Hope Lutheran Church, Fargo, ND - Pastor Mark Vitalis Hoffman
"Is It Lawful for a Man to Divorce His Wife?"
A Study of Matthew 19.3-7
- What is the most important factor in a good marriage?
- Do you think that it is right for couples who are having marital
problems to stay together "for the sake of the children"?
- What do you think of this statement? "There are lots
of other people to whom I could be happily married."
For Your Information:
As you work through the following texts, keep these guiding questions
- What is the understanding of the roles of husbands and wives
portrayed in this passage?
- Is divorce considered to be a sin?
- Should divorce be avoided at all costs?
- Are there legitimate grounds for divorce?
Read Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her
and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, 29 the man
who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young
woman's father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated
her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.
- Note the other situations envisioned in verses 13-27 preceding
this text. All of them are concerned in some way with sexual purity,
with legitimation of heirs, with the livelihood of women who have
been raped or wrongly divorced, and with the command to "purge
the evil from Israel."
- In verses 28-29, the reason why the man is not permitted to
divorce the unengaged virgin whom he has raped is because he has
rendered her unmarriageable.
Read Matthew 1.18-19. Note that according to Deuteronomy 22.13-27,
when Joseph found out that his fiancee Mary was pregnant, he not
only had rightful grounds to break off the marriage, but Mary
might even have been subject to the death penalty.
Read Deuteronomy 24.1-4.
Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does
not please him because he finds something objectionable about
her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in
her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his
house 2 and goes off to become another man's wife. 3 Then suppose
the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts
it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second
man who married her dies); 4 her first husband, who sent her away,
is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has
been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you
shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving
you as a possession.
- Note that only the husband is presumed to have the right to
divorce his wife according to Jewish law. Though a wife could
separate from her husband, she was not able to remarry until she
received a letter of divorce from him. A typical "letter
of divorce" the man would give would be of the form: "Let
this be from me your writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and
deed of liberation, that you may marry whatever man you will."
- What does the text mean when it says that the husband may
divorce his wife if he finds "something objectionable about
her"? According to one school of Jewish thought in Jesus'
time, a man could divorce his wife for as small a matter as if
she should speak too loudly in the house, put too much salt in
the soup, or become unsightly to him. Another school of Jewish
thought, however, argued from the meaning of the phrase "something
objectionable" which in Hebrew more literally means "a
matter of nakedness." This indicated to them, therefore,
that the only grounds for divorce was an incident of unchastity
on the wife's part.
- The reason why a woman could not remarry her first husband
after being married to another is that it looks like wife swapping
at best and a form of harlotry at worst.
Read Malachi 2.13-16.
And this you do as well: You cover the Lord's altar with
tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards
the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. 14 You ask,
"Why does he not?" Because the LORD was a witness between
you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless,
though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did
not one God make her? Both flesh and spirit are his. And what
does the one God desire? Godly offspring. So look to yourselves,
and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. 16
For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, and covering
one's garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So take heed
to yourselves and do not be faithless.
- Note that this passage is primarily addressed to the men of
Israel and that the husbands, because of their unfaithfulness
to their wives, are blamed for being the main culprit in divorce.
Read Matthew 5.31-32, Mark 10.11-12, and Luke 16.18 (printed
Matthew 5:31-32 "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his
wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I say
to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground
of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries
a divorced woman commits adultery.'"
Mark 10:11-12 He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife
and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she
divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
Luke 16:18 "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another
commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her
husband commits adultery."
- What is the difference between the ancient Israelite attitude
towards divorce and Jesus'?
- Rephrase Jesus' statements so that they are addressed to wives
instead of husbands. (Note that the passage in Mark reflects the
Greco-Roman situation where wives were able to obtain a divorce.)
- What would Jesus say to someone who divorces but does not
- According to these passages, what is the sin that is involved
Read Matthew 19.3-11.
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, "Is
it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" 4
He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them
at the beginning 'made them male and female,' 5 and said, 'For
this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined
to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? 6 So they are
no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together,
let no one separate." 7 They said to him, "Why then
did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to
divorce her?" 8 He said to them, "It was because you
were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,
but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever
divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another
commits adultery." 10 His disciples said to him, "If
such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry."
11 But he said to them, "Not everyone can accept this teaching,
but only those to whom it is given.
- Note that Jesus is being asked to take a stand regarding divorce
in light of the dispute described in connection with Deuteronomy
24.1-4 that is described above.
- From this passage, what is Jesus' final stance on divorce:
is it permissible or not?
Read 1 Corinthians 7.10-17.
To the married I give this command--not I but the Lord--that
the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does
separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her
husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. 12
To the rest I say--I and not the Lord--that if any believer has
a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him,
he should not divorce her. 13 And if any woman has a husband who
is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should
not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy through
his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.
Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they
are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it
be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is
to peace that God has called you. 16 Wife, for all you know, you
might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might
save your wife. 17 However that may be, let each of you lead the
life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This
is my rule in all the churches.
- In verses 10 and 11, what is the bottom line? Is it okay to
divorce or not?
- What is the difference between what Paul says in verses 10-11
and in verses 12-17?
- For Paul in verses 12-17, what guidelines determine whether
a couple should stay married?
For Your Consideration:
- According to Deuteronomy 22.28-29, what was worse in ancient
Israel: for a woman to be rendered unmarriageable (and hence at
great economic and social disadvantage) or to be undivorceably
married to the man who raped her? Note the statistics about living
standards for men and women following a divorce. (sidebar, back
page) What is worse in modern America: to be a divorced woman
with a lower living standard or to be an unhappily married wife?
- It is clear that in ancient Israel there were double standards
regarding the roles and privileges granted to men over against
women in marriage and divorce. What double standards exist today,
especially ones involving divorced people?
- According to the Old Testament, was divorce regarded to be
a sin? How do Jesus and the New Testament regard it?
- How do you agree or disagree with the following statements
in light of the Biblical texts studied?
- God hates divorce but still loves divorced people.
- Divorce is sometimes the lesser of two evils.
- Married or divorced, the important thing is to be happy.
- The only grounds for divorce is adultery.
- Divorce is a sin; divorce is a symptom of our sinful condition;
divorce is simply an unfortunate reality (like a tornado or earthquake)
- Divorce is permitted but not encouraged.
- The Greek word most often used for "divorce" is
apoluw. Depending on its form it means "let go, send
away, dismiss, be freed." How are each of these terms appropriate
or not for divorce?
- What do you think are the main reasons why couples get divorced?
Are any of these legitimate reasons? Are any of the problems insurmountable?
- What is the purpose of marriage? In light of your answer to
this question, what would be grounds for divorce?
- Read Matthew 19.10 again. Are the disciples right? Is it better
not to marry at all?
- Who gets hurt when a divorce occurs? How is each party hurt?
What can be done to lessen the pains of divorce?
- Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? "The
laws should be changed to make divorce more difficult." Explain
your answer. (Or perhaps, instead of making divorces harder to
come by, should the church be making it more difficult to get
married in terms of required pre-marriage counseling, encouraging
longer engagement periods, speaking out against people living
- If a friend should come to you with marriage problems, what
word of advice would you give in light of the Biblical perspective?
- If a friend should come to you who has been divorced and is
struggling with guilt, a sense of failure, or depression, what
encouraging word could you give in light of the Biblical perspective?
For further background:
(Keep in mind that quotations from other ancient authors do not
necessarily reflect Christian or even orthodox Jewish positions.)
Josephus (1st century AD Jewish historian and apologist),
Jewish Antiquities 4.253
He who desires to be divorced from the wife who is living with
him for whatever cause-and with mortals many such causes may arise-must
certify in writing that he will have no further intercourse with
Sirach (a Jewish apocryphal work from around Jesus' time)
7.26 If you have a wife who pleases you, do not cast her out;
but do not trust yourself to one whom you detest.
Sirach 25.25-26 Allow no outlet to water, and no boldness
of speech in an evil wife. If she does not go as you direct, separate
her from yourself.
Living standards after divorce (from The Great Divide by Daniel
- Average percentage change in a woman's standard of living
the year following a divorce: - 73%
- Average percentage change in a man's standard of living: +
75% of divorced people remarry -- and 60% of them already have
children. If current trends continue, step-families could outnumber
traditional families by the year 2000.
- Pray for someone whose marriage needs strengthening. Pray
for someone who has experienced divorce.
- For married couples: renew your marriage promises but also
make a commitment to move from "I do" to "We will"
in your life together.