What Jesus Taught on Marriage and Divorce

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Jesus taught on divorce in Matt 19:1-11, Mark 10:1-12 and Matt 5:31-32.

Matt 19:3 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?”  NKJV

 Divorce for “any reason”, also called “any matter divorce” was supported by those who followed the teachings of Hillel, a famous teacher who maintained that Moses allowed a man to “put out” his wife. If she displeased her husband in any way, he could simply evict her from the home. Those who followed the teachings of Shammai said the primary scriptural reason for “putting out” was infidelity.

Matt 19:4 And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female,

When Jesus said “at the beginning,” He ignored Hillel and Shammai and even Moses and went back to God’s original plan which is found in Genesis 1 and 2.

In these early chapters we learned that male and female were created at the same time and together they were given dominion over everything except each other.  By going back to this truth, Jesus has focused on how God intended for men and women to relate to each other.  In the next verses, Jesus went further and gave God’s intention for marriage.

Matt 19:5 “… ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Jesus’ words were radically different from the culture of His day. Here it was the man who was told to leave his father and mother and to make the relationship with his wife his primary human relationship. It is second only to his relationship with God. Marriage is a three-fold relationship—a man and a woman held together by God. Like it says in Ecclesiastes 4:12 “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

With these revolutionary words, Jesus had come against hundreds of years of Jewish teaching and tradition.  Then quoting the Law from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy,[1] the religious leaders asked,

Matt.19:7. “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”

  1. 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.

Again Jesus refers back to Genesis before The Fall. He does not rely on the teaching of the rabbis or even the words of Moses or Abraham. He returns to God’s original plan. The importance of these first two chapters of Genesis is critical. Every move of Jesus, as He related to women, reinforced God’s original plan.

The word translated “hardness”  is a term meaning stubborn continuation of a particular action without wishing to change. This definition gives us a good place to look at some of the traditional teaching on divorce that needs to be corrected. We need these corrections in order to understand what Jesus is about to say.

There is a widely-used verse in Malachi 2:16 where most modern translations say, “For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce…” What God says He hates is not divorce but the “putting out” or “putting away” of a woman. The Hebrew word shalach is only translated divorce in this Malachi passage. Shalach is translated “send’ 566 times, “send or put forth” 54 times, “send away” 48, but shalach becomes divorce only in modern translations and only in this one scripture.

The King James Version and a a few of other translations get it right.

”For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away…”  Malachi 2:16

“Putting away” or “putting out” is altogether different from divorce in Jewish culture. When a man “put out” his wife, he would send her away, denying her the Jewish divorce certificate. This woman would still be legally married but with no home. The husband would keep her dowry and children. She would have already surrendered her virginity to him. She would be ineligible to remarry, since technically, she was still legally bound to her husband. Further, her culture would label her as an adulteress since she did not have a valid divorce certificate. If her family did not take her back, a woman couldn’t just get a job. There was seldom work for a “put out” woman in Jewish culture of that day except prostitution.

Since most marriages were arranged by the family, meaning she did not choose the man herself, this whole horrible chain of events would have been completely out of her control. The husband, however, was free to marry again and to do this as much as he liked since polygamy was an accepted practice. That is why Moses required a divorce certificate to be given . . . so that the marriage was legally, fairly, and religiously terminated, and the woman would be free to remarry and go on with life.”[2]

Matt. 19:9 “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.”

 The mistranslation of the Greek word apolyo as “divorce” in this passage and in Matthew 5:31-32 (NKJV, NIV, RSV and many others) has led to a total misunderstanding of what Jesus means in these verses. The word apolyō in Greek means to send forth or put out or away. As we have said, a woman who is “put out” does not have a certificate of divorce and is therefore still married. Clearly, a man would commit adultery if he married a “put out” woman as she is technically still married!

Only in cases of sexual immorality was it permissible to “put out” a woman. This is because a woman, who had committed adultery and was brought before the courts for a divorce proceeding, could be stoned to death. This is why Joseph, being a righteous man, planned to “put out” Mary, the mother of Jesus, secretly (Matt. 1:18-25, particularly v. 19). He did not want her to face stoning. In the Jewish culture being engaged was to legally enter a marriage contract. So even though they had not been through the marriage ceremony, some action would have been necessary to free Joseph from the contract.

In Jeremiah 3:8 when God says, “I have put her away and given her a certificate of divorce…,”[3] He is speaking of Israel. If divorce were never justified, would God have used these words? In an absolutely perfect world, the union between a man and a woman would be God’s perfect choice for each individual without any destructive forces tearing at the bond. Marriages would never break down. But, this isn’t a perfect world, and some marriages become so emotionally, spiritually, and/or physically destructive that divorce can even be lifesaving. That is why it is dangerous to put legalistic judgment onto yourself or others.”[4]

” Matt 19:10 “His disciples said to Him, ‘If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’

This response is not surprising. Looking at the whole discussion we see that Jesus has rejected the privileged position of men over women found in the traditional lifestyle of His day. He has used scripture to declare the holiness of the marriage covenant in the sight of God. By going back to Genesis, Jesus has stated God’s original plan while rejecting the traditions of men. Are we willing to do the same?[5]



[1] The Law of Moses concerning divorce is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The first verse says, “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,”

[2] Francisco, Wendy, Does God Really Hate Divorce, God’s Word to Women website is part of a composite on divorce.  Choose title of interest from this link. http://godswordtowomen.org/francisco1.htm

[3] It is interesting to note that the word for divorce, keriylhuwth, means a cutting off of the matrimonial bond and comes from the root word karath which means to cut covenant.

[4] Francisco, Wendy, Is Divorce a Sin?, God’s Word to Women website. http://godswordtowomen.org/francisco1.htm

[5] While many of the quotes used in this teaching are from the same author, her statements have been researched for accuracy and found to be true.

Young Woman Thinking — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis


  1. Don, in response to the last comment you made, not the first one, your knowledge of the subject is evident, but I can’t see that your comments are helpful to someone who has faced the problems we addressed in the article.


    • What I was trying to do was give sufficient encouragment so you would investigate what Instone-Brewer has written about this, as it is very liberating and helpful to someone who has faced problems you addressed, more than you might imagine.

      Jesus is responding to things that Shammai and Hillel claimed throughout the Matt 19 teaching unit. Jesus does not actually respond to the question asked in Matt 19:3 until Matt 19:9; but this is not how the passage is commonly understood.


      • Thanks Don. You provide much food for thought and interesting references for those who may wish to study further on this subject. Perhaps it would be a good idea to present your encouragement as your opinion rather than so dogmatically. Theological study is useful and a great tool in interpreting scripture, but it does not stand alone. At best we are studying human opinion. Thankfully God has sent the Holy Spirit to interpret the truth of scripture for us, and while we encourage our readers to become informed about different interpretations concerning these scripture passages through study, we encourage them even more so to learn to listen to the Holy Spirit in the Word, who will lead us into all truth.


  2. If you want to go in depth into the culture context of what Jesus is saying, I recommend studying David Instone-Brewer’s books on Divorce. He is a British Baptist who is a Jewish second temple scholar at Tyndale. What Jesus is doing in Mat 19 is correcting seven misinterpretations of Torah by the Pharisees in the area of divorce and marriage. It is not true that Shammai said that a divorce could only happen because of a wife’s sexual immorality, there were many others reasons based on Ex 21, including abuse and neglect.


    • Thanks Don, I did check on Shammai but did not get this information. Will check it out. Regardless, seems to me that Jesus is bypassing all others and going back to the original plan.

      Liked by 2 people

      • One thing to see about the teachings in the Mishnah is that they are not always organized in a way that makes it easy to figure out what is being taught as a whole. This is where I found DIB’s insights invaluable, as he knows the way to read it and gives the relevant info. There are some teachers that can find one part of the Mishnah (for example, the part commenting on Deu 24:1-4) and not know about the parts commenting on other relevant texts of Scripture.

        It is true that Jesus refers to early Genesis in his responses, but in these he is directly refuting other teachings on the Pharisees, he is not directly responding to the question that was asked, he is laying the groundwork for that direct response which comes later in the Matt 19 text. In other words, Jesus is asked a question and his first response does not answer it, rather it corrects other misinterpretations of Scripture by the Pharisees. But to see this, one must understand what they taught, this is the necessary cultural context in reading Matt 19 in context. The original readers of Matt were 1st century Jews that were aware of the divorce debate between Hillel and Shammai and they were also aware of where they agreed on reasons for divorce.


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