The Greek Geek

Aπολύω: Divorce

By Chris Conner

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.

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 that the marriage was legally, fairly, and religiously terminated and the woman would be free to remarry and go on with life.
Jesus' goal, here, was to make sure if a wife was released by her husband, she wouldn't be forced into sin (either adultery or prostitution). It is not a sin to have a divorce forced upon you. In fact, Paul gives at least one example in which a woman should accept divorce peaceably. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, he says, "To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her." And skipping over to 1 Corinthians 7:15: "But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace." Now the reason for this is fairly simple: God would love for us to live in peace, in our relationships with Him and with one another. If we are married to someone who is not a believer and they do not wish to be married to us because of our belief in God, then Paul said, let them leave. It is better to not force someone to remain married when they do not wish to be. We do have an example of mixed marriages: "Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek" (Acts 16:1, NIV).

The term "living in adultery" or "still married in the eyes of God" is a Catholic doctrine that came about in the 15th century. This interpretation was never found in any of the church father's writings or before the 15th century. The Catholic Church wanted to decide who gets to be married or not (divorced). What about abuse, gambling, addictions, physical abuse and threats? Jesus always took the side of the oppressed. Jesus always appealed for the ideal but recognized the real. Divorce is always wrong but sometimes it is best. Remaining married is always right but it is not always best. Sometimes divorce is the "lesser of the two evils." God even divorced Israel: "I observed that it was because unfaithful Israel had committed adultery that I had sent her away and had given her a certificate of divorce" (Jeremiah 3:8). There are times when the divorce is the fault of only one person, but not in the vast majority. And even for that part, divorce is sin, but not unpardonable.

Now for the position that Matthew 19:9 is talking about "continuing" to commit adultery: I am not a Greek scholar so I will explain this the best way I know how. "Mood" has a lot to do with the tense of a verb in Greek. Instead of defining the word, let me tell you what "mood" does:
(1) It shows actuality or certainty: a simple statement of fact;
(2) It shows possibility;
(3) It shows the action as being conceivable;
(4) It shows a command.

In Greek it is difficult to determine, except through the context. For example: "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field" (Matthew 13:44; emphasis added). He does not continue to buy a field. It cannot be said that the man kept on buying the field. This is a common use in the Greek. In this verse: "Send her away because she cries out after us" (Matthew 15:23; emphasis added), the situation involves the continual tense: "she continues to cry out." In 1 John 1:7, "But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses (continually cleanses) us from all sin," what we have in Greek is known as the "gnomic" present, and the limits of time on both sides of this type are not defined. It is known as a general truth and continuity is not under consideration here. As in Matthew 7:17, "every good tree produces good fruit...," there is no reference to time. Thus, we might read that "every time the incident of divorce occurs" it is one act of sin (one isolated act of sin) and there is no continuation. If you have been divorced, it is a sin, but not unforgivable. It is a one-time sin, not continual. You committed it, you are forgiven, and you move on.

The last point to be made is that when Jesus met the woman at the well, He told her: "For you've had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband" (John 4:17-18). Yet He still offered her salvation! The Bible is clear in that it says: "Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate" (Matthew 19:6). So, we conclude several things:

(1) God always wanted one man for one woman;

(2) Moses did not command divorce but allowed it because of the hardness of their hearts;

(3) Rabbi Shammai was more strict on the subject than Hillel;

(4) The O.T. never referred to David or Solomon having many wives as adultery;

(5) God allowed David to have many wives: "I gave your master's house to you and your master's wives into your arms, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah, and if that was not enough, I would have given you even more" (2 Samuel 12:8);

(6) God commanded the people of Ezra's day to divorce their wives because of idolatry;

(7) The discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees was a plot to trap Jesus. They wanted him to side with Hillel, who held the more liberal view;

(8) If a non-believer is not willing to stay with you, let them leave. Divorce is better than holding someone in a marriage against their will;

(9) In Malachi 2:16 does not contain the personal pronoun: "I";

(10) According to the Greek construction of the sentence, there is no such thing as "continuing to commit adultery" or "still married in God's eyes";

(11) Divorce is an isolated act of sin and can be forgiven just like any other sin!

* 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.

Sources: Strong's Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary
Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
Holman Christian Standard Bible
"Sermons on Divorce," and "The Present Indicative in Matthew 19:9" by Carroll D. Osburn

Published 1-28-16