Sunday, October 14, 2012

Divorce in the 1st Century, part 1

That’s right, I said 1st century instead of 21st. You think we have high divorce rates? I discovered that some historians believe that Roman men averaged 15 to 20 wives in a lifetime (attrition through dying in childbirth and divorce for any reason).  Divorce rates were not that high for Jewish people at that time, but divorce was a serious problem.

In Mark 10 some Pharisees try to trap Jesus with a question they hoped he would not be able to answer without offending half of the crowd: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

There were two famous rabbis at that time, 2000 years ago, who held widely separate views on divorce. Rabbi Shammai taught that divorce was only lawful in the case of adultery. That makes sense because the Torah gave absolutely no circumstance for divorce and the penalty for adultery was stoning to death. By Jesus’ time stoning had been outlawed so divorce seemed a plausible replacement.

Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, held a belief similar to our “no fault” divorce laws in this century. He taught that a man could divorce his wife for any reason: if she burned supper, if she looked at another man, if she was rude to his mother, if she was barren, if he displeased her in any way. You can imagine that this was a popular view. But was it scriptural? Not exactly. It was based on Deuteronomy 24: 1 -4a which states: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.”

So the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is lawful to divorce. A simple yes or no will do, right? But Jesus answers with a question: “What did Moses command you?”

And their argument and their question just melt away with their own words in response: “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

Moses permitted . . . You see the problem already existed and men were casting away wives left and right. Jesus explains: “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote this law.” And that law is the part of Deuteronomy 24:4 above that says she can’t go back to a previous husband.

Jesus says more on the subject and I’ll address it in a future post.