Translation and Notes
1And he left there and arrived in the region across the Jordan from Judea, and again a crowd came to him, and as it was his custom, he taught them again.
Jesus is continuing his trip toward Jerusalem and death. The rest of Mark is focused on the coming sacrifice. On the way, however, challenges continue.
2And the Pharisees were approaching him and asking him if it was legal for a man to divorce his wife. They were testing him.
This episode is a challenge to Jesus’ attitude toward the law, rather than a question intended to honestly discover information about God’s attitude to divorce.
There was, however, a very real question about divorce in the culture, with the followers of Shammai holding a strict interpretation of divorce and allowing it only in the case of adultery, while the followers of Hillel allow divorce for almost any reason. I’m usually in sympathy with Hillel, but in this case, Shammai seems to me to have gotten the divine intention just a bit better.
3But he answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4So they said, “Moses permitted us to write a divorce paper and to divorce.”
Like good Christians of today, the questioners are ready with a scripture that supports their position. Many a Bible student has latched onto a less clear scripture and pounded his Bible, refusing to consider any other option. The Pharisees were right—in that sense. They had their scripture, and if that one scripture was the sole basis on which a decision should be made, they had their case. That was, of course, precisely what they assumed.
Their scripture, in this case, is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The certificate of divorce was very important. This was a merciful provision (IB on Mark 10:1-12). A woman who was not a virgin needed to be able to prove that her reasons for not being a virgin were legitimate. A woman sent away without any evidence was completely at the mercy of anyone.
This whole topic cries out to be treated as a trajectory. Start with a situation in which divorce was solely the province of the man, who could send his wife away merely verbally, leaving her with nothing. The provision of Moses was that a certificate was required. Jewish tradition expanded on that and provided more rules that made it harder for the man to be arbitrary. Christian tradition has typically been a bit confused on the issue.
Jesus suggests where we find the ideal to pursue—Genesis 1 & 20—in the spiritual union that God intended. This passion of the two sexes for one another is God’s best metaphor for his passion for seeking us. If you don’t believe me, just read any Andrew Greeley novel. Greeley has an incredible capability for expressing the gospel in the form of fiction, and has a thoroughly Biblical view of the relationship of human sexuality to salvation.
So the trajectory in this case would run from no stability in sexual relations, through the rules and documents specifying how one gets out, to the near forbidding of divorce, to an ideal in which a “husband loves his wife as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25-26). Our focus should be on creating and preserving marriage bonds that live up to the “one flesh” ideal.
5But Jesus said to them, “He wrote you that commandment because of your hardness of heart. 6But from the beginning of creation male and female he created them. 7Because of this a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, 8and the two will become one flesh, so that they are no longer two but one flesh. 9So what God has joined together nobody should separate.”
Jesus also turns to the scriptures—a different one in this case. He does what we should do much more often in dealing with issues of sexual morality. He looks for the ideal. That ideal is expressed, as Jesus tells his questioners, in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. The first tells us that God created one humanity, who are male and female. Genesis 2:24 tells us that the two combine to become “one flesh.”
Now it is physically impossible for the two to actually become one body, but God intends the spiritual union, the combination of their two lives, emotions, and desires into one to be so complete that from the outside they look like one person. In this case I have a quibble with Darrell Bock (p. 299), who notes that “Jesus sought to shift the issue from what will allow one to get out of a marriage to an emphasis on staying in it” and also “the most important point: marriage is designed to be permanent.”
Jesus is definitely intending such a shift of emphasis, but I think his point here, based on the scriptures he uses, is that the union is to be so complete and divinely ordained and accomplished, that permanence is the only imaginable goal. In other words, the emphasis is on the nature of the bond; the permanence is derived from that.
10Now when they were in the house again his disciples were questioning him about this. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery with her, 12and if she, having divorced her husband, marries another, she commits adultery.”
The explanation Jesus gives his disciples simply applies the principle he gave his questioners. The one who creates a split in the sacred bond is the one who is responsible.
And here is where I think it is extremely easy to misapply this passage. First, Jesus does not attempt here to provide a complete discussion of marriage and divorce. He answers a question and deals with the controversy. At the same time he provides a number of pointers to how questions should be answered. The incompleteness of his answer might be noted by comparing this passage to Matthew 5:32, in which an exception is provided.
But if we look at the sacredness of the bond in question, the two becoming one flesh, what can possibly break that bond? In modern times there have been many cases, for example, in which a woman has been instructed to remain in a marriage with a physically abusive husband in order to preserve the sacredness of the bond. But what precisely is the sacred bond she is preserving? Surely the husband is not behaving as “one flesh” with the wife he is beating.
This is, in my view, a case of applying the facts of one case to another without discovering the principles behind it. If a wife could demonstrate that her husband had committed adultery by having sexual relations with another woman, the church would have recourse to act against him as a matter of church disciple. If the woman instead shows that her husband is beating her, what should the reaction of the church be? I would suggest it should be at least every bit as strong as the church’s reaction to the husband who has committed adultery. That man is committing an offense against he divine institution of marriage and has broken his marriage covenant as much as the man who commits adultery. Of course, the same principle would apply were the sexes of the partners involved reversed.
Jesus points us to the ideal, an ideal we should aim to carry out in our lives. But that ideal is violated both by actions that terminate the marriage covenant in effect, and by actions that terminate it in public. We are more concerned with the public ending of the marriage bond, with people knowing that it has happened. We need to be just as concerned that a marriage has ended even when it is only privately known.
Note: See this entry for a list of works commonly cited in these notes.