Bible Scandals

I couldn't figure out why Nick (not his real name) had given up his well-paid day job and flown across several time zones to help me publicise a rather scholarly book on biblical divorce. Over coffee one day he told me about an old school friend who joined the same church as him after she'd got married. Occasional bruises and unexpected absences soon indicated that her marriage was going badly wrong. Nick wasn't surprised when she left her husband, but the minister and elders of the church were shocked. They sympathised, but said that as a Christian she had to trust God and return to her husband. She protested that they had no idea how bad his temper was, but in the end she did return to him. One day, no one knows why, her husband went after her with a gun. As she ran from the house, he shot her dead. Nick decided from that day to do all he could to look for biblical solutions to such problems.

Scandals of abuse existed in New Testament times, but Old Testament law allowed women to divorce their husbands long before the abuse got too bad. Examples that we have recorded in Jewish law codes of the first two centuries include the case of a woman who was ordered by her husband never to visit her parents and another where the wife was forced to pour all the household waste water onto the manure heap instead of using the normal drain (think of the smelly splatter!).[1] The courts agreed that these were cases of abuse, and the women had the right to a divorce. Of course they heard many thousands of other cases, but these two were recorded as a benchmark so that in cases of the same or worse abuse, other judges would know that the victims had the right to a divorce.

The Jewish leaders learned this approach from the Bible, which establishes a general law by specifying the minimum requirements. Exodus 21 details the law of marital neglect by listing the minimum support that must be given to a wife: food, clothing and love (Exodus 21:10-11). The law said that these were the minimum requirements even to wives who had been slaves, so it is clear that they were also due to free-born wives and to husbands. These three were the basis of Jewish marriage vows: the husband had to provide food and cloth, while the wife had to make meals and clothing, and both had to give themselves in love to each other.

Lawyers can sometimes seem to ruin everything, and especially romance. The rabbinic lawyers shortly before Jesus’ day decided to define exactly how little should be regarded as neglect: they stated how much food and clothing the husband had to provide, how many meals his wife had to make, and even how often they had to make love. A man who worked normal hours had to do his 'duty' once a week, but a travelling salesman was allowed a month off and a sailor was allowed six months off. An unemployed man, however, was expected to perform every night![2]

If either partner neglected to provide food, clothing or love, the other could take them to court and get a divorce. Cases of adultery or physical neglect (failure to provide food or clothing) were straightforward, and divorce was granted if the wronged partner wanted it. But in cases of emotional neglect (ie. refusal of physical love) the rabbis created time for reconciliation by imposing a long series of fines on the reluctant partner. A husband was fined by having to add to his wife’s dowry (which she took with her if they were divorced), and a wife was fined by reducing this dowry. This continued till the money ran out or they made up.

The important question for Christians is how Jesus and Paul interpreted this Old Testament law of divorce for neglect and abuse. One problem the church has grappled with for centuries is that Jesus appeared to forbid divorce “for any cause ... except sexual immorality” (Matthew 19:3-9). The common interpretation until recently has been that Jesus allowed divorce only for adultery. This has been very difficult to understand pastorally and seems absurdly contradictory of other biblical principles since it appears to condone abuse and abandonment. Even as early as AD 200 the Church Father Origen was puzzled by it. He said that if a wife was trying to poison her husband, or if she deliberately killed their baby, then for her husband “to endure sins of such heinousness which seem to be worse than adultery or fornication, will appear to be irrational”.[3] Nevertheless, Jesus’ teaching appeared plain, so the church followed it.

This mystery has been recently solved by research in ancient Jewish documents where we find that the phrase 'Any Cause' divorce was a legal term equivalent to the modern no-fault divorce (see the chapter 'No-fault Divorce'). By means of a legalistic interpretation of the phrase “cause of immorality” in Deuteronomy 24:1, some rabbis allowed divorce for both 'Immorality' and 'Any Cause'. When they asked Jesus what he thought, he confirmed that this phrase referred merely to divorce for adultery (nothing “except sexual immorality”). He totally rejected the newly invented divorce for 'Any Cause'. The misunderstanding through the centuries has been the belief that Jesus was referring to all grounds for divorce rather than the 'Any Cause' divorce specifically.

Jesus actually said nothing about the law of divorce for neglect and abuse in Exodus 21. This was partly because he wasn’t asked about it and partly because it wasn’t a topic of debate like the text in Deuteronomy 24. All rabbis still accepted these biblical grounds of neglect of food, clothing and love and ancient Jewish marriage contracts found in caves near the Dead Sea show that its three requirements were incorporated into Jewish marriage vows. Every couple would promise each other to provide “food, clothing and bed” (a euphemism for sexual intercourse), just as it says in Exodus 21.

Jesus’ silence on the subject isn’t unusual – there were many other things about which he said nothing, including the biggest issues in this area of ethics: he said nothing at all about rape, incest, or sex before marriage (an omission which every youth leader regrets!). But the reason he didn’t speak about these matters is because he agreed with the clear teaching about them in the Old Testament, and since all Jews accepted this too, it was not an issue.

Jesus certainly wasn’t silent when he disagreed about something! For example, when he was asked about divorce he took the opportunity to point out other areas where he opposed the current teaching on marriage. He disagreed with those Pharisees who thought that divorce was “commanded” after adultery (Matthew 19:7-8); he rejected polygamy, which was still allowed by most Palestinian Jews (Matthew 19:5; see the chapter on 'Polygamy'); and he denied that marriage was compulsory, as taught by most Jews (Matthew 19:12; see the chapter on 'Ineligible Bachelor'). None of these subjects were ones Jesus had been asked about; he deliberately brought them up himself because he wanted to tell the Jews everything they were getting wrong in the area of marriage and divorce law. As with the other ethical areas he was silent about, Jesus did not say anything about cases of neglect or abuse because there was no need to. The Old Testament law was totally accepted by everyone and there was therefore no reason for him to specifically affirm it – he would only have needed to speak about it if he disagreed with it.

Arguments from silence are not always very safe and we are fortunate that Paul gives some very positive affirmation of this teaching. Paul, unlike Jesus, had to speak about the three marital obligations in Exodus 21:11 because his Gentile converts needed to learn the biblical principles that were well-known to Jews. In 1 Corinthians 7 he pointed out that a husband and wife’s marriage obligations included “love” for each other, not to deprive each other, and to provide each other with “worldly things” that is, food and clothing (vv. 3-5, 33-34). These three obligations also turn up in Ephesians where the church is portrayed as a bride of Christ who “loves … nourishes and cherishes” her – or, more literally, “loves … feeds and keeps her warm” (Ephesians 5:29).

Paul was responding to members of the Corinthian church who wanted to leave their non-Christian partners. One woman had already “separated from” her husband, which in Roman law meant she had already divorced him. Roman law required no paperwork or court appearance; as soon as you separated with the intention to divorce, your marriage was legally over and you were available for remarriage. Paul said that non-Christian marriages were valid in God’s eyes (1 Corinthians 7:12-14) and he couldn’t allow divorce when there were no valid grounds. This woman shouldn’t have left her husband, so Paul told her to attempt reconciliation and to remain unmarried because a new marriage would make reconciliation much more difficult! (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)

As a believer, this woman presumably obeyed Paul and the marriage was re-established. But what about the opposite situation when a non-believer divorced a believer? Paul deals with this in verse 15, saying that such believers are “no longer bound” or, literally, “no longer enslaved”.  No – this doesn’t mean that Paul regarded marriage as slavery! The concept comes from the wording of Jewish divorce certificates which say: “You are now free to marry anyone you wish” (as Jewish lawyers pointed out, they use the exact wording found on freedom-from-slavery certificates). Paul wasn’t commenting here on whether they could get divorced because that had already happened – as we have said, in Roman law the marriage was already over – but he was telling them that, having been divorced, they were free to remarry. This fits in with the Old Testament law of neglect, because someone divorced against their will has, in effect, been abandoned, and therefore their divorce is based on biblical grounds.

The principle followed by Paul and the Old Testament law is that only the wronged partner has the right to initiate divorce. In Moses’ law, the person who was neglected could demand freedom from the marriage. But what if the other person initiates divorce? The Corinthian woman who divorced her husband without any proper grounds was told to go back and ask for reconciliation because she had no right to end the marriage. This meant that the choice now lay with the husband she had abandoned to either accept her back or accept the divorce. Any man or woman who was divorced against their will without biblical grounds, had the right to end the marriage because they were the wronged partner and were “no longer bound” (1 Corinthians 7:15).

In all these details, Paul agreed with Jesus that no-fault divorces were wrong. Jesus rejected the 'Any Cause' divorces of Jewish society and Paul rejected the divorce-by-separation of Roman society. Jesus demanded that there should be valid grounds for ending the marriage, such as adultery, and Paul affirmed that these valid ground included neglect and abandonment.

My friend Nick realized that this rediscovery of ancient legal terminology wasn’t just obscure scholarly research – it meant that the New Testament allowed divorce for abandonment and abuse. He saw that Jesus’ teaching now “made sense” again, and faithful believers could be set free from marriages in which they are trapped as victims of abuse or neglect. For him, spreading this news is a mission to prevent others suffering like his murdered friend. The church has a vital role in encouraging and supporting healthy marriages, but we also have a clear responsibility to seek biblical remedies for those who are suffering in abusive marriages.

Go to 5. Unforgivable Blasphemy


[1] Mishnah Ketuvot 7.4-5.
[2] m.Ket.5.5-8.
[3] Origen, Commentary on Matthew II.14.24.

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© 2012 David Instone-Brewer
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