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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Jews, Betrothal and Divorce

As I've continued with this series, my desire is not to articulate how we should respond to those previously divorced. I've already stated I believe our response should be different for the person already divorced and the one considering divorce. This series is really intended to discern the counsel given to married couples, and those considering marriage, not as an attack on those already divorced. [I understand that these posts may cause feelings of pain for those who have suffered the pain of divorce. I do not think pain is an indication that the discussion is wrong to have, for something that grieves God should pain us. But I do want to honestly apologize to anyone who has felt pain due to any insensitivity in my writing.]

Divorce has always been a controversial issue. The Pharisees come to Jesus with questions regarding divorce. Yet even Jesus' answer can be one which is difficult to decipher. Is it possible that the church has misunderstood part of His discussion? Could culture, as it can so easily do, have crowded into our understanding of what Jesus is saying?

I think this is a very real possibility. I think there are some things that must be considered, and at a minimum, should not be easily dismissed. Frankly, any time you understand a passage with high cultural implications it makes me nervous. Today, people are doing the same with topics like complementarianism, homosexuality, and even universalism. I think we have to see indications of cultural weight within the text before we can claim an issue as cultural. I have attempted, before entering the discussion of culture, to do just that. Here is the foundation I have attempted to lay. I believe we must examine the role culture may plays in this passage because:

Jesus says lust is adultery.
    If we think adultery is an exclusion allowing divorce, Jesus says in the very same context that lust is adultery. Therefore, no one has been faithful to their spouse (according to God's standards of righteousness, which are the only ones that matter.)
Words were chosen very carefully
    Matthew does not record that adultery is grounds for divorce, but rather fornication. "Moicheuo" and "porneia" are closely related words, but that does not excuse us to diminish their distinction.
Mark and Luke do not mention the "exception".
    This should not be quickly dismissed. The weight of Mark and Luke suggest that divorce should not be pursued in any circumstance. If they left out the exception, and Jesus means that their is an exception, they have changed Jesus' teaching. This must be reconciled in a way other than, "Mark and Luke just left it out."
Yet, Matthew deliberately chose to include the exception.
    Why would Matthew include the exception? I suggested there is something unique about Matthew's audience. The uniqueness is not that adultery happens in Jewish culture, for it was rampant in every other culture too. It isn't unique in that God only sees Israelites as genuinely married, for marriages of pagans, and believing and unbelieving people are seen as genuine marriage too.
The uniqueness is in the Jewish betrothal system.

Consider these statements regarding betrothal in the Jewish culture:
The ceremony of betrothal. The Jewish betrothal in Christ's time was conducted thus: The families of the bride and groom met, with some otheres present to serve as witnesses. The young man would give the young woman either a gold ring, or some article of value, or simply a document in which he promised to marry her. Then he would say to her: "See by this ring (or token) thou art set apart for me, according to the law of Moses and of Israel."

Difference between betrothal and marriage. The betrothal was not the same as the wedding. At least a whole year elapsed between the betrothal and the actual wedding. The two events must not be confused. The Law said, "What man is there that has betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her?" (Deut. 20:7). Two events are differentiated here: betrothing a wife, and taking a wife, i.e., in actual marriage.

--Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, pp129-130

The marriage was a contract between families. It was effected in two stages: the betrothal (or "acquisition" of the bride) and the wedding proper (taking the bride into the husband's home). The betrothal had the legal force of marriage and could be broken only by divorce.

--Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, p 68

It [betrothal] consists in the acceptance before witnesses of the terms of the marriage as contracted for. Then God's blessing is solemnly asked on the union thus provided for, but to take place probably only after some months or perhaps some years.

--Orr, ed. ISBE vIII/p 1997

So betrothal meant you weren't married, but you still had to divorce if you didn't proceed? It's sounds odd, but we have an example in Scripture...and that example just so happens to be in the book of Matthew:
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. But 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.

--Matthew 1:18-19

Notice, they were pledged to be married, but hadn't come together. Joseph was also considered her husband and was going to divorce her before their union!

Now, without the exception (found only in Matthew) one would have to ask, "How can the passage call Joseph righteous if he divorces Mary?" However, Matthew explains how Joseph could have been just in divorcing Mary. It was because she had supposedly commited "porneia" (sex before being bound to a husband) rather than "moichueo" (sexual act/thought with someone other than your spouse upon being married).

So an aplified understanding of the "exceptions" would look like this:

But I tell you that any man who divorces his wife, except on the grounds that you discover she is unfaithful before the marriage is complete, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Again, I understand the hesitancy to explain a passage in light of culture. However, I believe the text gives an overwhelming number of clues that direct us to see that Matthew (writing to Jews) found it necessary to contextualize Jesus' words within the Jewish betrothal system. Luke and Mark obviously do not have this need, because the audience of their cultures would not be asking a similar question.

Therefore, it seems apparent to me that Jesus is not excusing the pursuit of a divorce if your spouse has been unfaithful to you. His "exception" is irrelevant to us, since we do not operate under the same betrothal system.

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