In our discussion of the legal grounds that facilitated the development of marriage ties that demonstrated the importance of women to the family history of important biblical personages, we have so far looked at the restrictions on priests  and kings  in terms of who they could marry and how many people they were allowed to marry, respectively. Having examined the Bible’s legal restrictions on the side of entering into marriage, let us turn our attention to the other side of the issue of marriage and look at the biblical position on divorce .
It may sound strange that an examination of the importance of maternal lines in the Bible that we deal with divorce, but a study of history will demonstrate the importance of the issue of divorce when it comes to the security of women and children. The Church of England, it should be remembered, has as its origin the rebellion of King Henry VIII from the Roman Catholic Church because of their refusal to allow him to set aside his wife and marry a more fertile woman. His relentless search for a male heir, something not surprising at all for a member of an insecure royal house which had risen from exile and obscurity only one generation before to obtain the throne of England through victory in a civil war, had momentous consequences for England and for the world as a whole. And, it should be noted, it was the fact that his wife was a member of the Spanish royal house, who had the Pope as a virtual prisoner at the time and was not inclined to suffer an insult to their own dynastic dignity and honor, that led the papacy to deny what had traditionally been a very common request among royals concerned about dynastic lineages.
We find a similar concern in the Bible. Ironically, in light of the present balance of power when it comes to divorce, in biblical history the sanctify and permanence of marriage was designed to protect women. As this is counterintuitive to our present manner of thinking, this will require a lengthier explanation than one might prefer to give, given the general awkwardness of the subject matter and its painful applicability to our contemporary culture. In order to better understand how the sanctity of marriage was of the utmost importance to God and how this was a consistent matter, it is first necessary to look at the sad state of divorce and remarriage during the Persian period of Judah.
Let us first take up this thread in the moving passage in Malachi that discusses God’s hatred of divorce. In Malachi 2:13-16, we read in the solemn tones of Hebrew poetic prophecy: “And this is the second thing you do: You cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and crying; so He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. “For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,” says the Lord of hosts. “Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.””
There is a lot that can and has been said about this passage. A few obvious conclusions germane to our particular investigation can be made somewhat briefly, however. For one, God states his clear hatred of divorce because of the violence it does and because of the harm it does to His children. The sanctity of marriage is designed first and foremost to protect the interests of children, which are harmed by divorce, whether or not there is remarriage, something that is conspicuously true even today. Let us also note that in the ancient world that it was the men who were initiating the process of divorce. Given that, at least anecdotally that most of the divorces I am familiar with including those in my own family were initiated by the wife, this might strike many people as somewhat surprising.
The reasons, though, are not hard to determine. In the case of the divorces mentioned in Malachi 2 above as being so offensive to God, the issue of divorce and remarriage was directly involved with the use of marriage for tactical purposes in order to curry influence with powerful and influential gentiles within the surrounding peoples. We see, this, for example, in Ezra 9:1-4: “When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass.” So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled to me, because of the transgression of those who had been carried away captive, and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice.” We also see this problem in Nehemiah 13:23-28: “In those days I also saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke according to the language of one or the other people. So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons or yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations there was no king like him, who was beloved of his God; and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless pagan women caused even him to sin. Should we then hear of your doing all this great evil, transgressing against our God by marrying pagan women?” And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite; therefore I drove him from me.”
Here we see the crux of the issue. The people of Judah during the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi were marrying heathen women in order to gain marriage alliances with those families. This even included the family of the high priest themselves, who were marrying contrary to the demands of ritual purity among their wives that was required by God’s law. As a result Nehemiah and Ezra and Malachi all took drastic measures to demonstrate God’s unhappiness with both the contracting of improper marriages with unbelievers as well as the impropriety of divorce and remarriage. Ezra tore his clothes and reamed out Israel, Nehemiah drove people from his presence and made people swear to God that they would not contract such marital alliances, and Malachi told his audience that God would not accept their offerings because of their treachery to their wives through divorce and remarriage. We cannot imagine that God has changed his mind and considers such behavior as any less treacherous today.
Unfortunately, whatever level of seriousness the Jewish leaders had gained from the behavior of these three godly men did not last during the remaining hundreds of years of the Second Temple period, and by the time of Christ the sanctity of the marriage covenant had fallen to near contemporary levels, with the school of Hillel arguing that men could divorce their wives for any reason at all, and the school of Shammei (with whom Jesus generally agreed) arguing that divorce was only acceptable for reasons of sexual immorality. Naturally, given the state of this debate, Jesus Himself was asked to give His own thoughts on the matter as a rabbi outside of the Pharisaic establishment in the eyes of the Jewish leadership. Jesus’ reply and extended discussion on the subject of divorce and remarriage can be found in Matthew 19:1-15: “Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there. The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted 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; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it,let him accept it.” Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.”
There are three separate passages here in most Bibles, and yet the second two flow directly from the first and have the discussion of marriage and its sanctity as the immediate context. For example, the concern of Jesus Christ for the little children and their well-being relates to his opposition to the casual divorce and remarriage that was supported by the dominant school of Hillel, mirroring the precise concern of Malachi for those children whose needs and concerns are little regarded by parents in dysfunctional families either together or estranged from each other. We ought not to regard the sanctity that God placed on marriage, and that Jesus Christ affirmed here, make marriage a prison for wives and children to be abused by tyrannical and dictatorial fathers. The high place and honor that God put in marriage was designed to honor women as peers of their husbands in a parity covenant, and parents operating in love and graciousness in the likeness of God’s graciousness and love towards us was meant to serve as a model of godly government for children to be raised up to respect and honor God as a Father and see God’s church as a loving and nurturing mother. Clearly we have failed the divine obligations of our offices by making marriage seem like imprisonment and making positions of authority the object of fear and terror among those who have painful experiences of the abuse of power within divinely ordained institutions.
Even so, we should note here that Jesus’ statement about divorce was sufficiently plain that the disciples, not men noted for the subtlety of their understanding of Jesus Christ, drew from Jesus’ tone and manner in discussing the abhorrence with which God sees divorce the correct conclusion that those who enter into marriage with any degree of flippancy about its permanence would do better not to marry at all. Indeed, for someone who takes marriage as seriously as Jesus Christ does here, even the thought of entering into marriage would require a great deal of soul-searching about whether one was capable of committing oneself to someone regardless of the circumstances that one found oneself in, and whether one had found someone equally as committed to you. I know given my own family background that my lack of confidence in the persistence and stubbornness of any potential mate has been a serious weight of caution on my own awkward and generally unsuccessful efforts at courtship thus far. It would be impossible for me, in light of what I suffered during my youth, to marry anyone I believed would cut and run in the face of difficulties and problems, having lived a life where problems and struggles and difficulties have never been absent.
It is also telling that at this point Jesus Christ answers the shock of his disciples concerning marriage with a reality that there are some people who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Let us also take note of the severity of Jesus’ statements against divorce, saying that what God has joined together in marriage let no man separate, and that a man who remarries after having been divorced is committing adultery and that a man who marries a divorced woman is also guilty of committing adultery in the eyes of Jesus Christ. This is a serious matter, and one that all too many of us fail to pay attention to with sufficient seriousness. If we who considered ourselves followers of Christ treated marriage with the same seriousness that Jesus Christ did, there would not be the epidemic of divorce and remarriage that we see in contemporary society.
But this leads us naturally to another question. If the permanence of marriage was designed to be a protection to women, how is it that we got into the mess that we are in? I do not speak to unbelievers here, but to those who profess themselves followers of Jesus Christ. How is that we have gotten so screwed up in our own behavior with regards to marriage that we can present no moral contrast to the rampant immorality that goes in the world outside? The pitiful state of the institution of marriage among believers is at such a sorry state that we ought to repent to God in sackcloth and ashes, and ought to mourn and weep in sorrow for the pain that we have inflicted upon others and the harm that we have done to our own abilities to worth through difficulties with others and treat each other with the love and honor that God commands.
As is the case with most problems, there are difficulties on the right and on the left that have contributed to our current problems. In examining the contemporary applicability of Jesus’s comments about divorce and remarriage, I hope the reader will forgive me for speaking in generalities. I do not mean to cast judgment on specific cases and situations but rather wish to look at general trends, which may or may not apply in specific cases. That said, our view of marriage is harmed by abuses on the side of both husbands and wives that have greatly contributed to the lamentable state of marriage and its general state of disrepute within the Church and within society at large.
On the right ditch, far too many men have sought to ensure the permanence of marriage but not themselves behaved as loving and self-sacrificial husbands in the model of Jesus Christ. Such men have sought to preach that marriage is until death do us part and then not let their covenantal obligations to their wives curb their devotion to the bottle or their willingness to betray their own marital vows in affairs and have all too often shown violent abuse to their wives and children. The experience of such husbands and fathers has brought marriage into disrepute and made many people think that marriage is meant to oppress women and children because such husbands and fathers have done so in the institution of marriage.
Nor has marriage been lacking in threats from the left ditch. The fact that contemporary laws biased greatly in favor of women has meant that any father can be forced to pay child support to an estranged wife who seeks to poison their children with bitterness and hostility towards him and who shows no honor or respect towards him for the support provided through the garnishment of wages and the threat of loss of one’s property and liberty for nonpayment has made it appealing for many women in unhappy or abusive marriages to divorce and to shaft their husbands. Such women and their behavior do not encourage their children as to the happiness of marriage and often give a negative example of the behavior of would-be wives to sons who grow up to consider the thought of such women to be an intolerable and unacceptable threat to one’s well-being and dignity.
In such a situation both sides are at fault. On the one side, God’s desire for unity and his abhorrence for rebellion and division are never to be used as an opportunity to exploit and oppress others who are denied any opportunity for escape. Those who seek to trap others in corrupt institutions for the purpose of abuse and exploitation are guilty of the wickedest evil and deserve the most serious judgment possible in time and in eternity. Nevertheless, the abuse of institutions does not make those institutions evil, but rather makes the people who hold such offices unworthy of such positions. The human response to denigrate and attack institutions for the failings of people is an equal evil to the misuse of legitimate offices in legitimate institutions because it denies security and ensures the spread of disharmony and hostility throughout the body of Christ, as we find ourselves right now.
What is to be done? Several things must be done simultaneously. For one, we must affirm the sanctity of marriage with the same strong language that was done by Jesus Christ Himself, so that our position may not be misunderstood. We must also make it clear that abuse is not to be tolerated, and certainly not to be done against others. We must also make it known that we are committed to living in harmony with those to whom we are bound by covenant, and that no one need fear that we will use the commandment of dwelling together in unity to be a cloak for exploiting or taking advantage of those weaker than ourselves. Until we do all of these things, we will find ourselves to be in the same state as was the people of Israel in the time of Jesus Christ and in the time of Malachi with people weeping over the division in our marriages and in our institutions, with God responding that because of the hardness of our hearts that He will not honor our offerings to Him.
 See, for example: