Why did Moses allow divorce but Christ did not?

SHARE

By BibleAsk Team


The topic of divorce in the Bible, specifically the differences between the Old Testament allowances and Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, is a nuanced and significant issue in Christian ethics and theology. To explore why Moses allowed divorce but Jesus did not, we need to examine biblical passages from both the Old and New Testaments, consider historical and cultural contexts, and understand Jesus’ teachings on marriage and divorce as recorded in the New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible.

Divorce Laws in the Old Testament

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (NKJV)

The allowance for divorce under the Mosaic Law is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4:

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (NKJV):

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

This passage outlines the conditions under which divorce was permissible according to the Law of Moses. It permitted divorce in cases of “uncleanness” or indecency, allowing the husband to issue a certificate of divorce and send his wife away. This certificate served as a legal document to formalize the divorce and protect the woman’s rights to remarry. The Old Testament law that made provision for divorce was merely a concession designed to meet situations that were not perfect (Deuteronomy 24:4). The Israelites were babes in the Lord (1 Corinthians 3:2). They came right of slavery and had no knowledge of God’s ways.

Historical and Cultural Context

Ancient Near Eastern Practices

In ancient Near Eastern societies, including Israel, divorce was commonly practiced and often involved male-dominated legal frameworks where husbands had significant authority over marital matters. The provision in Deuteronomy 24 reflects a concession to regulate divorce practices within Israelite society, providing a degree of legal protection for women who were vulnerable to abandonment or mistreatment.

Jesus’ Teachings on Marriage and Divorce

Matthew 19:3-9 (NKJV)

Jesus’ teachings on marriage and divorce are recorded in several passages in the Gospels. One significant passage is found in Matthew 19:3-9, where Jesus responds to a question from the Pharisees about divorce:

Matthew 19:3-9 (NKJV):

“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.'”

Christ’s law was not new at all, because the law of Genesis 1:27; 2:24 preceded the law of Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1–4 and is superior to it, for in the Eden period of Genesis, God’s ideal for His human children is set forth. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). God has never changed the law of marriage He gave in the beginning. It was not His plan that divorce should ever be necessary. And Christ declared that God’s law can’t change, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” (Matthew 5:17-18, NKJV).

Jesus’ Clarification

God’s Original Design

In His response, Jesus reaffirms God’s original design for marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman, rooted in the creation narrative from Genesis. He emphasizes the sacredness and permanence of marriage, stating, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Hardness of Hearts

Jesus acknowledges that Moses permitted divorce under the Mosaic Law due to the hardness of people’s hearts. The allowance for divorce was a concession to mitigate the harm caused by marital breakdowns within the fallen human condition. It provided a legal mechanism to protect vulnerable individuals, particularly women, from being abandoned without recourse.

Higher Standard of Ethics

However, Jesus introduces a higher standard of ethics regarding marriage and divorce than what was permitted under the Mosaic Law. He teaches that divorce and remarriage are permissible only in cases of sexual immorality (often interpreted as adultery), where the marital covenant has already been violated. In such cases, divorce is not commanded but allowed as a concession in response to the breach of fidelity within the marriage.

Paul’s Teachings in the New Testament

1 Corinthians 7:10-16 (NKJV)

The apostle Paul also addresses issues related to marriage and divorce in his first letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, Paul provides guidance for Christians who are married to unbelievers:

1 Corinthians 7:10-16 (NKJV):

“Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?”

In this passage, Paul reinforces Jesus’ teaching on the sanctity of marriage and discourages divorce, urging spouses to remain committed to their marriages even in challenging circumstances. However, he acknowledges that divorce may occur in cases where an unbelieving spouse chooses to leave the marriage.

Reasons for the Differences

Progressive Revelation and Ethical Development

Morality itself is constant but our gradual understanding of it may vary. The Israelites where like infants in the knowledge of truth and therefore were given only milk. But as the truth unfolded up to the coming of Christ, Christians are now served spiritual meat and more is expected of them (1 Corinthians 2:2).

As humanity’s understanding of God’s will and ethical standards unfolds throughout Scripture, there is a progression towards higher moral expectations and a deeper understanding of God’s original intentions for humanity. Therefore, Christians today who desire and purpose in their hearts to follow God’s plan will not, without scriptural grounds, resort to divorce as an answer to marital difficulties (Matthew 19:9).

Restoration of God’s Original Design

Jesus’ teachings on marriage and divorce reflect His mission to restore God’s original design for humanity, which includes the sacredness and permanence of marriage as a covenant relationship. In contrast to the concessions made under the Mosaic Law, Jesus calls His followers to uphold a higher standard of marital fidelity and commitment, rooted in God’s unchanging character and intentions.

Importance of Covenant Faithfulness

Jesus’ teachings emphasize the importance of covenant faithfulness and the mutual responsibilities of spouses within the marital relationship. Marriage is viewed not merely as a legal contract but as a sacred covenant before God, intended to reflect the love, faithfulness, and unity between Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:22-33).

Practical Applications and Contemporary Relevance

Commitment to Marriage

For Christians today, Jesus’ teachings on marriage and divorce call for a renewed commitment to honoring God’s design for marriage as a lifelong union characterized by love, forgiveness, and mutual respect. This commitment involves nurturing healthy relationships, seeking reconciliation and forgiveness when conflicts arise, and upholding the sanctity of marriage in a culture that often promotes individualism and divorce as acceptable solutions to marital difficulties.

Reflection on Personal Relationships

Individuals are encouraged to reflect prayerfully on their own relationships, seeking God’s guidance and wisdom in honoring their marital commitments and responsibilities. This includes prioritizing communication, mutual respect, and the cultivation of a Christ-centered marriage that reflects God’s love and grace to the world.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the differences between Moses’ allowance for divorce and Jesus’ prohibition reflect the progression of ethical understanding and God’s unfolding revelation throughout the biblical narrative. Moses’ concession under the Mosaic Law was a response to the realities of human sinfulness and the need to provide legal protections for vulnerable individuals within Israelite society.

In contrast, Jesus’ teachings on marriage and divorce uphold a higher standard of ethical conduct, rooted in God’s original design for marriage as a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman. His teachings emphasize the sanctity, permanence, and mutual responsibilities of marriage, calling His followers to reflect His love and faithfulness in their relationships. As Christians seek to navigate the complexities of marriage and divorce in contemporary society, they are called to uphold the biblical principles of love, forgiveness, and commitment, trusting in God’s grace and guidance for their marital journey.

Check out our Bible Answers page for more information on a variety of topics.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

We'd love your feedback, so leave a comment!

If you feel an answer is not 100% Bible based, then leave a comment, and we'll be sure to review it.
Our aim is to share the Word and be true to it.