Tag Archives: Theodore Mackin S.J.

Joseph, the Just and Merciful Divorcer

This past Sunday we heard a sermon featuring the life of Joseph, the earthly (legal but not biological) father of Jesus. The speaker reminded us that “God fulfills his promises through the obedience of ordinary people like Joseph and you.” The speaker gave numerous examples from Joseph’s life but I would like to consider just one: how Joseph planned to divorce Mary after he discovered she was pregnant before they were married.

Here is the brief Scriptural description of this event:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matt. 1:18-19 ESV)

To understand this account well, we need to step back in time and understand what betrothal meant to Jews in their cultural context.

Betrothal was far more serious than our modern engagements are. It is tragic today when someone breaks an engagement, but it is not a crime. Hearts are broken, but laws are not. As an ESV footnote says, “betrothed” meant “legally pledge to be married.” Commentator R. T. France describes betrothal like this:

Though the couple were not yet living together, it was a binding contract entered into before witnesses which could be terminated only by death (which would leave a woman a “widow”) or by divorce as if for a full marriage…; sexual infidelity during the engagement would be a basis for such divorce. About a year after the engagement… the woman (then normally about thirteen or fourteen) would leave her father’s house and go live with the husband in a public ceremony [a wedding].[1]

The language of Matthew 1:19 reflects the legal seriousness of Jewish betrothal, calling Joseph Mary’s “husband” and saying he planned to “divorce” her—terms we would never use today of an engaged couple.

The seriousness of violating a betrothal is also seen in the Law of Moses, which prescribes the same punishment—death—for sexual unfaithfulness whether it happened during betrothal or after the wedding ceremony:[2]

“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

“If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deut. 22:22-24)

Notice that the betrothed woman is called a “wife,” just as Matthew calls Joseph Mary’s “husband.”

The law of Moses also included a test for a husband who, on his wedding day, suspected his bride had been unfaithful prior to their wedding (Deut. 22:13-21). Discovering such unfaithfulness was so important to Jews that they scheduled their wedding dates around this concern. Theodore Mackin, S. J. explains:

It was the custom, when the bride was neither a widow nor a divorced woman, for the marriage to take place on the fourth day of the week, so that if the husband found her not a virgin, he could accuse her before the court, which held session only on the fifth day.[3]

Commentator William F. Luck sums up Jewish law well: “In short, betrothal unfaithfulness is, according to the Old Testament, a kind of adultery.”[4]

(Bunny trail: These realities are one reason why modern debates about the “betrothal view” of Jesus’ exception clause are often misguided. Ancient Jews would not have understood our insistence on distinguishing between adultery during betrothal versus adultery after a wedding.)

Back to poor Joseph, who discovered that his dear “wife” Mary was already “with child.” How could she have committed such a terrible betrayal? And what on earth was he to do now?

Image from LumoProject.com, available through FreeBibleImages.org.

Well, Joseph was “just,” we are told (Matt. 1:19). Or, as the NIV puts it, he “was faithful to the law.” According to the original intent of that law, Mary should now be stoned. According to first century Jewish practice, after Roman law had abolished Jewish death penalties, “divorce was the normal course.”[5] The normal course, then would have been for Joseph to make a public spectacle of Mary, to “put her to shame” by putting her on trial for adultery.

But we are told Joseph was not only “just” but also “unwilling to put her to shame.” In other words, though he was just, his justice was tempered with mercy. Therefore, he “resolved to divorce her quietly.”

The story, as I’ve told it so far, is fairly well known, though I’ve added important historical details. But what I’m about to share includes something I never thought about until after church this past Sunday, as I discussed the sermon with the speaker.

As best we know, there were several kinds of divorce available in Jewish courts in Jesus’ day. On the one hand, there were divorces that required specific due cause. In limited cases, a wife was probably able to force her husband to grant a divorce on the grounds that he was not providing for her (Ex. 21:11). More commonly, a husband could charge his wife with adultery. Such divorces required public proof of wrong-doing, leading to shameful humiliation for the one convicted.

But another kind of divorce was also available and widely used—the any-cause divorce based on a distorted reading of Deuteronomy 24:1. This is the divorce Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31): “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” In such a divorce case, a man did not need to prove his wife did anything wrong. The only requirement was that he follow the proper procedures for giving her a divorce certificate, rather than just abandoning her. There was little a wife could do to prevent such a divorce, but at least it resulted in less public humiliation for her.

Jesus directly addressed both kinds of divorces in his debate with the Pharisees in Matthew 19, referencing both in his summary proclamation: “I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). On the one hand, Jesus strongly condemned the any-cause divorce, calling such divorce (normally followed by remarriage) “adultery.” But he gave an exception, recognizing that divorce (normally followed by remarriage) based on due cause, on the grounds of “sexual immorality,” is not adultery.

Back to Joseph. Mary had obviously committed adultery. As David Instone-Brewer says, “It was considered very suspect when a man refused to divorce his unfaithful wife, which is why Joseph is described as righteous for wanting to divorce Mary, who appeared to be unfaithful.”[6] There was no escaping it: according to Jewish expectations and the law of Moses, Joseph had to divorce Mary.

But which kind of divorce should Joseph pursue?

The obvious answer, and the one that fit his sense of justice, was to charge Mary with adultery. The evidence (Mary’s womb) was obvious and growing day by day, so winning his divorce would not be difficult.

Image from LumoProject.com, available through FreeBibleImages.org.

But Joseph was also merciful, so he chose the option that would be easier on Mary. He chose, it appears, to take her before an any-cause divorce court, where he could “divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19) without proving her guilty and shaming her publicly. This sort of divorce “required no public trial, no evidence brought by witnesses, and very little fuss.”[7]

In other words–and here’s the observation that was new to me this year–Joseph chose the kind of divorce that his own Son, years later, would call “adultery.” Rather than choose the kind of divorce that would leave him looking like the innocent victim he understood himself to be, he chose the kind of divorce that would leave him appearing guilty according the One who held to a higher standard of justice than the flawed reasoning of the Jewish teachers of the law.

Joseph decided that, rather than prove Mary guilty and himself innocent, he was willing to be accused of callous disregard of his betrothal contract if only he could reduce the public shaming of Mary, his unfaithful “wife.” He would obey the law, but he would obey it in a way that avoided causing unnecessary suffering to others.

Joseph is a wonderful example for us today. No, I’m not saying that a simple cut-and-paste imitation of his actions is always in order, but I believe that his love of both justice and mercy should serve as a guiding light for how we think about betrayal and divorce.

I suspect Joseph’s heart of justice and mercy also helped him accept God’s explanation of what had actually happened to Mary:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21).

It is through the obedience of ordinary just and merciful people like Joseph (and you) that God fulfills his promises. May we, too, make way for the coming of the Messiah by how we live our lives, including as we respond to unfaithfulness, perceived or real, in our marriages.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. And Merry Christmas!

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[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 50.

[2] If a man violated an unbetrothed woman, on the other hand, he was not executed but only had to pay a bride price and honor her with a proper marriage (assuming her father wanted that to happen). Also, if a betrothed woman was violated in a deserted area where her cries for help could not be heard, she was declared innocent.

[3] Theodore Mackin, S.J., Divorce and Remarriage, Marriage in the Catholic Church, Vol. 2 (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 62.

[4] William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 107. A third edition (2016) is available only on Kindle; the second edition is free online: https://bible.org/series/divorce-and-re-marriage-recovering-biblical-view

[5] France, Matthew, 51.

[6] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 146.

[7] Instone-Brewer, Divorce, 115.

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

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage. I began my walk through Matthew 19 with this question central: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? Starting in this post, I’m broadening my focus from that “could” question to begin answering a “should” question: Did Jesus believe divorce is 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)

Summary of this post:  I begin asking why God permitted divorce under the law of Moses. Jesus said it was “because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8)—an expression referring to unresponsive stubbornness, expressed both in rebellion toward God and disregard toward humans. 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. A parallel example of a divine concession is human kingship in Israel. This, too, was contrary to God’s perfect will, yet he permitted it and ultimately used it for his glory and for human flourishing.

Introduction to the Next Several Posts

In my last post I asked whether Jesus’ statement “Moses allowed you to divorce” offers any clues about whether marriage is indissoluble (Matt. 19:8 ESV). After surveying all the passages in the law of Moses that deal explicitly with human divorce, I concluded that none of them give any indication that divorce did not truly end a marriage. Taken together, they strongly indicate that the law of Moses pictured divorce as fully dissolving a marriage—just as surely as if it had been ended by death.

In the next several posts I want to step beyond the question of whether a marriage can be dissolved and consider why God permitted divorce under the law of Moses. Jesus said Moses allowed divorce “because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). What is hardness of heart? How is it related to the giving of the law? Whose hearts were hard? Does everyone who seeks divorce today have a hard heart?

And what did Jesus mean by the clause that was really his main point—“but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8)? What wasn’t so, and when? And was Jesus completely overturning the Mosaic divorce allowance with this clause?

Here, again, is Jesus’ complete statement: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8).

There are many exegetical chestnuts in this sentence and cracking them isn’t easy. Writing these next several posts has proved harder than I expected, but I’ll do my best to zero in on what Jesus meant to say.

What Is Hardness of Heart?

Hardness of heart is mentioned often in Scripture and, as the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says, “there is no one technical word or phrase for hardening in Scripture; rather a variety of words and phrases are used to describe the same phenomenon.”[1] A variety of images are found behind these terms, including dryness, petrification, or covering something with stone or even a foreskin. The basic idea of hardness of heart, at least in the sense used here by Jesus, seems to be stubbornness and rebellion—a refusal to be sensitive, trusting, and responsive.

Photo by Brendan Rühli.

A person’s heart can be hard toward either God or fellow humans. Which did Jesus mean here? France represents many commentators when he says “this familiar biblical term refers not so much to people’s attitudes to one another (cruelty, neglect, or the like) as to their attitude to God, whose purpose and instructions they have set aside.”[2] Others, such as Roberts, conclude that “hardness of heart” was Jesus’ way of referring to men who “had a callous disregard for their marriage covenants and were divorcing their wives for no good reason.”[3]

It seems to me that this is a false dichotomy. I think most commentators, if nudged, would agree that hardness of heart will inevitably be expressed toward both God and humans. Even Pharoah, the classic biblical example of hardness of heart, was hardhearted not only toward God (“Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” Ex. 5:2) but also toward Moses and Aaron (“he would not listen to them,” Ex. 7:13, etc.) and toward the whole nation of Israel, whom he wanted to retain as slaves (Ex. 14:4-8; cf. 5:4-18). Thus, Jones is probably right when he suggests the “core issue” of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day included both vertical and horizontal dimensions: “their disrespect for women that was fueled by their stubborn hearts.”[4]

The specific compound word that Jesus used for “hardness of heart” (σκληροκαρδία) is found only two places in the Greek OT (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4).[5] In both, hardness of heart toward God seems to be the dominant concern, yet the context clarifies that honoring God means having soft hearts toward humans as well. For example, here is the reason given in Deuteronomy for avoiding hardness of heart:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deut. 10:17-19; cf. Deut. 15:7; Jer. 5:23-29)

Both passages also warn that hardness of heart will bring severe judgment from God. In fact, in Jeremiah, the ultimate result of Israel’s hardness is that God divorces her, sending her into exile (Jer. 3:1, 8). Perhaps, then, there was a subtle irony in Jesus’ mention of hard hearts: “If you hardhearted Pharisees keep on wrongfully divorcing your wives, God will rightfully divorce you!”

What Does Hardness of Heart Have to Do with the Giving of Law?

Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (Matt. 19:8). Why would hardness of heart result in God giving laws that allowed divorce?

Collins offers one explanation:

Perhaps the answer is to be found in a Jewish tradition which suggested that the Law had been destroyed after Israel’s alliance with the golden calf and that, in its stead, a more permissive version of the Law was promulgated as a concession to the people’s hardheartedness. Within this perspective, the ‘concession’ of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 would have belonged to the less demanding version of the Law given to Israel.[6]

There are several puzzling hints in the OT of a similar possibility—that God may have originally offered Israel a brief law but then added laws in response to their sins. For example, in Jeremiah 7:22 God says, “In the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” An even more cryptic comment is found in Ezekiel 20:25, in a passage recounting God’s dealings with unfaithful Israel in the wilderness: “Moreover, I gave them statues that were not good and rules by which they could not have life.” Mackin ties this statement to Jesus’ comment about hard hearts:

Jesus’ religious logic here, though so familiar to the Jews of his own time and earlier, is strange to the Western religious mind… [Israel] had again and again been faithless to the Lord’s commands. One of the consequences of this faithlessness was that he had given them “laws that were not good”—not so much as a punishment as to bring them to realize that he is still their Lord. This is Ezekiel’s thought in his book of prophecy (20:25)… This faithlessness was at its worst when Moses, on coming down from Sinai with the tablets of the law, found the people adoring the golden calf. Jesus’ implication here is that the accepted practice of getting rid of unwanted wives is a continuation of this same spirit of faithlessness, and because of it the people were given “a law that was not good.” Their hardness of heart drew upon them Moses’ command to dismiss their wives. Were they not thus stubborn they would have received neither command nor permission.[7]

Sailhamer cites NT evidence supporting this view of the giving of the law:

Paul says in Galatians 3:19 that God gave Israel the law “because of transgressions”… Why the plural? If we look at the various sets of laws edited into the Pentateuch, we can see that there were several “transgressions.” Throughout the narratives of Exodus 19–Deuteronomy there are numerous examples of Israel’s failure to follow God’s will… After each episode of disobedience we see that God gave Israel a new and more complete set of laws. As Israel continued to transgress the laws given to them, God continued to give them more. God did not give up on his people. When they sinned, he added laws to keep them from sinning further.[8]

While some details of these proposals are certainly questionable,[9] the general approach seems reasonable to me. France provides a good summary:

The Deuteronomic legislation [Deut. 24:1-4] is a response to human failure, an attempt to bring order to an already unideal situation caused by human “hardness of heart.” …Even after his people had rejected his design for marriage, God gave them laws to enable them to make the best of a bad job.[10]

Photo by Karolina Grabowska.

Why Did God Allow Divorce?

What did God want to accomplish by giving laws that allowed divorce? How did he expect these laws might help his people “make the best of a bad job”? Where these laws merely God’s way of turning a blind eye at sin, or did he want to accomplish some good? Keener emphasizes the former, but suggests both:

The rabbis, like other ancient legal scholars, recognized “concession” as an established legal category—something that was not quite right to begin with, but had to be allowed because people would not be able to do what was fully right. Jesus is saying that God permitted divorce as a concession to human weakness… His point is that Moses put up with their divorcing because the best he could get out of hard-hearted people was legal protection for the one divorced against her will. But if they had been compassionate and open to his ways, God could have held them to his original and ideal standard all along: they were not to initiate divorce.[11]

Luck emphasizes the positive good God aimed to accomplish by allowing divorce:

The phrase “because of your hardness of heart” is [sometimes wrongly] interpreted as saying something like: “Well, God knows that divorce will take place, so He made a concession to you, allowing you to do what you wanted.”

…What then? For whom is the concession? For the wives whom these hard-hearted men have been divorcing since before the days of Moses… Knowing that they will be treacherous and turn their backs on their covenant partner, God has provided a law that will minimize the abuse. He will wink temporarily at hard hearted husbands putting away innocent wives so that these wives will be saved from their husbands, who would perhaps physically abuse them if forced to keep them. So the permission to divorce has nothing to do with condescending to wicked men, but everything to do with preserving innocent women.[12]

Divorce laws were indeed a “concession to human weakness” (Keener), but Luck is right to warn that we should not imagine God was giving a thumbs up to any-cause divorce. Rather, the fact that laws recognizing divorce were needed should have been a rebuke to Israel.

Luck is right to focus on hard-hearted husbands and innocent wives. I plan to discuss this dynamic more in my next post.

Israel’s Kingship—A Similar Divine Concession

A parallel example to Israel’s divorce laws can be seen in the question of whether Israel was to have a human king. When God brought Israel to Sinai, he declared his kingship over them: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). When Israel asked for a king in the days of Samuel, he rebuked them, saying that their desire for a king was actually a rejection of God’s kingship and a desire to imitate the pagan nations around them. Yet Samuel also recognized that “the Lord has set a king over you” (1 Sam. 12:12-13).

Was Samuel contradicting himself? No, for God had already predicted this scenario in the law of Moses:

“When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose.” (Deut. 17:14-15) [13]

Notice that the permission to have a king is presented as a concession—a concession with a built-in rebuke of Israel’s desire to be “like all the nations” around them. Some similar mixture of divine concession and rebuke seems to have been at work in the divorce allowance given through Moses.

Despite this biblical picture of kingship being contrary to God’s primary and original will for his people, and despite how Israel’s kings often led the nation into sin, as Scripture unfolds we see that God used human kingship for his glory and for human flourishing. In fact, it was through Israel’s line of kings that he sent his own Messiah-King, his Son.

Could God accomplish something similar through the tragedy of human divorce? Could he sometimes permit and use even this for his glory and for human flourishing?

Glancing Ahead

Those questions take us beyond the scope of this post. In my next post I plan to take a closer look at Jesus’ audience. Whose hearts, according to Jesus, were hard? What does that suggest about how we should apply his words today? Does everyone who seeks divorce have a hard heart?

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

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

[1] Craig A. Blaising, “Hardening, Hardness of Heart,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 494. For example, Stuart notes that three different terms for hardness are used in Exodus alone to describe Pharoah’s hardness of heart, and “all three.. essentially function synonymously,” so that “their meaning in modern English is simply ‘be/make stubborn’” (Douglas Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary [Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2006], 147).

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 719-20.

[3] Barbara Roberts, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Maschil Press, 2008), 82-83.

[4] Jerry Jones, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Seen Through the Character of God and the Mind of Jesus (Joplin, MI: College Press, 2016), 76.

[5] However, the related verb for “harden” (σκληρύνω) and noun for “heart” (καρδίας) are frequently paired elsewhere. This cautions us against confidently assuming Jesus was alluding specifically to any single OT text. Further, in both passages the term σκληροκαρδία in the Greek OT translates a Hebrew expression that actually says “foreskin” rather than “hardness.” This reinforces the fact that a wide variety of terms were used to express essentially the same concept of hardness.

[6] Raymond F. Collins, Divorce in the New Testament, Good News Studies, Vol. 38 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 96.

[7] Theodore Mackin, S.J., Divorce and Remarriage, Marriage in the Catholic Church, Vol. 2 (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 50.

[8] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 561, cf. 42, 415, 556.

[9] Here are some examples: While the Deuteronomy 24 divorce permission came after Israel’s unfaithfulness with the golden calf, the first law commanding divorce preceded it, hard on the heels of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 21:10-11); Jeremiah and Ezekiel may be using prophetic hyperbole in their presentation of Israel’s history; Ezekiel’s comment is understood by some to refer not to God’s law but to God “giving over” Israel to the laws of pagan nations; Paul’s comment may mean something else, such as that the law was given to clarify the nature of sin as “transgression” (cf. Rom. 4:15; 7:7-8); and the authors cited here do not fully agree on why God gave additional laws to Israel.

[10] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 719-20.

[11] Craig S. Keener, …And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 42.

[12] William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 157.

[13] See also the cryptic prophecies about a king (human? divine?) who would arise in Israel: Gen. 49:10; Num. 23:21; 24:7, 17; etc.