On Saturday November 14th I went to a theology morning at St Mark’s Church led by David Instone-Brewer. He is a research fellow at Tyndale House in Rabbinical Studies. He did a PHD in Jewish Studies before 70BC in Cambridge. He is an expert in Rabbinic Studies and Computer Studies; he has made a Hebrew word processor. He is also involved in Steps software in stepbible.org.com. in Greek and Hebrew too. David was taking the topic of Divorce and Remarriage in his lecture.
He told us that people were not protected by common law marriage as the partners had none of the same rights for support as a married couple who divorce. Nowadays you only need to demonstrate the grounds of irretrievable breakdown to get divorced. For many decades now you can be divorced against your will in no fault divorces. Marriages and divorces are on the increase since 1970. In the last few years there has been an increase in marriages from the age of 20-29 and in the over 60’s. A third of those getting married nowadays have been married before.
In the Old Testament times a woman was more protected in marriage than often nowadays. Even when a man found a cause to divorce his wife he gave her a certificate of divorce which meant she was free to marry again; it gave the wife protection from being an abandoned woman. A man had responsibilities to keep his wife in clothes which cost a 7th of his income; even if he took another wife that obligation remained his. A man had the obligation in a marriage also not to neglect, abandon or abuse a wife; should he do so then she had the right to claim a divorce on the grounds of not fulfilling his marital duties. A concubine, like a common law wife, had no legal rights and could be dismissed at any time, but could keep her child. Wives were more secure then than now as they could only be divorced for breaking their marriage vows and could not be divorced against their will. God’s marriage to Israel was described in Ezekiel 16 as marrying, loving and giving food and clothes to Israel. In Hosea God forgave multiple injuries. In Jeremiah 3.8 God said he had sent her away with a decree of divorce.
We must read the New Testament in the light of first century rabbis who took for granted that people understood that neglect, abuse or failure to keep marital relations, or adultery were valid reasons for divorce. In the time of Jesus there was a lively debate between 2 rabbis, Shammai and Hillel; Shammai believed that divorce should only be allowed for adultery whereas Hillel believed that a woman could be divorced for any cause not just for adultery. When Jesus was asked if it was lawful to divorce a wife for any cause, he responded in the same way as Shammai that divorce should only be for adultery, not for any cause. That also included neglect, abuse, not keeping marital relations which Jesus assumed his audience would know. Jesus did not want marriage being dissolved for any other cause other than adultery; if divorce was sought for any lesser cause then in his view it was invalid and the marriage would not have been legitimately dissolved, so any further marriage would be adultery. He did not mean anyone legitimately divorced for adultery or neglect etc would not be free to marry again. Jesus saw divorce as wrong as no one should break a marriage vow, unless it was unavoidable, as it was set in the Old Testament; reconciliation and forgiveness was always the preferred option. Moses had only introduced the possibility of divorce because of people’s failure to make marriage work.
Paul agreed with that premise and urged reconciliation between estranged couples if at all possible. Paul did not advocate separation for a couple on the grounds of one being an unbeliever, unless the unbeliever desired to be free. Divorced Jews were encouraged to remarry after divorce or they would be considered impious. Divorced Roman citizens were expected to remarry within 12 months or 18 months after widowhood or faced prosecution, if they had no children. They had the obligation to bring up children or to have children for which they received financial benefits. It was important to have children to increase the population. I found David’s talk so fascinating and informative and felt that it would improve any sermon I preached in the future.