In the Fulness of Time/Part 120

By: Dr. Thomas O. Figart; ©2009
In the original commandment in Genesis, God said that a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh. After this, Jesus commands that what God has joined together let not man put asunder. To what purpose would He give such a command unless it is possible for man to put asunder that which God has joined? To put it another way, does marital unchastity of any kind break the marriage union?

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The Second Question: Moses’ Bill of Divorcement Matthew 19:7-9

Matthew 19:7 “They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?”

The practice of many of the Pharisees was to follow Hillel’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 which allowed for divorce for “any cause.” They had no intention of changing their practice no matter what Jesus would say; their intention was to discredit Him by bringing up this seeming contradiction to the creation account.

Mt. 19:8-9 “He saith unto them, Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to put away your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and whosoever marrieth her who is put away doth commit adultery.”

At once Christ denies that Moses “commanded” the bill of divorcement; rather, it was a concession because of her hard hearts which would have prompted them to commit sins of grosser proportion, had the bill of divorcement not been permitted. But the original command of God was one man for one woman for life. Then Christ added what appears to be an exception to the creation command: “except it be for fornication.”

There are a number of problems to be considered in this passage; some of them involving sophisticated grammatical nuances. Carson gives a superb account of these and other problems and is to be commended for clearing up of many difficulties (see Carson, Donald A., “Matthew.” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Ed.Frank E. Gaebelein. Vol. 8, pp. 410-419. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1984).

What was the strange Mosaic concession for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1? The Hebrew expression is erwath dabhar, translated “some uncleanness” (KJV), “something indecent” (NIV), “some indecency” (NASB). The verb is arah, “to be naked,” which has a number of usages not referring to sexual activity. In Genesis 42:9: “the nakedness of the land” referring to the brothers of Joseph as spying out the land; Deuteronomy 23:13-14 denoting the filthiness of excrement; Isaiah 20:4 “the shame of Egypt” in respect to dishonor. One thing is certain; it cannot be referring to adultery in Deuteronomy 24:1, because the adultress (and adulterer) was to be stoned to death, not permitted to receive a bill of divorcement, as Deuteronomy 22:22 clarifies.

The only other usage in Deuteronomy is in 23:14, where it refers to something physically unclean, namely, excrement in the camp. So it might have been an uncleanness “in” the woman herself which repelled the husband, and not some unclean, immoral action. The fact that she was free to remarry certainly absolved the wife of any moral guilt. Even if her second husband hated her, possibly for the same, or another reason, she could be given a second bill of divorcement. The only restriction was that she could not remarry her first husband, but could marry a third husband. Each time the bill of divorcement proved her innocent of moral wrong.

Many of the Pharisees had taken this concession of Moses to the extreme of including any cause for divorce. Jesus clarified His position as He did no less than six times in Matthew 5, saying: “I say unto you.” In this case He went back to God’s plan at the beginning. This should clear up a lot of specious thinking that marriage is specifically Christian, so that what happened to a believer before he was saved, including marriage to an unbeliever, or a divorce, is automatically nullified. To the contrary, marriage is a divine institution and was incorporated as part of God’s commands to man even before the Fall.

A second consideration has to do with the clause: “except it be for fornication.” Is it a genuine part of the text, since the gospels of Mark and Luke do not include the exception? Without going into a lot of the details of textual criticism, suffice it to say that several reputable sources verify the genuineness of the clause. Carson observes: “The except clause appears in several forms, doubtless owing to assimilation to 5:32; but there can be no doubt that an exception clause is original” (Carson, p. 413). Hauck, Frederich and Siegfried Schultz, speaking of the except clauses in Matthew 5:32; 19:9, come to this conclusion: “Hence one has to reckon with at least the possibility that the Matthean text is original; it is certain not open to challenge on textual grounds” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 6, p. 591. Gerhard Kittel, Ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965-1976).

A final confirmation comes from Dr. Bruce M. Metzger: “The ‘excepting clause’ in the Matthean account of Jesus’ teaching on divorce occurs in two forms… parektos logoi porneias (‘except on the grounds of unchastity’), and me epi porneia (‘except for unchastity’). It is probable that the witnesses… which have the former reading have been assimilated to 5:32 where the text is firm” (Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies, London, 1971, pp. 47-48).

Having shown that the exception clause is legitimate, the next thing to consider is the meaning of porneia, translated “fornication” (KJV), “marital unfaithfulness” (NIV), “unchastity” in 5:32 and “immorality” in 19:9 (NASB) and “fornication” (ASV). The word porne comes from pernemi, “to sell,” especially of slaves; means literally, “harlot for hire, prostitute.” Definitions from Greek lexicons include the following: “porneia, properly of illicit sexual intercourse in general” (Thayer, p. 532); “porneia, prostitution, unchastity, fornication of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse” (Ardnt and Gingrich, p. 699); “porneia, originally meant prostitution, fornication, but came to be applied to unlawful sexual intercourse generally. It was a wider term than moicheia, embracing the idea of barter, traffic in sexual vice, though in the O.T. there was a tendency to assimilate the two terms in some respects” (Moulton and Milligan, p. 529).

The whole point of this listing is to indicate that Jesus was using the term porneia in Matthew 5:32; 19:9 to include any aberration of sexual activity which violated the marriage union. Some writers insist that: “Specific to the solution is that porneia denotes marital relations within the forbidden degrees of Leviticus 18” (Ryrie, C.C., The Role of Women in the Church. Moody Press, Chicago, Ill., 1978, pp. 47-48). After making this statement, Ryrie says: “This is the solution which appeals to the writer as being the most consistent with the texts and his own doctrine of inspiration…. This solution asserts that any such marriage within the prohibited degrees of Leviticus 18 allows the man to put away his wife, calling the marriage null. Thus, there is no divorce, but causes of nullity may be recognized” (p. 48).

Objections to this “solution” may be offered. First, in reviewing Leviticus 18, there are listed certain relationships which do not necessarily refer to marriage, but merely to incest. It is not until verse18 that marriage is mentioned, namely, that a man should not take two sisters as wives at the same time. Keil and Delitzsch affirm that: the prohibition relates to both married and unmarried intercourse, though the reference is chiefly to the former (see v. 18; ch. 20:14, 17, 21).”

Even if all the prohibitions of Leviticus 18 were referring to incestuous marriages this would not prove that Jesus was going back to these to establish a no-divorce principle. He actually goes back to creation to establish the rules for marriage. After Thayer gives his definition of porneia as illicit sexual intercourse in general, he lists Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25 and then adds in parentheses: “(that this meaning must be adopted in these passages will surprise no one who has learned from I Cor. 6:12 sqq. how leniently converts from among the heathen regarded this vice and how lightly they indulged in it; accordingly, all other interpretations of the term, such as marriages within the prohibited degrees and the like, are to be rejected)” (Thayer, p. 532). Commenting on these verses in Acts, Kent says: “Because fornication is an evil per se and thus its prohibition is hardly to be understood as merely advice to avoid giving offense, some explain it as a reference to rules of marriage in Judaism (Lev. 18). However, fornication was so widely practiced among pagans, even under the guise of religion, that an admonition to Gentile Christians to pay particular attention to avoiding this sin was certainly not unwarranted” (Homer A. Kent, Jr. Jerusalem to Rome. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1972, p. 127).

One can make much the same observation as Kent concerning fornication in Acts 15:20, 29. There is no reason to symbolize or to restrict fornication to the Old Testament Levitical prohibitions against consanguinal marriages. Since this section of Acts was written for Christians to be a testimony to Gentiles it would be expected to cover a wider range of sins.

In using Clarke as his source for interpretation that porneia refers to the prohibited Levitical degrees, Ryrie includes this quote: “In I Cor. 5:1 St. Paul denounces a heinous form of porneia, a man’s marrying his father’s widow” (Ryrie, p. 47). Even though the present infinitive echein to be having” his father’s wife indicates an ongoing incestuous sin, it does not necessitate an incestuous marriage, nor does Paul name it as such. Rather, he calls it a “deed” and describes it by the noun-participle ton katergasamenon as “having been perpetrated.” As Carson remarks: “It is very doubtful whether Paul or any other Jew would have regarded an incestuous relationship as marriage. Paul would not have told the couple to get a divorce, but to stop what they were doing. And in the next chapter Paul uses the same word (porneia) to describe prostitution (I Cor. 6:13, 16)” (Carson, p. 414).

In the original commandment in Genesis, God said that a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh. After this, Jesus commands that what God has joined together let not man put asunder. To what purpose would He give such a command unless it is possible for man to put asunder that which God has joined? To put it another way, does marital unchastity of any kind break the marriage union? It is noteworthy that the Apostle Paul uses the same words and the same proof text from Genesis 2:24 when he warns against relations with an harlot in 1 Corinthians 6:16: “What, know ye not that he who is joined to an harlot is one body? For two, saith he, shall be one flesh.” The word “joined” is from kallao, “to be glued together.” It is also the same word used of our being joined to Christ (in the very next verse). Both are participles (kollomenos). Further, the same word, with the added preposition pros (proskollao) is translated “cleave” to his wife in Matthew 19:5. The result in each case is that a union is formed, and because Paul adds the quotation from Genesis 2:24 he indicates that the same union is formed with the harlot, making the two persons one. Paul also related this to making the members of Christ members of an harlot, in 1 Corinthians 6:15.

Which is the higher standard; saying that the exception clause refers to the prohibited degrees of Leviticus 18 and allowing no divorce, but at the same time demanding annulment of such marriages, or, referring back to the beginning in Genesis 2:24 and affirming that unchastity (either by the husband or wife; cf. Matthew 19:9 with Mark 10:11-12) forms an adulterous union (1 Corinthians 6:15-16) which severs the original union, allowing for divorce and remarriage to the innocent party? In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 the wording includes divorce and remarriage as two parts of one issue, giving the one legitimate exception to the prohibition of divorce and remarriage. The latter conclusion seems to be the higher of the two. It is not dependent upon the Mosaic Law for its standards, and it conforms the teaching of Paul for the Church to the teaching of Christ by emphasizing the sacredness of the marriage union as compared with God’s original plan for man and woman at creation, and with our membership in the Body of Christ. “In the fulness of time,” we are certain that this interpretation will be shown to be valid to all.

Read Part 121

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