This past Sunday we heard a sermon featuring the life of Joseph, the earthly (legal but not biological) father of Jesus. The speaker reminded us that “God fulfills his promises through the obedience of ordinary people like Joseph and you.” The speaker gave numerous examples from Joseph’s life but I would like to consider just one: how Joseph planned to divorce Mary after he discovered she was pregnant before they were married.
Here is the brief Scriptural description of this event:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matt. 1:18-19 ESV)
To understand this account well, we need to step back in time and understand what betrothal meant to Jews in their cultural context.
Betrothal was far more serious than our modern engagements are. It is tragic today when someone breaks an engagement, but it is not a crime. Hearts are broken, but laws are not. As an ESV footnote says, “betrothed” meant “legally pledge to be married.” Commentator R. T. France describes betrothal like this:
Though the couple were not yet living together, it was a binding contract entered into before witnesses which could be terminated only by death (which would leave a woman a “widow”) or by divorce as if for a full marriage…; sexual infidelity during the engagement would be a basis for such divorce. About a year after the engagement… the woman (then normally about thirteen or fourteen) would leave her father’s house and go live with the husband in a public ceremony [a wedding].
The language of Matthew 1:19 reflects the legal seriousness of Jewish betrothal, calling Joseph Mary’s “husband” and saying he planned to “divorce” her—terms we would never use today of an engaged couple.
The seriousness of violating a betrothal is also seen in the Law of Moses, which prescribes the same punishment—death—for sexual unfaithfulness whether it happened during betrothal or after the wedding ceremony:
“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.
“If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deut. 22:22-24)
Notice that the betrothed woman is called a “wife,” just as Matthew calls Joseph Mary’s “husband.”
The law of Moses also included a test for a husband who, on his wedding day, suspected his bride had been unfaithful prior to their wedding (Deut. 22:13-21). Discovering such unfaithfulness was so important to Jews that they scheduled their wedding dates around this concern. Theodore Mackin, S. J. explains:
It was the custom, when the bride was neither a widow nor a divorced woman, for the marriage to take place on the fourth day of the week, so that if the husband found her not a virgin, he could accuse her before the court, which held session only on the fifth day.
Commentator William F. Luck sums up Jewish law well: “In short, betrothal unfaithfulness is, according to the Old Testament, a kind of adultery.”
(Bunny trail: These realities are one reason why modern debates about the “betrothal view” of Jesus’ exception clause are often misguided. Ancient Jews would not have understood our insistence on distinguishing between adultery during betrothal versus adultery after a wedding.)
Back to poor Joseph, who discovered that his dear “wife” Mary was already “with child.” How could she have committed such a terrible betrayal? And what on earth was he to do now?
Well, Joseph was “just,” we are told (Matt. 1:19). Or, as the NIV puts it, he “was faithful to the law.” According to the original intent of that law, Mary should now be stoned. According to first century Jewish practice, after Roman law had abolished Jewish death penalties, “divorce was the normal course.” The normal course, then would have been for Joseph to make a public spectacle of Mary, to “put her to shame” by putting her on trial for adultery.
But we are told Joseph was not only “just” but also “unwilling to put her to shame.” In other words, though he was just, his justice was tempered with mercy. Therefore, he “resolved to divorce her quietly.”
The story, as I’ve told it so far, is fairly well known, though I’ve added important historical details. But what I’m about to share includes something I never thought about until after church this past Sunday, as I discussed the sermon with the speaker.
As best we know, there were several kinds of divorce available in Jewish courts in Jesus’ day. On the one hand, there were divorces that required specific due cause. In limited cases, a wife was probably able to force her husband to grant a divorce on the grounds that he was not providing for her (Ex. 21:11). More commonly, a husband could charge his wife with adultery. Such divorces required public proof of wrong-doing, leading to shameful humiliation for the one convicted.
But another kind of divorce was also available and widely used—the any-cause divorce based on a distorted reading of Deuteronomy 24:1. This is the divorce Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31): “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” In such a divorce case, a man did not need to prove his wife did anything wrong. The only requirement was that he follow the proper procedures for giving her a divorce certificate, rather than just abandoning her. There was little a wife could do to prevent such a divorce, but at least it resulted in less public humiliation for her.
Jesus directly addressed both kinds of divorces in his debate with the Pharisees in Matthew 19, referencing both in his summary proclamation: “I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). On the one hand, Jesus strongly condemned the any-cause divorce, calling such divorce (normally followed by remarriage) “adultery.” But he gave an exception, recognizing that divorce (normally followed by remarriage) based on due cause, on the grounds of “sexual immorality,” is not adultery.
Back to Joseph. Mary had obviously committed adultery. As David Instone-Brewer says, “It was considered very suspect when a man refused to divorce his unfaithful wife, which is why Joseph is described as righteous for wanting to divorce Mary, who appeared to be unfaithful.” There was no escaping it: according to Jewish expectations and the law of Moses, Joseph had to divorce Mary.
But which kind of divorce should Joseph pursue?
The obvious answer, and the one that fit his sense of justice, was to charge Mary with adultery. The evidence (Mary’s womb) was obvious and growing day by day, so winning his divorce would not be difficult.
But Joseph was also merciful, so he chose the option that would be easier on Mary. He chose, it appears, to take her before an any-cause divorce court, where he could “divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19) without proving her guilty and shaming her publicly. This sort of divorce “required no public trial, no evidence brought by witnesses, and very little fuss.”
In other words–and here’s the observation that was new to me this year–Joseph chose the kind of divorce that his own Son, years later, would call “adultery.” Rather than choose the kind of divorce that would leave him looking like the innocent victim he understood himself to be, he chose the kind of divorce that would leave him appearing guilty according the One who held to a higher standard of justice than the flawed reasoning of the Jewish teachers of the law.
Joseph decided that, rather than prove Mary guilty and himself innocent, he was willing to be accused of callous disregard of his betrothal contract if only he could reduce the public shaming of Mary, his unfaithful “wife.” He would obey the law, but he would obey it in a way that avoided causing unnecessary suffering to others.
Joseph is a wonderful example for us today. No, I’m not saying that a simple cut-and-paste imitation of his actions is always in order, but I believe that his love of both justice and mercy should serve as a guiding light for how we think about betrayal and divorce.
I suspect Joseph’s heart of justice and mercy also helped him accept God’s explanation of what had actually happened to Mary:
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21).
It is through the obedience of ordinary just and merciful people like Joseph (and you) that God fulfills his promises. May we, too, make way for the coming of the Messiah by how we live our lives, including as we respond to unfaithfulness, perceived or real, in our marriages.
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 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 50.
 If a man violated an unbetrothed woman, on the other hand, he was not executed but only had to pay a bride price and honor her with a proper marriage (assuming her father wanted that to happen). Also, if a betrothed woman was violated in a deserted area where her cries for help could not be heard, she was declared innocent.
 Theodore Mackin, S.J., Divorce and Remarriage, Marriage in the Catholic Church, Vol. 2 (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 62.
This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I’m examining Jesus’ words beginning with this question: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? Here are my posts so far:
Summary of this post: I ask whether Jesus’ statement that “Moses allowed” divorce provides any clues about whether marriage is indissoluble. After showing that Jesus was not pitting Moses against God, I survey what God’s law said about divorce. Some laws narrowly commanded divorce; others narrowly forbade it. Multiple laws assumed divorce and that divorce dissolves a marriage. The famous Deuteronomy 24 passage prohibited a man from remarrying his former wife who had meanwhile been married to another. This passage is joined by others that likewise grouped divorce and death as equally and truly ending marriage.
Introduction: Was Marriage Indissoluble Under the Law of Moses?
Jesus wrapped up his summary of God’s creation design for marriage in Matthew 19:3-6 with a strong command: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
The Pharisees were not satisfied with this response. They countered with a question, alluding again to Deuteronomy 24:1: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matt. 19:7). Doesn’t this mention of a “certificate of divorce” imply that it is “lawful” (Matt. 19:3) to divorce a wife?
Jesus’ rebuttal focused again on God’s creation design for marriage: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). In other words, yes, it may have been “lawful” under the law of Moses to divorce, but that same law, in its record of the creation, shows that divorce was not part of God’s original and unchanging design. In short, the should of marriage permanence remains clear, despite the certificates of divorce allowed under Moses.
But does Moses’ allowance of divorce indicate anything about whether a marriage could be dissolved by anything other than death? Do the practices of divorce and remarriage under the law of Moses suggest that divorce was always only a legal fiction? Or do they suggest that marriages really could be dissolved, despite God’s creation intent?
As I address these questions in this post, I will focus on the first main clause in Jesus’ sentence: “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” From the perspective of what was uppermost in Jesus’ mind, the other two clauses are even more important (“Because of your hardness of heart… but from the beginning it was not so”). I plan to address those clauses directly in a future post or two. First, however, I want to consider what we can learn from Jesus’ acknowledgement that Moses allowed divorce.
So, what does the law of Moses say about divorce? And do its laws about divorce give any indication as to whether marriage is indissoluble or not? Let’s survey some of the most important evidence for clues.
The Law of Moses: Two Possible Misunderstandings
Two likely misunderstandings must be cleared up right away. First, Jesus is not pitting Moses against God. Jesus is not saying “God forbade divorce but Moses dishonored God by allowing it anyway.” Jesus is never recorded as speaking negatively of Moses. He believed the law of Moses came from God himself; in fact, in this very conversation with the Pharisees Jesus has already attributed an editorial comment from Moses (“Therefore, what God has joined…”) to God (“he who created them”).
The suggestion that Jesus’ words “Moses allowed” are describing “a merely human deviation from the divine purpose” is “a very modern inference,” as commentator R. T. France noted. Rather, “the laws given by Moses were understood to be the laws of God; ‘Moses’ means the Pentateuch, the God-given body of law which is Israel’s highest authority.” Thus, whatever commands we find in Moses’ law must be seen as coming from God himself.
Second, we should note that the law cited by the Pharisees, which is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, is really a law about remarriage, not divorce. This law is essentially a long “if” followed by a short “then” command. A summary version could read, “If a man divorces his wife, she remarries, and her second marriage comes to an end, then the man may not take her back as his wife again.” Thus, Dean Taylor rightly wrote of this passage, “Moses did not institute divorce, he merely regulated against a type of remarriage.” That said, it remains true, as Jesus acknowledged, that this law of Moses did “allow” divorce.
Laws Requiring Divorce
What is less well known is that in some cases the law of Moses actually required divorce. For example, in Exodus 21:11 a master-husband was instructed to give his Hebrew slave-wife her food, clothing, and marital rights, without diminishing them if he took another woman. If he withheld these rights, the law commanded that “she shall go out for nothing” (Ex. 21:11; cf. Ex. 21:26). Similarly, Deuteronomy 21:14 commanded that if a man “no longer delight in” his wife whom he had taken as a captive in war, he must “let her go where she wants” without selling her or treating her as a slave.
Both these passages contain linguistic links to the famous divorce and remarriage passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, links suggesting that these passages are talking about full divorce, complete with the right to remarry. They also appear to be talking about real marriage, despite the wife being originally secured by either slavery (temporary indentured servitude of a fellow Hebrew) or captivity (of a foreign enemy). If either of these seems least likely to qualify as real marriage, it would be the captive wife. Yet the Deuteronomy passage says explicitly, “you may… be her husband, and she shall be your wife” (Deut. 21:13). Further, that passage occurs right before a paragraph that demands that unloved “wives” be given equal rights as loved ones, a command that parallels the one in Exodus 21:11.
If a wife taken as a slave or captive had a right to secure a divorce if her husband would not provide for or “delight in” her, then surely a wife gained by more normal means had equal rights or better. Thus, Jews in Jesus’ day applied this passage to all marriages. They “recognized that the obligations of Exodus 21:10-11 could form the basis of a claim for divorce,” and “rabbinic literature preserves detailed discussions concerning the exact limits for gaining a divorce on the grounds” in that passage.
It is worth noting that some of the authors who have been influential for conservative Anabaptists on the topic of divorce (Coblentz, Webb, Wenham, etc.) do not even mention Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14. Several make statements that are clearly false in light of these passages. For example, Cornes wrote the following in his summary of the OT law:
Any individual law which specifically legislates about divorce only limits its availability. The law must therefore be seen as restraining divorce rather than enabling it.
Wenham and Heth likewise exclaimed, “There is, in fact, no legislation respecting grounds for divorce in Old Testament law!”
Kuruvilla, drawing on Cornes, made a similar claim, even extending it to include the entire OT:
Throughout the Old Testament, there is no “enabling legislation” for divorce. Instead, Old Testament laws merely restrict a practice that was already ongoing… Nowhere in the Old Testament are any statements given that “enable” divorce or remarriage.
Contrary to these claims, Exodus and Deuteronomy both clearly command that if a husband refused to care for his (slave or captive) wife, he must grant her the freedom of a divorce. Would God, through Moses, have commanded that wives of abusive husbands be freed to remarry if he thought that their first marriages remained undissolved?
Laws Prohibiting Divorce
Other laws provided for women by protecting them from wrongful divorce. For example, what if a husband took a wife, decided he didn’t like her after having sex with her for the first time, and then tried to get rid of her by falsely accussing her of not being a virgin? Such a man was to be whipped and fined, and “he may not divorce her all his days.” He had to provide for her for life, without exception, for he had “brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel” and put her in danger of wrongful capital punishment (Deut. 22:19). Similarly, the rule for a man who raped an unbetrothed virgin was that he had to marry her and “may not divorce her all his days” (Deut. 22:29).
As far as I can discover, author Rubel Shelly is right in saying that these are “the only two specific situations named in which a man could not divorce his wife” under the law of Moses. And presumably, if a wife in these two situations was later uncared for, she could go to court to sue for either provision or her own right of divorce under the precedent of Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14.
How widely was divorce practiced in OT Israel? Given the pattern of Israel’s other sins, Instone-Brewer is probably right in saying “we must assume that divorce was as prevalent in Israel then as in other ancient Near Eastern societies.” What is clear is that divorce was widely “allowed” under the law of Moses and sometimes even commanded. Was God allowing something that was a legal fiction, or was he allowing (and sometimes commanding) something that was real, even though it fell short of his original design for marriage?
A Law Prohibiting Remarriage
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 supports this picture of easily-available divorce. I’ve already summarized the basic point of the passage, and I’ll reinforce that summary now by emphasizing that the Jews in Jesus’ day entirely missed the point of the passage when they mined it in search of valid grounds for divorce. The passage does not provide grounds for divorce but restrictions against a certain kind of remarriage.
Let me quote the passage in full and then we’ll look for clues about marriage permanence.
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency 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 departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deut. 24:1-4)
Some things about this passage remain highly debated among commentators. What is “some indecency”? How, exactly, was the wife “defiled”? Why was it wrong for her former husband to take her again as his wife after she had been defiled? What relevance, if any, does this remarriage prohibition have for us today?
I won’t try to answer those questions now. I will point instead to some clear facts that may be clues about whether marriage is indissoluble. In this passage:
A woman who is remarried is called “another man’s wife”—that is, she is now the “wife” of “another man” besides her former husband (v. 2).
Her prior husband is called her “former husband” (v. 4), indicating he is no longer her husband.
A certificate of divorce is expected for ending a second marriage just as surely as a first marriage, suggesting the second marriage was considered just as real as the first (v. 3).
Divorce and death are presented in parallel as equally ending a marriage (v. 3).
A woman’s former husband (including her first one) has less right (none!) to claim her as wife than any other man does (v. 4); there is no assumption a first husband has special rights based on a persisting marital union.
Let me get technical for one paragraph. It is worth noting that the Hebrew word (ri’šôn) translated “former” in the phrase “former husband” does not always mean “first” (e.g., Num. 21:26; Ps. 79:8; Is. 42:9). Thus, this law restricts a second husband from remarrying a former wife after she has married a third as surely as it restricts a first husband from remarrying. Therefore, it is not right to say that a first husband is singled out by this law even negatively, by receiving a special prohibition not given to subsequent husbands. (The CSB, NET, NIV, NLT, and multiple other translations are misleading in this regard; KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, and others more cautiously read “former.”)
In short, while it is not clear whether the divorces in this passage were legitimate, everything about the passage suggests that divorce was seen as truly ending a marriage—just as truly as by death. Further, remarriage was seen as “putting a seal” on divorce, making any former marriage permanently dissolved.
Laws Grouping the Divorced and the Widowed
Tellingly, several other passages in the law of Moses group divorce and death in a similar way. For example, both widowhood and divorce gave a priest’s daughter equal right to return to her father’s house and eat his priestly food, which she was forbidden to eat while she was married to a layman (Lev. 22:12-13). Similarly, if a married woman made a vow, her husband had a right to make her vow void when he first heard of it. But this law came with an exception: “Any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her” (Num. 30:9). As far as both these laws were concerned, a divorcing husband and a dead husband had equal authority over their former wives—none.
The marriage restrictions for a high priest also group divorce and widowhood together:
A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people (Lev. 21:14).
The restriction against marrying a widow was a matter of ritualistic cleanliness, not a timeless moral requirement (1 Cor. 7:39). It functioned like other restrictions in this passage, such as the one forbidding the high priest from making himself unclean by caring for the dead bodies of close relatives (Lev. 21:11). Similarly, the NT strongly implies that there is nothing immoral about marrying someone who was formerly sexually immoral (“a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute”) but who is now “sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Given this context, it appears that the law against priests marrying divorced women (cf. Lev. 21:7) was also a ritualistic restriction, not a moral one. Commentator Wenham suggests this restriction was designed to protect a priest’s reputation and also to ensure his wife’s children were really his own, thus protecting the priestly line.
In fact, divorced and widowed persons were so tightly grouped in Jewish thought that the Hebrew and Greek words translated widow in the Bible were sometimes used to refer to a divorced woman. This broader conception of widowhood in the Hebrew language is found in 2 Samuel 20:3. After David returned to Jerusalem following his defeat of Absalom, he took his ten concubines whom Absalom had defiled and “put them in custody… but did not have relations with them. So they were locked up until the day of their death, living as widows” (NASB).
Similarly, the Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher Philo—during whose lifetime Jesus lived and died—counted a divorced woman as having been widowed in his interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4:
If a woman after parting from her husband for any cause whatever marries another and then again becomes a widow [χηρεύσῃ], whether this second husband is alive or dead, she must not return to her first husband.
Philo’s interpretation affirms our observation that divorced and widowed women were treated very similarly under the law of Moses, both classed as being unmarried.
Conclusion: Marriage Was Dissoluble Under the Law of Moses
As far as I know, these are all the passages in the law of Moses that deal explicitly with human divorce. None of these passages give any indication that divorce did not truly end a marriage. Taken together, they strongly indicate that divorce was seen as fully dissolving a marriage. There is no indication that a man who divorced his wife had any special right to take her back again, and he was expressly forbidden from doing so if she had meanwhile been married to someone else.
Yes, every mention of divorce in the law of Moses is in tension with God’s creation design recorded in the first book of Moses. If every Israelite had lived up to God’s design, no marriage would ever have ended in divorce.
However, it is also true that if every human had lived up to God’s design, no marriages would have been dissolved by death, either. (This includes marriages ended by death as punishment for adultery, a topic I hope to address later.) Tragically, both death and divorce are part of human experience post-Eden, and both are pictured in the law of Moses—God’slaw—as truly ending marriage.
Was this picture merely an illusory concession to human practices? What did Jesus mean when he said these divorce allowances were given because of “hardness of heart”? And what about his statement that “from the beginning it was not so”? I plan to turn to these questions in my next posts.
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 It is a sobering truth that merely living up to a law granted as a concession to human weakness does not ensure one is truly pleasing God.
 Even though some of Jesus’ teachings hinted that the law of Moses would come to an end (Matt. 11:13; Mark 7:19; Luke 16:16), he urged people to obey even the details of the law (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42) and warned they would be judged by Moses (John 5:45-46; cf. Luke 16:29-31). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ teaching about divorce comes immediately after his statement that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Luke 16:17).
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 719.
 The KJV, unfortunately, obscures the flow of thought, but the NKJV, ESV, and most other modern translations make the if-then structure of Moses’ command clear. The moral logic and current relevance of Moses’ prohibition of a husband remarrying his former wife, however, remain highly debated. Since Jesus didn’t address these questions, I won’t address them in this post, either.
 The Hebrew word translated “let her go” in Deuteronomy 21:14 (šālaḥ) appears again in Deuteronomy 24:1, which describes a husband who divorces his wife and “sends her” out of his house. Likewise, the word translated “shall go out” in Exodus 21:11 (yāṣā’) appears in Deuteronomy 24:1 (24:2 in some translations) in the phrase “she departs out of his house.” This woman then “goes and becomes another man’s wife” (Deut. 24:2). This shared language implies that in all three passages the woman who is sent away is free to remarry, even though two of the passages never explicitly say so.
 David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 102.
 Authors who discussed divorce in the OT without mentioning either Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14 include John Coblentz (What the Bible Says about Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage), Finny Kuruvilla (“Until Death Do Us Part”), J. Carl Laney (The Divorce Myth), Joseph A. Webb (Till Death Do Us Part?), Gordon J. Wenham and William E. Heth (Jesus and Divorce) and G. J. Wenham (Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting). Andrew Cornes (Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice) discussed only the Deuteronomy passage (p. 137-38). Despite acknowledging it discusses divorce, he surprisingly asserted that it actually discourages divorce. The authors of Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View (Wingerd, Elliff, Chrisman, and Burchett) addressed both texts in an appendix (pp. 143-46), but only to explain why they “did not consider” them “relevant to our discussion.” I do not find their reasons compelling.
 Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 176-77.
 William E. Heth and Gordan J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce, updated ed. (Carlisle, England: Paternoster Press, 2002), 107.
 Finny Kuruvilla, “Until Death Do Us Part: Is Remarriage Biblically Sanctioned After Divorce?” (essay), (Anchor Cross Publishing, July 13, 2014), 4-5, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/570e3c2f8259b563851efcf8/t/5911288c4402435d4e08c196/1494296716383/essay_remarriage.pdf. The most obvious passage contradicting Kuruvilla’s broader claim is Ezra 10, where Israel divorced their foreign wives in an act of repentance. Nothing in the passage suggests that these marriages were not real, despite being contrary to God’s law. Nor is there any indication that any subsequent marriages would be legal fictions permitted by God even though the first marriages were not truly dissolved. Rather, the passage is best understood as a case where two shoulds conflicted with each other—the should of marital permanence and the should of marrying only within Israel. Both of these could be broken, and in this case Nehemiah ruled that the latter should took precedent over the former. In the language of the passage, to have “broken faith” with God by marrying foreign women was worse than to subsequently break faith with these women by divorcing them, for the latter was required as part of renewing Israel’s “covenant with… God” (Ezra 10:2-3, 10-11).
 Her father, however, had legal right to refuse to give his daughter to him in marriage (Ex. 22:17).
 Rubel Shelly, Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2007), 50.
 David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 23.
 This conclusion is reinforced by how Ezekiel repeats these commands in his vision of a renewed priesthood: “They shall not marry a widow or a divorced woman, but only virgins of the offspring of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest” (Ez. 44:22). The final “loophole” in this verse shows that it was not intrinsically wrong for a priest to marry a widow.
 Gordan J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the OT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 291-92.
 The Lexham Bible Dictionary provides this definition for both the Hebrew word (אַלְמָנָה, almanah) and the Greek word (χήρα, chēra): “A woman whose husband has died, or who has been parted in some way from her husband” (M. J. Morris, “Widow,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016].
 Other passages in the law of Moses contain information about marriage that have indirect significance to the question of marriage permanence (such as texts implying the legality of polygamy). There are also narrative portions of the books of Moses that are relevant. These include not only Genesis 1 and 2 and other passages reinforcing marriage faithfulness, but also stories such as the account where God encouraged Abraham to heed Sarah’s desire and “cast out” Hagar (Gen. 21:8-14), his slave whom he had taken “as a wife” (Gen. 16:3). Finally, God predicts his own divorce of Israel (“I will forsake them”), for he knows they will “whore after… foreign gods… and break my covenant that I have made with them” (Deut. 31:16-18).
 If the passages I have discussed in this post are overwhelmingly focused on protecting wives, the Mosaic laws about adultery focus on protecting husbands from unfaithful wives. If it was evident a wife had committed adultery, both she and her adulterous partner were to be put to death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).
What do we mean when we say that marriage is indissoluble? More importantly, is this an accurate way to express the biblical witness about marriage? I will not answer that second question in this post (does that make my title clickbait?), but I do want to examine two passages from Paul that appear to answer it very clearly.
When people assert that marriage is indissoluble, they generally mean that nothing except death can end a marriage union. Romans 7:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 are two passages cited most often as evidence for this assertion.
These parallel passages certainly do offer vital biblical evidence that must shape our understandings about divorce and remarriage. I have come to believe, however, that sometimes our thinking and speaking about these passages is not as careful as it should be. In our haste to cite these passages as being “clear,” we may not read them with the diligence that the Scriptures deserve.
Let me start by suggesting that neither passage quite says that only death can end a marriage union. Neither passage says that there is a “marriage bond” that holds every marriage together till death, or that the one-flesh marriage union is a sort of glue that cannot be broken by man. Rather, both passages say something slightly but significantly different. Here is the shorter passage:
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 7:39-40)
What does “bound” mean? What sort of reality is implied by words such as “bound” and “free”? If we had only this passage and not the near parallel in Romans 7, we might be able to conclude that the passage is talking about some “marriage bond” or one-flesh union that is indissoluble—some mysterious ontological oneness that is impossible to separate.
But the language of “bound” and “free” is a hint that these passages are talking about different realities. The longer passage makes this clearer:
Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Rom. 7:1-3)
How is a married woman bound to her husband? “By law,” Paul says. To understand these passages well, we must remember that we are dealing not with metaphysical realities but with legal codes—with law.
By what means does law bind someone? Here it is instructive to look at how δέω, the Greek word translated “bound” in both Romans 7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, is used elsewhere in the New Testament. Here are a few typical examples: A colt was “bound” most likely with a rope (Matt. 21:2), Peter was “bound” with two chains (Acts 12:6), a woman was “bound” by Satan with sickness (Luke 13:16), and Paul declared that the word of God was not “bound” or prevented by persecution from spreading (2 Tim. 2:9). A wife, however, is not supposed to be bound to a man by a rope, a chain, sickness, or political oppression.
The closest NT parallel to how δέω is used in our two passages is probably found in Jesus’ words in both Matthew 16 and 18:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19, emphasis added; cf. Matt. 18:18)
In these passages, “bind” and “loose” are terms “used in rabbinic literature for declaring what is and is not permitted.”1The way the law binds someone, then, is by declaring what is and is not permitted.
The words for “bind” and “loose” in these Matthew passages are the same words that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 7:27: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” He then repeats the same word “bound” a couple paragraphs later in one of our key passages: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives.” (1 Cor. 7:39).
Paul, trained under the Rabbi Gamaliel, is using the language of rabbis.2 He is not declaring a spiritual or scientific law that describes an unchangeable reality. Rather, he is “declaring what is and is not permitted” under the law, probably referring to the law of Moses.3 Legal rulings are not made against things that are impossible to do. To the contrary, any law, even a divine one, can be broken.
The law typically describes what could butshouldn’t happen and then says what will happen or should happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. (Read that fast three times in a row!) It is important not to confuse these different dynamics.
The language of “binding” in 1 Corinthians 7 and Romans 7 indicates, first of all, that something could butshouldn’t happen. Paul says that the law does not permit a wife to leave her husband while he is alive. The fact that this law was necessary implies that it is indeed possible for a husband or wife to separate from their spouse. It is possible for them to violate the law that binds them together.
This does not mean, of course, that as soon as a law is broken it has no say over the person who broke it. The Romans passage says one thing that certainly will happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. Paul says that if a woman breaks the law that binds her to her husband, then “she is called an adulteress” (Rom. 7:3). Who calls her an adulteress? Paul does not explicitly say, but the implication is that it is the law, first of all, who calls such a woman an adulteress. Since her husband is still alive, the law’s requirement that she be faithful to him is still binding on her. This law, still in effect even though broken, labels her an adulteress. This will happen. Humans are free to disregard the law binding husband and wife, but they will also suffer the legal consequences if they do so.
What about the phrase “as long as he is alive” (Rom. 7:2; cf. 1 Cor. 7:39)? This phrase does not address the question of whether or not it is possible for humans to end a marriage. Rather, it describes how long “the law is binding on a person” who is married (Rom. 7:1). At any point before death, a married person can break the law that binds them to their spouse, violating the union that was supposed to last until death. At that point, the law says what will happen: They will stand guilty of adultery.
How should a person guilty of adultery be held accountable? What does the law say should happen next? In neither passage does Paul answer this question. Neither passage says what should be done if a marriage is broken prematurely by sexual unfaithfulness.
We know from Leviticus—“for I,” like Paul, “am speaking to those who know the law” (Rom. 7:1)—that the law of Moses did not simply say, “It is impossible for a woman to separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “A woman must not separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “If a woman unites with a man besides her husband she will be called an adulteress.” No, the law had more to say than what Paul records in either of our passages.
This is what the law of Moses originally taught about adultery: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10). Under this law, what should happen after adultery was death, which ended the marriage union and left the violated marriage partner alive and free to remarry. In addition, as Moo reminds us, this same law of Moses also recognized situations when a husband was permitted to divorce his wife and remarry:
Any body of law that Paul may be citing—Roman or OT (cf. Deut. 25:1-4 [sic; should be Deut. 24:1-4])—allows for remarriage on grounds other than the death of the spouse. His readers, who “know the law” (v. 1), would certainly recognize this possibility without it in any way spoiling the effectiveness of Paul’s analogy.4
It is probably significant that in both of these passages Paul refers to how a wife is bound to her husband until he dies. Under the law of Moses (unlike Roman law), a wife, unlike her husband, had no right to initiate divorce. For a husband, his marriage could end not only through the natural death of his wife but also in at least two other ways: 1) his wife could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) he could divorce his wife if he “found some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1). In this sense, under the law of Moses a woman was “bound to her husband as long as he lives” in a way that her husband was not bound to her.
Yet, even for the woman, the law of Moses recognized at least two ways that her marriage could end apart from the natural death of her husband: 1) her husband could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) her husband could divorce her for some offense less than adultery (Deut. 24:1), leaving her free to remarry. The latter scenario, at least, is an exception to Paul’s statement about what the law required for a wife.
Is Paul misrepresenting the law? It is better, I suggest, to conclude that Paul accurately summarizes what the law under normal circumstances required of a wife, without meaning to deny any exceptions implied by specific case laws dealing with special circumstances.5
For Jews in Jesus’ day, legal divorce had largely replaced the death penalty in cases of adultery. It was understood that it was divorce that should happen next after adultery.6 It was also understood that divorce ended the marriage, so that the woman no longer had a husband and the man no longer had a wife. Therefore, in such a situation, the law cited by Paul that bound a wife to her husband was understood to no longer apply, for she was no longer “a wife” (1 Cor. 7:39) or “married woman” (Rom. 7:2). Rather—as had been the case under the Law of Moses after the death penalty—the wronged marriage partner was free to legally remarry.
(There was a severe gender inequity in how this was applied. Men generally were not liable to be charged with adultery, since polygamy was still legal under Jewish law. Thus, it was women who were divorced when suspected of adultery, but men were not. After a divorce adulteresses, like their former husbands, were free to remarry. But there was a stigma in marrying an adulteress and, as a reasonable precaution, adulteresses were not permitted to marry their lovers.7)
Christians today, even more truly than the Jews of Jesus’ day, are no longer bound by law to carry out capital punishment for adultery. We are under Christ’s new covenant. Jesus warned that the provision for divorce found in Deuteronomy 24 was given because of the “hardness of heart” of God’s people (Matt. 19:8), so it is unlikely that he thought this exception still applies under the new covenant—certainly not in the broad way that it was interpreted by many in Jesus’ day.8 But, leaving that question aside, we still have the other “unnatural” way that a woman could find herself released from the law that bound her to her husband: By her husband committing adultery.
What should happen next after a husband or wife commits adultery in our time? Again, neither of the passages we are discussing here answers our question.
In Corinthians 7:39-40 Paul had no reason to answer our question because the main reason that he cites this law about marriage, apparently, is to show that it is lawful for widows to remarry. Since he is discussing widows, the question of adultery is irrelevant. In Romans 7:1-3 Paul had no reason to answer our question because he is introducing the law of marriage primarily to make a similar point, one relevant to his theological argument: just as death ends a marriage and frees one to remarry, so Christians have died to the law so that they can be married to Christ. Again, his focus is on the fact that the law is not binding on a married couple after one of them dies. He is not concerned to detail exactly how the law was binding on a husband or wife whose marriage had been damaged by adultery. He does mention an adulterous wife in passing here (the language may imply she had remarried), but he says nothing about what should happen next.
What should happen to the adulteress? What should the wronged husband do? What were either of them permitted or required to do? Again, neither passage answers such questions.
If you are waiting for me to answer those questions in this post, I will (once again) leave you disappointed. Those are crucial questions, but my purpose here is different. My goal is to invite us think more diligently about these two passages, for they are often cited as being among the most “clear” New Testament passages on divorce and remarriage. I agree that these passages are indeed very clear on what should not happen. But I am proposing here that they say little about what should happen if the law that binds wife and husband together has been violated.
If I were to paraphrase the main point of what Paul is saying in both Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, it might look like this:
The law requires that a woman remain faithful to her husband as long as he lives; after that, she is allowed to remarry any Christian man she wishes. If she unites with another man while her husband is still alive, the law declares that she is an adulterer, but it doesn’t say that about a woman who remarries after her husband is dead.
I have often heard that these two passages from Paul are “clearer” than the exception clauses of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 regarding the topics of divorce and remarriage. For the reasons described above, I am not sure this is so.
Specifically, I don’t think these passages are clearer than Jesus’ sayings are regarding the question of whether divorce is permitted in the case of adultery. Unlike Jesus’ exception clauses, these passages from Paul don’t even mention the topic of divorce. (Read them again if that statement surprises you.)
Since they don’t even mention divorce, how can they be clearer than Jesus’ sayings on the topic? How can we use them to cancel out his words?
Before I close, however, let me underscore two things that are indeed clear in both these Pauline passages.
First, God’s intent is that our marriages last for life. This was clear in the law of Moses not only from its prescriptive laws, but also from the creation account that Moses recorded. This is also a consistent message from Christ and the witness of the NT.
Second, God still holds humans accountable today when marriages end before death. Whether or not marriage itself is truly indissoluble (“incapable of being undone”9) may be a question that these specific passages do not answer. But there is no question that married people are bound together by a divine law that is indissoluble (“perpetually binding or obligatory”10). Almost every marriage that ends before death does so because one of the spouses has sinned by breaking God’s law11, and anyone who breaks God’s law should fear being held accountable by him.
Now may that same good God, the God who redeems law-breakers, teach us from the whole biblical witness—not just a couple of the “clearest” passages—how to respond faithfully when unfaithfulness is found in our marriages.
It is a weighty thing to teach on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The cost of broken marriages has been tremendous and is growing. Many people are confused and looking for true and loving counsel. Sincere Christians have long disagreed on minor and major points of interpretation and practice. My own understanding is still incomplete. For these latter reasons, this topic is even more difficult for me to handle than the series on homosexuality I shared last fall, where my biggest challenge was to present my understandings courageously, compassionately, and clearly.
On the other hand, it is a blessing to be able to ponder this topic at a time when I have no burning personal need to do so, besides a long-standing desire for better understanding of God’s word and will. It is a joy to know he is able to give us whatever understanding we need!
I have been intentionally seeking resources from a variety of perspectives so that my preferences and assumptions have a chance to be tested. My personal preference is usually to consider “small” exegetical questions one at a time (though in context, of course), rather than trying immediately to answer the big theological or practical questions. Hence my last two posts, one on the term “one flesh” and this on two short parallel passages.
I have also been puzzling over Jesus’ use of “one flesh” in Matthew 19 and his central statement there: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). I hope to be able to share more here if God entrusts me with more understanding. If not, I won’t!
Meanwhile, you can help in two ways: 1) Pray God will guide me, both in my thinking and in knowing when to write and when to wait. 2) If you read anything here that is contrary to Scripture, please show me from Scripture where I am wrong. I am eager to be increasingly true to Christ and the Scriptures.
Also, if you have a favorite resource that you think is exceptionally helpful for understanding the biblical witness on divorce and remarriage, you are most welcome to mention it, though I cannot commit in advance to giving it the time it may deserve.
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R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 626. Luz agrees: “The primary meaning is ‘forbidding’ and ‘permitting’ with a halakic decision of the rabbis, that is, the interpretation of the law.” See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary on Matthew 8-20, ed. H. Koester (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 365. ↩
Gamaliel was influenced by the famous rabbi Hillel—the one who argued for “any cause” divorce as discussed in Matthew 19, as opposed by Shammai who argued for narrower grounds for divorce. McRay suggests that Paul seems to have been influenced by the Hillel point of view in how he felt free to make legal adjustments for new situations “which the law did not envision,” such as dealing with mixed marriages (1 Cor. 7:12). See John McRay, Paul: His Life and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 45. ↩
Most commentators agree that this is the law Paul is referring to, and it makes best sense to me. ↩
Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 438, n. 649. ↩
Paul’s approach matches some marriage contracts from near his time. These sometimes stated that a marriage was for life, while nevertheless assuming the possibility of divorce and remarriage. Here, for example, is a translation from a Greek marriage contract from Egypt in 92 BC: “And it shall not be lawful for Philiscus to bring in any other wife but Apollonia, nor to keep a concubine or boy, nor to have children by another woman while Apollonia lives.” Notice how “while Apollonia lives” matches Paul’s language in Romans 7:2: “while he lives.” (David Instone-Brewer, “1 Corinthians 7 in the light of the Graeco-Roman Marriage and Divorce Papyri,” Tyndale Bulletin, 2001, https://www.tyndalearchive.com/Brewer/MarriagePapyri/1Cor_7a.htm Accessed May 28, 2020.) ↩
Roman law required this for its citizens, too; a husband who refused to divorce his adulterous wife was to be punished. ↩
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 121-23. ↩
Jesus’ exception clause was likely an allusion to the Shammaite interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. But he offered an authoritative rewording of the text that narrowed it to allow divorce only on the grounds of sexual immorality, not merely shameful behavior. The way Jesus expressed his exception suggests that he narrowed the exception originally permitted in Deuteronomy 24:1 and thereby disagreed not only with the “liberal” Hillelites but also, to a lesser degree, with the “conservative” Shammaites. ↩
I say “almost” because some people have been tragically separated from their spouses by events such as war, with no way to know if they are still alive. By far the majority of marriages that end before death do so because one or both of the spouses have been unfaithful to their spouses. ↩