The Pharisees frequently tested Jesus on his knowledge of the law, and in Matthew 19, they grill him on a particularly challenging law about divorce. In this episode, join Tim and Jon as they wrap up the second movement of Deuteronomy by exploring Jesus’ understanding of the law and how it can help us interpret the Torah.
We’re bothered by one part of the Bible because we’re people who have been morally shaped by the teachings of Jesus. Jesus sees the laws of Deuteronomy as not fully expressing God’s ideal for human life. It’s a concession to Israel’s hardness of heart … When Jesus wants to get to the bottom of what the laws of Deuteronomy are about, he goes to the narratives in Genesis.
In part one (00:00-12:00), Tim and Jon discuss the important but strange relationship Christians have with the Hebrew Bible. The more we study the ancient context in which these texts were written, the more we realize how culturally far removed we are from them. But these texts formed how Jesus saw himself as the Messiah. By meditating on the Hebrew Bible, we can better understand Jesus and our role in God’s redemptive plan for humanity.
The laws were an expression of Yahweh’s desire to be in right relationship with Israel and the terms of their covenant relationship. By following the laws, Israel would be formed into people of wisdom who value justice and righteousness.
In Matthew 19, Pharisees who wanted to trap Jesus questioned him about a law in Deuteronomy regarding divorce. Today we’re talking about that law, Jesus’ response, and how his method of interpretation gives us some insight into how we also ought to engage with the Torah.
In part two (12:00-35:00), Tim and Jon discuss the only law in the Torah about divorce and remarriage, found in Deuteronomy 24.
When a man takes a wife and marries her, and … she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency [nakedness] in her, and he [divorces her], and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce … or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled.
In this situation, women are passive participants, meaning only men could initiate divorce. And whether or not a woman was considered defiled was determined by the choices of her former husband. This law feels wrong or misguided to many modern readers because it doesn’t line up with how Jesus talked about or treated women. So how do we square those realities?
There are several things to consider in this situation.
First, almost all the laws in Deuteronomy are hyperlinked to earlier narratives from the Torah. The author of Exodus described Israel’s worship of the golden calf as adultery, and whenever the nation sins against Yahweh, they are depicted as an adulterous bride. This law is referenced whenever Israel breaks covenant with Yahweh and pledges allegiance to another god. This means that it is on Yahweh to take back an adulterous wife in order to repair the covenant.
Second, Jewish rabbis debated what it meant for the husband to find “nakedness” in his wife. Some thought “nakedness” referred exclusively to adultery, while others thought it could mean anything a husband found objectionable. Jesus interpreted this word in a very specific way in Matthew 19.
A group of Pharisees test Jesus by engaging him in a debate specifically about this law. In response, Jesus references the Eden narrative in Genesis 1-2.
And he answered and said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘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. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
Jesus saw himself as restoring people to God’s ideal for humanity. To get to the bottom of the laws in Deuteronomy, Jesus appeals to the larger narrative context of the Hebrew Bible, beginning with the Eden story. His conclusion about divorce and remarriage is that when a man and woman become one flesh through the marriage covenant, it reveals something unique about the image of God that is torn apart by divorce.
The Pharisees counter by pointing out that God clearly permits divorce or else there would be no laws governing it in Deuteronomy in the first place.
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning, it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
For Jesus, even the laws in Deuteronomy don’t fully express God’s ideal way of life for humanity. The laws themselves are God’s concession to the hardness of human hearts.
In part three (35:00-55:00), Tim and Jon further explore Jesus’ method of interpreting the laws in Deuteronomy.
Jesus essentially presents the law as damage control. In other words, the law is Yahweh’s way of working with people who have repeatedly proven themselves to be hard-hearted and rebellious.
Jesus wouldn’t have been unique among Jewish rabbis in using the Eden narrative as an interpretive key for the laws of the Torah. What was unique about Jesus’ take in this setting is that he didn’t stop there. He went on to say that in the Kingdom of Heaven he had come to inaugurate, his disciples would do marriage differently—in the Eden way (or at least as close to it as they could get).
Based on the Eden story, grounds for divorce couldn’t be just anything. For Jesus, the “nakedness” that would justify divorce was adultery. That doesn’t mean Jesus would never find another reason that would justify divorce among his disciples—he’s silent when it comes to whether there are additional reasons for divorce. Exodus 22 lists neglect and abuse as legitimate grounds for divorce. And in 1 Corinthians 6-7, Paul cites Matthew 19 and adds that if a husband leaves a wife because she has become a Christian, she should respect his decision. Matthew 19 is Jesus’ very specific interpretation of one law from Deuteronomy, not necessarily a comprehensive treatment of divorce.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce provides an important interpretive tool for readers of the Bible: When we encounter texts that are difficult to understand or accept, it’s an opportunity for further meditation, guided by the principles we see in Genesis 1-2 for God’s relationship with humanity.
Tim and Jon look at another challenging law in Deuteronomy 21 and apply this interpretive principle.
In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Yahweh gives Israel instructions for how they are to treat women they capture from other nations. If we read this law with the assumption that a law means Yahweh is condoning the practice of taking women as prisoners of war, it sounds pretty bad. However, when we remember that Jesus saw the law as a concession for humanity’s sin, it becomes clear that Yahweh is anticipating that Israel will sin—he even describes these actions with language from Genesis 3—and is providing boundaries for the protection of women.
In part four (55:00-1:09:51), the guys look at one final and challenging law from the second movement of Deuteronomy.
If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.
In Deuteronomy, adultery is a capital offense. But in John 8, Jesus responds to this law when a woman was caught in adultery and dragged before him by a crowd of men.
He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.
Jesus’ mercy doesn’t mean he’s condoning adultery. It’s possible that the laws of capital punishment reveal what happens to humans anyway when we sin—we choose what looks good to us, and it leads to death. However, Jesus embodies a principle that seems to be even deeper than the law and death. This principle is simple: God is gracious and merciful to humanity and continues to offer us all a chance to choose life.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo.