Ordinary Time 20: On Divorce

Job 2:1-10 & Mark 10:1-16 

 Friends, today is a much longer and wider ranging post than normal. I had some extra time, and a keen interest in exploring the topic of divorce in the first century CE in depth because my parents are divorced and happily remarried. I wanted to get past simplistic interpretations, and I think I’ve been successful in that. But just a warning as you get started that this is longer and farther-ranging than most of my posts.

Scholars of Second Temple – and early Rabbinic – Judaism know that Jesus’ teachings on divorce were wildly out of step with mainstream opinion. This is one of the times in scripture that Jesus is much more stringent than even the most fastidious of his interlocutors. But as is always the case, Jesus’ teaching is not given merely to condemn, but to point to what full life in the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.  

It is certainly worth your time to click on the link above and actually read the passages before/instead of reading what I have to say. Once you’ve done that, please continue.  

I will offer two interpretations of what Jesus might have been alluding to in his teaching on divorce in the gospel of Mark. The difference of the interpretation hinges on what exactly the Pharisees were doing when they “tested” Jesus by asking about divorce. The first interpretation will understand their test to be a good-faith question about how Jesus would teach in an ongoing discussion about in what situations divorce was permitted.  

Decades before Jesus’ incarnation, arguments raged over what instances a man was allowed to divorce his wife. The Mishnah recorded the arguments of Hillel and Shammai, who lived prior to Jesus, and Akiva, who lived shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  

The disciples of Shammai say, “No man shall divorce his wife, unless he found in her unchaste behavior, as it is stated ‘Because he found in her ‘ervat davar‘ [unchaste behavior].’ (Deut 24:1)” The disciples of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his food, because it is said, ervat davar“. Rabbi Akivah says, “Even if he found another [woman] prettier than her, as it is stated [ibid.] ‘If it happen that she does not find favor in his eyes.'” (m. Gittin 9:10) 

The rabbinic argument is over what the phrase ervat davar means. The literal translation is “naked doings” and Shammai understood this literally. The Babylonian Talmud records the Shammai’s description of the sorts of instances in which divorce is allowable: “He sees his wife go out with her hair uncovered and ‘spin cloth’ in the streets with her arms uncovered… and bathe [naked] in the same place as the men” (b. Gittin 90a-b). Shammai says that a man has to have witnessed, or have credible witnesses that attest to his wife being improperly clothed and trying to attract attention, or being fully naked in front of other men in order to have grounds for divorce. The disciples of Hillel held that as insignificant a matter as not cooking well constitutes naked behavior.  

Jesus responded by essentially siding with Shammai. It’s not here in Mark, but in Matthew 19:9, Jesus allowed for divorce in cases of promiscuity, exactly in step with Shammai’s ruling. In the Mark text, Jesus simply mourns the situation of divorce. Hard hearts have required the legality of divorce. But that was never the goal. Indeed, Jesus sidesteps issues of Mosaic law entirely and returns all the way to creation of humans.  

In his response in Mark, Jesus cited and the spoke about “uniting” language four times. “‘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” (Mark 10:7-9). Most Christian readers will miss the point of what Jesus is referencing. Just like in Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, Jewish accounts of creation hold that the original humans were undifferentiated mixtures of male and female.  

This may be a new concept, but it is the plain reading of the first several chapters of Genesis. The human “ha-adam” (there’s a definite article there. “Adam” is not used as a name until the humans are split.) was created male and female. When a human was split in two sides (in Genesis 2:21 the word tsela is most often used in the rest of the Biblical text to refer to a side of a building, such as the temple. Good Bible translations will have a footnote denoting this if they use “rib” in the text.), all of a sudden, and for the first time, there were separate male and female humans. Adam (the man) notes that he has been stripped of a side of his previously mixed-sex body (and not just a rib) when he exclaims “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). When God created humans during the first week of creation, they were mixed-sex (Genesis 1:27). In the ongoing work of creation, separated male and female individuals were created by undoing the primordial oneness.* Jewish texts are clear on this point:  

“When the Blessed Holy One created Adam, he created him androgynous, as it is written: He created them male and female and… named them Adam (Genesis Rabbah 8:1).”   

 “It is written: ‘And God created man in his own image,’ and it is written, ‘Male and female he created them.’ How is this to be understood? In this way: In the beginning it was the intention of God to create two human beings, and in the end only one human being was created” (b. Ketubot 8a). 

Jesus points to marriage and especially maritial sexual intercourse as a mystical undoing of the splitting of the primordial human and a reuniting of the two into one. Somehow, marriage returns two humans to the unity of the sixth day of creation that was part of God’s exceedingly good creation. By referencing the two becoming one flesh, Jesus trumps any argument about Mosaic law by describing not just idyllic life in the garden, but life at the height of the goodness of the first week of creation.   

If the Pharisees were not engaging in a good-faith test about which side of an ongoing rabbinic debate Jesus was on, but if they were testing him in order to trap him, a second interpretation of what Jesus was saying comes to the fore. This focuses on the situation in 1st century Judea. As the passage points out, Jesus has left the Galilee, gone down to Judea and then across the Jordan. When he crossed the Jordan, he re-entered the territory of Herod Antipas. This was the Herod [there are so many of them] who had had John the Baptizer imprisoned and beheaded because of John’s critique of his divorce and remarriage. The Pharisees, in this interpretation, were daring Jesus to say the same words that had led to his relative’s death. Publicly, Jesus declined to pronounce divorce illegal, but pointed out the beauty of poetically and mystically reuniting split humans into one flesh.  

But later when his disciples were alone with him in a house (Mark 10:10) and free of hostile witnesses, they asked Jesus about the issue again, and Jesus gave a substantially different answer to his students. He said, “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).  

The scholar Brad Young helpfully points out that Greek translations of Jesus’ words miss a crucial implication of the Semitic language (whether Hebrew or Aramaic) that Jesus was using. The phrase “divorces his wife and marries another…” should probably be read as “divorces his wife in order to marry another…”** This understanding is bolstered not just by reference to language, but also by the divorce documents themselves. The Mishnah specifies that the certificate of divorce that a man must give his wife when he divorces her is a certification that she is available to marry anyone else.  

“The body of the certificate of divorce is: ‘You are permitted to [marry] anyone.’ Rabbi Yehudah says, ‘And this that will be yours from me a scroll of divorce and a letter of separation and a document of release, so that you may marry any man that you wish…’” (m. Gittin 9:3, see also 9:1-4). 

The permissibility of near-immediate remarriage is the point of the document. But Jesus sided against this notion of divorcing to immediately remarry someone else and called it adultery. Jesus, in this interpretation, says that it doesn’t matter if you do the paperwork. If you leave your spouse because you have the hots for someone else, it is adultery, even if you sign the paperwork. 

It is impossible to say how revolutionary this was, because Jesus did not limit his pronouncement to just women. Married men, according to contemporary Jewish law (this has changed in the centuries since) were allowed to have multiple wives and concubines. Sleeping with non-cultic prostitutes was discouraged, but because of the way in which Judah caused Tamar to carry on his line, was not totally prohibited. Adultery was a sin that only married women who slept with someone who wasn’t their husband could commit [and obviously the man she slept with]. In Matthew 5:32, the traditional Jewish understanding of adultery is upheld. But here in Mark 10:11 Jesus said that any married man who sleeps with a woman other than his original spouse is committing adultery against his own wife! This is a staggering move toward equality before the law. By saying this to his disciples, he condemned Herod Antipas’ adultery against not only Herodias’ first husband, but also Antipas’ adultery against his first wife, Phasaelis. 

Some interpreters will argue that Jesus was really being one sided, because woman could not divorce their husbands in this society and men made all the decisions. This is plainly not true, however. The rabbis allowed women to sue for divorce in number of instances: 

“And these are the defects for which the court forces him to divorce her: One afflicted with boils; or one who has a polyp; or one who works as a gatherer [of dung], or one who works as a melder of copper, or one who works as a tanner of hides, all of whose work involves handling foul-smelling materials. Whether he had these defects before they got married, or whether they developed after they got married, the court forces him to divorce. And with regard to all of these, Rabbi Meir said: Even though he stipulated with her ahead of time that he suffers from this particular ailment or this is his line of work, she can nevertheless demand a divorce and say: I thought I could accept this issue but now I realize I cannot accept it” (b. Ketubot 77a). 

Rabbi Meir, a couple decades after Jesus’ ascension, said that even if a couple got married knowing that the man was stinky, his wife can divorce him if she cannot put up with it. There were a number of other, more serious instances in which women could sue for divorce, such as when a man chooses not to support his wife financially.  

But even by this relatively lenient standard for women’s ability to initiate divorce, Herodias’ divorce was impermissible. She chose not to obtain a Jewish divorce certificate, but to go through Roman court. “Herodias took it upon herself to confound the laws of our country and divorced herself from her husband while he was still alive” (Josephus’ Antiquities 18.136.4). She did this specifically to remarry with Herod Antipas. Thus Jesus’ pronouncement of adultery on those who divorce in order to remarry, both men and women, would have landed squarely upon Herod Antipas and Herodias. This is probably why Jesus’ disciples waited until they were inside, away from the crowd to ask the clarifying question. If this is interpretation is followed, the Pharisees were indeed testing Jesus to see what he’d say. He gave an acceptable answer publicly, but then a more pointed one privately.  

I gave an extra-long teaching this week, because I want to point out that even with fairly plain words, there can be many different interpretations [for another excellent treatment, see Marg Mowczko’s outstanding blog]. I think the point of Jesus describing the one flesh in response to a question about divorce was not to make people who have gone through a very difficult emotional situation feel worse than they already do, but to point to an ideal for those who are still married or thinking of getting married. Jesus certainly didn’t approve of divorce in order to get remarried. That is legalized adultery, even if you file the correct paperwork. But for folks who have been joyfully remarried after having been divorced because of abuse or a marriage that broke long before papers were filed, I believe Jesus has only grace. Jesus forbade divorce with few exceptions. Also, Jesus welcomes and forgives all of us sinners.  


P.S. The Hebrew Bible passage for this week is Job 2:1-10. It’s here because of the disagreement between Job and his wife. One of the greatest crimes against the Bible is when Job’s wife’s words are translated a “curse God and die.” Only 4 times in the KJV is the root B/R/K translated as “curse.” They are all in Job (1:5, 1:11, 2:5 and 2:9). The word everywhere else is scripture AND HERE means “bless.” It makes the conversation between God and the accuser awkward, unless we understand it as sarcasm.  

But in 2:9, Job’s wife is not advising him to curse God and be killed as a punishment. Rather, she is simply advising her husband to give up after all his pain, suffering and loss. She wants him to die the way he’s lived his life: righteously. Bless God and die. Job rebukes her NOT because she wants him to curse God, but because she wants him to quit fighting with God.  

The lesson is this: There are lots of reasons why couples fight, for sure. But let’s not let misinterpretation be one of them. Let’s not ascribe to our partners the exact opposite of what their words mean.  


*[As an aside, German-rooted, anti-Jewish source criticism that is uncritically embraced by far too many Christian clergy obfuscates traditional Jewish interpretation by making multiple, contradictory creation stories from different authors instead of reading the Genesis account as a unified whole. Source criticism can be useful, but we need to be honest about what readings are obscured by that kind of interpretation.] 

** Young, Brad. 1995. Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Press). 115. 





3 thoughts on “Ordinary Time 20: On Divorce

Add yours

    1. Hi Reverend Jessica! Thanks for the note! I’m glad to have been of service as your prepared to serve the Body. My only note is that my pronoun is “him” instead of “her.”


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