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Passage Insight: Jesus in the Divorce Debate

What are legitimate reasons for divorce according to the Bible? Watch this video and learn the wisdom Jesus teaches while talking with the Pharisees about an ancient Mosaic law.

Insights May 13, 2024


According to the Bible, ​when can a man divorce his wife? This exact question was brought to Jesus.1 You see, divorce was allowed for in the Torah. There is this command in Deuteronomy chapter 24, verses one through four, that recounts a unique scenario that begins with a man who wants to divorce his wife “because he finds something indecent about her,” or literally, in Hebrew, he finds “the nakedness of a matter.”

So what is that indecent thing? This led to an ancient debate within Israel. One school of thought argued that it could refer to anything that a man doesn’t like about his wife. Another school of thought was that this phrase is referring specifically and only to adultery. Now, in a time where men had all the power to end marriages and women did not, you can see how the “any reason” school of thought could—and did—lead to men abusing women.

Now this debate was brought to Jesus in Matthew chapter 19.

“Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it legitimate for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’”2

Jesus does not at first enter the debate. Instead, he challenges their assumptions about what marriage is in the first place. He first quotes the first page of the Hebrew Bible to show that a man and woman together are co-equal images of God.

“God created humanity in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”3

Then Jesus quotes from the garden of Eden story, where the one human, that is, ‘adam in Hebrew, becomes two, male and female, so that they can come back together as one flesh. And this picture of unity and equality between man and woman, “let no one separate this.”4

The Pharisees respond that Moses commanded them to divorce their wives, referring to that “indecent thing.” And Jesus tells them that was not a command. That law was a concession because their hearts are hard.5

Okay, but when is this concession allowed? Jesus finally enters the debate, and he sides with those who take the phrase “something indecent” in Deuteronomy 24 to refer only to adultery.

This whole interaction with the religious leaders in Matthew 19 is condensed down to a short saying in the Sermon on the Mount.6 And both teachings offer this wisdom: God’s intention from the beginning is that men and women act as co-equal partners in overseeing creation.7 Marriage should be protected from all forms of abuse because it is a living symbol of our deep unity with all other humans and of our unity with God.8

1. Matthew 19:3-9
2. Matthew 19:3
3. Genesis 1:27
4. Matthew 19:4-6; compare with Genesis 2:21-25
5. Matthew 19:7-8
6. Matthew 5:27-28
7. See Genesis 1:26-29
8. See Ephesians 5:22-33
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