Tag Archives: Dean Taylor

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

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)

Summary of this post:  Jesus agreed that “Moses allowed you to divorce” but emphasized that “from the beginning it was not so.” Was Jesus hitting reset, overturning everything the law of Moses had said about divorce? In this post I argue from grammar and context that the handful of English translations that read “in the beginning” badly miss the boat, and even the translations (ESV, etc.) that read “from the beginning it was not so” are not as accurate as ones (NASB, etc.) that read “from the beginning it has not been this way.” Jesus was saying that divorce, though it was allowed and sometimes even commanded by God in the law of Moses, has always been in tension with God’s original intent for marriage.

Recap of Divorce in the Law of Moses

In my last several posts I considered Jesus’ words, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” Many men of Israel—both in Moses’ day and Jesus’—had hearts that were hard toward God and their wives. Because their hearts were hard, they often divorced their wives for frivolous reasons. God, through Moses, gave laws to prevent the worst of such abuse. He recognized the use of official divorce certificates (rather than mere abandonment) and restricted husbands who wished to reclaim wives they had previously divorced. Hardhearted husbands also sometimes failed to provide for wives they no longer loved. In such cases, God commanded them to grant their wives divorces, releasing them to seek homes (and sometimes husbands) elsewhere.

Jesus’ rebuke (“because of your hardness of heart”) turned the moral logic of the Pharisees on its head. The law of Moses did not grant Jewish men justification to divorce their wives for any cause they wished; rather, it condemned them as hardhearted for seeking unjustified divorce rather faithfully loving their wives. The law they cited in their defense actually witnessed against them.

When Was It Not So?

“Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” Jesus said, “but from the beginning it was not so.” What did Jesus mean by “from the beginning it was not so”? Was Jesus hitting a cosmic reset button, overturning every instruction about divorce given since the beginning? Did Jesus, by this statement, fully revoke all permission for divorce? Do his words indicate a divine timeline, a sequence of separate dispensations of God’s will, each with its own special expectations and rules? In short, when was it not so?

One way to continue is by sharing another bad translation of Jesus’ words. Jesus did not say this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but in the beginning it was not so.”

“In the beginning it was not so.” Why is this a poor translation? I’ll suggest four reasons.

(1) “From,” Not “In”

First, Jesus did not say “in the beginning” (ἐν ἀρχῇ) as in John 1:1, but “from the beginning” (ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς). Some translators and authors have missed this. Daniel Kauffman, for example, wrote this:

It was because of the degraded condition of fallen man that Moses permitted man to give a writing of divorcement, but it was not so in the beginning, neither is it under the Gospel.[1]

Quarles, in his handbook on the Greek text of Matthew, explains why this phrase “from the beginning” is significant:

The prepositional phrase ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς is temporal and marks the beginning point of an action that continued for some time thereafter: “from the beginning on.”[2]

This continuing action is evident in another instance when Jesus used the same phrase (ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς), foretelling “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now” (Matt. 24:21). Similarly, in Matthew 19:8 Jesus wasn’t referring only to the moment of creation. No, he was referring to a state that began at creation and continued from that point on.

How long did it continue? One clue is found in the fact that, in Matthew’s record of Jesus’ divorce debate, Jesus uses this phrase “from the beginning” twice. In the first instance, he asked, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female…? (Matt. 19:4). Quarles says “the construction [from the beginning] seems to imply that God’s creative work continues through procreation,” as humans conceive and bear children.[3] According to this clue, “from the beginning” probably means from the beginning right up to and including the present.

“From the beginning” starts with the moment of creation but does not end there. (Detail from The Creation of Adam, a fresco by Italian artist Michelangelo.)

(2) “Has Been,” Not “Was”

A second reason to reject the translation “in the beginning it was not so” is found in the verb “was.” The Greek word that I translated “was” is γέγονεν. This word is in a tense-form that is called perfect. Please be patient as I dig into some grammatical weeds for a moment.

Decker, in his textbook Reading Koine Greek, suggests that the perfect verb form focuses on a state or condition rather than the past action that caused that condition. Take, for example, the Greek verb λύω (“to loose”). While some forms of this verb should be translated by English past tense expressions such as “he loosed” or “he was loosing,”[4] the perfect form is better conveyed by the present tense phrase “he is loose.” Consider the advice Decker gives to translators:

The equivalent of the perfect in English is a bit difficult, because we have no exact equivalent. The best we can do in most cases is to think in terms of a simple present form in English… If the simple present tense makes good sense in English, then do not conceive of the meaning in terms of the English helping verb have. Some statements, however, make good sense in English only as “I have been x,” but this is a matter of English idiom, not a reflection of the meaning of the Greek statement.[5]

Thus, if we follow Decker’s suggestions, we should first try to translate Jesus’ statement using the present tense: “From the beginning it is not this way.” That sounds awkward in English, however, so our next option should be this: “From the beginning it has not been this way.” This translation accurately clarifies that Jesus’ observation about the beginning remained true right up to his day—right up to the present.

This, in fact, is exactly how the NASB translates Jesus’ words: “From the beginning it has not been this way.” It also reflects how English Bible versions most often translate the perfect verb γέγονεν elsewhere in the NT.[6]

Decker says “the perfect tense-form is almost always significant when it is used.”[7] Other verb forms were available if Jesus had meant to say “was not so” [8] or “had not been so,”[9] as if God’s creation standard had come to an end when Moses allowed divorce. Luck summarizes well the significance of the grammar of Jesus’ statement:

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![10]

(3) “From the Beginning” = God’s Timeless Creation Design

A third reason why “in the beginning it was not so” is a potentially misleading translation of Jesus’ words is found in Mark’s parallel record of Jesus’ teaching. Mark, like Matthew, quotes Jesus’ statement about hard hearts. But instead of following this up with a negative statement (“but from the beginning it was not so”), Mark follows with a positive statement that makes the same point, by saying what was so. Compare the two accounts, first Mark’s, then Matthew’s:

They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:4-9)

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (Matthew 19:4-8)

A comparison of these two accounts shows that Matthew’s clause “from the beginning it was not so” functions as a flashback. It points us back to what Jesus had just said: God “from the beginning made them male and female” (cf. Gen. 1:27), “therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24), and finally—in a timeless implication drawn from these two quotes—“What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

“From the beginning it was not so,” then, refers not merely to a specific time in the past when divorce was not permitted, but to God’s unchanging creation design. This design has been the foundation for marriage in all ages. And according to that design, it has never been God’s original will that man would separate what he has joined—not at creation, not during the time of Moses, and not today. (We Bible teachers, in our eagerness to emphasize the newness of Jesus’ teaching, sometimes obscure this point.[11])

God’s original creation design for marriage has never been irrelevant—not even after God allowed divorce in the law of Moses. (Image from Wycliffe BibleTranslators of Russia, distributed by FreeBibleImages.)

(4) God’s Creation Standard Remained Relevant for the Pharisees

A fourth reason why “in the beginning it was not so” poorly reflects Jesus’ thought may be suggested by the first part of Jesus’ statement: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” Notice that Jesus is accusing the Pharisees in his own time of hardness of heart (“your… you… your”). If a person is hard of heart, this means they are stubbornly resisting something. In this case, at least part of what the Pharisees were resisting was God’s original creation design for marriage.

What does this suggest? If God’s expectations for marriage had been truly and fully lifted during the time of the law of Moses, then Jesus could hardly have accused the Pharisees of being hardhearted in relation to those divine expectations. The fact that he did accuse them of hardheartedness about marriage and divorce suggests that God’s creation intent was a standard that was still, on some level, in effect.

Summary and a Glance Ahead

For these reasons, I think the handful of English translations that read “in the beginning” badly miss the boat, and even the many translations (ESV, etc.) that read “from the beginning it was not so” are not as accurate as ones (NASB, etc.) that read “from the beginning it has not been this way.”[12]

What is “this way” that Jesus said has never been from the beginning? Grammatically, “this way” (οὕτως) points back to the clause before: “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.”[13] Jesus is saying, then, that the allowance of divorce, even though it was included by God it in the law given through Moses, was always in tension with God’s original intent for the permanence of marriage. Yes, God permitted and even sometimes commanded divorce in the Law of Moses, but every such situation of permitted or commanded divorce involved someone who was acting contrary to God’s original purpose for marriage, a purpose which had never been lifted.

Here, again, is how Luck put it:

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![14]

In other words, “from the beginning it has not been so”—divorce never was and still is not part of God’s original intention for marriage.

This understanding of Jesus’ words resolves some questions but leaves others hanging. If you can’t spot the hanging questions yet, wait for my next post, where I plan to ask what Jesus’ words suggest about the relationship between God’s creation standard, the law of Moses, and new covenant believers today. Hopefully, after muddying the waters a little further, I can help us more clearly identify the flow of Jesus’ teaching about divorce.

Meanwhile, feel free to share your observations in the comments below.

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[1] Daniel Kauffman, Bible Doctrine, (Scottsdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1914), 452. Available online: https://books.google.com/books/about/Bible_Doctrine.html?id=NmkCQ0br9OUC

[2] Charles L. Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), 221. I have printed in full several words that Quarles abbreviated.

[3] Quarles, Matthew, 221.

[4] Aorist and imperfect, respectively.

[5] Rodney J. Decker, Reading Koine Greek: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 329-330.

[6] The verb γέγονεν occurs 31 times in the perfect form in the NT. In most occurrences, English Bible versions translate γέγονεν using some sort of present tense verb—usually a present perfect progressive verb phrase like “has been” or, less often, a simple present tense verb like “is.” The NASB, which aims to reflect Greek word forms carefully, uses past tense verbs only twice to translate γέγονεν.

Here is a rough survey of how γέγονεν is translated in three popular English versions: ESV: Past (9x); past perfect progressive (1x); present perfect progressive (12x); present (9x). NIV: Past (9x); past perfect progressive (1x); present perfect progressive (12x); present (5x); not translated (4x). NASB:  Past (1x); past perfect progressive (1x); past with pres. perf. prog. footnote (4x); present perfect progressive (24x); present (1x).

[7] Decker, Reading Koine Greek, 330.

[8] Ἐγένετο, the aorist form, found 195 times in NT.

[9] Ἐγεγόνει, the pluperfect form, found 2 times in the NT.

[10] 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. Luck, ibid.: “The grammar here is interesting; ‘from the beginning it has not been this way’ (gegonen) does not mean from the beginning until a point in the past (i.e., the giving of the Mosaic ‘concession’). That translation would be clear had the text used the tense called ‘pluperfect.’ But it uses the simple perfect instead, which should be rendered ‘from the beginning all the way up to the point of my speaking these words.’” Webb drew on both this grammatical point and the previous one (from the beginning) to emphasize that “[divorce] was never God’s intention—‘from the beginning’ until now, and from now on” but he unhelpfully insinuates that the OT divorce allowance was Moses’ idea, not God’s. Joseph A. Webb, Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce (Longwood, FL: Webb Ministries, 2003), 67.

[11] Taylor appears to temporarily show confusion on this point. It appears he was alluding to Matt. 19:8 (though I can’t find a translation that includes his word “since”) when he wrote, “Jesus raised the duty and majesty of marriage higher than it had been for a long time—‘since the beginning.’” Later he more correctly expresses Jesus’ meaning when he writes, “Jesus stated to them what the fundamentals of marriage actually are… since the dawning of creation.” Dean Taylor, “One Flesh, One Covenant,” Pt. 1 of “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” The Heartbeat of The Remnant, April/May/June 2007, Ephrata Ministries, p. 4. Available online, accessed 4/21/2022, http://www.ephrataministries.org/pdf/2007-05-covenant.pdf.

[12] Other translations similar to the NASB include the AMP, ASV, DLNT, WEB, and YLT. See https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Matthew%2019:8.

[13] Quarles: “Οὕτως, ‘like this,’ in which a comp. is made to what precedes (Moses’s permission to divorce due to humanity’s hard-heartedness)” (Matthew, 222).

[14] Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage, 157-58.”

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

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:

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)

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.[1]

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.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, a 1659 oil-on-canvas painting of the prophet Moses by the Dutch artist Rembrandt.

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.[2] 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”).[3]

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.”[4] 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.”[5] Thus, Dean Taylor rightly wrote of this passage, “Moses did not institute divorce, he merely regulated against a type of remarriage.”[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

Wenham and Heth likewise exclaimed, “There is, in fact, no legislation respecting grounds for divorce in Old Testament law!”[11]

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.[12]

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?

A Jewish wedding. Image used with permission from Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing. Downloaded from FreeBibleImages.org.

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).[13]

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.[14] 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.”[15] 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.

The persistent widow, from Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:1-8). Used with permission from FreeBibleImages.org.

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).[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20] 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.[21]) Tragically, both death and divorce are part of human experience post-Eden, and both are pictured in the law of Moses—God’s law—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.

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

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[1] 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.

[2] 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).

[3] See Matt. 19:4; cf. Matt. 15:3-6.

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

[5] 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.

[6] Dean Taylor, “One Flesh, One Covenant,” Pt. 2 of “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” The Heartbeat of The Remnant, July/August/September 2007, Ephrata Ministries, p. 5. Available online, accessed 7/14/2022, http://www.ephrataministries.org/pdf/2007-07-one-flesh.pdf.

[7] 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.

[8] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 102.

[9] 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.

[10] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 176-77.

[11] William E. Heth and Gordan J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce, updated ed. (Carlisle, England: Paternoster Press, 2002), 107.

[12] 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).

[13] Her father, however, had legal right to refuse to give his daughter to him in marriage (Ex. 22:17).

[14] Rubel Shelly, Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2007), 50.

[15] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 23.

[16] 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.

[17] Gordan J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the OT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 291-92.

[18] 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].

[19] Philo, On the Special Laws, III.30, from Philo, Vol. VII, Loeb Classical Library, trans. F. H. Colson, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 493. Emphasis added. https://archive.org/details/PhiloSupplement01Genesis/Philo%2007%20Decalogue%2C%20Special%20Laws%20I-III/page/n509/mode/2up.

[20] 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).

[21] 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).

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

This post resumes my blog series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage. In this post I transition from introductory matters to exegesis, starting to address the question, Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble—that nothing besides death can truly end a marriage? I will begin my investigation of this question with a series of posts walking through Matthew 19:3-12, addressing many of the key terms and arguments sometimes used to claim that Jesus believed marriage is an unbreakable bond.

Here are the posts in this series so far:

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

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

Summary of this post: In this post I argue that “cleave” in Matthew 19:5 (KJV; “hold fast” in ESV) does not indicate that marriage is a bond that can be broken only by death. I show that the Hebrew word translated “cleave” in Genesis 2:24 does not indicate an unbreakable bond when it is used elsewhere in the OT, not even when used of covenant relationships. I also show that the Greek word used in the NT quotations of Genesis 2:24 does not imply permanence, most clearly as Paul uses it to refer to unions with prostitutes. Thus, Jesus’ quotation about how a man will “cleave” to his wife does not show Jesus believed marriage is indissoluble.

Introduction and Assertions that Cleave Indicates Permanence

In Matthew 19:3 we read that the Pharisees came up to Jesus and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Jesus’ first response was to remind them of God’s creation pattern of making humans as “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). He then quoted Genesis 2:24, which Matthew records like this: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5 ESV).

The KJV term for “hold fast” is the lovely word “cleave,” an English word that is a double-edged sword, meaning either “to adhere closely to, to remain faithful to” or else “to split or divide, to sever.” Think meat cleaver. Ouch. Or not.

Some people argue that the expression “cleave,” or at least the original Hebrew word found in Genesis 2:24 (dāḇaq), indicates that a married couple is “glued” together in an inseparable bond. They present this as evidence that marriage is indissoluble.

Carl Laney made the following claim about “the Hebrew word for ‘cleave’”:

The word is also used of the leprosy that would cling forever to dishonest and greedy Gehazi (2 Kings 5:27). In marriage, the husband and wife are “glued” together—bound inseparably into one solitary unit.[1]

Dean Taylor favorably quoted Laney and added the following:

I’ll never forget a brilliant, real-life object lesson of this passage I once saw in a children’s lesson. A few yeas [sic] ago, in order to graphically demonstrate the meaning of this word, Bro. [ … ] from Charity Christian Fellowship, took a piece of wood that had been glued together the night before and attempted to separate it with great force as the children looked on expectantly. I’ll never forget the result—as we all looked on in astonishment, the board indeed splintered into pieces, but the union was still intact! The message was clear.[2]

Woodworking photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

Old Testament Use of Cleave

A survey of how the same Hebrew word is used over 50 other times in the OT, however, shows that the word itself carries no message about how durable or weak a bond may be.

The book of Ruth shows how the word dāḇaq can be used of literal, physical connections between humans. For example, when Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab, “Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). In this case, the union indicated by dāḇaq lasted only moments or minutes at most.

Later, Boaz used this word twice while instructing Ruth: “Keep close to my young women… You shall keep close by my young men” (Ruth 2:8, 21). Does the word dāḇaq in these verses indicate a bond that can be broken only by death? Was Boaz advocating some sort of perverse polygamous union where Ruth would be “glued” permanently to his male and female servants? No, later in the chapter we read exactly how long this union between Ruth and Boaz’s servants lasted: “Ruth stayed close to [dāḇaq] the women of Boaz to glean until the barley and wheat harvests were finished” (Ruth 2:23).

The word dāḇaq is also used metaphorically of covenant relationships. For example, Israel was commanded to “hold fast” to the Lord (Deut. 10:20) and they were forbidden to “cling” to the pagan nations in Canaan (Josh. 23:12). Unfortunately, Israel’s bond with the Lord was often broken, with the result that they were commanded to break their bonds with pagan nations (Jer. 3, etc.). These examples are significant because, like Genesis 2:24, they involve covenant relationships. Thus we see that, even in a covenant relationship, dāḇaq does not indicate an unbreakable bond.

New Testament Use of Cleave

Similarly to these OT examples, the Greek word found in Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5 (κολλάομαι) has no necessary connotation of permanence. For example, in Luke 10:11 it is used to refer to dust that “clings to” the disciples’ feet—dust that they will “wipe off” again. And in Luke 15:15 it refers to how the prodigal son “hired himself out” to a pig farmer, referring to a contract that later came to an end.

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

Significantly, the same Greek verb is found in 1 Corinthians 6:16, in Paul’s discussion of sexual immorality:

Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”

Again, to be clear: this is the same verb that is translated “cleave” in Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5. Thus, if the KJV translated it consistently, Paul’s statement here would read, “Know ye not that he which cleaves to an harlot is one body?”[3] In other words, even before Paul directly quotes Genesis 2:24, he alludes to it by his choice of this verb.

David Garland drew the following conclusion from Paul’s use of this verb:

The verb… implies that the man and the prostitute are wedded together even if there are no wedding vows… They may regard their union as only a temporary liaison… but it is much more entangling than that; neither is free from the other when they part company. Paul derives his proof for this from Scripture.[4]

Are the man and the prostitute really “wedded together”? While it is indeed true that Paul emphasized the deep significance of a union between a Christian man and a prostitute, we must ask how he wanted such a sinful union to be resolved. Did he imagine that a man who once united with a prostitute was henceforth permanently married to her?

It is true that OT law normally expected a man who had sex with an unbetrothed virgin to subsequently lawfully marry her (Ex. 22:16-17; cf. Deut. 22:28-29). That is very different, however, from saying that a man who has sex with a prostitute (not a virgin) is already married to her (rather than obligated to marry her).

In addition, several points make the suggestion of a permanent union in 1 Corinthians 6:16 very unlikely:

(1) In the preceding verses (1 Cor. 6:9-11) Paul rejoiced that Corinthian believers who had formerly been “sexually immoral” and “adulterers” had been “washed” and “sanctified.” This suggests freedom from past immoral unions.

(2) The Corinthians who visited prostitutes almost certainly included married men. Did Paul imagine they were now obligated to practice polygamy?

(3) Did Paul imagine that a prostitute was “wedded” (with full marital obligations and without her knowledge) to every man who had ever united with her?

While it is indeed true that union with even a prostitute forms unavoidable entanglements—entanglements entirely unfitting for one who is already united to Christ—it is hard to imagine that Paul believed such entanglements included a responsibility to continue the union. Other Scriptures indicate that a Christian who had sinned in such a grievous way should repent (2 Cor. 12:21), put the sexual immorality to death (Col. 3:5), and abstain from it (1 Thess. 4:3)—in short, “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18).

Conclusion: Cleave Does Not Prove Permanence

In both Hebrew and Greek usage, then, context alone determines how permanent a bond is when two things cleave or hold fast together. Nothing in the word cleave itself indicates a permanent bond. Laney is wrong to say the word cleave shows that “in marriage, the husband and wife are ‘glued’ together—bound inseparably into one solitary unit.” They should be! But there is nothing in the word that proves that the bond could not be broken.[5]

Jesus’ quotation from Genesis about how a man will “cleave” to his wife, then, does not indicate that he believed marriage is indissoluble. Rather, he was arguing that husbands and wives should not be separated.

Finally, I’d like to make a comment about the speaker who glued two blocks of wood as an illustration about the meaning of “cleave.” Bible teachers, may we remember the following: Just because we can come up with a powerful sermon illustration for a particular Bible interpretation does not prove that the interpretation is correct. Don’t substitute rhetoric for research. Don’t use a sermon illustration to convince people your interpretation is correct. Rather, prove your point from the Bible, then use illustrations to help people feel what you have already helped them rightly see. Exegesis comes first, then illustration. If we do otherwise, we are simply deceiving ourselves and others.

Thank you for reading this post. I welcome your responses! In my next post, I plan to discuss the intriguing term one flesh. Does it imply an unbreakable bond?

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[1] Carl J. Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), p. 20.

[2] Dean Taylor, “One Flesh One Covenant,” Pt. 1 of “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” The Heartbeat of The Remnant, April/May/June 2007, Ephrata Ministries, p. 4. Available online, accessed 4/21/2022, http://www.ephrataministries.org/pdf/2007-05-covenant.pdf. I want to clarify that, while I disagree with Dean on this point and some others, I have been blessed by him in other ways and he has always been gracious in our interactions. I enjoyed reading his personal testimony in his book A Change of Allegiance: A Journey into the Historical and Biblical Teaching of War and Peace (Ephrata, PA: Radical Reformation Books, 2009).

[3] The KJV actually reads, “Know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body?”

[4] David Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 234.

[5] See my discussion about how some Bible teachers confuse the could and the should of Scripture: “Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2),” June 19, 2022, https://dwightgingrich.com/hyper-literalism-could-vs-should-guiding-question-jdr-2/