The Problem

Jesus, Moses and Paul clearly all agree that divorce is an indication of sin on the part of one or both parties of the divorce. All are consistently against divorce in general. But here is our problem: How do we reconcile what Moses and Paul said about remarriage with what Jesus said about remarriage? Certainly we should expect that they should harmonize since all were inspired by God to say what they said.

Let’s examine exactly what Jesus did say and consider to whom He was speaking. Twice in Matthew’s Gospel we find Jesus addressing the subject of divorce and remarriage, once during the Sermon on the Mount and once when He was questioned by some Pharisees. Let’s begin with Jesus’ conversation with those Pharisees:

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 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’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:3-9).

During this conversation with Jesus, the Pharisees referred to a portion of the Mosaic Law that I mentioned earlier, Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There it was written, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house…” (Deut. 24:1, emphasis added).

In Jesus’ day, there were two schools of thought concerning what constituted an “indecency.” About twenty years before, a rabbi named Hillel taught that an indecency was an irreconcilable difference. By the time Jesus had His debate with the Pharisees, the “Hillel” interpretation had become even more liberal, allowing divorce for just about “any cause,” as the Pharisees’ question to Jesus indicates. One could divorce his wife if she burned his dinner, put too much salt on his food, spun around in public so her knees were exposed, took her hair down, spoke to another man, said something unkind about her mother-in-law, or was infertile. A man could even divorce his wife if he saw someone who was more attractive, thus making his wife “indecent.”

Another famous rabbi, Shammai, who lived prior to Hillel, taught that an “indecency” was only something very immoral, such as adultery. As you might suspect, among the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, Hillel’s liberal interpretation was much more popular than Shammai’s. The Pharisees lived and taught that divorce was lawful for any cause, and so divorce was rampant. And the Pharisees, in their typical pharisaical way, emphasized the importance of giving your wife a divorce certificate when you divorced her, so as “not to break the Law of Moses.”