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.

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[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.

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

  1. Thanks for the study. I have a lot to chew on with this article. I have been toying with the concept, but you have taken it a unique level. I still need to process it to grasp the applications, but it’s got me thinking.

    The passage that I have used to show that God had updated the Law was 1 Chron 13 and 15 with 2 Chron 25 added. In 1 Chron 13, All Israel worshiped with musical instruments, but then after David consults God about the proper order, only the Levites are to use the instruments. The ox cart gets all the attention, but taking up much more real estate is the worship with music.. The addition of instruments was a command by God, but it was given until David and that is where 2 Chron 25 comes in making that point.

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