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Aπολύω: Divorce


By Chris Conner





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Jesus said, "And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery." Matthew 19:9
Stop. Before you read this give it a chance. You might find more grace and mercy on this subject than you ever knew. We are going to talk about divorce, but we're going to talk about it in context, which will provide some very interesting insight.
"The man who hates and divorces his wife," says the Lord, the God of Israel, "does violence to the one he should protect," says the Lord Almighty. Malachi 2:16 (NIV)
First: in Malachi 2:16 the personal pronoun "I" is not in the Hebrew or the LXX text. Even though it may not say, "I hate divorce, says the Lord," we all know that God hates the breaking of covenants. The better rendering of this would be: "'The man who hates and divorces his wife,' says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'does violence to the one he should protect, says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.'"

The word "divorce", or ἀπολύω (transliteration: apolyo; phonetic pronunciation: ap-ol-oo-oh) means "to free fully, i.e. (literal) relieve, release, dismiss (reflexive depart), or (figurative) let die, pardon, or (specifically) divorce; (let) depart, dismiss, divorce, forgive, let go, loose, put (send) away, release, set at liberty.)"

Now from the beginning we know that God only wanted one husband for one wife: "Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper as his complement'" (Genesis 2:18). The ideal in life is: "One man for one woman." The reality is: "We live in a real world in which there are many divorces." The Bible not only acknowledges the concept of divorce but also legislates it: "If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something improper about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house" (Deuteronomy 24:1). This verse never demanded divorce but allowed it to take place. A person does not have to divorce; he/she may want to forgive that person and be reconciled. Moses' legislation would have discouraged divorce because, now, you had to take the time to write up the bill, get witnesses, take it to the proper authorities etc. This would allow you time to "cool off" and re-think the issue.

Hundreds of years later, the Pharisees, always wanting to trap Jesus on some doctrine, asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?" (Matthew 19:3). "Why then, they asked Him, did Moses command [us] to give divorce papers and to send her away?" (Matthew 19:7). He told them, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning" (Matthew 19:8). They were not looking for the truth, and Jesus was not correcting Moses — he was redirecting the focus to God's ideal. It might be worded this way: "Why are you asking me (Jesus) about the 'real' worldly view and not my 'ideal' view?" Jesus' problem was with the breaking of covenant relationships.
The Pharisees wanted divorce laws to allow them to remarry. Jesus wanted God's ideal plan for marriage.tweet
In Jewish towns there was a court of three rabbis whose responsibility was to hear ordinary marital disputes, but in the time of Christ it was unnecessary even to appear to appear before the court if the divorce was by mutual consent. In this case it was sufficient merely for the husband and wife to sign the bill of divorce in the presence of witnesses. The wife's consent was not necessary for a divorce, nor did the divorce need rabbinical approval unless she contested the matter.

There were two schools of thought at the time of this writing: Rabbi Hillel's and Rabbi Shammai's. Rabbi Shammai said Deuteronomy 24:1 meant that the husband could not divorce his wife except for one cause and that one cause must be sexual immorality. The school of Hillel, however, held that the husband need not assign any reason whatever; that any act on her part which displeased her husband entitled him to give her a bill of divorce. The opinion of the school of Hillel prevailed. Philo of Alexandria and Josephus held this opinion. Jesus seems to have held the view of the school of Shammai (Matthew 19:3-9).

Monogamy has always been God's ideal. But God seemed to tolerate the plural marriages of David and Solomon and others, never referring to polygamy as adultery. Nor was anyone ever commanded to get rid of extra spouses. The adultery that Jesus is referring to is having sexual relationships with anyone who is not your wife, even if you are single.*

Back to our passage in Matthew 19:9. Why did Jesus bring up re-marriage if he was only asked about divorce? Because the Pharisees' intent was always to justify their divorce so they could remarry someone else. They were cloaking their piousness (falsely appearing to be good) with legality. Basically Jesus is saying, "You went through the legal code to get your 'young, new wife' but you haven't fooled God."

When divorce is necessary

One exception to the sexual immorality clause was in the book of Ezra. The exiles had started to return from Babylon. Both they and the Jews who had remained in Israel had married foreign women, against God's command. Over the years, their foreign wives had led them into worshiping pagan gods — the reason they had been sent into exile in the first place. So Ezra told them to "Separate...from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives" (Ezra 10:10-12). And they did.

What about women? A woman could not get a divorce in the Jewish culture (although she could ask the court to compel her husband to give her one**), but in the Roman culture they could. Therefore, the passage in Mark (written to the Romans): "When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, 'Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery'" (Mark 10:10-12, NIV; emphasis added). There is no exception clause ("except for marital unfaithfulness") in Mark or Luke. It is only in Matthew 19:9. In Matthew 5:31-32 we have: "It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you that 'anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery'" (NIV; emphasis added). The reason that he "makes her an adulteress" is because he forces her into it — it forces her to either marry someone else or become a prostitute. It is something done against her and not by her.

A further explanation from Religion Mythbusters: "Marriage and Divorce Myth #1 — Does God Hate Divorce?":
Putting out is altogether different than divorce in Jewish culture. A man would permanently kick his wife out, denying her the Jewish divorce certificate. This woman would still be legally married, but with no home. Her dowry and children would be retained by the husband. She would have already surrendered her virginity to him. She would be ineligible to remarry, since technically, she was still legally bound to her husband. Further, her culture would label her as an adulteress since she did not have a valid divorce certificate. And this lady couldn't just rent an apartment and get a job teaching kindergarten — there was no place for a put out woman in Jewish culture of that day except prostitution. Since the marriages were most often arranged, this whole horrible chain of events would have been completely out of her control. The husband, however, was free to marry again and to do this as much as he liked. That is why Moses required a divorce certificate to be given...so that the marriage was legally, fairly, and religiously terminated and the woman would be free to remarry and go on with life.


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* The word for "sexual immorality," or πορνεία (transliteration: porneia; phonetic pronunciation: por-ney-ah), is where we get the word "pornography." According to Strong's, it means "harlotry (including adultery and incest); figurative idolatry; fornication." Thayer's includes "illicit sexual intercourse, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc. sexual intercourse with close relatives." In other words, sex with anybody that is not your spouse.

**In modern-day Orthodox Judaism, this is still often the case. Although, instead of turning to the courts, women turn to those who use more extreme measures.



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Published 1-28-16