Musings on Mark: The Markan Jesus on Divorce

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her….”
– Jesus


In Mark 10:1-12 we read of an encounter between “some Pharisees” and Jesus over the question of divorce. They ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (10:2, NRSV) to which Jesus replies, “What did Moses command you?” (10:3) They then tell Jesus that Moses said it was permissible to divorce one’s wife if you produce a “certificate of dismissal” (10:4). What did that entail?

Moses and Divorce

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 gives us the answer.

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 and goes off to become another man’s wife. 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); 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.

So if a man found something “objectionable” about his wife, he could then write a certificate of divorce and send her away. But what constitutes objectionable? Simply put, we don’t know.

The “objectionable thing” is vague, and perhaps deliberately so. This law is less interested in the technicalities of the bill of divorce than it is in the correct disposition of the former wife’s sexuality.1

Whatever it was, by the time of Jesus there were some groups who contended a wife who couldn’t cook was one who could be divorced while others claimed that divorce was only permissible on the grounds of sexual immorality.2 

Having been put away by her husband, the woman is free to marry again (24:2). However, if her new husband “dislikes her” then he too can write a bill of divorce and put her away (24:3). But is this woman free to return to her first husband? No, because “she has been defiled” and such an act “would be abhorrent to the LORD” and would “bring guilt on the land” (24:4).

Back to “The Beginning”

Jesus acknowledges the Pharisees’ words about Moses but it isn’t a concession. He tells them that it was “[b]ecause of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you” (10:5). Well what does that mean? A heart that is “hard” refers to a disposition of stubbornness. But how does that fit with regards to Moses and the giving of this law? It seems that Jesus understands Deuteronomy 24:1-4 “as a temporary concession by God to the spiritual weakness of the people.”3 In other words, divorce was permitted but it “was never envisaged in the divine purpose.”4 Instead, God’s design was life-long partnership:

But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “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. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate (10:6-9).

Jesus is echoing the words of both the Priestly account of humanity’s creation (Genesis 1:27) and the Yahwist’s account (Genesis 2:24). His appeal to these texts serves his point that “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (10:9). How? Because it was God who made them two separate beings (Genesis 1:27) but then, through the act of marriage and physical consummation, they “become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And since marriage was God’s idea “from the beginning of creation,” only he can separate the two that have become one.

Divorce and Remarriage

But if this wasn’t obvious from his exchange with the Pharisees, Jesus is even more blunt in private with the disciples (10:10).

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (24:11-12).

If you divorce your spouse and marry someone else you have violated the commandment of God (Exodus 20:14). Why? Because the now-divorced couple are still one flesh. Therefore, a remarriage means a union that violates that one flesh. This is in stark contrast with the Deuteronomic law which stated marriage was permissible after divorce.

So if we ask the Markan Jesus, “Is divorce permissible?” his answer would be a resounding “No!” Why? Because marriage is a union of one flesh that no one can separate. Not Moses. Not a certificate of divorce. No one. Only God.


NOTES

1 Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (HarperOne, 2011), 315.

2 Gordon J. Wenham, “Divorce,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, editors, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), 170.

3 John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 294.

4 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 391.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Michael D. Coogan: The Deuteronomic School

Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, third edition (OUP, 2014), 186.

The Deuteronomic school, as we have seen, had connections with both the Levitical priesthood and the prophets. It continued to revise its core text, the book of Deuteronomy, as Israel’s circumstances changed from autonomous nation to people in exile. It also produced the Deuteronomistic History, the interpretive narrative of Israel’s history in the Promised Land based on the ideals of the book of Deuteronomy, an extended work covering the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The Deuteronomistic History was itself revised several times, much like the book of Deuteronomy….

Michael D. Coogan: Deuteronomy and the Law of the King

Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, third edition (OUP, 2014), 183-184.

The “law of the king” [Deuteronomy 17:14-20] seems to have been written with specific kings in mind, especially as they are described in the book of Kings. The extravagant acquisition of horses and gold and an enormous harem especially coincides with the description of Solomon’s reign (see 1 Kings 3.1; 4.26; 9.28; 10.14-11.8), but trade and alliances with Egypt are mentioned of other kings, and a harem was an ordinary part of the royal establishment.

The Deuteronomic “law of the king” thus critiques the extravagances of the kings belonging to the dynasty established by David, and also by the ideology attached to that dynasty, in which the king was the adopted son of God and the essential intermediary between God and the people, and in which God had made an unconditional covenant guaranteeing the dynasty in perpetuity….

For the authors of Deuteronomy, writing during the period of the monarchy, although kingship was a divinely sanctioned institution, it was to be severely limited. God’s blessing for the people depended not on the king but on the entire nation’s observance of its covenant with God. The Deuteronomists, in other words, advocated a reform in which the ideals of the premonarchic period would be combined with the realities of the monarchy. Like many of the prophets, they were reactionaries, but their nostalgia for the past was translated into a detailed program for the present and future.

Matthew’s Vision of Jesus: Jesus is the New Israel

Many things could be said about the Gospel of Matthew but perhaps the most obvious is its attempt to portray Jesus as the new and better Israel. Let me explain.

Throughout the book, the author either alludes to or explicitly cites biblical passages that in their original context are about the people of Israel. In Matthew 2:13-15, after Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt and told to come back when Herod was dead, Matthew writes, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,” ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'” (Matthew 2:15). But look at the actual passage from the prophet he cites.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more they were called,
the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals
and burning offerings to idols. (Hosea 11:1-2)

Clearly, the prophet Hosea is speaking of the people of Israel and their flight from Egypt, not Jesus and his return from Egypt. Matthew is using Hosea for his own purposes and that purpose is to show that Jesus is the superior “son.”

Consider also the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). He is taken into the wilderness and fasts for “forty days and forty nights” (v. 2). But why the wilderness? Because that is where God drew his people to after they left Egypt and it is where he would meet with them in the Christian vision of the coming of the Messiah. We read in Deuteronomy 8:1-3 that Moses told Israel,

The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

Notice anything familiar? Israel is led by God into the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1). The purpose of this wilderness journey for Israel was to “humble you, testing you to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus is led into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Israel is there for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus is there for forty days and nights (Matthew 4:2). Israel is fed by bread from heaven so that they might learn that man lives by every word of God (Deuteronomy 8:3); Jesus cites Deuteronomy 8:3 when the devil tempts him to turn stones into bread (Matthew 4:3-4).

There are other parallels we could consider like Moses going up to a mountain to get the Decalogue (Exodus 19:20) and Jesus going up on a mountain and delivering his famous “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7). Suffice it to say, Jesus is clearly being viewed as a superior specimen to even the greatest heroes of Judaism. For Matthew, at least, Jesus is the new, more obedient, and better Israel.