ABC Extra – The Divorce Debate

May 17, 2010 at 4:45 am 1 comment

Divorce. Just the word is enough to make some people cringe, especially when this word is uttered in church.  After all, some topics are so tender and contentious that people just assume public discourse on these issues be disallowed so that people’s thoughts and feelings on these subjects can echo privately and undisputedly in hallways of their hearts.  This way, people do not have to suffer the cumbersome bother of articulating and defending a controversial position in public.  Contrary to the prevailing zeitgeist, however, I would contend that issues such as divorce do need to be addressed publicly – precisely because of all the contention and confusion which surrounds them.  For public discourse, when done intelligently and charitably, can lead to clarity concerning some of life’s most confusing riddles.  This is why we chose to address the subject of divorce at Concordia this past weekend.  And this is why Jesus chooses to address the subject of divorce in Matthew 19.

The scene is rife with tension.  Jesus leaves Galilee and goes “to the other side of the Jordan” (verse 1).  This region was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who divorced his wife so that he could marry the younger, prettier Herodius.  When Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, calls Herod’s divorce into question, the ruler has John thrown into prison and later beheaded (cf. Matthew 14:6-11).  It is with this episode looming in the background that some Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason” (verse 3)?  The verbiage of the Pharisees’ question alludes to a heated debate between two different rabbinic schools of theology in that day – the Hillel school and the Shammai school.  The center of the debate swirled around Deuteronomy 24:1:  “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house.”  The rabbis of the Hillel and Shammai schools heavily debated the phrase, “something indecent.”  What does it mean to find “something indecent,” worthy of divorce, in a woman?

The Hebrew for “something indecent,” is erwat dabarerwat, meaning “nakedness,” and dabar, meaning “a thing.”  The Hillel school took this phrase, erwat dabar, as offering two separate and distinct reasons that a man could divorce his wife.  On the one hand, a man could divorce his wife for erwat, that is, “nakedness,” which the rabbis interpreted as a circumlocution for adultery, meaning that if a man caught his wife naked in bed with another man, he could divorce her.  But then, on the other hand, a man could also divorce his wife for dabar, meaning “a thing.”  Well this isn’t very specific!  Thus, the rabbis of the Hillel school capitalized on the generality of this word dabar and taught that a man could divorce his wife for adultery on the one hand and for anything else on the other!  In other words, the rabbis of the Hillel school taught that a man could divorce his wife for “any and every reason.”  Here, then, is the background to the question that the Pharisees ask Jesus.

Not everyone agreed with this liberal interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1, however.  The rabbis of the Shammai school took the phrase erwat dabar as a single reason for divorce.  That is, they interpreted this phrase to mean that a man could divorce his wife for “the naked thing,” that is, adultery.  Thus, the Shammai school said that only adultery was an appropriate grounds for divorce.

So who’s right?  It seems as though those in the Hillel school were allowing what they wanted to be true trump what they actually read to be true.  In other words, they were allowing their desire to get an “any cause” divorce trump a more reasonable reading of Deuteronomy 24:1.  In Hebrew, the word erwat is in a form called “construct.”  A “construct” form in Hebrew is loosely analogous to a genitive, or possessive, case in more standard grammatical systems.  Thus, from a sheer grammatical standpoint, the word erwat possesses the word dabar.  Thus, this phrase refers to one reason for divorce, not to two.  Literally, this phrase may be translated as, “the nakedness of a thing,” the “thing” being a person.  Thus, this text is warning us things to “keep our clothes on” with people to whom we are not married.

Jesus, as a man who takes the biblical text seriously, upholds the interpretation that erwat dabar refers to one thing when responding to the Pharisees’ question:  “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (verse 9).  But Jesus actually takes His interpretation a step farther:  “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.  But it was not this way from the beginning” (verse 8).  In other words, even divorce because of erwat dabar is not God’s ultimate plan.  God’s ultimate plan is that a sinner repents, is forgiven, and receives a new tender heart toward their spouse.  Divorce, if it can be avoided, is to be avoided.

Other challenges in a marriage that have the potential of leading to a divorce are outlined elsewhere in the Scriptures.  These include abandonment by a spouse (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:15-16) and abuse, often considered to be a form of abandonment because it is a dereliction of marital duties (cf. Exodus 21:10-11).  But whether the problem be adultery or abandonment or abuse, the root of all these problems is the same – a hard heart.  And sadly, these hard hearts sometimes shatter marriages.  But other times, miraculously, these hard hearts are softened and marriages are reconciled.  And this is Jesus’ hope.  This is Jesus’ plan.

And so, if you are trapped in a marriage that is loveless, cold, and draining, let me invite you get help.  See a counselor.  Share your experience with a pastor.  Confess your sins and receive God’s forgiveness.  For God’s forgiveness can crack even the hardest of hearts.  And even if your marriage ultimately fails, you can rejoice in the promise that you are still party to a marriage that will last:

Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you His servants, you who fear Him, both small and great!” Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready.” (Revelation 9:5-7)

You are the bride of Christ.  And your marriage to Him is a marriage that lasts – even into eternity.  And in a world where marriages sadly and sometimes break, this is a marriage in which we can always rejoice and trust.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Carolyn  |  July 30, 2010 at 3:06 am


    Thank you very much for your insight!! I enjoyed and agree with pretty much every part of your explanation. I have one concern however: I don’t believe abuse – as horrible as it can be, and I don’t even know the full story as I have not been involved in that kind of relationship – nevertheless, I do not believe it constitutes as abandonment. Your cross reference to Exodus 21:10-11 doesn’t seem to work, as it speaks about a servant woman being free if a man, who has married another woman prior, doesn’t take care of her.

    Thanks again!


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