[2] Is Jesus Among the Pharisees? – Divorce in the Hebrew Bible – The Law

1“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then 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 of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife,3and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.

Dictionary definition of divorce
Dictionary definition of divorce

This is the second post in our series Is Jesus Among the Pharisees? looking at marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the Bible.

You can read the first installment here.

A fundamental presupposition to any helpful discussion on this subject is that since Jesus spoke and taught in the context of first century Palestine, an understanding of that context is of critical importance to interpreting what Jesus meant. In order to do that, we first have to look at the witness of the Old Testament.

The Deuteronomy passage above is the foundational teaching–the starting point–of the Hebrew Bible concerning divorce, but it’s actually part of a larger literary until that sets out a hypothetical situation.

According to the text, a man divorces his wife and she subsequently leaves his home in order to marry again. He then desires to remarry her, perhaps realizing that he’d made a mistake. The Deuteronomy passage makes clear that this  behavior is not appropriate:

her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled (Deut. 24:4)

The passage speaks explicitly to only two issues:

  1. The reason for the divorce
  2. The prohibition of remarriage in the case of divorce and remarriage to another

According to Deuteronomy 24 the only suitable grounds for divorce is “a matter of indecency.” Precisely what that phrase means, will become a central point of disagreement between the two prominent rabbinic schools of thought: Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel.

Despite their disagreements on many matters, the two schools of thought did arrive at some level of consensus about the meaning and practice of Deuteronomy 24:

  1. The right of divorce rests exclusively with the husband
  2. Divorce requires some sort of written document–a writ of divorce

[See Bablyonian Talmud, b. Gitten 20a]

Divorce was prohibited in cases where it could be demonstrated that a husband falsely accused his wife of not being a virgin upon their marriage (Deut. 22:19) or if a husband had previously raped his wife (i.e., prior to their marriage)–“because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives” (22:28).

To modern eyes–accustomed as we are to no fault divorce–the Torah’s {law} teaching seems shockingly conservative.

The premise is that divorce ought to be limited to a serious breach of morality by the wife. However, the Law also carves out critical protections against abuse by husbands. By requiring the man who had raped his wife prior to their wedding day to remain married to her, the Torah ensures that she will be provided for. By requiring a writ, the Torah insures that a woman will have the ability to remarry should she have the opportunity.

The pastor’s marriage


Our marriages are meant to be our first ambition in life. When we marry we make a vow to love our spouse exclusively until we die. That vow informs every decision we will make the rest of our lives….In the same way, if we are married, we have made a vow. That vow informs every decision we make. The pace of the church, and our commitments, take into account our call to be a sign and wonder for Christ through our marriage. We publicly vowed to make visible something invisible (the love of Jesus for His church) through our physical, earthly relationship.

For this reason, if we are married, our first ambition is not our work as pastors or leaders. It is Jesus and our marriage. These are inseparable commitments for all married people – especially leaders. All our fruit for Christ flows from this fountain of love.


Pete Scazzero




A Hindu monk and a Baptist preacher got married

About one in four Americans (27%) is intentionally sharing their married life with someone whose religious belief system is different from their own.[1] If difference within traditions like Protestantism is included, the number jumps to 37%.[2] This emerging trend is consistent with the generally agreed-upon trajectory of our culture. We are moving into a period of intense plurality. Difference—in all its forms—is pushing its way into the lives, churches, schools, and neighborhoods of Americans.


As people face these new experiences they often look for resources to help them navigate their new reality. This has produced what the Huffington Post calls a “mini-boom of guides to interfaith marriage and family.” A case in point is J. Dana Trent’s recently released book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk.

Trent’s book describes how she—a Baptist minister—met and fell in love with Fred Eaker, a practicing Hindu. The rapid increase in interfaith marriage poses a significant pastoral challenge for the Christian church. It’s important to remember that this is not the first time in which the Christian church has had to engage in pastoral and theological reflection on the nature of marriage and of marriage to those who are outside the household of faith.

The early church developed in the context of a pluralistic culture where, much like today, the cardinal virtue was theistic inclusivity. Greco-Roman culture was willing to welcome new gods as long as they could be incorporated into the already recognized deities. We see from St. Paul’s interaction with the people of Athens that the Greeks were eager to learn of this “foreign deity” and this “new teaching” (Acts 17: 18, 19). Early Christianity was quite comfortable in communicating the message of Christ to those who had yet to experience it.

As Paul addressed problems that arose in the churches under his apostolic care, he found it necessary to give the following counsel to the church at Corinth, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity?” (2 Co. 6:14ff.).

This verse is often used to warn against the dangers of marrying someone of another faith. And the warning is likely well heeded. Yet, it’s also likely that Paul here is speaking more broadly than simply of matrimony.

Read the rest here.

[1] U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 34. Available online at: http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Ibid.


Is having kids essential to marriage?

As I’m writing this, it’s ten till seven on a Sunday morning. The kids are playing in loudly in their bedroom. I’m on my first cup of coffee and trying to get at least three hundred words written before making breakfast, showering, getting the kids ready for church, and heading out the door.

I opened the tab on my browser where I store pages that I’d like to read later and landed on a post from Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics Blog, “The fruitful callings of the childless by choice.”

The post asks its readers to reconsider how the church treats those who choose not to have children. The deeper question is whether or not procreation legitimates marriage. Is marriage compromised by not having children? 


The Scriptural basis of the church’s teaching on procreation is found at the very beginning of the Scriptural canon:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” {1:28)

This passage is commonly referred to as the cultural mandate. It contains God’s command to Adam and Eve that they should begin their stewardship of the world God had created a part of which is filling the world with their offspring.

It was (is) believed that this verse creates in humanity a duty to have children as a response to God’s command. In arguing that not all marriages exist for the purpose of creating offspring, Emily Timbol cites the work of James Brownson of Western Seminary (Bible, Gender, Sexuality). He notes,

The command to “be fruitful and multiply” is not given merely to the man and the woman. It is also given to the animals (Gen 1:22) and is thus not a directive given uniquely to human marriage. This in itself calls into question whether the essence of marriage is in view here…

Does this vitiate the force of Yahweh’s imperative in 1:28? Possibly. At the same time, however, an equally plausible explanation is that Yahweh is commanded his creation to act according to its (their) nature(s). Both humanity and the animals are told to procreate because animals and human beings are creative and procreative beings. In fact, it is only the advent of “reproductive technology” in the form of the pill and condoms that allows for the separation of copulation from procreation. Certainly humans have a higher degree of volition than any other sentient being, but even humans could not stop from being procreative beings until fairly recently.

I worry that somehow by separating the act of love-making from procreation we somehow are feeding the already present gnostic tendencies of our culture. This gnostic tendency is present in the very atmosphere of our culture. It elevates internal, spiritual, self-referential over the external, material, and extrinsic. In this view the truest thing about the world is a first person, self-referential statement.

Echoes of this may be found in the post. Even in our Christian (sub)culture a first-person statement is sacrosanct.  Timbol writes:

“My purpose is not determined by my ability or desire to reproduce.”

“When my husband and I think of our passions, we also see multiple things–-but kids don’t happen to be one of them.”

“While we do see children as a blessing, we see them as a blessing that God gives to some people, not all. Some people don’t have kids because they never marry. Some have to face heartbreaking infertility and can’t have children. And others might not have kids because God blessed them with passions and gifts that give them the same sense of fulfillment and joy that their friends get from their children. There is nothing wrong with finding your main purpose in being a parent and raising children. But there also is nothing wrong with finding your purpose in something else.”

This last excerpt vexes me. According to Timbol the primary reason for having children has to do with purpose, passion, fulfilment, and joy. The experience of these things validates the choice of whether or not to procreate even as it drives the choice of what career or hobby to undertake.

While I understand her choice of these words and have myself used similar words to describe what I want out of life, it does somehow seem superficial. True to form, the superficial is more often easily discernible in the lives of others rather than in our own. Yet the concern remains because as long as things like purpose, passion, fulfillment, and joy validate something like marriage or parenthood those institutions will always be susceptible to collapse in the absence of those things. Inevitably purpose will become diluted, passion will falter, and fulfillment give way to frustration.

While I am not yet to the point of saying that procreation is of the essence of marriage, it seems a necessary conclusion that the absence of children somehow alters a marriage and makes it something different than it otherwise would have been.

Is gay marriage the logical end of consumer capitalism?

Today the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in two cases related to same sex marriage. The first case deals with California’s proposition eight, a referendum that defined legal marriage as between a man and a woman. The second case deals with the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), federal legislation that defines marriage–for the purpose of ascertaining right to spousal benefits–as between a man and a woman.

Popular reporting around the issue has tended to emphasize the significant increase in approval for same sex marriages in the general population. Given that most recent votes on referenda to redefine marriage have failed, it seems counterintuitive to state that a majority of Americans now support it.

The internal logic of media coverage is questionable. That a majority of Americans support gay marriage is given as a basis for urging the Supreme Court to overturn both the California and the Federal legislation. However, at least in the case of Proposition 8, the legislation was already voted on by the people of the State of California. The “most people” argument cuts both ways and a good justice will be hesitant to overturn something on which the electorate have voted (Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000) notwithstanding).

While these are important issues to discuss, what’s often overlooked is the deeper cultural shift that is taking place. At the core of the debate is a pernicious intellectual shift that places the autonomous individual as the center of his moral universe. This shift isn’t something that simply arose back in, say, 2008. Rather there has been a steady reorienting of our view of the world that moves the “I” to the center.

This is arguably a result of the rise of the discipline of economics and its emergence from the Enlightenment, especially from the work of Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments). In Smith’s work, the individual is the frame of reference for most all economic value judgments–a moral actor who makes decisions on the basis of enlightened self interest.

As capitalism developed into consumer capitalism, it is not difficult to see how our current socio-cultural arrangement makes possible something that has never been plausible before: the redefinition of a natural right on the basis of the experience of a relatively small number of people.

John Milbank has written of theology’s false humility. It seems that the state is currently manifesting something like that itself. Social philosopher Will Smith speaks for many when he defines marriage as not based in gender complimentarity or procreation, but instead as being rooted in “love” and “support” in this
“difficult thing we call life.”


Russell Hittinger does a great job of unpacking the state’s false humility in his book, The First Grace:

“The postmodern state…is far less sure of its powers. It claims to be axiologically blind and deferent to individual conceptions of the good. It may not approve of the consequences of abortion, euthanasia, reprogenics, and homosexual marriage, but it feels helpless to use political authority to prohibit–and often, even to publicly discuss–the justice or injustice of these acts. Unsure of the scope of their own sovereignty, postmodern states are prepared to relocate sovereignty in the individual; in other words, postmodern states are prepared to be the guarantor of the rights of individual autonomy. We should not be surprised that individuals now claim private authority to say who shall die and who shall live, who should receive justice and who shall not. Hence we see not merely the privatization of industry and what were once deemed public services (a process that may in some cases be quite defensible and desirable from an economic standpoint), but a privatization of judgments that indisputably belong to public authority: judgments about uses of lethal force and who deserves to live or die, judgments about the strong and the weak, and judgments about whether private parties can claim power over something as common as the genetic infrastructure of the humanum.”

Russell Hittinger, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (2003): 137. (Emphasis mine).

It seems to me yet another place where the positions of our political parties are inconsistent with their philosophical presuppositions. Based on its tone in the last election cycle, it would seem that the Republican party should be unconditionally supporting the redefinition of marriage since, in every other element of our life together, they seem to be the champions of the rugged individualist who does as he pleases and wins his fortune through hard work.

In reality, our two parties are closer together than we often perceive. Their differences amount to peanuts in the grand scheme of things.