The Pharisees seemed to anticipate Jesus’ answer to their question about divorce (Matthew 9.3,7). They were ready with a follow-up question. “Why then, did Moses command one to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” They were talking about Deuteronomy 24.1–4, of course, and they were suggesting that Jesus must be wrong in His interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, since later in the law, in Deuteronomy, Moses “commanded” divorce.

They were not reading their proof text correctly. They were reading it as follows: “If a man marries a wife and she displeases him (for some reason), he shall write her a bill of divorce and send her away.” But that is not what Moses said. Moses did not command divorce; he only recognized that it was happening and tried to regulate it. As Jesus says, he permitted divorce because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. What the text actually says is something like this: “If a man marries a wife and she does not find favor in his eyes … and he writes her a bill of divorce and sends her away … and she marries another man … and her second husband also writes her a bill of divorce and sends her away, then the first husband must not marry her again.” The text says nothing about a divorce being allowed, only about the sin of remarriage after the woman has been joined to another man.

So far so good. But here is where the chief difficulty comes. It is clear that Jesus calls remarriage after divorce adultery, forbidding it. But then He added what is usually referred to as the exception clause. “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Most people today understand “sexual immorality” to mean adultery and conclude that this is the one valid ground for divorce, since adultery will already have broken the marriage relationship. This is the majority view even among the most conservative commentators in our day. However, this interpretation is incorrect. That is not what Jesus was referring to when He said “except for sexual immorality.”

Actually, the words “sexual immorality” prejudice the issue because they mean “adultery.” But “adultery” is not the actual meaning of the word they translate. According to J.Boice, “The Greek word for adultery is moicheia. It is the equivalent in Greek of the Latin words ad alterius torum, which mean ‘to another’s bed.’ We have condensed the three Latin words into our single word adultery. This is what moicheia means, but it is not the word in this passage. The word that occurs here is porneia, which most older versions of the Bible rightly translate as ‘fornication.’ It is broader than moicheia. Porneia refers to different kinds of sexual sin. It is based on the verb pernemi (“to sell”), referring to prostitution, first of all, but then also to other kinds of sexual conduct outside of marriage. The Latin term fornix has the same meaning, referring to the arch of a temple, which was where the temple courtesans collected. From this we get the word fornication.”

If Jesus were referring to adultery as the one legitimate ground for divorce, the text would have used the word moicheia. The only thing it can reasonably refer to then, is impurity in the woman discovered on the marriage night, in which case there would have been deceit in the marriage contract. Jesus would then be saying (in full acceptance with the views of the day) that although a man may divorce a woman immediately after marriage if he finds her not to be a virgin (in which case he was allowed by the law to remarry and was not to be called an adulterer), he is not permitted to divorce her for any other reason. If he does, he places her into a position in which she may be forced to remarry, thereby becoming an adulteress, and he would become an adulterer if he remarried.

The word translated “some indecency” (ESV) or “some uncleanness” (KJV) is actually the word for “nakedness” or “nudity.” The idea was being unclothed for the purpose of sexual relations and thus was associated with sexual impurity, which is the case here. It cannot refer to adultery because adultery was punishable by death, and in that case there would be no need for a divorce. If the word does not refer to adultery, which is sexual sin after marriage, the only thing it can refer to is sexual sin before marriage, which is what is meant by fornication. In other words, Jesus was reinforcing the Old Testament’s teaching by His interpretation of Moses’ specific “divorce” regulation.

There is another interesting point to be considered. Mark also discusses this issue (Mk.10.1-12), but the exception clause that has been the cause of so much controversy does not appear in his Gospel. Matthew is the only Gospel that contains it. Why is that?

The most reasonable explanation is that Matthew is the only Gospel to record the reaction of Joseph when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy. Matthew wrote, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Joseph and Mary were not married, though they were formally engaged, which was nearly as binding, and Joseph wanted to annul the engagement, which was regarded as a divorce, when he learned that Mary was expecting a child. If someone read that, followed by Jesus’ statement in the nineteenth chapter that any divorce was wrong, the reader might conclude that Joseph was willing to break the law by what he planned to do. Matthew included the explanation to explain what had happened in the case of Jesus’ parents.


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