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“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).


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“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/


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What I Learned at AIC 2015 about How To Use the Bible

This past weekend I was blessed to attend most of the Anabaptist Identity Conference, held this year near Napannee, Indiana. This was the 10th AIC, and it lived up to its reputation as an event which gathers a provocative diversity of speakers and listeners.

We heard an Amish speaker (David Kline) explain the benefits of organic farming, and during one meal I sat across the table from a retired Goshen College history professor (Theron Schlabach). David Bercot shared with surprising candor his experience of how hard it is for most non-Anabaptists to ever join an Anabaptist church, given our cultural additives and our reluctance to let “outsiders” have a meaningful voice in shaping our churches. In contrast, Matthias Overholt, dressed in a plain brown suit and sporting a massive beard, animatedly preached the importance of “visible reminders that we are not a part of the world’s culture.” Beachy, Hutterite, Charity, Holdeman, MCUSA, Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, first-generation Anabaptists, unidentified plain Mennonites, and more–we all mingled without bickering for a few days and enjoyed GMO-free meals together. Some even traveled all the way from Down Under just to learn more about the Kingdom that turned the world upside down. Organized by the hippy-Anabaptist Overholt brothers, it was an earthy little bit of heaven on earth.

I don’t plan to give a detailed report of the weekend. The talks should soon be posted online here so you can listen and ponder for yourself. [Edit: See also the reviews by Rich Preheim and Theron Schlabach at the Mennonite World Review.] It would be interesting to discuss John D. Martin’s remarks about participatory church meetings  and observance of the Lord’s Supper (we need more of both) and Chester Weaver’s observations about how we have been shaped by Fundamentalism (some pro, mostly con). Suffice it to say that throughout the entire weekend I sometimes said “Amen,” I sometimes shook my head and agonized over error, and I always enjoyed the immersion education experience.

So, keeping things fairly general and naming names judiciously, here are some things I learned at AIC 2015 about how to use or not use the Bible in our preaching and teaching.

  1. Do call each other to passionately follow Jesus. Dean Taylor’s favorite question is so helpful: “What if Jesus really meant every word he said?” We need to hear more, not less, about following in Jesus’ steps, obeying his call to radical discipleship. The AIC always does well at this, and for that I am grateful.
  2. Don’t pit Jesus against Paul. I overheard one of the speakers in conversation, suggesting that it might be wise to place less emphasis on Paul’s writings. I believe he was suggesting that focusing on Paul’s writings tends to increase church conflict and distract us from following Jesus. I think this is a sad misunderstanding. I’ve written at length about this in my essay “Red Letter Reductionism,” which you can find here.
  3. Do emphasize that obedience is crucial. Head knowledge without obedience is useless. Preach the Sermon on the Mount! Keep James in the canon, for sure! And don’t hide disobedience behind either theological sophistication or a plain suit and cape dress. Again, AIC generally does very well on this point.
  4. Don’t say theology is unimportant. I heard one AIC speaker say “We are not theologians.” Another speaker (David Bercot) had a book on display entitled Will the Theologians Please Sit Down? (Full disclosure: I have not read the book through, so I may be wrong; but my sense from the title, excerpts, and some reports is that the book is not as well-balanced as some of Bercot’s other books. At minimum, I sense some readers are using it to bolster an unhealthy whole-sale rejection of theology.) Ironically, every one of the AIC speakers is obviously a theologian himself! This was evident by the multiple explanations (sometimes generalizations) of how Anabaptist soteriology (theology of salvation) and ecclesiology (theology of church) is different from that of Protestants. Theology is inescapable and essential.
  5. Do learn from historical examples of interpreting and obeying the Bible. One of AIC’s greatest strengths is its emphasis on history. Chester Weaver’s talks on Russian Mennonites were fascinating! AIC always includes such historical talks. Incidentally, the discipline of studying how the church in the past has understood and obeyed the Scriptures is called historical theology–more evidence that AIC is full of theology, despite some protests to the contrary.
  6. Don’t rely more on history than on the Scriptures. One of AIC’s greatest weaknesses is its emphasis on history. (No, I am not contradicting myself.) AIC speakers are very concerned with statistics about how few Anabaptist children have remained in the churches of their parents. They trace the patterns of the past and issue warnings about the future. Make no mistake: I definitely share some of their concerns. But I am even more concerned when I hear almost no appeal to Scripture during a panel discussion on how cultural traditions affect our ability to pass on the faith and integrate non-Anabaptists. (I raised my hand too slowly to add my question: How should 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 affect both our approach as witnesses and also our goals for the kind of self-identity that we want our disciples to adopt?) Some AIC talks referenced much Scripture faithfully and effectively. Others, not so much.
  7. Do shape your sermons around Scripture. One of the best AIC talks this year was one by Ernest Strubhar, where he traced through the whole Bible the big story of the war of Satan against God. This is theology–biblical theology! Some of Strubhar’s Bible texts are notoriously difficult to interpret, and I quibbled with a handful of details in his sermon. But the big picture that he painted was faithful and powerful, providing a real hopeful foundation for radical discipleship.
  8. Don’t pull Scripture out of context to bolster your own claims. Unfortunately, another sermon this past weekend did not use Scripture so faithfully. By his own admission, the speaker’s key text was used out of context, with key words being interpreted differently than what they actually meant. This text was used to structure the speaker’s entire sermon. In this way, the speaker brought an aura of Scriptural authority to his own ideas, using God’s word to make his own words sound more convincing. This is very dangerous indeed. Ironically, the real meaning of the speaker’s text, when read in context, actually undermines (in my estimation) one of the speaker’s main claims!
  9. Do invite others to critique your Bible teaching. This is another strength of AIC. After each talk there is a brief Q and A session. The Overholt brothers do a good job as moderators, allowing and encouraging honest feedback and questioning. The speakers also welcome this, evidencing grace and humility. Mutual critique is also built into the roster of speakers, since they represent a variety of backgrounds. It would be good to see more of this feedback encouraged in our regular church meetings!
  10. Don’t pit the Scriptures against Christ. Several times at AIC 2015 there was an evident tension between the Written Word and the Living Word. Several times questioners felt a need to ask a speaker to clarify himself on this point. But it is irrational to try to know a person while downplaying his words. The liberal modernists of a century ago claimed that we could follow the Christ of faith even if it was impossible to gain certainty about the Jesus of history. They believed that the Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection could not be trusted, yet they tried to salvage a mystical Christian faith. Today we can see where “Christ” without Scripture has led the churches that embraced this liberal modernism. I think all the AIC speakers would eagerly affirm the trustworthiness of Scripture. But true trust involves more than affirming that Scripture is true; it also involves drawing our own conceptions of Christ and his kingdom from the full Scriptural witness. Some of the AIC speakers do this very well. Others didn’t always display as much functional reliance on Scripture as I would have liked.
  11. Do call each other to passionately follow Jesus. Okay, this is a repeat of my first point, but worth repeating. This is AIC’s greatest strength, and it is the very best way that you can use the Bible in your own preaching and teaching.

I came away from AIC 2015 with multiple blessings, including a renewed desire to live among a body of believers that listens well to the Written Word as a vital witness to the Living Word. I wouldn’t feel at home in every church group represented at AIC. But I am thankful to all the speakers for honestly sharing their hearts and prodding us to better follow Jesus.

Do you have anything to add to this list? What would it look like if you made a similar list based on how the Bible is used in your church pulpit? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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