Where is Your Certificate of Divorce?

I meant to blog on this earlier. I mean that a lot. But I meant to blog on this prior to last Sunday, October 4 (Lectionary 27 in Year B), but stuff got in the way. More about some of that later.

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading was Mark 10:1–16, where Jesus answers a question about marriage and tells his disciples that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” A lot of pastors preached on something other than the Gospel, simply because dealing with divorce is difficult.

I didn’t preach last Sunday. But if I had, it would have gone something like this.

1 And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.

2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. ’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh. ’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:1–12 ESV)

This is a tough teaching, and it’s the clearest teaching on marriage and divorce that we get anywhere in scripture. The historic church has taught, on the basis of this scripture passage, as well as the bit of Genesis that Jesus quotes here, that marriage is indissoluble. Not just in the church, but in nature as well. Once a man and woman are joined together, that cannot be dissolved. It is not meant to be dissolved, and it is not supposed to be dissolved.

And the more I read scripture — particularly the very story of God’s unfailing love for unfaithful Israel — the more I’m actually convinced of this understanding. At least in the church. I’m not convinced of the church’s understanding of “natural law” here. But that is neither here nor there right now.

Because there’s something that needs to be recognized. Scripture rarely teaches about abstractions like “marriage” or “divorce” or “war” or “abortion.” Scripture is a story that deals with very specific examples, and not abstract ideas. Even the torah, the teaching, deals more with specifics than it does with generic notions of right and wrong and do and do not.

In fact, the torah doesn’t deal at all with “divorce” as a concept or a practice. (Nor does it deal with “marriage.”) It seems to presume that practice, and only deals with divorce in several very specific instances in Deuteronomy 22 and Deuteronomy 24.

Divorce is first mentioned — twice — in Deuteronomy 22. Verses 1 –21 tell what the community is to do if a man falsely accuses his wife of not being a virgin on their wedding night. If evidence of that virginity is produced (a bloody sheet?!?), the elders of the city will whip the man, fine him 100 shekels (which are given to the woman’s father), “And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days.” (v. 18) In this case, the act of divorce is presumed as a lawful action a man can pursue (such as marrying more than one wife in Leviticus 18 and 20), and so all this instance of the teaching does is forbid it. The passage presumes bad faith on the man’s part — he “goes into her and then hates her” (v. 1) — and so the consequence of bad faith on his part is not just that he cannot dispose of his wife, but he also has to deal with his in-laws — a bigger deal when marriage was at least as much an arrangement between two families as it was between two people.

The second mention is very similar. Verses 28–29 say:

28 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (Deuteronomy 22:28–29 ESV)

This is the third of three teachings in Deuteronomy 22 on rape, and it’s the only one in which no one dies. (It helps that she is not betrothed here; I will write more on this when I write about rape.) But the context is specific — a man takes a young woman, they are caught, he has to pay a bride price, marry the girl, and they cannot ever get divorced. Again, this is about the long-term consequences of a bad faith act. You want something so much that you are willing to take it thinking you will never get caught, well, you might just get caught, and you simply cannot walk away from that.

Both of these passages seem to me to assume divorce as an acceptable action or response, at least by men.

But it’s Deuteronomy 24 that Jesus is likely riffing on. (Or, most likely, the oral teaching, which can derive acceptable divorce.) And if so, what Jesus actually says in Mark 10 (and Matthew 19, and Luke 18) is way more interesting.

1 “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, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 24:1–4 ESV)

This teaching almost seems absurd. It would have prevented Liz Taylor’s second marriage to Richard Burton, for example. Because, this is not a teaching about “divorce.” Not really. It’s about something else entirely.

It’s about Israel.

Through the prophets — specifically Ezekiel and Hosea, but also Jeremiah — God uses the language of infidelity and unfaithfulness in marriage to describe God’s covenant with Israel and Israel’s idolatry. I outline here how the Prophet Ezekiel deals with this is chapters 16 and 23. God is Israel’s spouse, yet Israel has wandered away, faithlessly, and had many lovers. False gods, and the nations who serve those false gods. Idolatry is a very carnal sin here, a physical act in which a body is given in self-centered service to one who cannot love, or be loved, properly.

And yet, God promises redemption. In Hosea 3, God tells Hosea to “love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, even though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” (v. 1) In Ezekiel 16, God promises to remember his covenant with Israel and “establish an everlasting covenant” with his wayward spouse, and that God himself will “atone for you all that you have done.” (v. 63)

It is a circumstance very similar to the one outlined in Deuteronomy 24, God marries Israel, she leaves him for another, and then seeks to return. Now, granted, in Deuteronomy 24, it is the men who have the problem with the woman, and send her packing with certificates of divorce. So, she cannot return to her first husband — that would be an abomination.

But God also shows, in his love for his wayward bride, that he has issued no certificate of divorce. Divorce if you must, God is telling Israel, but consider what faithfulness really looks like. I’m not going to tell you with faithfulness looks like, God says. I’m going to show you. After all, the teaching given in Deuteronomy 24 is exactly counter to what God does in regards to Israel.

Except that it isn’t, because God never divorces Israel.

Jesus is reminding us of something, I think. The marriage that really matters is that between God and Israel/Church, and there is no possibility of divorce. Because God will NEVER leave Israel/Church. Divorce here is the breach that makes reconciliation and redemption impossible. Because it makes the separation permanent.

So, what do we do with this? I’m not sure. I’m not sure everything we call a marriage has been joined together by God. Merely because the magistrate (or even a pastor or priest) has said “I pronounce you” doesn’t mean that God himself has actually joined something together. But even as I find the Catholic position more sensible on this, I’m not sure how this should reflect itself in the practice and communal life of the church. And I really don’t care about the law.

But I think this puts it best: Divorce if you must, but know what real faithfulness looks like.

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