In some of the most perplexing passages in all of scripture, Jesus appeared to indicate that a man should not put away his wife for any grounds other than sexual immorality, and that any man who married a divorced woman was guilty of adultery. In this essay I’ll attempt to demonstrate why this statement by Christ is not at all harsh, and is so widely misunderstood.
During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said these words, as recorded in Matthew 5:31-32:
31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:
32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication [i.e. sexual immorality generally], causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
From later in Jesus’ ministry, Matthew 19 records:
3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication [a general term covering all sexual immorality in 1611 when the English King James translation of the Bible was written], and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
Before we attempt to fully understand what Jesus meant on these two occasions, we should, as always, fully explore the Mosaic Law context and presuppositions that informed this conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. First of all, the Pharisees’ question “Is it lawful. . .” didn’t refer to what was moral before God, nor what was legal under the Roman civil law which governed Israel in the first century C.E. Rather, the question called for Jesus’ interpretation of the Law of Moses (hereafter “LoM”), which religiously observant Jews accepted as authoritative on questions of marriage, divorce, and even separation, as we shall see. The specific verses of the Law of Moses in question were these, found in Deuteronomy 24:
1 When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.
2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.
3 And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife;
4 Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.
In the verses that follow Deut. 24:1-4, no instructions are given about the procedure to follow if a wife seeks to divorce her husband. The Mosaic Law made no provision for that possibility; it was the husband’s prerogative only.1 As this essay will demonstrate, Jesus’ words on this topic are heavily interwoven with his own recognition of the fact that the dictates of Jewish law created considerable risk of cruel and unfair treatment of women, and that the law would often fail a woman if her husband wasn’t righteous.
Several other features of these verses from Deuteronomy, unapologetically sexist by our modern standards, should also be scrutinized. First of all, verse 1 doesn’t make divorce mandatory. The words “let him” may be interpreted here as “he is allowed to,” not “he is commanded to.” The husband doesn’t have to decide that his wife finds no “favor” in his eyes, even if he has found some “uncleanness” in her. He has the option of overlooking or forgiving her perceived misdeed, or determining that the good in her outweighs the bad.
Second, the only grounds granted for divorce is “some uncleanness.” As will be pointed out below, Jesus’ own philosophy was that sexual immorality was the only justifiable grounds for breaking up a marriage, but it remains unclear whether his philosophy represented his interpretation of the Mosaic Law or his higher standard independent of the Mosaic Law. At any rate, the LoM itself didn’t provide cover for a husband who wanted to divorce his wife because she’d lost her former physical beauty, or cooked unsavory meals, or argued with him. “Uncleanness” (also translated as “indecent” by some English translators) was the standard the husband had to meet.
Third, the law specifically granted the woman the right to remarry after her husband had divorced her. This fact is important to remember in light of the fact that fourteen centuries after the LoM was given to Israel, Jesus appeared to say, if we analyze his words superficially, that any subsequent husband who would marry a woman who had been put away or divorced was guilty of adultery.
Fourth, the husband who had supposedly been so upset over his wife’s “uncleanness” was not allowed to divorce her and send her packing, then take her back after another man has married and divorced her, as if to say, “I guess I don’t care that much about your uncleanness after all.” By today’s Christian standard of behavior, this rule appears to unduly discourage husbands to forgive their wives. But in Moses’ time, the implicit message of this restriction seemed to be that a man should either forgive his repentant wife and not divorce her in the first place, or, if divorce was chosen, he should vindicate the integrity of sexual fidelity within marriage by not making it appear less important later when he misses the presence of a wife and sexual partner.
Fifth, and most important to our understanding of this issue, we should note that the Deuteronomic rules above only deal with divorce; they don’t address putting a woman away. This begs the all-important question of whether there’s a difference intended in the discussion Jesus had with the Pharisees between putting one’s wife away and divorcing her. In my opinion, not only is there a difference, but understanding that difference is the key to understanding Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. Their initial question to Jesus was not about divorce. They already knew what the law said about divorce, though there remained disagreements among them over how it should be interpreted. Rather, the Pharisees were asking about a subject on which the LoM provided much less guidance: “Do you infer any limitations from Moses’ law on a man’s right to put away (i.e., separate from without divorcing) his wife?”
The Contemporary Religious Debate Over the Grounds for Divorce in the Time of Jesus
In Jesus’ time, there were two schools of thought among the Pharisees. Those who followed the teachings of the renowned rabbi Hillel, who had been elected to preside over the Sanhedrin, believed that the husband could divorce his wife for any reason, however trivial, without offending Mosaic Law. However, the followers of Shammai, another equally-renowned Jewish scholar, disagreed:
The debate arose between the two Pharisaical schools because of the ambiguity of the Hebrew word used for “something indecent” [or, “any uncleanness” as it reads in the King James Version of the Bible]. The conservative School of Shammai took a very narrow approach to the verse. It taught that the “something indecent” refers to adultery or sexual immorality. So, by this opinion, a husband could only divorce his wife on the basis of unfaithfulness – she must be unfaithful to him. With this understanding, the School of Shammai left little room for divorce.
The far more liberal School of Hillel interpreted the verse quite differently. They taught that “something indecent” meant just about anything that the husband found undesirable about his wife. Hillel taught that even if a wife was lacking in her abilities as a cook that qualified as “something indecent” and was regarded as legal grounds for a divorce. We can find this debate recorded in the Mishnah:
The School of Shammai says a man should not divorce his wife unless he has found her guilty of some immoral behavior as it is written, “because he finds something indecent about her.” The School of Hillel, however, says that a man may divorce his wife even if she has merely ruined his food as it is written, “because he finds something indecent about her.” Gittin 9:102
It was thus against this backdrop of religious debate that the Pharisees asked Jesus the thorny question quoted above in Matthew 19:3. The fact that in his response, Jesus said “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery” suggests Shammai’s conservative view of divorce paralleled Jesus’ teachings on “putting away.” But at this juncture, we must scrutinize Jesus’ words carefully enough that we not read too much or too little into what he said.
The Difference Between Putting Away One’s Wife and Divorcing Her
In the Hebrew language of the Torah, since the process of divorcing a wife involved writing a statement to the effect that you were divorcing her and placing it in her hand, the word for divorce came to be the phrase sepher kerithuth, which meant writing, certificate or bill of divorcement. The Hebrew word for putting away, or “send[ing] her out of his house,” as it is worded in the KJV version of Deuteronomy 24:1, was shalach. Although putting aways one’s wife, i.e., ejecting her from the home, would always naturally follow after the writing of divorcement was placed in her hand, the law had nothing to say about whether or not a man could put her away without divorcing her. In other words, the hole in the law which the Pharisees were asking Jesus about was whether it was permissible for a man to expel his wife from his home (shalach) for any reason he deemed sufficient, without regard to whether or not he formally gave her a sepher kerithuth, i.e., divorced her.
Before we discuss why this distinction between putting a wife away and divorcing her was so important, it’s important to show that putting away one’s wife was not just a necessary incident of divorce, but was practiced independently of divorce and constituted a whole separate problem. This can be shown by reading Mark 10:2-12. There, we read Mark’s version of the Matthew 19:3-9 passages quoted above. Verse 11 is essentially the same as Luke 16:18 and similar to Matt. 19:9, except that, unlike the verse in Matthew, it doesn’t declare a man to be an adulterer for marrying a woman who’s been away. (Matthew 5:32 and 3 Nephi 12:32, which deal with this same subject matter but add a prominent warning not found elsewhere in the canon, are discussed hereinafter.) But verse 12 of Mark’s version contains a concept not contained in Matthew’s version at all: “And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.” (Emphasis mine.) Since women couldn’t divorce their husbands under the LoM, this scripture indicates that “putting away” one’s spouse didn’t signify divorce; it meant separating and discontinuing sexual relations with him or her, and it could be done by either the man or the woman.
Jesus’ View of Unjustifiably Putting Away a Wife
Implicit in all the scriptures discussed in this essay is the presumption that monogamy was highly preferred during Jesus’ life. Polygamy had not been outlawed, as the LoM allowed it, but it was disfavored and frowned on by both Jews and Christians. The stigma against polygamy had been in place among the Jews since their return from the Babylonian exile, and their leading scriptorians had come to see from their own history that taking multiple wives led a man to unrighteousness.3 Further evidence of this stigma against bigamy or polygamy among Christians was found not only in the fact that Jesus’ pronouncements on marriage, separation and divorce all presupposed the presence of only one wife, but also in the teachings by his apostles that church leaders were to have only one wife. (See, 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6.) And, according to Jacob 2:27 in the Book of Mormon, the rule of only one wife per husband was well established among the Nephites when they left Jerusalem 600 years before Christ.
Jesus’ pronouncements on “putting away” consistently demonstrate that individuals who were married but later rejected by and separated from their spouse without going through a divorce, remained a spouse in his eyes despite their separation. And if they participated in sex with a second person, whether they purported to marry them or not, it was accounted as adultery.
With this in mind, it makes sense that Jesus would say in his Sermon on the Mount that a man putting away, or separating from, his wife except for reasons of sexual immorality caused her to commit adultery. (See Matt. 5:32.) The hypothetical victim the Lord likely had in mind had married a husband expecting to live the life of a wife, bear and raise children, be supported by the income generated by the family, belong to a group of friends and neighbors, and be a respected member of the community. Now her husband had found fault with her and removed her from the home. By doing so, he had also removed the expectation of, and opportunity for, fulfillment or happiness. The woman had become the husband’s prisoner, legally unable to remarry because she was still her husband’s undivorced wife. Having her children living with both parents, as well as financial support, a place to live, and family ties– all these were now severed, and the wife’s life ruined, all because the husband found some fault with her. If she wanted the life of a wife and mother that she had originally agreed to, her only recourse was to seek a new mate and enter into a relationship which Jewish law deemed adulterous. Jesus obviously considered punishing a wife so harshly for reasons less than sexual immorality to be unconscionable. Most of the blame for her post-separation adultery under these circumstances rested on the husband.
Christ’s teaching obviously took into account that few wives would ever be deemed uniformly perfect in the eyes of their mates. Obviously no man could live up to a similar standard, either, so it was unjust that he should be able to end a marriage because of his wife’s inability to achieve the impossible. If a wife committed adultery without having previously been justifiably put away, she had chosen to devalue her marriage and could reasonably be required to bear the consequences. But anything less than such immorality was insufficient to justify breaking the marital bond. Being rejected by her husband for small reasons literally made adultery more of a logical option among rejected women than it would have otherwise been. This would accomplish the opposite of what Jesus intended. Too, the husband’s rejection carried with it the harmful effects the re-ordering of family relationships would have on any children already born to the couple. Treating a wife in this manner greatly compromised the integrity, not to mention the appeal, of the marriage institution itself.
Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 19:9 that a man who put away his wife for reasons less than “fornication” and married a second woman was committing adultery also made sense. He was merely separated, not divorced; he wasn’t free to remarry, even if the civil law allowed it. In the Lord’s eyes, his devotion was still owed to his first, and only, wife.
Just as logical was the teaching in the second part of Matt. 19:9 that a man who married a separated woman committed adultery. He was sleeping with another man’s undivorced wife. If she’d been put away for adultery, his taking her as a wife exacerbated the problem. If she wasn’t guilty of sexual sin, he was ruining the chances of reconciliation with her husband by marrying her.
Nonetheless, when the Pharisees asked, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” Jesus was placed in what would be, for persons with lesser resolve, a very delicate spot. He could have provided an answer which took into account that some men and women are very difficult partners to live with. To address this reality, he could have recommended divorce as an easy way for both women and men to escape bad marriages, and he would have still been fully in agreement with the Mosaic Law. Unlike Jesus’ own higher law, the Law of Moses didn’t attach any stigma to a divorced wife’s subsequent remarriage to another man–neither party to it was committing adultery. It would certainly have been tempting for less resolute individuals to answer the Pharisees’ question by saying, “If a man is dissatisfied with his wife and can’t find it within his heart to overlook or forgive what he considers her failings, instead of putting her out of his home while remaining married to her, he should divorce her so she might be free to find a more tolerant husband with which to build a life.” So, in announcing his own philosophy, Jesus could have left the issue of the second marriage alone. Doing so would have given both the man and the woman the ability to remarry (though the wife would still be legally powerless to force a divorce if her husband opposed it) without anyone being perceived as living in adultery with their new spouse. Moreover, loosening his own restrictions on separation and divorce would make it easier on many sincere and innocent Christians who otherwise, seeking to follow his will, would feel obligated to remain yoked for life with difficult spousal relationships.
But in proclaiming his own doctrine, Jesus wasn’t seeking to make himself popular. Nor was he willing to create a new Mosaic Law containing a host of new regulations clarifying which marital misdeeds were the most serious, and which were less serious, and which special circumstances might be deemed exceptions to the general rule discouraging divorce or separation. (I don’t mean to suggest, however, that the Lord’s failure to provide exceptions to his general disapproval of divorce or separation meant that he recognized no exceptions. In fact, I believe the opposite: numerous circumstances today justify separation or divorce. But the Lord trusts us all to spiritually comprehend and embrace the spirit of the law as we seek inspiration regarding the exceptions.) Instead, from what he said, it’s apparent he foresaw that making marital bonds easier to dissolve would achieve the opposite of what he intended–reinforcing marriage’s gravity and sacredness. He knew that men, as they had repeatedly done with the LoM, and as implied by the wording of the Pharisees’ argumentative questions to him, would not only look for loopholes or stretch scriptural interpretations to justify the taking of additional sex partners, but would claim divine approbation for their efforts as well. Indeed, this very thing had already happened centuries earlier among the Nephites. As we read in Jacob 2:23-24, 31 of the Book of Mormon, men had sought to “excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David and Solomon his son.” The Jewish kings’ practices in this regard had been declared “abominable” by the Lord, and the Nephite husbands’ reprisal of those practices had caused “sorrow” and “mourning” among their wives (whom the Lord referred to as his “daughters”) and children.
In fact, the story of David’s life might apply to this discussion more than we think. David’s most famous sins were committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging for the death of her husband in battle. But earlier in his life, he did something which might also have been offensive to the Lord, though it’s not portrayed in the Bible that way. (Of course, neither is David’s taking of many wives and concubines portrayed as abominable in the Bible; we have to read the Book of Mormon to learn how the Lord really felt about it.) When David had the ark of the covenant brought to Jerusalem, he celebrated the event by dancing while scantily clad at the head of the procession of men carrying it as it entered the city. His wife Michal, seeing this, chastised him for his immodesty in front of the handmaids who had watched the spectacle. David’s response was to remind Michal that he was the Lord’s chosen king who’d been favored over Michal’s father King Saul, and that he would continued to do even more outlandish things in the future. Michal, David’s first of many wives, was still childless, and after this conversation, David saw to it that she remained that way. (See 2 Samuel 6:12-23.) Though he was the anointed king, it’s hard to imagine that David’s harsh vindictiveness toward Michal for her understandable attitude about modesty pleased the Lord. However, such were the historic abuses of the Mosaic Law in Israel which Jesus was trying to correct when he reminded the Pharisees and his own disciples that God’s intent had always been to unite husbands and wives, not divide them.
So, as Christ responded to the Pharisees, instead of accommodating the desires some husbands might have to disregard their wives’ interests in deciding whether to keep her or reject her, Christ instead heightened the sanctity of the marital union above its then-current level.
Why Jesus Said Marrying a Divorced Woman Constituted Adultery
It’s hard not to be taken aback by Jesus’ declaration in Matt. 5:32 that the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Lest we believe these words may represent an error, it should be noted that the same statement is found in his sermon to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 12:32. These words come as a surprise to the reader for three reasons. First, they seem so broadly applicable. Hundreds of millions of men have married divorced women. Are all these men adulterers in Jesus’ eyes?
Second, Jesus does not say that the woman who remarries after being divorced commits adultery; he only speaks of the man. But the Book of Mormon makes this exclusive focus on the male’s behavior more understandable when the verses immediately preceding 3 Ne. 12:31-32 are considered. In his sermon to the Nephites, the resurrected Lord said a few extra words about the need for forbearance that he wasn’t quoted as having said to the Jews in Israel. Notice the additional words comprising verses 29 and 30:
27 Behold, it is written by them of old time, that thou shalt not commit adultery;
28 But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman, to lust after her, hath committed adultery already in his heart.
29 Behold, I give unto you a commandment, that ye suffer none of these things to enter into your heart;
30 For it is better that ye should deny yourselves of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross, than that ye should be cast into hell.
Taken together, verses 27-30 are clearly directed to men specifically. Christ addressed the specific proclivity among males to succumb to sexual attractions, the resultant lustful desires of which can eventually lead them to adultery. This tendency was much more pronounced in males than in females, since men anciently had so much control over females. (How likely was Bathsheba to repel David’s advances?) Women didn’t need to hear this message the same way men did. Those women who might succumb to temptation and commit adultery were already subjected to severe penalties imposed by religious law, which were discussed earlier. Their knowledge of those penalties wasn’t something they were likely to forget. So here, Jesus was warning men, not women, because men wouldn’t necessarily suffer immediate punishment for sexual immorality during their mortal lives and were thus more likely to forget that divine judgment still awaited them. For this reason Jesus emphasized that they needed to do difficult things as he had done. As he had taken up and carried his own cross, Christian men should exemplify Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice and suppress their lustful inclinations, lest they be cast into hell on the final judgment day. Therefore, Christ’s warnings about marrying a divorced woman were a continuation of other words on the same subject which were also directed to men.
Finally, the third reason these words surprise us is their seeming harshness. If I interpret his words correctly, though, Jesus meant a man committed adultery by marrying a divorced woman because doing so condoned and encouraged the adultery that got her divorced in the first place. In other words, I believe Christ wasn’t referring to a woman who’d been wrongfully divorced. If she’d been wrongfully divorced, neither she nor the man who married her would have been thought to have committed adultery by so doing. I believe Jesus was referring instead to a woman who, under his own higher law, has been justifiably divorced for sexual immorality. Normally, the adulterous woman married the man she committed adultery with, which meant the second man had stolen the first man’s wife. This woman originally made a lifelong commitment to her first husband, and her new mate had profaned that sacred union in an extreme act of selfishness against the first husband. However, even if the second husband wasn’t the same man who first stole the wife, he was still doing emotional violence to the first husband. He was saying, in effect, “What do I care that my wife cheated on you and exposed you to shame? What do I care that she shattered your family relationships? What do I care about the pain you feel when you see me with her? What do I care if I profaned a marital covenant you treated as sacred? What do I care that I might be normalizing adultery with my actions?”
If this is what Jesus had in mind, the second man posed a grave threat to the institution of marriage, and to the family life designed from the time of Adam and Eve to go along with it. As an aider and abetter of adultery, he deserved to be classified as a participant in it, and Jesus words were just, not harsh.
In summary, Christ’s teachings on marriage, separation and divorce were summed up well by Paul in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it . . .”
(Note: Since this essay was published, two excellent comments have been posted by “Measuring Doctrine” which provide not only valuable context showing why the Pharisees were likely to be asking Jesus about the rightness or wrongness of separation from one’s wife at that moment in history, but also, identifiable errors in the King James Version translation of the Greek word for “put away” or “send away.” The reader is encouraged to read Measuring Doctrine’s comments, below.)
1. Trent C. Butler, ed., Holman Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), p. 373.
2. See online article “Divorce & Re-Marriage” at rabbiyeshua.com.
3. Joseph Jacobs and Israel Abrahams, “Monogamy,” article in 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, available online at JewishEncyclopedia.com.