Divorce: Scarlet Letter or Valid Option?, pt. 2


Well, I’ve gone and opened up one of the biggest can of worms in Christendom; I wrote a post in which I didn’t call down anathemas upon the idea of divorce. I actually had the temerity to say that divorce is a valid option for a spouse, so it’s going to be interesting to see if decent folk will return my phone calls.

To begin with, we all know that even Jesus said that there was one case in which divorce is allowed, but we also know that He wasn’t all that thrilled about having to say so, right? I mean, we know that Jesus told the Pharisees God allowed Moses to slip divorce into the Law over His objections, because the Hebrews were so hard-headed and -hearted that even He had to bow to their wishes, right? After all, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives….” right?

Do you not see just how big a wussy that makes God out to be, that He can’t stand up to marital bullies?

Nah, something else must be going on here.

A National Debate

For the past few decades, our country and our churches have been struggling with the issue of abortion. How you stand on this issue pretty much decides whether one half of the nation will talk to you, or if the other half will talk with you, it is just that divisive.**

In Jesus’ day, while the debate in Judah was not as rancorous (I’m thinking it could have been so if there had been a first-century equivalent of Facebook), the Hillel-Shammai divorce debate was just as strong and vigorous. In Matt. 19:3, we are told that a few Pharisees came to test Jesus:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

In what way could the Pharisees have been “testing” Jesus? I believe that it was for the opposite reason that most of us would think. Yes, Jesus, in answering their question, did show where He came down on the whole Hillel-Shammai divide (see my last post for a summation of this divide.) But I’m thinking that the Pharisees were not testing Him to see if He would uphold marriage, but if Jesus would side with Hillel’s interpretation. According to David Inkstone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage In the Church, within two or three generations, Hillel’s teaching had become so popular that most of all divorces were based on his interpretation, and were “any cause” divorces.

(Point of fact: we can pretty much assume that when Joseph wanted to “put Mary away quietly”, we’re talking Hillel’s “any cause” divorce. After all, if you didn’t use that method, you went for the public “trial”.)

Contemporary Terms And Translation Overlook

The Hillel-Shammai disagreement was a national debate, with its own terminology, its own lingo. We have the same situation today. When we discuss the topic of abortion, we use verbal shorthand to convey our points and make it easy on readers and listeners alike. We speak in terms of being Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, and when we use them in discussion, everyone understands what we are saying; these terms have commonly accepted definitions, not needing explanation.

Now imagine a time, centuries later, where there is no debate about abortion, that it isn’t on anyone’s radar. What would readers have to know in order to understand a statement or accusation of someone being pro-life or pro-choice? “If someone is in favor of life and his opponent isn’t, does that mean that she is for death or suicide?” Without the connotation of the terms, it won’t be easy to grasp the denotation.

The same thing applies to the Hillel-Shammai debate, and our Bible translations haven’t picked up on that. As a result, when we read the story of Jesus being questioned about divorce by Pharisees, we aren’t presented with the relevant vocabulary. Oh, it’s true that Jesus was asked about divorcing for ‘any cause’, but the full connotation of that phrase isn’t conveyed.

Believe it or not, Hillel based his divorce teaching on scripture, Deut. 24:1, which reads,

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,

This seemingly innocuous verse (which, by the way, does NOT condemn divorce) is the source from which Rabbi Hillel derived his “divorce for any cause” teaching, and the teaching for which Jesus was being tested by the Pharisees. Rabbi Hillel created the “Any Cause” doctrine and it was this doctrine that the Pharisees were asking about.

But here’s the kicker. Our translations don’t convey to us this information. Just as we use the common lingo of pro-life and pro-choice, the Jews in Jesus’ time would understand that anyone using the term any cause was referring to the Hillel doctrine. The readers of that time would know that the Pharisees weren’t asking for general information about marriage and divorce, but were seeking to put Jesus on the spot with regard to the specific teaching of Rabbi Hillel.

During Old Testament times, there were four valid reasons for divorce, based on scripture; three of these reasons are found in Ex. 21, and one in Deut. 24. The question that the Pharisees asked did not address the three causes that had been accepted from the time of Sinai, from Exodus 21; they were asking specifically about Hillel’s any cause teaching derived from Deut. 24. Conversely, Jesus’ answer was confined to dealing with Hillel’s interpretation of Deut. 24, and did not address the reasons for divorce in Ex. 21, nor did His answer negate the valid reasons in Ex. 21.

Instead, Jesus was specifically asked about Hillel’s teaching, his use of Talmudic reasoning to create a new teaching about divorce. It is unfortunate that our translations of the Bible do not convey the sense of the conversation; if they did, there would be a whole lot less grief and misery in the Church.

A Way To Reword Matt. 19:3?

I use the ESV translation and it gives Matt. 19:3 this way:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

I think a better way to word this verse, in order to convey the intent of the Pharisees and the matter that they were asking about would be something like this:

In order to catch Jesus in error, a group of Pharisees asked Him, “Is the Any Cause teaching in keeping with the Law or not?” (note the caps and italics, to identify it as Reb Hillel’s teaching.)

Open your Bible to Matt. 19, and read the beginning of the chapter. As you read it, use the alternative reading I give you, and see if it doesn’t make more sense of the encounter.


In my next post, I want to delve further into Hillel’s Any Cause teaching, and how he changed Judaism, and influenced Christian marriages for centuries. After all, how DID he find support for divorcing your wife simply because she burned the soup?

Hint: Talmudic reasoning.


** Speaking of divisive, watch the quadrennial meeting of the United Methodists, this coming May, in Portland, OR. They are going to have to deal with Virginia’s petition of remove language condemning homosexuality from the Book of Discipline. It’s gonna be a barn-burner!

1 Comment

Filed under Marriage & Sexuality, Uncategorized

One response to “Divorce: Scarlet Letter or Valid Option?, pt. 2

  1. Pingback: Adultery/Abandonment: Two Sides, One Coin | The Curmudgeonly Librarian

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