A recent newspaper article told the tragedy of a husband who took his 8-year-old daughter up in a single-engine plane and deliberately crashed it into the home of his wife's mother, killing himself and his daughter. In the Christian tradition in which I grew up, if the man had survived, his wife would not have had biblical justification for a divorce. He could steal money, molest children, and threaten to kill her—and she still would have no cause for divorce.

But if he slept with a co-worker one time, divorce would be okay.

For many Christians, sex and sex alone is the key to the dissolution of a marriage. The rub is that if you are humane about divorce you cannot be biblical, and if you are biblical you cannot be humane.

Can that have been Jesus' intent in his remarks about divorce? In Mathew 19:9, Jesus says, "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." Christians have understood Jesus' words here and elsewhere to mean that divorce is never, ever allowed except for cases of sexual infidelity. Is that what Jesus' intended us to believe?

A Cambridge fellow named David Instone-Brewer thinks not. His recent doctoral work on first-century rabbinic Judaism, resulting in books such as "Divorce and Remarriage in the Church," has suggested what will certainly become an influential framework for understanding divorce and re-marriage in coming years.

How Biblical Divorce Protects Women

Instone-Brewer suggests that there were two binding texts Jewish rabbis looked to on marriage and divorce. One was Deuteronomy 24:1, which says, "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 . . . he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house."

The certificate of divorce was largely a way of protecting the woman. It meant that in Jewish society—unlike in the society governed by the Code of Hammurabi—a woman's first husband could not come back and re-claim her. Divorce's main purpose was to permit re-marriage so that a woman would not starve or be forced into prostitution.

"Indecency" in this passage involves a Hebrew word that can be translated as "sexual immorality," so here the basis for divorce is sexual infidelity. But what about other issues—abuse, or abandonment in marriage? Mosaic law covers those cases as well, in a kind of roundabout way.

The other binding divorce text is in Exodus: "If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish [the first wife’s] food, her clothing, or her conjugal love. If he does not provide her with those three things, she is free to go, without payment of money" (Exodus 21:10-11),

While this law initially covered a slave wife in a polygamous marriage, over time the rabbis looked at this text and figured that the rights involved would also extend to wives who were free and marriages that were monogamous. The rabbis decided that this law implied a vow for provision (food and clothing), as well as a vow to give love (sexual intimacy and affection).

So a marriage vow consisted of three promises:
1.    Fidelity (no sexual unfaithfulness)
2.    Provision
3.    Love

Whenever these vows were broken, the victim had the right to get divorced and re-married. Indeed, marriage—to "be fruitful and multiply"—was understood to be the first command of Torah. There was no thought of divorce apart from the right to re-marry.

A few decades before Jesus was born, the two most famous rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, debated the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24. Hillel noted the text said a man could divorce his wife for "a cause of sexual immorality." Since rabbis believed that every word in Scripture was there for a reason, Hillel decided that this word "cause" must refer to another ground for divorce besides sexual immorality: any cause.

Hillel believed a man could leave his wife for any reason: wearing her hair unbound, burning the toast, or renting two consecutive chick flicks from Blockbuster. Shammai, on the other hand, thought that Deut. 24 only referred to sexual immorality, and that this "any cause" divorce was wrong.

Hillel's "any cause" divorce was popular among Jewish men. It was much easier to get, though more expensive. It is almost certainly what Joseph was thinking of when he considered divorcing Mary "quietly" in Matthew 1:19—"quietly" being a technical term. He would graciously refuse to charge her with her infidelity, and get an "any cause" divorce even though he’d still have to pay the bridal inheritance.

When Jesus mentions divorce in the Gospels, he is articulating his position on the Shammai/Hillel debate. He is not talking about the legitimacy of divorce in general. No rabbi would have asked, "Is it ever lawful for someone to divorce?"—it would have been like asking, "Is it ever lawful to do what Moses said in the law?" (Imagine someone in our day asking, "Do you think it's okay for a sixteen-year-old to drink?" We would know they meant "drink alcohol," but someone from another culture might need this spelled out. Likewise, we need Jesus divorce context spelled out for us, but his original hearers understood the Hillel-Shammai "any cause" debate.)

Jesus sided with Shammai on the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. But Jesus and Paul (and Shammai for that matter) would have shared the rabbinic understanding that divorce is regrettable but permissible when the vow of fidelity, provision, or love has been broken and there is no repentance. This would include abuse and abandonment.

And that is the framework, Instone-Brewer convincingly argues, that should govern church life in our day. The wisdom of the scriptures turns out to be humane after all.

But God Does Hate Divorce--Here's Why

If anyone wonders whether there can be life and grace after divorce, it is worth meditating on a statement in Jeremiah. Often in the Bible, the main metaphor used to describe God’s relationship to Israel is a marriage. Likewise, the main metaphor for idolatry is adultery. So, through the prophet Jeremiah, God says,  "I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce, and sent her away because of all her adulteries" (3:8).

Many people know that in Malachi God says, "I hate divorce." But they may not know why: God has been through it. He knows the humiliation of rejection and betrayal—from hard-hearted people like me.

God hates divorce because God is a divorcee. So he invented the first divorce recovery program. It started at a place called Calvary. The price was a cross. The program is still underway.        
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