Tag Archives: Gordon J. Wenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Whose Hearts Were Hard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberts makes the same point:

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

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

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

What Did Jesus’ Audience Believe about Divorce?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Abuse of Deuteronomy 24:1 as a Proof Text

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

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

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

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

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

Applying Jesus’ Warning about “Hardness of Heart” Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead: Jesus’ Words and the New Covenant

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Meier, ibid., 95.

[8] Meier, ibid., 93.

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

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

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

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

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

“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).

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

This post is a sort of “extra” in my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, glancing back to Genesis 2:24 to ask what it indicates about whether marriage is indissoluble. Here are my posts so far in this series:

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)


Summary of this post: I ask whether Genesis 2:24 is a prediction or a command, and whether the union it describes is necessarily permanent. Based on Greek and Hebrew grammatical considerations, and based on how both Jesus and Paul used this verse, I argue that it functions as a creation norm for marriage. That is, Genesis 2:24 describes both what normally happens (norm as normal), and also what should happen (norm as standard). Thus, we should let this verse prompt us to ask Am I living in line with God’s creation norm? rather than using it to assert a doctrine of marriage indissolubility.


Introduction: What Does Genesis 2:24 Say?

The post I’m sharing today is less directly focused on Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage. It is also perhaps a bit more philosophical than some of my posts. For these reasons, some readers might want to skip it, waiting for my next post on Jesus’ command, “Let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).

On the other hand, if you’ve noticed how some Bible teachers quote Genesis 2:24 and claim it says marriage is indissoluble, and if you wonder whether that’s really what the verse is saying, then please continue reading.

In my last three posts I examined three terms Jesus used as he discussed Genesis 2:24. These are—to use KJV language for the moment—“cleave,” “one flesh,” and “hath joined.” Before I move further into Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, I want to consider Genesis 2:24 as a whole. I’m about to quote the verse again and, as you read it, ask yourself: what are the three verbs in this verse (“leave… cleave… become”) describing? Are they:

1) A prediction of what happens and cannot be undone?

2) A prediction of what happens with no comment on whether it can be undone?

3) A command about what should happen but might not?

Here is the verse, as quoted by Jesus:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and [shall] hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. (Matt. 19:5, ESV)

Is this verse saying that a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes one flesh with his wife, and that this cannot be undone? (Option 1)

Is it saying that a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes one flesh with his wife, but without comment about whether these can be undone? (Option 2)

Or is it issuing a command, saying a man (at least one who marries) must leave, cleave, and become one flesh with his wife? (Option 3)

Or are none of these three options really the best way to think about Genesis 2:24?

“Fresh love.” Photo by Engin Akyurt. Used with permission.

Does Genesis 2:24 Show Marriage is Indissoluble?

Before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s look at what some Bible teachers have concluded based on this verse. Here is what John Coblentz wrote in a booklet from Christian Light Publications:

Whatever else we may conclude from these Scriptures, we can safely say that marriage is the joining of a man and woman in a lifelong bond.[1]

A “Statement of Position on Divorce and Remarriage” from the Southeastern Mennonite Conference asserted the following immediately before presenting Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 2:24:

The indissolubility of the marriage bond is a principle that is basic to a consistent interpretation and application of Bible teachings in relation to problems issuing from divorce and remarriage. When confronted with the question of divorce, Jesus based His response solidly on God’s ordinance in creation…[2]

Clair Martin, after discussing Genesis 2:24, shared this definition of marriage in a booklet published by the Biblical Mennonite Alliance:

Marriage is a universal process of divine origin and regulation in which an unmarried man and an unmarried woman, by mutual consent, are permanently made to be one flesh by God.[3]

J. Carl Laney wrote the following while discussing Genesis 2:24:

Marriage… is a permanent relationship until death. There is no allowance made in Genesis 2:24 for divorce and remarriage.[4]

And Joseph Webb concluded his discussion of the passage with these assertions:

God, who originated marriage and established the rules by which it was to operate, created the first union with Adam and Eve… This “one flesh” condition… is called a covenant for life… Any offspring of Adam who has become a part of such a covenant must understand this and realize that either partner can violate this covenant repeatedly but it is scripturally impossible to break it.[5]

All five of these excerpts affirm Option 1 above; they either assume or explicitly argue that Genesis 2:24 is a prediction of what happens and cannot be undone—a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes permanently one flesh with his wife. Is that what God, through Moses, said in this verse?

In the rest of this post, I’ll suggest an answer based on a brief consideration of both grammar and how Jesus and Paul put the verse to use when quoting it.

Observations From Grammar

In both the Greek NT and the Greek OT versions of this verse, all three verbs of Genesis 2:24 are in the future tense (“shall leave… shall cleave… shall become”). This does not solve our dilemma, though, for future tense Greek verbs are commonly used not only to predict future events (Options 1 and 2) but also to give commands (Option 3). In fact, the most common way that commands are recorded in the Greek OT Law of Moses is with future tense verbs.

In the Hebrew OT, these verbs are in the imperfect tense. This indicates, according to commentator Gordon Wenham, that they express “repeated customary action.”[6] Andrew Cornes explains further:

The narrator here is describing what regularly happens when men and women marry. It would probably be better, therefore, to translate with the English present tense: ‘Therefore a man leaves… cleaves… and they become’ (so RSV).[7]

By this analysis, either Option 1 or Option 2 fits best with Genesis 2:24—the verse is making a prediction about what happens in marriage. In this view, the verse functions as an “origin story” about how the practice of marriage covenants began: Humans do this (“leave… cleave… become one flesh”) because of how Eve was made from Adam’s side.

These basic grammatical observations, then, suggest that it is best to view Genesis 2:24 as a prediction (or a description of a “repeated customary action”), not a command. But can marriage covenants be undone? We can’t find an answer to this question by analyzing the grammatical forms of verbs.

Observations from Jesus’ and Paul’s Use of Genesis 2:24

What can we learn from Jesus’ and Paul’s use of this verse? Interestingly, they each used the verse slightly differently.

Paul seemed to see an inevitability in the verse: He used the verse to prove (“do you not know?”) that “he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16). It was not that a man should become one flesh with a prostitute; rather, if he had sex with her, he inevitably would become one flesh with her, even though he shouldn’t, and even though he should separate from that union after it was formed.

Jesus, on the other hand, deduced a “should” from this verse: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Yet he based this “should” on what he presents as an accomplished fact, a fact drawn from Genesis 2:24: “What God has joined together…” In other words, it is not that a man should leave, cleave, and become one flesh with his wife. Rather, it is because these are already true that no one should separate a husband and wife.

“Faithful love.” Photo by itsmeseher. Used with permission.

Genesis 2:24 as a Creation Norm

Perhaps the best way to think of Genesis 2:24, then, is to see it as presenting a creation norm. I’m using norm here in both senses of the term—what normally happens (norm as normal), and also what should happen (norm as standard).

First, and primarily, the verse conveys a norm by expressing what normally happens as a result of God’s creation design of male and female (Option 2, explicit). Because of God’s creation design, men and women leave their birth families, pair up, and are intimately joined, especially through sex. This is so central to God’s creation design that we can rightly say that God joins couples in marriage.

Second, this verse conveys a norm by implying that this human practice of joining in marriage is good; it is something that should be affirmed, protected within marriage, and not undone (Option 3, implied). Just as God’s creation design of male and female implies that same-sex “marriages” are contrary to God’s will, so his design of male and female implies that normally, within marriage, sexual couplings should not be separated.

In sum, design implies intended function; one norm indicates the other.[8]

What is missing from both Jesus’ and Paul’s discussions, however, is any sense that God’s creation design is not merely a norm but also fatalistically deterministic. Neither, when quoting Genesis 2:24, says that the one-flesh unions that result from God’s creation design are indissoluble. Thus, there is no reason to assume that Option 1 above is correct; there is no reason to conclude that a man cannot break his one-flesh union with his wife, stop cleaving to her, and return again to his father and mother (or to a single life)—even though this is clearly contrary to God’s creation norm.

Conclusion: Don’t Import Indissolubility into Genesis 2:24

The key question that both Jesus and Paul lead us to ask, then, is this: Are we living in line with God’s creation norm for male and female unions? Are we saving one-flesh union for couplings that are fitting for Christians (Paul)? And are we being careful to not separate one-flesh marriage unions (Jesus)?

It is these sorts of questions—not imported assumptions about it being impossible to separate what God has joined—that we should take away from our reflections on Genesis 2:24.


Thank you for reading! Please leave a comment if you have additional insight into what Genesis 2:24 does or does not say. In my next post, I plan to return to my discussion of Jesus’ words. Does “let not man separate” imply marriage is an unbreakable bond?


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[1] John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 1. Coblentz also cites Genesis 24:4, 58, and 67 (Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca) before this statement. In context, Coblentz seems to be saying that marriage involves both an unbreakable bond and covenant obligations that can be broken without breaking the marriage bond.

[2] “Statement on Divorce and Remarriage,” (Southeastern Mennonite Conference, 1983). Available online, as copied by a student of Mark Roth: https://www.anabaptists.org/tracts/divorce2.html

[3] Clair Martin, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: A Biblical Perspective, 24-pg. booklet (Biblical Mennonite Alliance, n.d., based on series of messages given in 2007), 2. Martin says “a friend” shared this definition.

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

[5] Joseph A. Webb, Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce (Longwood, FL: Webb Ministries, 2003), pp. 8, 27. I have removed Webb’s non-traditional use of typeface.

[6] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Volume 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 27, n. 24.a.

[7] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 60.

[8] After writing this section I read a similar interpretation in a book by David Bennet: “Jesus is clarifying that for a male and a female to become husband and wife—by leaving their families behind and becoming sexually one, forming a new kinship unit—that is not just ‘how things normally go’ but how God has made them and wishes them to be understood: what scholar Bernd Wannenwetsch has called ‘the norm as ought.’” See David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 240-241. Bennett provides this citation: Bernd Wannenwetsch, “Creation and Ethics: On the Legitimacy and Limitation of Appeals to ‘Nature’ in Christian Moral Reasoning,” in Anthony Clarke and Andrew Moore, eds., Within the Love of God: Essays on the Doctrine of God in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), www.oxfordscholarship.com.