Summary: Are Jesus’ statements allowing divorce for infidelity in conflict with biblical statements that seem to forbid it entirely?
Doctrine on Divorce
Let’s begin with a definition of divorce; “A legal dissolution of the marriage relation.” The biblical law regarding divorce is found Deuteronomy 24:1-4: “When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: …”.
The custom of giving letters of divorce was probably adopted by the Israelites from the Egyptians because they had a practice of writing out contracts in relationship to every area of life. Jesus stated in Matthew 19:8 that Moses did not abolish the tradition “because of the hardness of [the people’s] hearts.” The basis for a divorce occurred when a man’s wife did not find favor in his sight because he found some uncleanness in her. In Hebrew, the word uncleanness means “shame” or “disgrace.” The Mosaic Law called for severe penalties for certain types of “uncleanness.” Adultery carried the death penalty by stoning for the woman. If a man believed that his wife was not a virgin when he married her, he could have her judged by the elders of the city. If they found her guilty, she could be put to death (Deut. 22:13–21).
Because it was unclear what is meant by “uncleanness”, the Pharisees tempted Jesus by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” (Mt 19:3). It is thought that the meaning was attached to nakedness, disgrace, or some other action having to do with sexual uncleanness which would bring shame upon the family, but was short of adultery. If a woman was divorced and married another man, she could not return and marry her first husband. There are two reasons: first, a reunion would lower the dignity of the woman, inasmuch as she would appear to be like property, to be disposed of and reclaimed. Second, the physical union of marriage made man and wife “one flesh” (Gen 2:24). When that union was broken adultery was committed. Jesus supports this interpretation when He says, “whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (Mt 5:32). The primary purpose of this law was to prevent the man from taking her again after she had married another man—it’s “an abomination before the LORD,” according to Deuteronomy 24:4. This law was intended to discourage, rather than encourage, divorce.
They had God’s law concerning divorce, but the grounds for divorce are a point on which the Jewish Bible scholars, who lived during the early New Testament times, differed widely. One school of thought limited it to moral wrongdoing by the woman, while another allowed divorce over trivial matters, such as, if the wife burnt the food she was cooking for her husband. The Lord’s divine ideal for marriage is clearly a lifelong bond that unites husband and wife in a “one flesh” relationship, according to Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:5. The marriage union is a holy condition founded by God and is not to be dissolved at the will of human beings according to Matthew 19:6. When the marriage bond is broken it displeases God and it poses a serious threat to society.
In the second chapter of Malachi it says, “And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garments with violence” (Mal. 2:15–16). Although a man was allowed to divorce his wife, the wife was not allowed to divorce her husband for any reason. Legally the wife was bound to her husband as long as they both lived or until he divorced her (1 Cor. 7:39).
In Jesus’ day, there was a lot of confusion about the grounds for divorce. Even the rabbis could not agree on what constituted the “uncleanness” spoken of in Deuteronomy 24:1. Some felt that adultery was the only grounds for divorce, while others accepted many reasons, including such things as poor cooking. The gospels record four statements by Jesus concerning divorce. In two of these He allowed divorce in the case of adultery.