Messiah Yeshua Teaches Tenakh and Jewish Halacha, 3: Torah for the Kingdom: Adultery, Divorce and Remarriage in the Sermon on the Mount

The Kingdom of Heaven is Now
As Yeshua unfolds his message in the Sermon on the Mount, it becomes clear that his focus is on the coming Kingdom of Heaven. We have seen in my previous articles that this Kingdom of Heaven is a realm that will exist in human history. Yeshua is not promising some utopian existence in heaven after death, or in another age. Such a promise may indeed be found elsewhere in Yeshua’s teaching, but not in the Sermon on the Mount. He is talking about a coming time when the rule of G‑d will begin to happen on the earth in a new way. For those who take up the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, that rule is already here.

The New Covenant is Not Yet Fully Realized
Even though the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Yeshua happened long ago, his establishing of the New Covenant foretold by the Prophet Jeremiah (31:31ff) has not yet become a reality. There is no place on earth, nor has there ever been, where people have the Torah in their hearts, and do not sin at all, and everyone knows the L‑rd from the least to the greatest. The full experience of the New Covenant is still in the future. The Kingdom of Heaven, as we experience it now, is still a realm of real people with real life problems. Therefore, we still need the Torah to govern our personal and community life.

The Torah is Still in Force in the Kingdom of Heaven
It should come as no surprise that Yeshua announces:

Matthew 5:17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.
18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

The Torah is still in full force “until all is accomplished”. Exactly when “all will be accomplished” is another subject. This clearly has not happened yet, not in Yeshua’s time, and not in ours.

Yeshua is addressing a Jewish audience here. How his words apply to non‑Jews will be covered in another article. The question I am asking is: “What did Yeshua’s original words mean to his original hearers?”

The Torah is Not for Heaven, But for This Life        
Yeshua opens his exposition of Torah with the sixth Commandment: “You shall not kill.” His bold addition, “But I say to you …” adds that even anger, insults and name-calling will result in judgment by both human courts and divine punishment in hell, if they reflect murderous intentions in the heart.

If people have to be told not to kill, and to be warned against anger, they must be people who can get angry and even kill. Yeshua is not speaking to people who live in a perfect world-to-come. He is speaking to people who need the Torah to govern their behavior, even under the rule of the Kingdom of Heaven, indeed, because we are under the rule of the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore he gives advice to those who may bring a sacrifice to the Temple and find themselves angry with someone, or to people who are being taken to court to face a lawsuit. His Torah is for common, every day, ordinary life. It is these people who, once they take on the yoke of the Kingdom, are expected to live by the Torah.

An Example: Yeshua on Adultery, Divorce and Remarriage
It may be true that we pass the years of our lives without engaging in sexual acts with a woman who is not our wife, even less so with one who is the wife of another man. Yet in a sense, we have not obeyed the Biblical command simply by abstaining from the act. The command speaks to someone who is tempted, who has the desire and the opportunity, and who chooses not to do it. Then one can say he has obeyed the commandment.

Yeshua takes it a step further:

Mat 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

28 But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.

30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

If we have imagined the act, there is a sense in which we have already committed adultery. Where the eyes and heart go, the body and soul follow. So Yeshua wants us to avoid this kind of imaginary adultery, a kind not punishable by law, but one that can lead us to break the commandment. He is speaking in a hyperbole, or overstatement, an exaggeration for emphasis. In modern language, we might say to someone, “Don’t even think about it!”

The overstatement is even more obvious in verses 29-30, where he says it is better to cut off our own hand or gouge out our eye than to let those body parts lead us to sin. It is safe to say that he did not mean for us to do this literally, because mutilation of one’s body is also forbidden in the Torah (Lev. 19:28, for example). Rather, Yeshua is telling us the importance of not playing with thoughts that will lead to disobedience.

Divorce Does Not Legitimize Adultery
Yeshua goes on to say the following:

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’

32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity (Grk. logou porneias=Heb. d’var ‘ervah), makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

These verses are widely understood to be Yeshua’s definitive statement about divorce and remarriage. However, “also” in v.32 continues logically the subject of committing adultery. If we understand Yeshua to be speaking in the context of unfaithfulness of the husband, the meaning becomes clearer. Imagine a husband who meets another woman, possibly a married woman, and thinks he loves her more than his wife. He might think, “The Torah allows me to divorce my wife, and my lover could get divorced from her husband, and we could marry and live happily ever after.” He might think this, but he would be wrong. Yeshua tells this man that the legal mechanism of divorce, unless it is for legally recognized grounds, will not change the fact that he is committing adultery against his wife (and his lover’s husband). Divorce may be legal, but only on certain grounds, and lust is not one of them. Adultery whitewashed with a legal document is still adultery.

But, if such an unfaithful man is actually an adulterer, how does he make his wife an adulteress? The Greek word translated “adulteress” is moicheuthenai, actually a passive form that should be translated “one against whom adultery has been committed”. If the husband leaves his wife for another woman, she is innocent. His sin does not make her a sinner! Now let’s fill in the details. What do the Torah and the Mishnah say about this?

Divorce and Remarriage in the Torah
The Torah does not give a systematic command about divorce. There is only one short passage that talks about it. The Torah assumes that divorce is a recognized legal procedure, and that a bill of divorce gives the ex-wife the right to marry another man. The Torah only says that if the next man also divorces her, she cannot remarry her first husband.

Deuteronomy 24:1 “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 (ervat davar), and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house …”

The reason for divorce stated in this Torah passage is “if she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her”. The phrase “some indecency” translates the Hebrew ‘ervat davar. ‘Ervah is a common Hebrew word that means ‘impropriety’, usually sexual. Davar is an even more common word that means ‘word, thing, case, matter’. The words are common, but the word order is odd. If the word order were reversed, then the meaning would be clearer: ‘a case of impropriety’. But the word order in the text is opposite: ‘the impropriety of a thing’. This phrase appears only one other time in the Torah, where soldiers are commanded to relieve themselves outside the camp, and to use a spade to cover the excrement, so …

Deuteronomy 23:14 … that [the L-rd] may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you.

‘Anything indecent’ is our ‘friend’ ‘ervat davar. This does not terribly help us to understand the divorce law, other than to reveal that ‘ervat davar does not only mean sexual impropriety. The grounds for divorce are vague and open to interpretation. Any feeling of the husband that something about her is unacceptable could conceivably be grounds for divorce.

One thing is clear: ‘ervat davar is not marital unfaithfulness. Why? Adultery and other sexual crimes in the Torah are punishable by death, which means that divorce would be, shall we say, unnecessary. The innocent party would be free to marry again (without a divorce). The grounds spoken of in this text are referring to some incompatibility between the husband and wife. Some suggest that this could include bad behavior or some foul odor. But whatever grounds the husband finds do not necessarily mean that the wife will be unacceptable to the next man who marries her. So there is some room for interpretation.

Does G-d Hate Divorce?
There may be some who object to divorce on the basis of Malachi 2:13-16, where G‑d says, “I hate divorce”, and insist that all divorce is evil and wrong. I want to point out that in that passage, the L‑rd speaks about men of Judah who are faithless, who betray their wives, who commit violence against them, and who leave them in order to marry foreign, idolatrous women. This is similar to the situation that I believe Yeshua is addressing in the Sermon—faithless men who leave their wives to commit adultery with other women, while trying to sanctify their sin with a fictitious divorce procedure. In cases like these, divorce does not cover up violence and unfaithfulness. That is what the L‑rd hates.

The point of legal divorce in the Torah and in Jewish law is to protect the woman (today, both spouses) from betrayal and abandonment. If a marriage goes wrong, as unfortunately happens too often, you don’t just walk away from it. Care must be taken to ensure the security of the wife, who in Torah times did not generally own property or work outside of her home. A divorced woman gets a document that permits her to marry again, and there is in Jewish law a financial settlement so she and the children are not left abandoned and helpless. If divorce is done in a careful, compassionate way, it is not necessarily a sin.

Note that in the Torah, adultery is violation of a married woman. A husband could have more than one wife, but a woman can have only one man. A husband could divorce his wife, but the wife could not initiate a divorce. In later Jewish law there are ways a woman could force her husband to divorce her. And in Greek and Roman law, which were in force in the time of Yeshua, either spouse could divorce the other.

The Debate over the Grounds for Divorce in Yeshua’s Time
As I already mentioned in my last article, in Yeshua’s day there were two schools of Pharisees, the schools of Hillel and Shammai, who were prominent Rabbis in the generation before Yeshua. The two schools dominated the world of Torah interpretation in Israel until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. They were known for taking opposite sides in many debates over the application of Torah laws. They enjoyed popularity among the people, and so their opinions were freely quoted and debated in public, and we see many examples of this in the Gospels. Here is their debate over the grounds for divorce:

Mishnah Gittin 9:10 Beth Shammai say, “No man may divorce his wife, unless he found in her scandalous behaviour [unchastity], for it is said [Deu. xxiv.], ‘Because he found in her some scandalous behaviour [‏d’var ‘ervah‎];’” but Beth Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his food, because it is said, [‘ervat davar‎]”. R. Akivah saith, “Even if he found one handsomer than her, for it is said [ibid.] ‘If it happen that she found no favor in his eyes.’”

As expected, the School of Hillel makes the more lenient interpretation, based on the wording of the Torah, ‘ervat davar, which is ambiguous. They are not suggesting that a man divorce his wife for spoiling his food; they are only saying that the wording of the Torah permits a broad interpretation, in their opinion. The School of Shammai, on the basis of reading the Torah text as if it said d’var ‘ervah, makes a stricter ruling, limiting the grounds for divorce to sexual impropriety, which still could include behaviors like flirting or immodest dressing.

Yeshua Enters the Debate
Yeshua engages this debate, which was raging at the time like the public debate about gay marriage today. It is interesting that the Greek version of his words in the exception clause in 5:32 reads logou porneias, which looks equivalent to the Hebrew d’var ‘ervah of Beth Shammai’s position. This might mean that Yeshua is taking the same strict position as Beth Shammai. This is unusual, since Yeshua generally is more like Beth Hillel. But it is certainly possible that he would agree with Beth Shammai in this case. However, there is a catch, and this is a technical grammatical point.

The Greek words logou porneias are both genitive, so it is possible that it could be the translation of ‘ervat davar, even though the word order is reversed. It does seem more logical, though, that it translates d’var ‘ervah, which shares the same word order. This is not the place for a long technical analysis. I will only say that I believe Yeshua usually takes a more lenient, gracious approach to Torah. In any case, if I am correct about his intentions in the Sermon, the important thing about the grounds for divorce is that they do not involve another woman. Yeshua is saying here that divorce may not be used as a legal device to legitimize what would otherwise be adultery—leaving one’s wife for another woman.

Rabbi Akivah, on the basis of the phrase “she found no favor in his eyes”, suggests that a man could divorce his wife if he found someone he liked better. Again, Rabbi Akivah is not intending to encourage men to do this; he is merely searching out the boundaries of the law according to the wording of the Torah. However, this phrase does not stand alone. It continues “because he found in her some scandalous behavior”. So Rabbi Akivah’s opinion does not really work anyway.

Akivah lived in the early second century, about 100 years after Yeshua, so Yeshua was not addressing him directly. But I argue that Yeshua intended to forbid divorce for the purpose of marrying another woman. He therefore anticipates Akivah’s interpretation, and rejects it.

In Matthew 19, in a discussion with some Pharisees, Yeshua says nearly the same thing:

Matthew 19: 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”

However, he adds the phrase “and marries another”. While “and” is commonly taken to mean, if he ever marries another, I propose that the meaning of “and” is, if he divorces his wife in order to marry another. This makes explicit what I argued is implied in the Sermon (5:32). Yeshua sidesteps the argument with those Pharisees by using the same ambiguous word that the Torah uses—‘ervah. Thus he says that there are Biblical grounds for divorce, but whatever they may be, they are between husband and wife—perhaps because of hardness of heart (incompatibility), perhaps because of improper behavior, but not to legitimize adultery.

I have argued that Yeshua’s Sermon on the Mount is mainly about the coming Kingdom of Heaven. This Kingdom happens in this life, and the Torah is fully in force. The Torah is not an ideal standard for a utopia that does not exist. His teachings about Torah instruct us how to live in the real world, to confront life’s real problems, and to navigate them with justice and compassion.

With this in mind, what Yeshua says about divorce in the Sermon is in the context of his teaching about adultery. Divorce cannot cover up an adulterous relationship. A man who leaves his wife for another woman is committing adultery, even if he tries to “make it legal” with a divorce. His wife is a victim of his sin.

I believe Yeshua allows for legitimate grounds for divorce in cases of incompatibility between husband and wife. An unsuitable couple should not be trapped forever in a painful marriage that will not work. It is true that marriage is sacred and must not be entered into or broken up lightly. If divorce becomes unavoidable, it ought to be done with proper concern for the welfare and security of both spouses and the children. Marriage is intended to be a life-long commitment; it does not need to be a life sentence.

Leib Reuben