Summit Days 2-3: Putting Away the Traditional Teachings on Divorce

The final two days of Summit last week, I attended a class given by Barron Jones, whom I’ve mentioned before. The title of this post was the name of the class. Barron presented his material in a way that kept a serious subject light – lest it become too serious – and certainly made me want to study the issue more. He probably needed one more hour (he only had two), as he ran out of time both days, and as such, left me a touch unconvinced.

“This is about people,” he began. “This is not about theology. … It’s about people’s lives, and they get messy.”

The first day he devoted to simple defining the traditional teachings and poking logical holes in them.

“If I can get you to say, ‘I don’t know,’ then we’ve made progress,” he said. “We need to embrace that phrase and understand it does not mean weakness. It means humility. This topic is about pride and humility as much as it is about marriage and divorce.”

The traditional teachings are the ones arguing the Bible calls for those who have been divorced to remain celibate the rest of their lives – that remarriage is tantamount to adultery.

But Jones started with some basic premises: That we don’t have everything the biblical writers ever said about marriage and divorce, and that the Bible was not written to provide all of the answers about those subjects. “We are trying to ascertain an issue for which the Bible was not written,” he said. “The Bible was not written to teach about marriage and divorce. The texts that address this issue were not written to answer our questions.”

The problem, Jones said, is that this rewards immorality and punishes morality. A man who gets married and converts to Christianity, but is then divorced by his wife, must remain celibate. A man who sleeps around, even impregnates one or two women, then settles down with a wife and seeks forgiveness for his past sins – he’s just fine. That may be what God teaches in the Bible, Jones said, but we should acknowledge that the teaching does in fact reward immorality and punish morality.

Likewise, it makes divorce a worse crime than murder – because a man can murder his spouse and remarry but cannot do the same if he divorces her. The Bible, after all, allows remarriage in the event of the spouse’s death, but “what verse says that if you are the cause of the death of the spouse, you cannot remarry?”

“God gave divorce so that men wouldn’t kill their wives. We’ve tried hard to put [women] back in the hell God wanted to release them from.”

Among his other examples, Jones noted that if two people are still married in the eyes of God despite their civil divorce – as the traditional teaching argues – then a divorced man and woman who have since married other people can hook up with each other years later, thereby cheating on their new spouses, and the act must be considered holy because, after all, they are married in God’s eyes. And if they aren’t married in God’s eyes, how can they have committed adultery by remarrying in the first place?

“No Scripture tells us when marriage begins,” Jones noted, because marriage is inherently cultural – it begins at a different place in the relationship depending on where and when you live. And if God is flexible about when marriage begins, it’s possible he accedes to cultural norms about when it ends, as well.

Finally, he added one last point: The traditional teachings on divorce elevate restitution over grace. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.

The second day, Jones dived into the text.

The base text for all biblical teaching on divorce is Deut. 24:1-4:

Let’s say a man marries a woman, but she isn’t pleasing to him because he’s discovered something inappropriate about her. So he writes up divorce papers, hands them to her, and sends her out of his house. She leaves his house and ends up marrying someone else. But this new husband also dislikes her, writes up divorce papers, hands them to her, and sends her out of his house (or suppose the second husband dies). In this case, the first husband who originally divorced this woman is not allowed to take her back and marry her again after she has been polluted in this way because the Lord detests that. Don’t pollute the land the Lord your God is giving to you as an inheritance.

That’s the Common English Bible, and the NIV and other modern translations tend to say the same thing: “If the husband … then he …” Jones argues the King James Version, for all its other flaws, actually has the better construction:

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.

And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.

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;

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.

Note the difference in emphasis. The CEB emphasizes whether the first husband can take back the divorced wife after she has remarried. The KJV emphasizes that the husband wishing to divorce his wife must perform three actions. Instead of if/then, it’s when/let him. And that makes a big difference. Jones argues the text is written to protect women from being sent away by their husbands without a certificate of divorce, which proved they were no longer married. Without it, they were unable to remarry, while their ex-husband could continue to marry and send away at will.

This passage is the basis for Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew and Mark. In Matthew 19, when the Pharisees ask Jesus about what the Law teaches about divorce, Jesus says this: “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts are unyielding. But it wasn’t that way from the beginning. I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Most assume Jesus is using a Beatitudes construction; Moses says this, but I say this. Jones argues Jesus is elaborating on the original command: Moses says this, and I say this. In other words, he’s reinforcing the original protection of women and condemning the use of wives as objects to be discarded when the husbands grow tired of them. The use of “divorce” in this passage is incorrect, Jones argues, because the focus of Deuteronomy was on the sending away, not the certificate of divorce, and because the same Greek word is used for both concepts, modern translators have missed the nuance.

This is especially noticeable in Mark 10:4, which the CEB translates: “Moses allowed a man to write a divorce certificate and to divorce his wife.” The second “divorce” should be “send away,” Jones argues. Which means Mark 10:11-12 should actually read this way:

He said to them, “Whoever puts away his wife [without a certificate of divorce] and marries another commits adultery against her;  and if a wife puts away her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

Paul has things to say in 1 Corinthians 7, but Jones ran out of time, and I have, too, but it’s worth noting that Deuteronomy and Jesus are both speaking in specific cultural contexts, and they both are dealing with the language of Jewish law, which separated divorce from the sending away of the spouse. By attempting to apply those texts directly to the modern American culture, we have done violence to the text.

In the end, I wonder if the CEB translation of 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 gets the sense of God’s views on the subject: “A wife shouldn’t leave her husband, but if she does leave him, then she should stay single or be reconciled to her husband. And a man shouldn’t divorce his wife.” Should and shouldn’t. Not must. Not cannot. But should.

I’d like to study more Jones’ argument about the structure of Deuteronomy 24 and the distinction between “divorce” and “send away.” But that will have to wait. In the end, it’s problematic for us to bring forward thousands of years the teachings on such a culture-bound issue as marriage and divorce and expect it to apply neatly and smoothly to a radically different context.

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