www.BibleReexamined.com -- Gospel Topics

Jesus' Words Regarding the Practice of Divorce

April 1, 2012

Author: Michael S. Whitney


The verse in Matt 5:32 appears, at first, to present a deeper look at the problem of divorce, the simple escalation of the problem, within a study on love. Upon closer examination the approach and goal of Jesus appears to have a different focus.

The verse reads:

Mat 5:31 It was said also, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:

Mat 5:32 but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery.

(ASV from E-Sword program)

The basic interpretation that is made here that improper divorce causes the woman to be an adulteress. This is viewed as either a consequence of divorce or an escalation of problems that result from divorce.

NOTE: The approach undertaken herein is not scholarly but represents an initial attempt to investigate the implications of the text of Matt 5:31-32. Many points are assumed without specific examination of historical documents or of specific views of Matt 5.

A more detailed study may show a different implication of the text.

In verse 31, Jesus presents the provision for divorce as commonly held by the people to whom He spoke. This provision may represent the words of Moses crystallized into a commonly held prescription for divorce in the Jewish culture of the first century.

One question that arises is whether the practice in the first century properly represents the original requirement.

The passage from Deuteronomy is:

Deu 24:1 When a man taketh a wife, and marrieth her, then it shall be, if she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some unseemly thing in her, that he shall write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

Deu 24:2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife.

Deu 24:3 And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, who took her to be his wife

There was a provision to accommodate the desire of some portion of the community to allow them to divorce. Jesus is shown to say that the divorce certificate was created due to the hardness of their hearts. As such, even the original availability of divorcement procedures were said to be short of the true goals of marriage.

The Deuteronomy passage shows:

  1. The man was the only one in marriage with the procedure of divorcement

  2. The process requires at least a loss of perceived favor toward the woman

  3. There must be “some unseemly thing in her”

  4. He hands her the bill of divorcement, that she has it in hand

  5. and sends her out of his house

We are not given any indication whether the bill of divorcement was to include the reasons for disfavor. Nor is there any indication that other people must be a witness to the events or the divorce itself.

Since she alone carries the bill, the bill is for her to show that she has not sinned. Presumably, the problem addressed here was that of women who were saying they were sent away because of divorce but had not actually been divorced.

From this scenario, either the men were sending their wives out for prostitution on the basis the woman was divorced or the woman was, of her own designs, saying she was unmarried possibly to entice a man, or men, toward her. (This could be because of her dissatisfaction toward the husband … or due to a great compelling desire to have children.)

The problem then may be that the woman is taking a second active husband in marriage. Alternatively, the men might have been led to “sin” because they assumed the woman was free to marry – and she actually was not. Hence, the bill of divorce would allow proper identification of that right.

Presumption of Knowledge of Marriage

Implicit in the bill of divorcement is the idea that the woman was either 1) identified already as the wife of a man such that this divorce needed to be documented or 2) that a woman who was not with her parents would be assumed to be married and would be rejected for such marriage without a bill of divorcement.

Favor must be given to the former option, since the community would need to know that the document (and signature?) were true and correct. It is possible however, that only the men were typically learned in writing skills.

Cultural Difficulties

We face the difficulty of identifying the cultural behavior of people two or three millennium before Christ.

The Deuteronomy law must have addressed either a potential problem or an existing problem. The first problem would be with the identification of instances of divorce. The second would be the improper remarriage in cases where divorce was not properly verifiable. The third problem would be the difficulty of remarriage if the woman could not explain or justify, to the benefit of the community or a specific man, that she indeed was on her own.

Were women geared toward wandering away from their husband in order to have relations with other men? Were husbands sending their wives out for prostitution? Were men trying to marry women who were undocumented regarding divorcement?

We see that that many idols in the Levant were focused on fertility. The biblical record shows even an instance of competitiveness toward having children ( see account of Leah and Rachel).

Another odd point, in many respects, is that the problem of prostitution has been seen essentially as an act done by woman (for the pleasure or ritual interest of men, probably the former). (Proverbs) (Gen 38:16-19) In this event, the man's action was not lawbreaking but the woman's act was punishable (even before the law of Moses existed).1

Equally interestingly, the men are not required by this law to have a paper of divorcement. The problem then was not about the behavior of men or perception regarding men. Men potentially had several wives (Jacob/Israel, David, Solomon).

Scripture shows the Lord using the analogy of the harlot who went after other men. The analogy then is the Israel, as being the wife toward God, was in violation through harlotry-like behavior.

Woman as Having to Show Her Freedom

The woman carries around the bill of divorcement. She is the one who has to explain that she is free to marriage over against the assumption that she was not divorced.

Society saw the woman as the violator... the ones that required the greater regulation regarding divorce. (We see however in Deut 24:3-4 that man and woman could not be restored in marriage. The man had made, of his own vow, that the woman was unsuitable for marriage, apparently that she had fornicated. He could not therefore say he accidentally did this.)

The woman could not leave on her own, at least if she were wishing to show herself eligible for marriage. If she could fake the bill of divorcement (with someone capable of forgery), she could possibly re-marry with the appearance of legitimacy. Apparently the emphasis of scripture was on the main theme of divorce rather than possible violations. It was likely that the woman could not wander to another town and effectively start a new life in obscurity. One possible reason was that Jews were often aware of the ancestry and would be asked about their parents. If traveling relatives could not identify that woman's history, she would then be treated with suspicion.

Looking again at Matt 5

Now Looking at Matt 5

Mat 5:31 It was said also, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:

Mat 5:32 but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery.

(ASV from E-Sword program)

The words “it was said” may speak directly of the scriptures or, possibly, of the traditions derived from the scriptures. The text of 5:31 itself matches pretty well with Deut 24:1-2 in the creation of a paper.

The omitted part is that the woman (in Deut 24) was to have some point of disfavor. It is possible that Jesus was dealing with this very issue since he mentioned the point “saving for the cause of fornication” in verse 32. Jesus apparently shows that the divorces were done without finding disfavor (something 'unseeming') in the woman. (If this disfavor were still part of the requirement, it may have become too loosely interpreted.)

So divorces were done too freely too leniently. Such divorces were denounced by Jesus.

Not Simply a Denouncement of Divorces

The words of Jesus were not simply a denouncement of divorce. (Later on, Jesus explains that divorce was allowed only due to the hardness of their hearts.)

The denouncement was against the unfounded basis for the divorces, where divorces were done too freely.

Not Simply an Emphasis on Actions in Accord with Love

We shall see that Jesus was not simply stating Matt 5:31-32 for direct promotion of love. He was not describing the unloving consequences per se.

First of all, the initial problem in these improper divorces is that they were not legal divorce at all. If, however, we see this as unloving toward the woman, we would be accurate. Yet the emphasis was on the illegality of the act.

As such the woman was made an adulteress. Again, the initial concept is that this would be bad treatment or unloving action toward the woman.

The passage had described the woman as an adulteress without her having actually done anything outside of the marriage. (Maybe the caveat here is that she necessarily would have to find a husband.) Probably what is meant, as stated earlier in other words, is simply that the divorce was not permitted by law and therefore was not a true divorce; and, as such, any action of hers subsequent to the presumed divorce was in violation of the continuing marriage.

If we look at the passage from the man's perspective, his concern never was for the benefit of the woman. As such, he would not have concern that the woman would effectively be an adulteress. We see the description of the divorce as having always been for the convenience and benefit of the man. (For example, if the woman had done something wrong in secret, the husband would not have to execute the divorce. He could have continued the marriage, as was in his power.) As such, a man who made an unfounded declaration of divorce would have, as the least of his concerns, the status of the woman thereafter.

Neither does bear shame since the grounds of divorcement may not even be verifiable. The society itself would not know specifically that this divorce was unfounded.

Jesus was not focusing on the status of the woman herself. We don't know from this verse what Jesus thought of the woman herself in this situation. He is merely talking about the legal (or technical) status of the woman in this divorce proceeding.

The Interest in the Woman's Adultery

As explained, the problem described by Jesus was a violation of the principle of the law of Deut 24:1-2. As a consequence, the divorce was shown to be nullified.

The potential emphasis then was not on proving that divorce was wrong but rather was on showing that the Jewish treatment of divorce did not meet the legal qualifications for divorce. This point would stand out among various groups:

  1. People who were focused on obedience to the law

  2. People who were learning the hypocrisy in superficial obedience to the law.

  3. People concerned about the undefiled status of Israel

The description of the woman as being placed into adultery appears to address the concern of the technical defilement of the Jewish society.

Again, the man who divorces her has not concerned himself from the beginning with the status of the woman. Yet, we see, in effect of divorce, that a woman is sent out, knowing herself that she has not done anything wrong, and yet she is treated as a divorcee.

The moral dilemma however is not addressed from her dilemma. Jesus focused more specifically on the implied propagation of the effects into society. People were remarrying on the basis of a improper assumption that the women were divorced.

The implication then is that the land has been defiled by adultery by both the men and the women. Anyone, then, who was interested in obedience to the law, therefore would not be advised of the violation of this law. Anyone interested in the hypocrisy could start to evaluate this example of hypocrisy. Anyone interested in the impurity of Israel would thereby see that the society was defiled.

(The topic of love is somewhat implied here. But the technicality of the discussion addresses details of the law.)

The men were then defiled by their action (as a society) of freely divorcing and freely remarrying. If the woman was not properly divorced, men could not properly marry these divorcees. (The problem is still addressed from the questioned qualification of the woman to remarry rather than from any issues arising regarding the man's qualification.)

As a clarification of this last point, the men were always in control of the action of divorce, as such they were the ones the created the defilement as addressed by Jesus.


For the discussion of 5:31-32 to have been relevant to his audience, improper divorces must have been occurring with some awareness that the grounds for divorce were lacking.

There must have been interest among some people in the details of accurate points of law. The interest either would be toward the proper obedience or to the effect of disobedience. If Jesus overall was not promoting technical obedience to the law, he must have been showing how the law was not being fulfilled.

There must have been actions of divorce that were undertaken without proper cause. The society likely was aware that proper grounds did not exist in many cases. Although this improper divorces were not described directly of the Jews (but was, for example, described of the Samaritan woman), such divorces still could have been prevalent in their society as a cultural meme of the Jews in the first century.

The text itself didn't need to explicitly state a meme. The discussion of Jesus itself has lent strongly to the idea that the problem must have existed. Maybe there are other Jewish writings that give indications of the status of marriage in the first century. This could be difficult to identify unless the issue of divorce was addressed, for example, by sects such as the Qumran community. The problem is that such a group would have had to identify the motives of divorce or the excesses of divorce and remarriage as something of that sect's concern.

Interest in the Law

We can see that Jesus, if any points can be summarized within the sermon on the mount, was, as one reason, at least, showing some interest in the more exact meaning (or implications) of the law. This would be in support of the statement later that he came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it.

The interest then has been more focused on the legal details of the law rather than the implications of love found within the law.

An Aside

Apparently the accusation that Jesus anticipated was that Jews would say that Jesus (or Messianic Judaism) was destroying the law. The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount then were made, in part, as argument against the anticipated view of the Jewish community.

The two potential interpretations that would arise then are …

  1. Jesus was showing elsewhere that the law would come to an end … but that the law would end only after being completed or fulfilled

  2. Jesus was continuing the law without end.

The former would have greater weight in light of the anticipated accusation that the Jesus was ending the law thereby points to option 1.


The issues raised regarding the divorce procedure of Deut 24:1-2 shows that the strongest emphasis was not against divorce itself but was regarding the fact that the grounds for common divorces were insufficient to qualify under the legal definition of divorce. As a consequence, the society, however supportive of the superficial verbiage of the law, had been defiled by the lack of adherence to that law.


1Its interesting that Judah had no trouble going through the town mentioning his own action with a prostitute. Proverbs, however, shows the act as folly for the man to follow.

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