Jesus on Women – Part 6

November 16, 2012

Adultery and Divorce

I’m going to be totally honest and tell you that I saved this topic until last  in the series for a very good reason. I was hoping the extra time would bring some brilliant spiritual insight on some scriptures that confuse me. Alas, it never came.

Yet, I am not deterred from sharing with you some words of Jesus on Women when discussing adultery and divorce.

The first statement of Jesus is easy-breezy to understand and very pro-woman given the culture of the day:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
Matthew 5:27-29

In a culture that typically considered women to be morally inferior and blamed them for sexual sin (hence all the covering up), this teaching probably rocked some people’s worlds. Jesus didn’t blame women at all. He said the problem lay with the way a man looks at a woman and what is going on in his heart. “Lustful intent” (as translated in the English Standard Version) is the crux of the problem and needs to be rooted out.

OK, now for the more difficult set of statements—the ones regarding divorce. I will limit my comments to the import of these statements for women, rather than try to untangle the ramifications for remarriage in general. Even at that, interpretation is difficult because the statements vary from gospel to gospel and even within individual gospels.

First of all, let’s consider a few pertinent points from Old Testament law:

  • There is actually no law prescribing grounds for divorce in the Law of Moses. Some laws acknowledged the existence of divorce and addressed situations arising from divorce.
  • The Old Law mentioned divorce being initiated by men. There is no mention of women initiating divorce. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
  • Adultery (where one of the parties is married or engaged to someone else) was a capital offense rather than grounds for divorce. Stoning was the prescribed method of execution. (Deuteronomy 22:13-29)


Of course, the absence of guidance in the law did not prevent the Jewish scholars and religious leaders over the centuries from building their own repertoire of traditions regarding divorce, which was probably the reason the Pharisees thought the topic was one that might cause Jesus a problem:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’  and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:3-9

Mark’s version of the statement is slightly different:

“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Mark 10:11-12

In both cases, these statements seem protective of wives whose husbands left them to marry other women. Mark implies that both men and woman could initiate divorce to marry others. He may have been taking into account readers from broader Gentile cultures, where women enjoyed a bit more independence.

Here’s an interesting comment I found in my searching, although I unfortunately forgot to retain the name of the source:

“In antiquity, if a husband committed adultery, the sin was not against his wife but against her father and family—the ones who entrusted her to him. Jesus showed that the innocent wife had been wronged—that the sin of adultery was against his wife, not the males of her family.”

We return now to Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Mount, where—just after his statement about intentional lust—Jesus made a statement similar to the one in chapter 19, yet very different:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Matthew 5:31-32

I understand about making a wife the victim of adultery, but I don’t understand why marrying a woman who is the victim of adultery makes the man an adulterer.

Luke says it slightly differently, but still includes the confusing phrase.

“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Luke 16:18

I will leave this dilemma for you to ponder and invite your comments if you have some ideas about proper interpretation.

Next week we’ll sum up Jesus on Women and consider what his teachings mean for women today.

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