And Pharisees came up to [Jesus] and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3-9)
This encounter with the Pharisees is often cited as evidence that, while divorce was permitted in the old covenant, it’s forbidden in the new covenant, and indeed, a surface-level reading of this passage does seem to yield such an interpretation. After all, Jesus appears to be saying that divorce was a concession to the Israelites’ weakness, and He’s removing this concession by bringing new covenant marriage back to how it was “in the beginning,” that is, when there was no divorce. However, upon closer examination, I think it becomes evident that this is absolutely not what Jesus was doing here. I believe that, in this passage, our Lord was not abrogating the Mosaic laws concerning divorce and remarriage, but rather providing the proper interpretation of these laws; and while this interpretation was stricter than (some of) the Pharisees,’ it was not a deviation from Moses’ original teaching.
In order to see this, let’s begin by looking at the law the Pharisees were referencing when they said, “Moses command[ed] one to give a certificate of divorce,” a fact that Jesus didn’t disagree with. It’s almost certain that the marriage laws of Deuteronomy were in mind here, specifically:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house. (Deuteronomy 24:1)
The reason we know the Pharisees had this verse in mind is not only because it mentions “a certificate of divorce,” but as I’ve explained before, there were actually two opposing Pharisaic interpretations of this verse in the 1st century, which is what Matthew 19:3-9 is all about. Recall how the Pharisees began their inquisition by asking Jesus not if it’s lawful to divorce your wife, but if it’s lawful to divorce her “for any cause.” This is important because we know from rabbinic sources that the 1st century school of Hillel taught just that, namely, that Deuteronomy 24:1 permitted husbands to divorce their wives “even due to a minor issue, e.g., because she burned or over-salted his dish” (Gittin 90a:3). On the other side, however, there was the school of Shammai, which held that this verse only allowed divorce if the husband “finds out about [his wife] having engaged in a matter of forbidden sexual intercourse” (Gittin 90a:2).
Understanding this context helps explain what exactly the Pharisees were asking Jesus. They weren’t asking Him whether or not divorce is lawful, they had no reason to ask this because the Law clearly says that it is, rather they were asking what causes a divorce to be lawful, thus seeing if He sided with Hillel or Shammai. Jesus’ response then makes perfect sense: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” The question our Lord is addressing here is why the Law permits divorce, and His answer is that Moses didn’t allow divorce for “any cause,” but only for a “hardened heart,” which refers to a sin that transgresses God’s covenant. This is how the imagery of “hardening” is used throughout the NT, it always refers to some kind of rebellion against the covenant (cf. Jn. 12:40, Rom 11:7, 2 Cor. 3:14). Thus Jesus says, “from the beginning it was not so.” In the beginning, prior to man’s rebellion against the covenant, there was no divorce because there was no sin. Jesus’ point is that divorce was not part of God’s original design for marriage, but rather a necessary consequence of covenant-breaking sins, and this is why only these sins can cause a lawful divorce.
Hence, after making His argument, Jesus goes on to state His interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 more explicitly: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The cause of divorce is not the mere whim of the husband, as these Pharisees most likely believed, but the wife’s transgression of the marriage covenant, the covenant that binds her to be “one flesh” with her husband (and vice-versa obviously). Jesus was not abrogating Moses’ teaching on divorce, rather He was providing its correct interpretation; and in so doing, our Lord demonstrated that, unlike other issues, the school of Shammai actually got this one right.
This is perfectly in line with Jesus’ treatment of Mosaic Law elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, right before His teaching on divorce, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). We would not conclude from this passage that Jesus was removing the Mosaic prohibition on adultery, but rather that He was drawing out this commandment’s full meaning, i.e. providing its correct interpretation. It’s in this same way that we should interpret Jesus’ very next teaching: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:31-32).
Like the prohibition on adultery, our Lord’s declaration, “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you,” was not meant to nullify the Torah’s allowance of divorce and remarriage, but rather clarify its full meaning. This is why, prior to discussing specific Mosaic Laws (such as those concerning adultery and divorce), Jesus was clear that He did “[not] come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” and indeed, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law” (Matt. 5:17-18). Jesus didn’t come to nullify the Law of Moses, He came to fulfill and correctly interpret it. And once again, Jesus’ interpretation of the OT divorce laws was that merely giving your wife a certificate of divorce isn’t what dissolves the marriage, only marital infidelity does this. St. Cyril of Alexandria summarized this teaching well: “It is not the letters of divorce that dissolve a marriage in relation to God, but the [spouse’s] errant behavior” (Patrologia Graeca, 72:380).
Indeed, this interpretation of our Lord’s words can be confirmed by going back to the OT itself where, unsurprisingly, see that Jesus’ reading of Deuteronomy 24:1 is actually correct on the Torah’s own terms. The followers of Hillel argued that, because Moses said a man can divorce his wife due to “some” or “any” (דָּבָ֔ר) indecency, this essentially gives the husband free reign to divorce his wife for “any type of shortcoming in her” (Gittin 90a:3). Shammai’s followers responded by focusing on the word “indecency” or “nakedness” (עֶרְוַ֣ת), arguing that Moses meant “any nakedness,” that is, any sexually immoral act, is what breaks the marriage covenant. This interpretation is borne out by looking into the usage of “עֶרְוַ֣ת” throughout the Torah. The term most frequently shows up in Leviticus where, in just two chapters, it’s used 32 times to describe unlawful sexual unions (Lev. 18:6-19, 20:11-21). This already suggests that Deuteronomy 24:1 intended to use “nakedness” in a similar sense, and there’s more.
As Peter Leithart notes, Leviticus 18 and 20 talk so much about sex and incest because they’re describing what he calls “covenant flesh.” The Bible’s first description of marriage is that, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), which shows us that marriage is about separation from old flesh, and the creation of new flesh. This word “flesh” (בָּשָׂ֖ר) is very important in Leviticus, where it’s used 61 times, and especially Leviticus 18:6, which says: “None of you shall approach any one who is flesh of flesh (שְׁאֵ֣ר בְּשָׂר֔וֹ) to uncover nakedness.” You’re not allowed to uncover the “nakedness” of someone you have a “flesh of flesh” relationship with, and what this means is revealed by the fact that these relationships aren’t limited to biological relatives.
For instance, Leviticus 18:14 prohibits uncovering the nakedness of your uncle’s wife, a woman neither you nor your father would have any biological relationship with. The reason she’s still “flesh of flesh,” though, is because you’re of the same flesh as your father, he’s of the same flesh as his brother, and through covenantal marriage, your aunt has become one flesh with him. In Leithart’s words, “A man and woman unite in one flesh in marriage, and their shared flesh spreads out, as it were, to net the biological relations of each into a flesh-group.” However, it’s because of this joining together of different flesh-groups that the boundaries of “one flesh” relationships must be so carefully guarded. This is the logic of Leviticus 18 and 20: Every time a new marriage occurs there’s a cut made in the flesh, which not only unites two old fleshes, but also creates a new covenantal flesh whose “nakedness” cannot be “uncovered.” Any violation of this nakedness warrants the death penalty (Lev. 20:10-16).
So clearly, the Torah’s usage of the word “nakedness” has a very specific connotation in the context of marriage, namely, it refers to the inviolable boundaries of the marriage covenant. Thus when we see Deuteronomy 24:1 say that divorce is lawful on account of “any nakedness,” the interpretation of Shammai is the most natural: Any violation of the marriage covenant is grounds for a divorce. This perfectly explains why, when agreeing with Shammai on this matter, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that the two in marriage “are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). Man doesn’t have the ability to sever a “one flesh” relationship, only covenant-breaking sin does. And indeed, we see the logic of this “divorce theology” play out in both the Old and New Testaments.
The prime example of divorce occurring in Scripture is when Yahweh divorces His bride Israel. The entire book of Deuteronomy essentially constitutes the “marriage vows” between God and Israel, with the Lord making it very clear that any violation of this covenant will result in Him divorcing His bride, and taking another: “They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation” (Deut. 32:21). If the nation of Israel commits spiritual adultery (idolatry) against her Divine Husband, then He’ll divorce her and take a new bride from among the Gentile nations, “I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’” (Hos. 2:23). In other words, God Himself will divorce and remarry on account of a covenant violation, i.e. an exposure of spiritual nakedness.
This is why, outside of the Torah, the word “nakedness” is frequently used in the context of Israel being portrayed as an adulterous bride. In Ezekiel’s prophecy, the Lord reminds Israel, “I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine” (Ezek. 16:8). But now, “Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols… I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness.” (Ezek. 16:35, 37). The Israelites having the ability to divorce their wives due to “any nakedness” served as a fearful reminder that Yahweh could do the same. And when we get to the NT, we see that this kind of relationship between God and His people hasn’t changed.
While St. Paul does say that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39), he also reminds us what happened to the last people who took this for granted: “For if God did not spare the natural branches [Israel], neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Rom. 11:21-22). Just like the old covenant, God has a legal right to divorce members of the new covenant if they persist in spiritual adultery. Thus, it’s quite fitting for new covenant marriage to reflect this principle as well, which is why our Lord permits divorce on account of “sexual immorality” (πορνείᾳ), a term that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 to describe those who are to be excommunicated from the Church.
In conclusion, Scripture lays out a very clear theology of divorce, wherein a marriage can only be dissolved on account of a covenant-breaking sin. Not only does this teaching pervade Moses and the Prophets, but it’s also confirmed by our Lord Jesus, who very often took sides in the debates between Hillel and Shammai over how to interpret the Torah. On this matter, He sided with Shammai in ruling that divorce and remarriage is only lawful on account of “nakedness” or “porneia,” a ruling that the Orthodox Church has upheld to this day.