Tag Archives: indissolubility of marriage

“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.

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

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I examine Jesus’ words with a focus on 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)

Summary of this post: I ask whether Jesus meant “let not man separate” or “let not man try to separate,” as some propose. Based on clues from literary and historical contexts, I argue that Jesus’ first listeners understood him to be prohibiting the full dissolution of marriage—and that Jesus expected to be understood this way. I note that some proponents of marriage indissolubility acknowledge such a conclusion is reasonable, yet point ahead to Jesus’ statement about remarriage being “adultery” as proof that marriage is indissoluble. I promise to address this statement and acknowledge some complexities of this divorce discussion. 

Before I jump into today’s post, I feel I should clarify some potential misunderstandings about my goals in this series:

  • If you are confused about my purposes or beliefs, please read my post promoting radical faithfulness in marriage.
  • I’m trying to choose my post titles carefully. When I say a certain expression “does not imply an unbreakable bond,” I do not necessarily mean “implies a breakable bond.” Similarly, when I say “implies a breakable bond” in today’s post, I definitely do not mean “proves a breakable bond.” That said, after a while, enough non-implications plus implications do add up to a beyond-all-reasonable-doubt sort of proof. I’m definitely not there yet, though, in this series, so thank you for not saying I’ve claimed something I’ve not yet claimed!
  • I’m somewhat conflicted about naming and quoting people that I’m disagreeing with, especially when I know them personally. I’ve been on the receiving end of enough critique to know that public critique—even when it is respectful and perhaps especially from friends—can be uncomfortable and even potentially debilitating. I’m also aware it is easy to be misunderstood and that none of us still agrees with everything we’ve ever said or taught in public. That said, (a) it is standard, respectful academic procedure to sharpen thinking by quoting and evaluating the public teachings of others, (b) such public discussion of the public teachings of others seems consistent with the NT’s picture of the greater accountability expected of church leaders, and (c) for the purposes of my series it seems that direct quotations will help some readers better understand the significance, within the conservative Anabaptist context, of the questions I am discussing.
    Please know I have a lot of respect for many of the people I’m quoting and disagreeing with in this series! Many of them, to paraphrase Jesus’ parable (Matt. 13:23), are bearing gospel fruit thirtyfold and sixtyfold, compared to my own tenfold (on a good day).
    If I quote you in this series and you think I’m misunderstanding you or quoting something you no longer affirm, please let me know. I will be happy to do my best to correct any misrepresentations. I hope we can learn from each other, and I sincerely wish you God-speed in your kingdom work and worship.

Thank you for reading these clarifications. And now… on to today’s post!

Introduction: Should Not or Cannot Separate?

“Let not man separate” is the command that Jesus gives after summarizing the union that God designed for husbands and wives (Matt. 19:6). Since it is God who has joined a husband and a wife, separating marriages is a sin against God, not merely against humans.

This clause “let not man separate” offers a classic illustration of how Bible readers can get confused between the “should” and “could” of Scripture. The most obvious way to Jesus’ command is that he is saying humans should not do something that they could do. As commentator R. T. France noted, “the argument here is expressed not in terms of what cannot happen, but of what must not happen: the verb is an imperative: “let not man separate.”[1]

Bible teachers who believe marriage is indissoluble are often discontent with that simple reading, however.

John Piper, for example, waffled in his comments on this verse. First, he gave this summary: “Jesus… says that none of us should try to undo the ‘one-flesh’ relationship which God has united.” But later, citing this same statement of Jesus, Piper said “only God, not man, can end this one-flesh relationship.”[2] So which is true? Man should not separate, or man cannot separate?

To be fair, Piper’s two statements are indeed consistent with each other—but only because Piper added “try to” to Jesus’ prohibition on separating husbands and wives. Is this fair? Did Jesus mean “let not man separate,” as his words are recorded? Or did he actually mean “let not man vainly try to separate” or perhaps “imagine they have separated”?

The sign reads “STAY BACK,” not “It is impossible to go beyond this point.” Photo by Danne.

How Did Jesus Expect to be Understood?

How would Jesus’ hearers have understood him? I see at least four reasons why Jesus’ hearers would have understood him to be implying that a marriage can, indeed, be dissolved.

First, nothing Jesus has said so far suggests that marriage is indissoluble. Remember, when Jesus says we are not to separate “what God has joined,” he is pointing back to what he just said—that God made humans “male and female” and therefore a man shall “hold fast” to his wife and they shall become “one flesh.” As noted in previous posts, none of this language implies that marriage involves an unbreakable bond. To the contrary, all this language was used elsewhere to refer to bonds that can be broken. This suggests that there is a real possibility that “what God has joined” could be “separated.”

Second, the words joined and separated are virtual opposites, and the way Jesus paired them reinforces the idea that they should be understood that way. For example, I could say, “I’m sleeping, so stop talking,” and we could debate whether talking has the potential to undo my sleeping or whether talking has some other possible effect that concerns me. But if I say, “I’m sleeping, so don’t wake me up,” then it is clear: waking me up will end my sleeping! (Let’s not get distracted about why I’m talking in my sleep.) Similarly, Jesus’ direct pairing of the opposite terms joined and separated puts the burden of proof on anyone who argues that the latter does not undo the former.

Third, in no other case, to my knowledge, does Jesus forbid humans from doing something that is actually impossible to do. I’ve actually looked, and I can’t find such an example. The closest, perhaps, might be this: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3). On a literal level, true, it is impossible for your left hand to know what your right hand is doing! But that statement uses obvious hyperbole and is thus very different from Jesus’ straightforward command against separating what God has joined. On a practical level, there is nothing hyperbolic whatsoever about the possibility of separating a husband and a wife. It is a possible, common event.

Fourth, Jesus was engaging Jews on a question about divorce, and virtually everyone at the time—Jews and Greco-Romans alike—understood that divorce completely dissolved a marriage, freeing one for remarriage. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” was the question. “What God has joined together, let not man separate” was Jesus’ answer. Significantly, Jesus’ term “separate” (χωρίζω) was frequently used in both informal and legal contexts at the time to refer to divorce. True, it can have a more general meaning, and it probably does carry broader implications here. But Jesus’ hearers would certainly have heard it as referring most directly to divorce—thus, in their understanding, obviously referring to the full dissolution of a marriage.

Judging by these four reasons, Jesus’ command to not separate strongly implies that marriage is not an unbreakable bond. His listeners heard him clearly imply that marriage can indeed be dissolved by humans. What is more, Jesus, as a fellow Jew and a master teacher, knew that his listeners would understand him this way. In short, Jesus was using ordinary words in ordinary ways to forbid an ordinary occurrence: the full breakup, destruction, and dissolution of a marriage.

Cornes’ Concession

That much is relatively clear. And it is important to pause here and emphasize that, up until this point in Matthew 19 (verse 6), all Jesus’ words are consistent with one conclusion: Marriage can, indeed, be dissolved by humans.

On this point Andrew Cornes is admirably clear and honest. Even though he ultimately argues for “the impossibility of true divorce or remarriage,” at this stage in his analysis of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees, Cornes pauses to make the following statement:

Jesus has not (yet) said that husband and wife cannot be separated, that this is an impossibility. He has only said that they must not be separated. He has spoken only of the moral obligation not to divorce and stated that it would be a sin against God to divorce one’s partner or to cause the break-up of a marriage. In the next verses, however, he goes considerably further.[3]

(In fact, Cornes wrote this comment right after his discussion of Mark 10:9. Since Mark’s account varies slightly from Matthew’s, Corne’s comment covers not only all Jesus’ statements we’ve discussed so far but also his comments about Moses, which Matthew includes in verses 7 to 8.)

Was Jesus Prohibiting Only the External Separation of Marriage?

Those who don’t think Jesus meant humans can truly separate what God has joined, then, come to that conclusion either based on alternate readings of terms like one flesh or because of what Jesus says later in the passage. For example, here is the assessment offered in Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View, a multi-author book that some conservative Anabaptists recommend:

Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9 is sometimes thought to refute the above point [that a marriage “union is permanent until death”]. Since He commands us not to separate what God has joined together, it is reasoned that it is possible to separate what God has joined together. After all, why would He prohibit us from doing something that is impossible? But by looking at the matter in its fuller biblical context (as is the intent of this book), we will see that Jesus must have been prohibiting the external separation of marriage. The vows spoken at a wedding can certainly be disregarded, and a marriage certainly can be separated in civil and legal ways, but these external disruptions of marriage do not and cannot destroy the morally binding one-flesh union created by God. Otherwise, no reason would exist for Jesus to call remarriage after divorce “adultery.”[4]

This paragraph is so full that I can’t offer a comprehensive response here. The authors wrote a book to try to prove their argument and it could take a book to respond. That said, I want to make several quick observations.

First, yes, it is theoretically possible that Jesus could have meant don’t legally or physically separate a union that it is impossible to truly separate. It is possible, and it can appear almost certain, if you bring particular assumptions to the text. The four reasons I presented above, however, strongly indicate that Jesus knew his first listeners would not understand him this way. I see no reason to abandon the most natural reading unless forced to do so.

Second, notice how these authors, right at the climax of their argument, described marriage as “the morally binding one-flesh union created by God.” This pile-on of emotion-laden terms is a non-argument obviously intended to help convince the reader. I say “non-argument” because “morally binding” merely shows one should not separate a marriage, not that one cannot. And the only term in that clause that could perhaps indicate that marriage is indissoluble—“one-flesh”—actually does not, as we have seen.

Third, and most important, the one actual argument the authors offered is based on what Jesus will say later in this account, when he calls remarriage after divorce “adultery.” If it is possible to separate a one-flesh union created by God, then how could Jesus call a post-divorce marriage “adultery”? This is a good question. In response, I’ll plant two small seeds now, with plans to develop them in future posts:

(1) Yes, Jesus calls remarriage after (some) divorce “adultery,” but what is the biblical picture of what adultery does to a marriage?

(2) What about the exception Jesus gave to the statement that remarriage is adultery? Would not even one exception show that marriage is not truly indissoluble?[5]

For reasons such as these, I find the arguments that Jesus was merely prohibiting the external separation of marriage unconvincing. Certainly he did forbid that, but I believe he was prohibiting complete separation, too.[6]

As Mrs. Reagan learned in her campaign against drug use, something remains possible to do even after you’ve been told to “just say no” to it. (Yes, I know the comparison with Jesus’ divorce command is imprecise.) Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Complexities and a Conclusion: “Let Not Man Separate” Implies Marriage is Dissoluble

Before I finish this post, I want to observe that there is inevitable complexity about talking about marriages that have been ended. For example, when Jesus says one who “marries” another “commits adultery,” he affirms that a remarriage is indeed a marriage even as he condemns it (Matt. 19:9, etc.). Similarly, Paul says a divorced Christian wife “should remain unmarried or else be reconciled” to her Christian husband (1 Cor. 7:11). His words show that it is possible in one breath to talk about marriage having ended (“unmarried”) but about obligations still remaining.[7]

Both examples underscore again the necessity of distinguishing between the “could” and “should” of Scripture. It must also be noted that neither Jesus nor Paul apply the above statements to all divorce and remarriage situations; Jesus did not say all divorces and remarriages are adultery, nor did Paul say obligations remain after every kind of divorce.

Given these complexities, I acknowledge I puzzled long and hard over how to express myself in this post. I encourage both “sides” (those arguing for marriage indissolubility and those arguing against) to be kind to each other as we try to discuss a question of some philosophical complexity. Almost certainly, no matter which position we take, we will say some things that appear superficially contradictory (like Jesus and Paul did!). We must be gracious with each other while pushing for greater accuracy and clarity.

This post has uncovered points that will require further consideration. That said, I want to end by underscoring my main point in this post: Everything Jesus has said thus far in his conversation with the Pharisees (Matthew 19:3-6) suggests we should take Jesus’ command in its most natural, comprehensive sense: Humans can indeed dissolve the union that God creates in marriage, but they must not do so.

Will further evidence override this conclusion? In my next posts I plan to continue walking through Matthew 19, looking for more clues to what Jesus believed about marriage permanence.

I invite your prayers for my continued study and writing. Thank you for reading my words here, and feel free to add your insights in the comments below.

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[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 718.

[2] John Piper, “Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper,” Desiring God Foundation, 7/1/1986, accessed 6/14/2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/divorce-and-remarriage-a-position-paper

[3] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), p. 192. I have much respect for Cornes even though ultimately I have come to disagree with him on the point of whether marriage is dissoluble. Cornes’ book includes exceptionally helpful reflections on singleness in the Bible and the church.

[4] Steve Burchett, Jim Chrisman, Jim Elliff, and Daryl Wingerd, Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View (Kansas City, MO: Christian Communicators Worldwide, 2009), p. 17.

[5] Yes, I know I haven’t proven this point yet, but I’m tipping my hand to the reading of Jesus’ exception clause that I find most convincing.

[6] It might be worth mentioning in passing that in Mark’s account of Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about divorce, they never hear him call divorce and remarriage adultery; only the disciples hear Jesus give this teaching after they question him privately “in the house” (Mk. 10:10-11). This eliminates the possibility, at least according to Mark’s version of events, that the Pharisees would have deduced from Jesus’ adultery statement that marriage was—contrary to all their understandings as Jews—indissoluble.

[7] A helpful chapter on this topic (“Are Divorced People Still Married in God’s Eyes?”) is included in the following wide-ranging, yet accessible, book by Jim Newheiser: Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 230ff.

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

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I examine Jesus’ words with a focus on 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)

Summary of this post: I argue that “what therefore God has joined together” in Matthew 19:6 does not indicate that marriage is an indissoluble bond. Neither the definition nor the grammatical form of the verb “has joined” indicate permanence. Further, the word “therefore” shows that Jesus is summarizing what he already said about God’s design for a man to “cleave” to his wife and become “one flesh” with her. Since neither of those terms indicate permanence, neither does Jesus’ summarizing statement “what… God has joined together.”

Introduction: “What God Joins, Man Cannot Unjoin”?

When Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ question about divorce, he began by quoting and explaining Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. We don’t have to guess what point he wanted to make from these passages, for he immediately continued with a pointed command: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).

I’ll discuss the command clause (“let not man separate”) in my next post, but first I want to discuss the opening clause of Jesus’ statement: “What therefore God has joined together.” There are several ways that some Bible readers use this clause to argue that marriage is indissoluble.

First, some people use this clause to draw distinctions between unions that God joins and unions not united by God. In this thinking, only validly-contracted marriages are joined by God. Some Bible teachers then assert that unions joined by God are indissoluble in a way that other unions are not. As one Facebook meme I saw shouted: “WHAT GOD JOINS, MAN CANNOT UN-JOIN!”

An image I downloaded from a Facebook group. I do not know who created it. Note the sentence in all caps at the bottom. Notice also the claim (which I disproved in my last post) that Paul is distinguishing between “one flesh” and “one body” in 1 Corinthians 6.

What sort of unions are joined by God? Some people emphasize that God joins only unions between believers, so that unions between unbelievers or “mixed marriages” of believers and unbelievers are less binding or permanent. This view has been fairly common throughout church history. It is addressed most directly by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, so I won’t discuss it more here.[1]

A more common view among conservative Christians I know is that the only sort of marriage that God joins is one which is a first marriage for both partners. According to this view, only such a marriage is a validly-contracted marriage, and a validly-contracted marriage cannot be broken in God’s eyes.

Second, grammatical arguments have also been used to assert that “What… God has joined together” refers to an inseparable bond. For example, Laney claimed the following:

The term for “joined together” means “yoked together,” and the aorist tense points to the permanence of the bond… A good paraphrase of verse 9 would read, “Stop severing marriage unions which God has permanently bound together.”[2]

None of these arguments withstand scrutiny, however, when we look closely at Jesus’ grammar and flow of thought.

The Grammar and Meaning of “Joined Together”

Let’s begin with Laney’s grammatical claim. Unfortunately, he did not demonstrate a good understanding of the Greek aorist verb tense. Rodney Decker, in his introductory Greek grammar, notes that the aorist “can often be represented in English with a simple tense, usually a simple past.”[3] Further, it gives no indication about how long an action takes place or how long it lasts:

The aorist simply refers to a situation in summary without indicating anything further about the action… It describes a complete situation, referring to it as a whole without commenting on whether or not it involves a process.[4]

That Laney was wrong is almost embarrassingly evident based on a simple scan of this verb tense elsewhere in the NT. One example just to prove the point: At the beginning of this same chapter we read that Jesus “entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (Matt. 19:1). The verb “entered” here is in the aorist tense, yet obviously Jesus did not remain permanently in this region. Neither can we conclude from the aorist tense of “joined” that a husband and wife are “permanently bound together.”

What about the meaning of the word “joined”? The Greek verb translated “has joined together” (συζεύγνυμι) is found in the NT only in this account (Matt. 19:6; Mark 10:9). It is used once in the Greek OT (LXX), in Ezekiel 1:11, where it translates a Hebrew word that simply means “to unite,” with no indication of permanence.[5]

Ezekiel described the living creatures in his vision as having wings that were “joined to” (ESV: “touching”) the wings of the creatures beside them. (Image from Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org, used by permission.)

The Greek verb συζεύγνυμι is a compound word formed from prefix σύν (“with” ) and the noun ζεῦγος. This noun is used in the NT to refer to a “pair” of turtledoves (Lk. 2:24) and a “yoke” of oxen (Lk. 14:19), both of which can be separated. A related verb (ἑτεροζυγέω, “to unite unequally”) is used in 2 Corinthians 6:14 in the warning, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” Such unequal yokes can be separated, however, for God instructs his people to “go out from their midst, and be separate from them” (2 Cor. 6:17).

Laney’s arguments, then, both fall flat.

The Flow of Jesus’ Thought

Equally significantly, the context of Jesus’ statement does not suggest that he was meaning to distinguish between marriages joined by God and marriages not joined by God. Are we really to imagine Jesus was thinking, “What God has joined together—but only the marriages he has joined together, not the others!—let not man separate”? Nothing in the context of Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees suggests that this thought was in his mind.

It is crucial not to miss the word “therefore” in the clause “What therefore God has joined together.” This word shows that Jesus is drawing on what came before. He is referring back to what he just said as he quoted from Genesis.[6]

“What… God has joined together,” then, is Jesus’ way of referring back to God’s creation of “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). In other words, Jesus is not referring to God joining each individual couple at the time of their wedding, when they exchange vows. Rather, the joining that Jesus is referring to is something God did at creation, when he made male and female and designed for a man to “hold fast” to his wife and for the two to become “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

In previous posts I argued that neither “hold fast” nor “one flesh” carry the idea that marriage cannot be dissolved. If this is so, then there is no reason to believe that Jesus’ statement summarizing these realities (“What therefore God has joined together”) indicates marriage is indissoluble, either.

“What therefore God has joined together” (Matt. 19:6). Image by Didier Martin, used with permission from https://freebibleimages.org/illustrations/dm-creation/.

Conclusion: “God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply Permanence

In Matthew 19:4-6, then, Jesus is drawing principles from creation that are true of marriage in general. Yes, he will later emphasize that some who divorce and marry another are actually committing adultery (Matt. 19:9), raising questions about how God is involved in such unions and what should happen to such marriages. (I plan to address this verse in due time.) But Jesus’ initial point here is more basic: Man should not separate what God, by his creation design of male and female, has joined.

In short, then, the clause “what God… has joined together” simply indicates that something has been united and gives no suggestion that this unity cannot be broken. Those who claim otherwise are using bad grammar or missing the flow of Jesus’ thought, and are importing ideas not actually stated in the text.

Thank you for reading! Your responses, as always, are welcome. In my next post, I plan to pause to take a more general look at Genesis 2:24, which has been foundational for everything Jesus has said so far in Matthew 19. Does this verse imply marriage is an unbreakable bond?

If you want to support more writing like this, please leave a gift:

[1] This view raises a host of interpretive challenges I will not try to address here. For example, it is indeed true that God seems to have higher expectations for marriages between believers than for mixed marriages (compare 1 Cor. 7:10-11 with 1 Cor. 7:12-16). But that probably has less to do with anything about marriage being indissoluble than about the higher expectations God places on believers for living together in peace. A careful discussion of that passage will have to wait for another time.

[2] J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), p. 56.

[3] Rodney J. Decker, Reading Koine Greek: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), p. 120.

[4] Decker, ibid., p. 272.

[5] In Ezekiel 1:11 each living creature in Ezekiel’s vision is described as having two wings that are “adjoined to” the wings of its neighboring creature (NETS, A New English Translation of the Septuagint, International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Inc. {New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007}, 948, https://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/38-iezekiel-nets.pdf). The ESV says the wings “touched” each other, and the underlying Hebrew word is used of curtains “coupled” with clasps (Ex. 26:6), trade partnerships (2 Chron. 20:35), temporary military alliances (Dan. 11:6), and persons currently “joined with all the living” who know they will die (Eccl. 9:4-5).

[6] This also means that we should not look ahead in the passage to determine what Jesus meant by “what… God has joined together.” For example, some might assert that Jesus was thinking of what he was going to say about some marriages being adulterous (Matt. 19:9), but this is contradicted by Jesus’ use of the connecting word “therefore” (οὖν), which points backward, not forward.

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