “Hardness of Heart” Today

These observations about Jesus’ original audience are rarely considered, but are crucial. If we don’t recognize the original target of Jesus’ warning about hard hearts, then we are likely to misapply his words today.

When Jesus spoke against divorce, he was most certainly not speaking to, say, wives or husbands who were wondering what they should do after their spouses had abused or abandoned them. Nor was he speaking to Mennonites who were arguing over whether only separation is permitted or if sometimes divorce (but never remarriage) might also be okay. He was not speaking even to evangelical scholars who were teaching that there are two clear biblical grounds for both divorce and remarriage (adultery and abandonment)—or perhaps three (adding abuse).

No, every time Jesus rebuked divorce, he was responding to people promoting a teaching that is so egregious that I have never heard it argued today from any Christian leader—not even from those who argue that divorce is okay at will upon mutual consent. Jesus was rebuking the idea that a man has a God-given, biblical right to divorce his wife for anything at all that he might find unsatisfactory about her; all that really matters is that he goes through the correct legal hoops to provide a valid “certificate of divorce.”

Can you imagine any Christian leader making that argument today? No wonder Jesus spoke so harshly! And no wonder we, in very different circumstances, are often confused when we read his words without considering their original context.

What might Jesus say if he spoke directly to conservative Anabaptists today—particularly, say, to those hurting from adulterous or abusive spouses? Yes, I am certain he would still direct us to God’s creation intent for marriage, a beautiful and timeless standard of loving permanence. But I am also certain he would word his message very differently, meeting the very different needs of a very different audience.[11] Is it even possible, perhaps, that Jesus would have some words of warning for those who take his rebuke of hardhearted husbands in the Gospels and use them to judge victims of marital betrayal today, denying them release from abusive marriages?

We must be very careful not to go beyond Jesus’ words, making him say things he never said. For example, consider the following statement from a Rod and Staff tract:

Jesus said, “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.” All who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.[12]

Really? Does every person who seeks divorce have a hard, unbelieving heart? What about a wife who is seeking divorce to protect her children from an abusive father and husband? What about God in the OT, who divorced his “wife” Israel for her adulterous idolatry (Jer. 3:1, 8)? No, it is not true that “all who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.”

The cover of the Rod and Staff tract that says “all who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.”

Looking Ahead: Jesus’ Words and the New Covenant

But didn’t Jesus inaugurate a new covenant standard of marriage permanence that left no room for either hard hearts or separation of marriages? Coblentz expressed this view eloquently:

Divorce was never sanctioned, but under the Old Covenant God permitted it because of the hard hearts of the people of Israel. God permitted it in anticipation of the New Testament era in which He would require a higher standard of righteousness through the grace and light of His Son… Under the New Covenant, hardhearted husbands and wives can be given new hearts by the transforming power of the Spirit. Jesus the heart-changer has come, and God’s standards for marriage can be restored to His intention “from the beginning.” …In the age of the Spirit, therefore, God commands, “Let not man put asunder.”[13]

There is much to commend in Coblentz’s words, but they may also leave us with some questions. Moses allowed divorce, but “from the beginning it was not so,” Jesus said. What did Jesus mean by this? Was he intending to revoke everything Moses had written permitting divorce? Was he inaugurating new divorce restrictions under a new covenant? Answering these and similar questions will require at least a couple more posts.

Thank you for reading! Please share your insights or questions in the comments below.


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[1] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. IV, Law and Love (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 177, n. 141.

[2] Yes, Jesus’ words definitely carry implications for women, too. See, for example, Mark’s record of Jesus’ warning to wives: “if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk. 10:12), a text that may reflect a Greco-Roman audience for Mark’s Gospel, where wives had more freedom to divorce. Yet it remains true that when Jesus explained why the Mosaic divorce allowance was given, he specifically rebuked men, not women.

[3] Barbara Roberts, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Maschil Press, 2008), 66.

[4] An accurate description of the views of these two rabbis and their disciples would require several paragraphs correcting common misrepresentations. That is beyond the scope of this post.

[5] Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 44.

[6] “Josephus does not mention the distinction, merely stating the position of Hillel as if it were the only position in vogue.” William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 152.

[7] Meier, ibid., 95.

[8] Meier, ibid., 93.

[9] Full quote from Meier (ibid., 95): “Only when we get to the Mishna do we have, for the first time in Palestinian Judaism, clear documentation of a scholarly dispute over what precisely constitutes sufficient grounds for divorce. As far as datable documents are concerned, this is something startlingly new in Judaism… Nowhere in pre-70 Judaism is there any clear attestation of a detailed discussion or debate on which grounds for divorce are deemed sufficient. Therefore, despite the almost universal tendency on the part of NT exegetes to explain Jesus’ prohibition of divorce against the “background” of the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this tendency may actually be a prime example of the anachronistic use of later texts to explain earlier ones. That is, a text written down for the first time at the beginning of the 3d century A.D. (the Mishna) is called upon to elucidate a teaching of Jesus reaching back to the early part of the 1st century A.D., with written attestation in the 50s by Paul and ca. 70 by Mark. Considering the dearth of any clear attestation of the dispute over the grounds of divorce between the Houses in the pre-70 period, we would do well, at least initially, to explain Jesus’ teaching on divorce solely in light of what is truly prior to and contemporary with the Palestinian Judaism of the early 1st century A.D.”
Similarly, Collins: “Many New Testament scholars capitalize on the disagreement between the school of Shammai and that of Hillel to affirm that the Matthean Jesus sided with the school of Shammai in interpreting Deut 24:1 in a narrow sense, but there is no certainty that the tradition reflected in the Mishnah actually reflects the real halakhic situation before the destruction of the temple… One cannot simply assume that Matthew’s exception clause was formulated within the context of the difference of opinion between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. One cannot, moreover, and without further discussion, simply assume that the tradition in the Mishnah regarding the interpretation of Deut 24:1 reflects the real halakhic situation at the time of Jesus or at the time of the composition of Matthew’s gospel, although this is often presumed to be the case.” Raymond F. Collins, Divorce in the New Testament, Good News Studies, Vol. 38 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 193, 198-99.

[10] Luke 16:18 is unclear. However, given that his teaching in this passage virtually “quotes” his teaching elsewhere, he was probably addressing the same misinterpretation.

[11] Consider how Paul nuanced his message to different audiences in 1 Cor. 7:10-16.

[12] This comes from an anonymous 12-page tract: “Divorce—Is It Lawful?” (Crockett, KY: Rod and Staff, n.d.), 4. Available online: https://www.milestonebooks.com/item/1-3104/

[13] John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 21-23.


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Why Did “Hardness of Heart” Cause God to Allow Divorce? (JDR-9)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage. I began my walk through Matthew 19 with this question central: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? Starting in this post, I’m broadening my focus from that “could” question to begin answering a “should” question: Did Jesus believe divorce is always wrong? Here are my posts so far:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)

“Moses Allowed You to Divorce” Suggests a Breakable Bond (JDR-8)


Summary of this post:  I begin asking why God permitted divorce under the law of Moses. Jesus said it was “because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8)—an expression referring to unresponsive stubbornness, expressed both in rebellion toward God and disregard toward humans. As Israel repeatedly showed hardness of heart, God gave them more laws, including ones about divorce. These laws were both a concession to human weakness and a protection for those with hard-hearted spouses. A parallel example of a divine concession is human kingship in Israel. This, too, was contrary to God’s perfect will, yet he permitted it and ultimately used it for his glory and for human flourishing.


Introduction to the Next Several Posts

In my last post I asked whether Jesus’ statement “Moses allowed you to divorce” offers any clues about whether marriage is indissoluble (Matt. 19:8 ESV). After surveying all the passages in the law of Moses that deal explicitly with human divorce, I concluded that none of them give any indication that divorce did not truly end a marriage. Taken together, they strongly indicate that the law of Moses pictured divorce as fully dissolving a marriage—just as surely as if it had been ended by death.

In the next several posts I want to step beyond the question of whether a marriage can be dissolved and consider why God permitted divorce under the law of Moses. Jesus said Moses allowed divorce “because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). What is hardness of heart? How is it related to the giving of the law? Whose hearts were hard? Does everyone who seeks divorce today have a hard heart?

And what did Jesus mean by the clause that was really his main point—“but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8)? What wasn’t so, and when? And was Jesus completely overturning the Mosaic divorce allowance with this clause?

Here, again, is Jesus’ complete statement: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8).

There are many exegetical chestnuts in this sentence and cracking them isn’t easy. Writing these next several posts has proved harder than I expected, but I’ll do my best to zero in on what Jesus meant to say.

What Is Hardness of Heart?

Hardness of heart is mentioned often in Scripture and, as the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says, “there is no one technical word or phrase for hardening in Scripture; rather a variety of words and phrases are used to describe the same phenomenon.”[1] A variety of images are found behind these terms, including dryness, petrification, or covering something with stone or even a foreskin. The basic idea of hardness of heart, at least in the sense used here by Jesus, seems to be stubbornness and rebellion—a refusal to be sensitive, trusting, and responsive.

Photo by Brendan Rühli.

A person’s heart can be hard toward either God or fellow humans. Which did Jesus mean here? France represents many commentators when he says “this familiar biblical term refers not so much to people’s attitudes to one another (cruelty, neglect, or the like) as to their attitude to God, whose purpose and instructions they have set aside.”[2] Others, such as Roberts, conclude that “hardness of heart” was Jesus’ way of referring to men who “had a callous disregard for their marriage covenants and were divorcing their wives for no good reason.”[3]

It seems to me that this is a false dichotomy. I think most commentators, if nudged, would agree that hardness of heart will inevitably be expressed toward both God and humans. Even Pharoah, the classic biblical example of hardness of heart, was hardhearted not only toward God (“Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” Ex. 5:2) but also toward Moses and Aaron (“he would not listen to them,” Ex. 7:13, etc.) and toward the whole nation of Israel, whom he wanted to retain as slaves (Ex. 14:4-8; cf. 5:4-18). Thus, Jones is probably right when he suggests the “core issue” of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day included both vertical and horizontal dimensions: “their disrespect for women that was fueled by their stubborn hearts.”[4]

The specific compound word that Jesus used for “hardness of heart” (σκληροκαρδία) is found only two places in the Greek OT (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4).[5] In both, hardness of heart toward God seems to be the dominant concern, yet the context clarifies that honoring God means having soft hearts toward humans as well. For example, here is the reason given in Deuteronomy for avoiding hardness of heart:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deut. 10:17-19; cf. Deut. 15:7; Jer. 5:23-29)

Both passages also warn that hardness of heart will bring severe judgment from God. In fact, in Jeremiah, the ultimate result of Israel’s hardness is that God divorces her, sending her into exile (Jer. 3:1, 8). Perhaps, then, there was a subtle irony in Jesus’ mention of hard hearts: “If you hardhearted Pharisees keep on wrongfully divorcing your wives, God will rightfully divorce you!”

What Does Hardness of Heart Have to Do with the Giving of Law?

Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (Matt. 19:8). Why would hardness of heart result in God giving laws that allowed divorce?

Collins offers one explanation:

Perhaps the answer is to be found in a Jewish tradition which suggested that the Law had been destroyed after Israel’s alliance with the golden calf and that, in its stead, a more permissive version of the Law was promulgated as a concession to the people’s hardheartedness. Within this perspective, the ‘concession’ of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 would have belonged to the less demanding version of the Law given to Israel.[6]

There are several puzzling hints in the OT of a similar possibility—that God may have originally offered Israel a brief law but then added laws in response to their sins. For example, in Jeremiah 7:22 God says, “In the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” An even more cryptic comment is found in Ezekiel 20:25, in a passage recounting God’s dealings with unfaithful Israel in the wilderness: “Moreover, I gave them statues that were not good and rules by which they could not have life.” Mackin ties this statement to Jesus’ comment about hard hearts:

Jesus’ religious logic here, though so familiar to the Jews of his own time and earlier, is strange to the Western religious mind… [Israel] had again and again been faithless to the Lord’s commands. One of the consequences of this faithlessness was that he had given them “laws that were not good”—not so much as a punishment as to bring them to realize that he is still their Lord. This is Ezekiel’s thought in his book of prophecy (20:25)… This faithlessness was at its worst when Moses, on coming down from Sinai with the tablets of the law, found the people adoring the golden calf. Jesus’ implication here is that the accepted practice of getting rid of unwanted wives is a continuation of this same spirit of faithlessness, and because of it the people were given “a law that was not good.” Their hardness of heart drew upon them Moses’ command to dismiss their wives. Were they not thus stubborn they would have received neither command nor permission.[7]

Sailhamer cites NT evidence supporting this view of the giving of the law:

Paul says in Galatians 3:19 that God gave Israel the law “because of transgressions”… Why the plural? If we look at the various sets of laws edited into the Pentateuch, we can see that there were several “transgressions.” Throughout the narratives of Exodus 19–Deuteronomy there are numerous examples of Israel’s failure to follow God’s will… After each episode of disobedience we see that God gave Israel a new and more complete set of laws. As Israel continued to transgress the laws given to them, God continued to give them more. God did not give up on his people. When they sinned, he added laws to keep them from sinning further.[8]

While some details of these proposals are certainly questionable,[9] the general approach seems reasonable to me. France provides a good summary:

The Deuteronomic legislation [Deut. 24:1-4] is a response to human failure, an attempt to bring order to an already unideal situation caused by human “hardness of heart.” …Even after his people had rejected his design for marriage, God gave them laws to enable them to make the best of a bad job.[10]

Photo by Karolina Grabowska.

Why Did God Allow Divorce?

What did God want to accomplish by giving laws that allowed divorce? How did he expect these laws might help his people “make the best of a bad job”? Where these laws merely God’s way of turning a blind eye at sin, or did he want to accomplish some good? Keener emphasizes the former, but suggests both:

The rabbis, like other ancient legal scholars, recognized “concession” as an established legal category—something that was not quite right to begin with, but had to be allowed because people would not be able to do what was fully right. Jesus is saying that God permitted divorce as a concession to human weakness… His point is that Moses put up with their divorcing because the best he could get out of hard-hearted people was legal protection for the one divorced against her will. But if they had been compassionate and open to his ways, God could have held them to his original and ideal standard all along: they were not to initiate divorce.[11]

Luck emphasizes the positive good God aimed to accomplish by allowing divorce:

The phrase “because of your hardness of heart” is [sometimes wrongly] interpreted as saying something like: “Well, God knows that divorce will take place, so He made a concession to you, allowing you to do what you wanted.”

…What then? For whom is the concession? For the wives whom these hard-hearted men have been divorcing since before the days of Moses… Knowing that they will be treacherous and turn their backs on their covenant partner, God has provided a law that will minimize the abuse. He will wink temporarily at hard hearted husbands putting away innocent wives so that these wives will be saved from their husbands, who would perhaps physically abuse them if forced to keep them. So the permission to divorce has nothing to do with condescending to wicked men, but everything to do with preserving innocent women.[12]

Divorce laws were indeed a “concession to human weakness” (Keener), but Luck is right to warn that we should not imagine God was giving a thumbs up to any-cause divorce. Rather, the fact that laws recognizing divorce were needed should have been a rebuke to Israel.

Luck is right to focus on hard-hearted husbands and innocent wives. I plan to discuss this dynamic more in my next post.

Israel’s Kingship—A Similar Divine Concession

A parallel example to Israel’s divorce laws can be seen in the question of whether Israel was to have a human king. When God brought Israel to Sinai, he declared his kingship over them: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). When Israel asked for a king in the days of Samuel, he rebuked them, saying that their desire for a king was actually a rejection of God’s kingship and a desire to imitate the pagan nations around them. Yet Samuel also recognized that “the Lord has set a king over you” (1 Sam. 12:12-13).

Was Samuel contradicting himself? No, for God had already predicted this scenario in the law of Moses:

“When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose.” (Deut. 17:14-15) [13]

Notice that the permission to have a king is presented as a concession—a concession with a built-in rebuke of Israel’s desire to be “like all the nations” around them. Some similar mixture of divine concession and rebuke seems to have been at work in the divorce allowance given through Moses.

Despite this biblical picture of kingship being contrary to God’s primary and original will for his people, and despite how Israel’s kings often led the nation into sin, as Scripture unfolds we see that God used human kingship for his glory and for human flourishing. In fact, it was through Israel’s line of kings that he sent his own Messiah-King, his Son.

Could God accomplish something similar through the tragedy of human divorce? Could he sometimes permit and use even this for his glory and for human flourishing?

Glancing Ahead

Those questions take us beyond the scope of this post. In my next post I plan to take a closer look at Jesus’ audience. Whose hearts, according to Jesus, were hard? What does that suggest about how we should apply his words today? Does everyone who seeks divorce have a hard heart?

Thanks for reading! I invite you to add your insights or questions in the comments below.


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[1] Craig A. Blaising, “Hardening, Hardness of Heart,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 494. For example, Stuart notes that three different terms for hardness are used in Exodus alone to describe Pharoah’s hardness of heart, and “all three.. essentially function synonymously,” so that “their meaning in modern English is simply ‘be/make stubborn’” (Douglas Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary [Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2006], 147).

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 719-20.

[3] Barbara Roberts, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Maschil Press, 2008), 82-83.

[4] Jerry Jones, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Seen Through the Character of God and the Mind of Jesus (Joplin, MI: College Press, 2016), 76.

[5] However, the related verb for “harden” (σκληρύνω) and noun for “heart” (καρδίας) are frequently paired elsewhere. This cautions us against confidently assuming Jesus was alluding specifically to any single OT text. Further, in both passages the term σκληροκαρδία in the Greek OT translates a Hebrew expression that actually says “foreskin” rather than “hardness.” This reinforces the fact that a wide variety of terms were used to express essentially the same concept of hardness.

[6] Raymond F. Collins, Divorce in the New Testament, Good News Studies, Vol. 38 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 96.

[7] Theodore Mackin, S.J., Divorce and Remarriage, Marriage in the Catholic Church, Vol. 2 (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 50.

[8] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 561, cf. 42, 415, 556.

[9] Here are some examples: While the Deuteronomy 24 divorce permission came after Israel’s unfaithfulness with the golden calf, the first law commanding divorce preceded it, hard on the heels of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 21:10-11); Jeremiah and Ezekiel may be using prophetic hyperbole in their presentation of Israel’s history; Ezekiel’s comment is understood by some to refer not to God’s law but to God “giving over” Israel to the laws of pagan nations; Paul’s comment may mean something else, such as that the law was given to clarify the nature of sin as “transgression” (cf. Rom. 4:15; 7:7-8); and the authors cited here do not fully agree on why God gave additional laws to Israel.

[10] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 719-20.

[11] Craig S. Keener, …And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 42.

[12] William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 157.

[13] See also the cryptic prophecies about a king (human? divine?) who would arise in Israel: Gen. 49:10; Num. 23:21; 24:7, 17; etc.


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