Is every instance of divorce sinful in God’s sight? Did Jesus forbid all divorce? Does God hate all divorce? The answer to each of these questions is the same: No. God himself “divorced” Israel for her spiritual adultery. Also, I mentioned last week that a good translation of Malachi 2:16 is “If one hates and divorces,” Yahweh, Israel’s God said, “he covers his clothes with crime,” Yahweh of the Armies said. However, the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels can be confusing because he seems to be saying different things (cf. Matt. 19, Mk. 6, Luke 16). How do we view these Gospel passages on divorce? David Instone-Brewer has a helpful solution: by understanding them in light of their Jewish context.
Instone-Brewer notes that some Jews (Hillelite rabbis) believed that they could get a divorce for “any cause” based on Deuteronomy 24:1-4, while other Jews (followers of Shammai) argued that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 only allowed for divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality. With this debate in mind, the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce to test him. In Matthew 19:3 the Pharisees’ question is: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” They were referring to Deuteronomy 24 and the Jewish debate over the text. Here’s how Instone-Brewer discusses this:
“According to the standard [Bible] translations, such as ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ the Pharisees appear to be asking Jesus if he thought divorce itself was lawful or not. But the question ‘Is it lawful to divorce?’ would have been an illogical one. To the Jews ‘divorce’ referred to a procedure that is defined in the law of Moses – and the law of Moses cannot be ‘unlawful!’ However, if you translate the question ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for ‘Any Cause’?’ it makes perfect sense. The rabbis wanted to know what Jesus thought about the new ‘Any Cause’ type of divorce and how he interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1.”
“Actually in the account of this episode in Mark, the rabbis do appear to ask the illogical version of the question, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ (Mk 10:2). There is a simple explanation for this: anyone reading Mark in the first century would have mentally added, ‘for “Any Cause”’ to complete the question, because everyone at the time was talking about it. It was like someone today who asks, ‘Is it lawful for a sixteen-year-old to drink?’ In itself this is an illogical question, because without anything to drink we dehydrate and die. Therefore we mentally add ‘alcoholic beverages’ to the end of the question to make sense of it, but it would be pedantic to actually ask the question in this form. In exactly the same way a first-century Jew would have mentally added, ‘for “any Cause”’ to the end of the otherwise illogical question in Mark 10.”
There is a lot more to this discussion, of course, and it is somewhat debatable. However, I think Instone-Brewer is on the right track here; this does help read the divorce verses in Mark and Luke in a way that meshes well with Deuteronomy 24 and the Jewish context. This reading also helps us see that Jesus and Paul did not disagree on their when they gave scriptural grounds for divorce.
For more info, see Instone-Brewer’s book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (p. 58-9 is where the above quote is from), and his more scholarly and lengthy work, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but these are helpful resources on this very difficult topic.