Is fornication the exclusive ground for a divorce?
In Matthew 19, Jesus should by no means be read as denying the Exodus 21:10-11 grounds for divorce. They were not controversial in his day, and when rabbis declared that divorce may be had only for adultery, their listeners understood that the Exodus 21:10-11 grounds for divorce were also allowed. It’s how rabbis spoke.
The debate of the day between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai was over whether divorce may be had for any reason or only for something indecent — with both sides agreeing on the Exodus 21:10-11 grounds. Hence, Jesus’ statement would have been heard as speaking to this controversy.
Exodus 21:10-11 defines the duties of one spouse to the other. Thus, when a husband or wife sufficiently breaches Exodus 21:10-11, he or she has breached the marriage covenant and is the one who puts away his or her spouse. Jesus said nothing to contradict this view. Indeed, as we read in Ephesians 5, Paul intensifies the duties of Christian spouses to each other well beyond Moses.
May the divorced remarry?
As the right of remarriage was the assumed result of a divorce, Jesus’ listeners would not have assumed Jesus denied such a right. They should have understood that remarriage was in some sense wrong, but they wouldn’t have concluded that remarriage was impossible.
Therefore, Jesus’ words are much more consistent with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Corinthians 7 than we often assume. He is speaking as a rabbi and making the point that hyperliteral compliance with the Law of Moses is woefully insufficient to truly fulfill God’s will. He is not legislating and not really changing anything. He’s just explaining what’s always been true: husbands and wives are to love each other and keep their covenants to each other. When they don’t, they’re covenant breakers and they cause others to become covenant breakers.
What does “commits adultery” mean?
The fact that “adultery” is a metaphor for covenant breaking can be seen from verse 32. Jesus says, “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” The wife is called an adulteress even if she doesn’t remarry.
How can a woman who hasn’t remarried or even had sex with someone else be guilty of adultery? Some commentators assume that, being single, she must remarry or else become a prostitute, but that’s just not true. For example, D. A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew chapters 1 -12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publ. House, 1995), says at 152, “This arises out of the fact that the divorced woman will in most circumstances remarry (esp. in first-century Palestine, where this would probably be her means of support).”
Carson is a brilliant commentator, but Instone-Brewer (pp. 124-125) provides ample evidence that many divorced women did not remarry and had sufficient resources to live well as single women. In fact, the Gospels support this view. Mary Magdalene, for example, was an unmarried, chaste woman. The same is true of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was not divorced, but was evidently a widow who had no need to remarry. Therefore, we have to accept that Jesus didn’t assume all divorced women would remarry. And that means “adultery” is a metaphor for covenant breaking. Otherwise, it would make no sense at all to say that you make a woman an adulteress by divorcing her.
Now, I should add one more argument. Many have argues that “commits adultery” in the Greek implies continuous action, and hence refers to sex acts in a second marriage. But Edwards quotes Carroll Osburn, one of the Churches of Christ’s premier Greek scholars —
Thus it cannot be said that the present indicative in Matt. 19:9, or any other Greek text, “cannot mean other than continuous action,” for any such argument blatantly disregards the several idiomatic uses of the present indicative in which continuity is not explicit. Greek syntax requires that each occurrence of the present indicative be understood in terms of its context to determine whether continuity is involved.
Carroll Osburn, “The Present Indicative in Matt. 19:9,” 24 The Restoration Quarterly no. 4, (Restoration Quarterly Corporation, Abilene, TX 1981), p. 193.
Now review the context. Take Matthew 5:32, for example:
But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery
In this passage, “divorces” clearly occurs at a single point in time. “Marries” is clearly a point-in-time verb. The context for “commits adultery” strongly argues for point-in-time action. And if the action is point in time, then the “commits adultery” must occur at a single point in time, being the time of the putting away. That is, “adultery” is the breaking of the covenant of marriage.
We will consider these verb tenses further when we get to the present-tense argument.
Therefore, we already see several reasons for taking “commit adultery” as a metaphor for covenant breaking—
- This sense makes the passage consistent with Paul’s interpretation in 1 Corinthians 7.
- Only this interpretation is consistent with grace.
- The passage is in the midst of numerous metaphors and other figures of speech. Jesus plainly has a predilection for such language in the Sermon on the Mount. He no more means literal adultery than he means literal eye gouging.
- “Adultery” is frequently used as a metaphor for covenant breaking in both Testaments, even by Jesus.
- The woman can only be caused to commit adultery if adultery is covenant breaking. Her former husband does not make her have sex with anyone nor is there any reason to assume that a Jewish wife, wrongfully put away, would necessarily remarry or become a prostitute.
- The verb tenses strongly suggest that the adultery occurs when she is put away and, if she takes a new husband, when he marries her. Nothing is said about either continuing in sin. (This is true in English, too, if you read the passage without the Council of Trent’s interpretation in mind.)
- This meaning is consistent with the parallel portions of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus consistently looks beyond the words of the Law to the heart of the Law. The traditional interpretation makes us worse legalists than the Pharisees. The true interpretation calls us to avoid using the Law as a pretext for sin, which is precisely parallel with the surrounding teachings.