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Jesus taught that if a man would divorce his wife and marry another, he would commit adultery. In other words, He taught in the following passages that divorcing one's wife plus marrying another results in adultery (all NKJV, emphasis added):

"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." (Matt. 19:9)

So He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (Mark 10:11-12)

"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery." (Luke 16:18)

I take these passages to mean that such divorces are not recognized by God and, thus, when the man takes a second wife, he's still married to the first wife, therefore being guilty of adultery (i.e., cheating on his first spouse). It appears Jesus' stance assumes a man can only be married to one wife such that relations with another woman is tantamount to adultery even if he divorces the first wife ("except for sexual immorality" according to Matthew's account) and marries the second. But if taking a second spouse can result in adultery even after divorcing the first spouse and marrying the second, then wouldn't the same also be the case if the man didn't divorce his first wife when he married a second one?

Is my understanding of Jesus' teaching in these passages correct? If so, then wouldn't His teaching imply that when married to a wife, a man can't then marry a second wife (i.e., polygamy) without committing adultery against the first wife? If these passages don't implicitly condemn polygamy, then how can a man divorcing his wife and marrying another be called "adultery"?

Appended Bounty Question

What exactly is it that makes a man's divorce and subsequent remarriage "adultery"? Is it 1) the divorce, 2) the marriage to the second wife, or 3) both? If it's option 3, then how exactly does the husband's marriage to the second wife "commit adultery" against the first wife, considering that the first wife already lost her husband regardless? If it's instead option 1 (the divorce), then is divorce by itself adultery? Why does Jesus also add remarriage? If, instead, we say it's option 2, then would polygamy be condemned as adulterous? Jesus' mention of divorce would therefore be because divorce is the contextual subject matter under discussion. Jesus would be saying that the divorce isn't recognized by God, so divorcing wife one doesn't free the man to marry someone else. What is the accurate interpretation of why the man's action "commits adultery"?

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  • All texts include the phrase to divorce first, therefore it’s contingent of this clause. These wouldn’t be the verses to use against polygamy Apr 6, 2022 at 16:16
  • @NihilSineDeo Could you explain how a man divorcing his wife and marrying another can be called "adultery" (cheating on one's spouse), then? What makes such adultery?
    – The Editor
    Apr 6, 2022 at 16:41
  • 2
    From the beginning divorce was not acceptable. Under Moses God made an exception because of their fallen nature, but if the conditions for the exception are not met, they are technically still echad/united in God’s eyes legally speaking. Therefore making a law that God does not acknowledge does not give the new couple legal standing in God’s eyes, for His law trumps any human law, making the new couple adulterers. Apr 6, 2022 at 18:32
  • 1
    @NigelJ I'll try to better explain. Which married woman is misused in the passages, wife one or wife two? If you'd agree it's wife one, then what is it about divorcing her and marrying someone else that misuses her? Is it 1) the divorce, 2) the marriage to wife two, or 3) both? If you're saying it's option 3, how exactly does the husband's marriage to wife two misuse wife one, considering that wife one already lost her husband regardless? How does his remarriage adulterously misuse her? If you'd say option 1 (the divorce), then is divorce by itself adultery? Why does Jesus also add remarriage?
    – The Editor
    Apr 7, 2022 at 13:28
  • 1
    @NigelJ If, instead, we say it's option 2, then polygamy is condemned as adulterous. Jesus' mention of divorce would simply be due to the fact that divorce is the contextual subject matter under discussion. Jesus says that the divorce isn't recognized by God, so divorcing wife one doesn't free the man to marry someone else. But if the man was always free to marry someone else, then marrying someone else isn't relevant to the discussion of divorce, is it? Do you see where I'm coming from?
    – The Editor
    Apr 7, 2022 at 13:29

8 Answers 8

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+75

I agree with Dottard that this passage isn't really about polygamy, one way or the other. These verses have been taken out of context more than almost any other in all of scripture. I suggest that Jesus' teachings on divorce here cannot be understood if divorced from 4 critical pieces of context:

  1. The Old Testament

  2. The contemporary Jewish rabbinic debates on divorce

  3. The trap being laid by Jesus' enemies

  4. Jesus' prior teaching on divorce (see the Sermon on the Mount)



1. The Old Testament

There are 2 passages in the Torah and 1 in Malachi that provide the most directly relevant teachings on divorce:

Deuteronomy 24:1

If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house (NIV)

This avenue for divorce was only available to men; a woman could not choose to divorce her husband on this basis. The man, initiating the divorce, would give his wife a certificate of divorce, freeing her to marry another man.

Exodus 21:10-11

10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.

11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money. (NIV)

This instruction was given specifically in the context of a servant wife. The common Jewish understanding of this teaching, then, was that if a servant wife was entitled to these 3 things (food, clothing, love), a wife of any other standing would be as well.

As David Instone-Brewer has written here:

If either partner neglected to provide food, clothing or love, the other could take them to court and get a divorce. Cases of adultery or physical neglect (failure to provide food or clothing) were straightforward, and divorce was granted if the wronged partner wanted it.

In the Judaism of the time of Jesus, neglect was grounds for which a man or a woman could divorce a spouse. The New Testament never abrogates nor opposes that reality.

Malachi 2:14-16

14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.

15 Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. (NIV)

The Hebrew root translated here as "unfaithful" is בָּגד ("bagad"), which is regularly rendered as "to deal treacherously" (this is the wording used in many Bible translations and the definition in Strong's Concordance).

Malachi tells us in verses 10-11 what he means by "deal treacherously" when making an analogy between the marriage covenant and God's covenant with His people. People deal treacherously with God when they leave Him for another god. In this context, then, a man deals treacherously with his wife if he leaves her for another woman.

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2. The contemporary Jewish rabbinic debates on divorce

As documented in detail by Instone-Brewer here, there was in Jesus' time an ongoing rabbinic debate regarding the meaning of the aforementioned Deut. 24:1.

We now know that Jewish rabbis at the time of Jesus were debating a new and very popular form of divorce called the “Any Cause” divorce, which implies that their question to Jesus should be understood as “Is it lawful to use the Any Cause divorce?”

Hillelite Pharisees invented this new form of divorce by dividing up the scriptural phrase “a cause of indecency”...which is the ground for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1. They said that this phrase included two grounds for divorce: “indecency” (i.e., adultery) and “a cause” (i.e., any cause). They emphasized their conclusion that “a cause” meant “any cause” by saying that you could divorce a wife even if she burned a single meal.

This was, unsurprisingly, considered controversial, and early rabbinic traditions record the debate that they had with their rivals, the Shammaite Pharisees. The Shammaites agreed that “indecency” meant “adultery” but argued that “a cause of indecency” should be regarded as a single phrase and should not be divided up to produce an extra ground for divorce. They said that the whole phrase meant “nothing except adultery.” (ibid)

We noted earlier that Exodus 21:10-11 was understood to be grounds by which a man or a woman could divorce a spouse; whereas Deut. 24:1 provided another avenue for divorce, available only to men.

Under the Hillel view, a man could divorce his wife for literally any reason. Under the Shammai view, Deut. 24:1 gave men one and only one additional justification (apart from that provided in Exodus for either gender) to divorce his wife: adultery.

This difference--and the extremes to which it was taken--is documented in Mishnah Gittin 9:10

Beit Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he finds out about her having engaged in a matter of forbidden sexual intercourse [devar erva], i.e., she committed adultery or is suspected of doing so, as it is stated: “Because he has found some unseemly matter [ervat davar] in her, and he writes her a scroll of severance” (Deuteronomy 24:1).

And Beit Hillel say: He may divorce her even due to a minor issue, e.g., because she burned or over-salted his dish, as it is stated: “Because he has found some unseemly matter in her,” meaning that he found any type of shortcoming in her.

Rabbi Akiva says: He may divorce her even if he found another woman who is better looking than her and wishes to marry her, as it is stated in that verse: “And it comes to pass, if she finds no favor in his eyes”

The sickening reality of this debate was, that in one school of thought, if a man saw another woman he thought was more attractive than his own wife, he could divorce his wife to marry this other woman. This is the backdrop of the question that was asked of Jesus, and the condemnatory response He gave.

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3. The trap being laid by Jesus' enemies

As was typical of their inquiries, the Pharisees weren't asking Jesus this question because they were curious or sought greater understanding. They were laying a trap; they were trying to get Jesus to take sides on a controversial contemporary issue. Here's how it was supposed to work (in their eyes).

  • If Jesus supported the "any cause" divorce interpretation, He not only faced the backlash of half the intellectual community, but He could be "cancelled" for teaching contrary to Moses. But they knew full well He would not answer in this way (see Sermon on the Mount section below)
  • If Jesus opposed the "any cause" divorce interpretation, He not only faced the backlash of the other half of the intellectual community, but He could be sent to the same fate as His cousin, John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas because he (John) condemned Antipas for divorcing his wife in order to marry another woman (Herodias). John spoke in favor of the compassionate understanding of Deut. 24:1 and ultimately paid for it with his life. Herod Antipas was in the wrong, and he knew he was in the wrong, but he ultimately had John killed to protect his own (Antipas') lustful foolishness.

The Pharisees hoped to repeat this episode and send Jesus to His death in the same way, but getting Jesus to offend Antipas.

Essential to understanding this teaching, then, is that the Pharisees are not asking Jesus about divorce in general (e.g. Exodus 21:10-11 was never in dispute here); they are asking for His interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. In doing so they hope to trap Him in His words and get Him killed.

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4. Jesus' prior teaching on divorce

Jesus had taught on divorce at least once before, as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount:

27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

... (teaching through hyperbole on plucking out eyes & cutting off hands) ...

31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:

32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Matthew 5:27-32)

What is easily lost here, if not compared to the prior verses, is that this isn't three separate teachings (adultery in heart, then an odd aside about cutting off hands, then divorce)--this is one continuous thought. Jesus is following the same pattern He just used in the last 6 verses about anger:

  • People commonly teach X, but I'm raising the bar to Y, which is the real principle behind the commandment
  • Example
  • Consequences of disobedience

Jesus' teaching on divorce cannot be understood separately from His statement about adultery in the heart: they are part of the same message.

As with pericope after pericope in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is responding to the debates, dissensions, and deeds of His time. In the context of the Hillel-Shammai debate above--and the illuminating statement by Akiva--Jesus is condemning men who do the following:

  • A married man sees another woman and entertains sexual fantasies about her (adultery in the heart)
  • He divorces his current wife so that he can marry the other and enact his sexual fantasies with her
  • He claims that under the provisions of Deut. 24:1 he has done nothing wrong at all

Jesus condemns this atrocious behavior as adultery!!! Men who engaged in such behavior may have been abiding by the letter of the law (as erroneously taught by some religious leaders of the time), but they had fully & completely violated the spirit of the law. Jesus taught that divorce on such grounds was invalid, and therefore the future sexual relations between the man & his new wife, and between the previous wife & her new husband were as adulterous as if the divorce had never happened.

(note that in the Hebrew text--see p. 21 here--it is clearly stated that the man who instigated this is committing adultery himself. Whether or not Hebrew is the original language of the Gospel of Matthew is another matter, but in any event, Hebrew is helpful in understanding Jesus' teachings, many/most of which wouldn't have been originally given in Greek)

The poor woman who was his previous wife, lacking economic security on her own (this is the first century Roman Empire we're talking about), if she does not have other family support must now find another man if she is to survive...but because she was "divorced" by her previous husband on illegitimate grounds, she is no more free to marry another than her dirty ex-husband is. The point of the bill of divorcement discussed in Deuteronomy was to protect the woman, that it was clearly stated and known that she was no longer married to her ex-husband, to ensure that she was able to remarry.

As noted by Instone-Brewer:

the words that are found in all Jewish divorce certificates and many Graeco-Roman ones: “You are now free to marry any man you wish.” This wording is found in rabbinic traditions (m. Git. 9:3) and on the Masada divorce certificate of A.D. 72, as well as being quoted in 1 Corinthians 7:39 where Paul extends these same rights to widows. (source)

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Bringing it All Together

First let's address some important nuance relevant to both the divorce teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the discussion with the Pharisees.

Except in cases of adultery

In both discussions, "saving for the cause of fornication/adultery", is a direct appeal to Deut. 24:1 as originally intended--it granted a man the right to divorce his wife for adultery, not for any cause. The separate legitimate grounds for divorce, cases of neglect discussed in Exodus 21, are neither affirmed nor denied, they are not the focus here.

Jesus is not saying adultery by one's spouse is the only legitimate cause for divorce; He's responding to the misuse in His time of Deut. 24:1 and affirming that this passage speaks only of divorce for adultery.

But why does it say the woman commits adultery?

This is where the behavior of the lustful men in Jesus' day gets even nastier. The 10th commandment "thou shalt not covet" gives several examples, including "thy neighbor's wife". Have you ever stopped to wonder why the 8th commandment & the 10th commandment specifically call out adultery? (as opposed to other sexual sin)

  1. In many cases in Old Testament times, a married man would marry another, unmarried woman (Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David) -- this was polygamy, not adultery. Polygamy is another topic, that's not the focus of Jesus' teaching here

  2. Women were married very young--they're not out on the dating scene for a long time. In fact, if they were betrothed, they may never be "available".

With this background in mind, we can understand what the lustful men in Jesus' day were doing. Man A is married to Woman A. Man A is lusting after another woman, woman B--who in most cases would already be married to another man! So man A divorces woman A (under any cause provisions), sees to it that woman B he wants is divorced from her current husband (we'll call him man B, under any cause provisions, if he's tired of his wife and happy to let her go to another, he can do so for any pretext), so man A can "marry" woman B and live out his sexual fantasies. The principal focus of condemnation in Jesus' teaching is man A.

Let us consider the following annotations to Matthew 5:32

32 But I say unto you, That whosoever [man B, tired of his wife] shall put away his wife [woman B], saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her [woman B] to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her [man A] that is divorced committeth adultery.

Man A, who instigated this perverse scheme described so plainly by Rabbi Akiva (see above), is the number one focus of Jesus' condemnation the whole time, from verse 28 through 32.

--

This brings us back to the incident with the Pharisees. They ask Jesus to take sides on the Deut. 24:1 debate, knowing He does not approve of "any cause" divorce, and hoping they can get Him to say something that'll anger the murderous tetrarch Antipas.

Jesus sees right through their diabolical scheme, explains what Deut. 24:1 really means (a man can divorce his wife if she cheats on him), and goes back to first principles. Jesus teaches the purpose and God-ordained nature of marriage by reference to Adam & Eve in Genesis, and scathingly denounces the misuse of marriage by the contemporary adulterous wolves in sheep's clothing, who are instigating divorce in order to enact lustful desires with another man's wife, and claiming they are acting consistent with scripture while doing so.



Conclusion

While acknowledging that in a perfect world divorce provisions would not be needed--but we don't live in that world--Jesus is turning a baited trap around on His enemies and condemning their own immorality. They cannot now publicize this conversation and get Antipas involved, because their own guilt has been laid bare.

Jesus is not forbidding divorce and remarriage--He's affirming the Torah which explicitly acknowledges the possibility of remarriage--after a legitimate divorce (Paul acknowledges the same thing later too).

What exactly is it that makes a man's divorce and subsequent remarriage "adultery"

Jesus is condemning leaving one's wife for another woman (as in Malachi 2). Jesus is condemning the practice of divorcing one's wife in order to justify having sex with another woman, just as Antipas had done. This is not a legitimate divorce, and so the marriage that follows is not legitimate either. This pernicious practice is adultery.



Post-script re polygamy

A good follow-up question was raised: you say, "Jesus taught that divorce on such grounds was invalid, and therefore the future sexual relations between the man & his new wife, and between the previous wife & her new husband were as adulterous as if the divorce had never happened"...Does this imply that "if the divorce had never happened," the man's second marriage would still have been adulterous? That's what my OP is getting at in the question.

I believe this question, and the original statement in the OP, are insightful & reasonable questions to ask. But I do not believe this passage is about polygamy for at least 2 reasons:

First, Jesus is being asked to interpret an OT passage, and He responds by teaching from the OT. If Jesus were, in this setting, to make a blanket statement against polygamy, the Pharisees could spring the very trap they've set up (see above, the trap could swing in two different directions) by contrasting His teachings with Moses, who practiced polygamy.

Jesus is not countermanding Moses' teachings on marriage here; He's rejecting the flawed interpretation of Moses' teachings. In doing so, Jesus also acknowledges that the Law of Moses is not the gold standard, this was the standard given for the imperfection and hard-heartedness of the people of the time.

Instruction from the Old Testament would not be the occasion to give a commandment on polygamy.

--

Second, Israel did not understand the command "thou shalt not commit adultery" to be a prohibition on polygamy (e.g. see 2 Sam. 12:8). It was a prohibition on having sexual relations with another man's wife.

This is why, in Jesus' explanation, the man who marries the woman who was put away ("man A" in my review above) is committing adultery whether or not he has been previously married. He's committing adultery by marrying a woman who, in the eyes of God, is already married to another man.

So, to clarify my statement above, "man B" may or may not be committing adultery--it depends on his actions after the divorce. If he put away his wife for illegitimate reasons, but not so he could go live out his fantasies with another woman, man B may be a jerk, but he's not necessarily an adulterer.

13
  • Thanks for another thorough answer! That said, I have some questions: First, in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus said one's righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, didn't He use "You have heard X, but I say Y" for each example? If so, wouldn't this separate Matthew 5:27-30 (which forms one "You have heard X, but I say Y" statement) from verses 31-32 (which forms another "You have heard X, but I say Y" statement)?
    – The Editor
    Apr 26, 2022 at 18:31
  • Also, in your understanding of Jesus' teaching, He isn't raising the bar higher than Moses' law but simply reacting to a false interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1, explaining its true meaning. How would you understand this in light of Matthew 19:7-8? When the Pharisees argued from Moses commanding a divorce certificate, doesn't Jesus agree with them that Moses allowed divorce, instead disputing the relevancy of such, since "from the beginning it was not so" (NKJV)? Does this suggest that Jesus' teaching differed from Moses (by Jesus' own admission) and that He was going back to Adam and Eve?
    – The Editor
    Apr 26, 2022 at 18:31
  • Last but not least, you say, "Jesus taught that divorce on such grounds was invalid, and therefore the future sexual relations between the man & his new wife, and between the previous wife & her new husband were as adulterous as if the divorce had never happened" (emphasis mine). Does this imply that "if the divorce had never happened," the man's second marriage would still have been adulterous? That's what my OP is getting at in the question.
    – The Editor
    Apr 26, 2022 at 18:38
  • @TheEditor good questions! I added a post-script to respond to your last question. Re the X & Y question, I reworded that sentence, I agree that was a bit confusing. Jesus does something similar in verses 38 & 43 where 2 clearly related teachings are each introduced with some form of "it has been said". So you're correct, the wording between the anger & adultery sections is not identical. I believe the pattern of thought is the same, tying the divorce verses to the lust verses. Apr 27, 2022 at 4:01
  • @TheEditor agree, the rabbinic debates had lowered the bar for divorce and Jesus is saying they were wrong to do it. He's raising the bar from the point to which the rabbinic interpretation had lowered it. He's not overturning the letter of the law at this time, He's explaining the spirit of the law. I understand Jesus to be saying that divorce is not God's ideal, plan, or intention, but because of human imperfection it is permitted. Apr 27, 2022 at 4:09
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Jesus' teaching in Matt 19:1-12, Mark 10:1-12, Luke 16:18 say very little, either for or against polygamy. The closest we get is Jesus quote about "the two shall be one flesh". However, even this is limited because it only discusses the way God started the process and says nothing about later developments such as God blessing David with more wives (2 Sam 12:8), etc.

Please do not misunderstand me - I am NOT arguing for Christian polygamy - the Bible is rather silent about that topic - the closest we come is Paul's instruction to elders and deacons to have only one wife (1 Tim 3:2).

Historically, the Church inherited the legal concept of monogamy from Rome but the NT says almost nothing about it. [There is a similar "problem" with slavery about which the NT is also silent.]

So what is the above group of texts saying? They say exactly what they say as per Matt 5:32:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, brings adultery upon her. And he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

I note that the text of Matt 19:9 is disputed with SBL siding with the Byzantine text to read:

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.”

4
  • Thanks for the reply! I understand that you aren't an apologist for polygamy and that you're just making sure we aren't extracting things from Jesus' statements that aren't actually there. Could you explain how a man divorcing his wife and marrying another can be called "adultery"?
    – The Editor
    Apr 7, 2022 at 13:34
  • @TheEditor - the texts are primarily talking about divorced people remarrying - there is no valid grounds for divorce, except "porneai" (= sexual infidelity). In the latter case, no remarriage is possible anyway.
    – Dottard
    Apr 7, 2022 at 20:50
  • In regards to New Testament Bible discrediting slavery. Click link: desiringgod.org/interviews/why-did-god-permit-slavery John Piper stated "The book of Onesimus (Philemon) is the book that is brought forward most often—and rightly, I think—to show that Paul was sowing the seeds to explode the whole situation of slavery. Onesimus himself was a slave when he got converted. Paul sent him back to Philemon who had been his master, and he said, "I am sending him back as a brother. Honor him." I think that kind of spiritual dynamic is intended to explode the system." Apr 9, 2022 at 16:08
  • The textual addition in Matthew is not an issue, it is just a conformation to the authentic Luke 16:18.
    – Michael16
    Apr 27, 2022 at 16:21
1

The Bible frequently refers to marriage as a man and a woman becoming one, which clearly excludes polygamous relationships.

But the Bible also shows examples of polygamy (e.g. Abraham, Jacob, Saul, David, Solomon). Notice though that all cases involve a very rich and powerful man, one that would have no problem providing support for multiple wives and children.

Even so, that doesn't mean that the Bible condones such relationships. These men had multiple wives despite God's teaching, not because of it.

And it wasn't always because the men actually wanted a second wife. Abraham took a second wife at his first wife's insistence, and Jacob took a second wife because he was tricked into marrying her sister first.

Notice this early directive (which was obviously frequently disobeyed):

The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the LORD. …
— Deuteronomy 17:17

The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906 says:


That the ideal state of human society, in the mind of the primitive Israelite, was a monogamous one is clearly evinced by the fact that the first man (Adam) was given only one wife, and that the first instance of bigamy occurred in the family of the cursed Cain (Gen. iv. 19). Noah and his sons also are recorded as having only one wife each (ib. vi. 7, 13).

There is no Biblical evidence that any of the Prophets lived in polygamy. Monogamous marriage was used by them as a symbol of the union of God with Israel, while polygamy was compared to polytheism or idolatrous worship (Hos. ii. 18; Isa. l. 1; Jer. ii. 2; Ezek. xvi. 8). The last chapter of Proverbs, which is a description of the purity of home life, points to a state of monogamy. The marriage with one wife thus became the ideal form with the great majority of the people; and in post-exilic times polygamy formed the rare exception

As to the question of “Does Jesus' teaching on marriage implicitly condemn polygamy as adulterous?”, consider that the Jewish society of the time already understood marriage as being naturally monogamous. There was no need for Jesus to mention any other possibility; polygamy was already explicitly adulterous.

1

The context of those passages is the right interpretation and application of the law which focuses on the spirit rather than letter, and to denounce the wicked, evil and legalistic tradition of men. The background on the debate on divorce:

When is it time to get a divorce? The Talmud cites three opinions:

  • The School of Shammai rules: A man should not divorce his wife unless he discovers in her an immoral matter...

  • The School of Hillel holds: [He may divorce her] even if she burnt his meal.

  • Rabbi Akiva says: Even if he found another more beautiful than she.

(All three opinions derive from the same verse in the Torah —Deut 24:1—in the section dealing with the laws of divorce, depending on how a key phrase in that verse is interpreted.) [Chabad]

Jesus defends the Shammai ruling, and it is possible that the teachers and father of Akiva were among the enemies of Jesus. This is not to imply that the later "Christians" from the second century onwards from Rome, were any better than Akiva and Hillel. Your question is based upon the common misunderstanding that the moral teachings and absolutes as black and white; and Jesus is abolishing divorce altogether, going against Moses. It is not possible that he could go against Moses, his answer was meant to attack their corrupted teachings on divorce by showing that divorce should be the last resort. It should be avoided by all means: What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. On the topic of violence, he said, you have turned the eye for an eye judiciary law into a cause for personal vengeance among each other, forgetting mercy, but violence should be your last resort (turn your other cheek, never retaliate).

“Weighing” the Laws, and the Myth of Moral Absolutes

The Jewish theology seeks balance is in its approach to the law. "Christians" have traditionally understood all the commandments to be of equal importance and absolute, but in the time of Jesus, the rabbis “weighed” the laws so that in a situation where two laws conflict with each other, a person knew which one to follow. Pikuach nefesh (Hebrew: פקוח נפש, lit. 'watching over a soul' which comes from Leviticus 18:5, "You shall keep My statutes and My laws, which a person shall do and shall live by them.) is the principle in Halakha (Jewish law) that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious duties. For this principle, eating unclean food was allowed in the time of necessity; breaking sabbath to rescue animals or humans is allowed because protecting life takes precedence over rituals. Sabbath was made for man, not man for Sabbath, Mark 2:27. One can only become a martyr, however, if the option is between death and performing acts of idolatry, illegitimate sexual intercourse, or murder (Sanhedrin 74a-b).

An interesting example shows the contrasts in approach to the law. Imagine you lived in Europe during World War II and were hiding Jews in your home, and a Nazi came demanding to know where they were. Should you lie or tell the truth? According to the principle of Pikuach Nephesh, you should lie to save their lives. There is also biblical precedent in Exodus, when the midwives lied to Pharaoh rather than to kill the Israelite boys, and God rewarded them (Ex. 1:16-21) and also the example of Rahab's righteous lie (James 2:25), not to mention, she was a prostitute. A fanatic absolutist would never credit righteousness to such a woman for her good works.

Not surprisingly, therefore, that the pagans came to the opposite conclusions after getting hold of the Jewish scriptures, having no basic understanding and wisdom of the religion whatsoever. For they interpreted the theology from their own pagan world-view & background The Manichaean Priest turned Christian, St. Augustine interpreting from his unique perspective actually said, “Since, then, eternal life is lost by lying, a lie may never be told for the preservation of the temporal life of another.” Augustine converted to the Roman Church to save his life from the death sentence against all pagans. I can imagine some of his friends might have lied to protect his life, unfortunately. He would conclude that a person must answer the Nazi truthfully no matter what. It appears that in his thinking, all rules are absolute. This logic forces one to conclude that law to intervene to save life (Lev. 19:16) and the law against lying (Lev. 19:11) are irreconcilable. [See the detailed article by Lois Tverberg].

Given the context of the liberal opponents of Jesus, we see that he was constantly defending the right and strict interpretation of the law. Teaching in response to the liberal view saying, when you're habitual of taking false oaths, it is better never to take oaths; in the same reason it is said against divorce. When you are being taught to indulge in adultery by replacing wives, you should learn the meaning of marriage; and that divorce is valid only for necessary genuine reasons, like adultery when she fails to repent. When your divorce is valid, your remarriage cannot possibly be counted as adultery (illegal extra marital relation). Divorce is not adultery, but extra marital sex means adultery. Remarriage after a wrongful, illegal divorce cannot be seen as righteous relationship, hence, adultery.

See the topics on Polygamy on Judaism.SE The context is presupposing monogamy, because polygamy was very rare, and perhaps only practical for the Kings, and even the Kings were discouraged from collecting too many wives (Deut 17:17). In any case, just because polygamy may be permissible, it doesn't mean it should be desired as a means for sexual gratification. In that case, it will be adultery and fornication. However, despite being illegal in almost all developed nations today, there may be valid reasons for polygamy, such as to provide shelter and rescue women from highly oppressing nations where there are already shortage of real believing men for them. To be specific, the teaching against divorce does not condemn a hypothetical case of polygamy.

Translating Conjunction

I have always thought the verse should read, "whoever divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery". Because that's what the context indicates. I didn't know some scholars have already suggested this, and this translation for the Greek και (and) is perfectly legitimate. This translation ends the whole controversy surrounding the verse that suggests all divorce or remarriage are sin.

Mark 10:11-12 TLB (The Living Bible copyright © 1971 Tyndale House)
He told them, “When a man divorces his wife to marry someone else, he commits adultery against her. And if a wife divorces her husband and remarries, she, too, commits adultery.”

The Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels, a Hebrew/English translation (from a hypothetical Hebrew then to English) in the 19th century, in Luke 16:18, it has the alternative reading in footnotes, "sends away his wife in order to marry".

Daniel Wallace writes in Exegetical Syntax, on Conjunctions:

The primary characteristic of conjunctions is that of making connections in a language. They can make two types of structural connections: coordinate (paratactic) or subordinate (hypotactic). The coordinate conjunction links equal elements together, e.g., a subject (or other part of speech) to a subject (or other part of speech), sentence to sentence, or paragraph to paragraph*. The subordinate conjunction links a dependent clause to an independent clause or another dependent clause, either of which supplies the controlling idea that the subordinate conjunction and its clause modifies.

*footnote: Although the two elements might be equal syntactically, there is often a semantic notion of subordination. For example, on the surface “I went to the store and I bought bread” involves two coordinate clauses joined by and. But on a “deep structure” level, it is evident that coordinate ideas are not involved: “I went to the store in order that I might buy bread.” Semitic languages are especially paratactic, as are the lower echelons of Hellenistic Greek. Narrative literature often reflects this, even among the more literary writers.

Brad Young gives the same explanation, that Jesus did not abolish divorce and remarriage, he only rightly established the intent of the law. He writes in his book, Jesus The Jewish Theologian, 1995:

Here attention will be focused upon Jesus’ teaching in Luke 16:18 where the words “divorce” and “adultery” are often misunderstood. Not infrequently Christian clergy and laypeople have thought that Jesus made divorce synonymous with adultery. Nothing could be further from the truth; it is clear that divorce and remarriage were permitted in Jewish law. Did he abolish the laws which refer to divorce and remarriage? Jesus did not come to destroy the law. He came to place it upon a firmer foundation by proper interpretation. Prohibiting divorce would abrogate the Torah passage in Deuteronomy 24:1–2. [...]
In this Gospel passage did Jesus seek to prevent injustice and to set limits on the interpretation of the biblical law which might encourage divorce for the sake of remarriage? As is often the case, divorce can be employed as a convenience for a man to divorce the wife of his youth in order to remarry a younger, more attractive woman. While the Mishnah deals with the case of a married woman who commits adultery, Jesus addresses a somewhat similar case. What if a man divorces his wife in order to marry someone else? Actually Jesus seems to be addressing this specific case. Divorce used to marry another is the same as adultery.

In Luke both verbs “divorce” and “marry” are in the present tense. The parallel in Mark 10:11 puts them in the subjunctive mood. In Hebrew the force of the expression would have linked the two actions together in continuous motion: kol hasholeach et eshto venose acheret noef, “Every one who divorces and marries another commits adultery.” Perhaps in English one could better capture the meaning of the saying by translating it, “Every one who divorces his wife [in order] to marry another commits adultery.” This suggested new translation makes the saying of Jesus clear.

The second part of the verse must be understood in a similar fashion. In light of the Mishnah passage in Sotah, if a man marries a woman who obtained a divorce merely for the sake of her second marriage, then it is considered adultery. Divorce is not adultery. However, one can obtain a divorce for the sake of remarriage and thereby break the sacred trust of marriage fidelity.

Conclusion
The Rabbinic enemies of Jesus misused the scripture by twisting and sometimes taking the word to extremes & absolutes, as they forbade the works of righteousness for the sake of their rituals and tradition like Sabbath or cleanliness. We would be guilty of the same fanatic ultraism if we follow such biased, closed-minded doctrines without seeking to establish the spirit of the law. While divorce & remarriage are acceptable, it is advisable that you should put all efforts to avoid it and work for healing your marriage. The liberal laws in the US such as no-fault divorce laws have increased its rates drastically, and it results in destroying more families and the children and their families. These personal experience of divorce can often be reasons for people to oppose all divorce as sin, and we should understand that.

5
  • Thanks for the in-depth answer. I have two questions. First, if Jesus' opposition to the Pharisees is that they're interpreting Moses wrong, how does this work with Matthew 19:7-8? Here, the Pharisees claim Moses commanded a divorce certificate, therefore allowing divorce. In reply, Jesus didn't say, "No, you interpret Moses wrong." Rather, He agrees that Moses allowed divorce: "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (NKJV, emphasis mine). Does this suggest Jesus' teaching differed from Moses?
    – The Editor
    Apr 27, 2022 at 20:03
  • My second question pertains to the view that divorcing and remarrying means divorcing in order to remarry. How would that work in Matthew 19:9? It says that "whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery" (NKJV). Would this imply that if a man divorces his wife for sexual immorality in order to marry another, he doesn't commit adultery? In other words, is Jesus saying it's okay to divorce your wife in order to marry another so long as your first wife committed sexual immorality?
    – The Editor
    Apr 27, 2022 at 20:10
  • Yes, as I said legal divorce cannot make you an adulterer when you remarry. But study those rabbinic text, you need to work for her repentance that she should come back and unite with you, if she refuses for a long time and your patience breaks after all guidance from God. Only then divorce her is she's an unrepentant whore. Even then consider all options about the consequences if you have children. Man is free to remarry after lawful divorce. Only unlawful divorce for remmariage is sin. @TheEditor
    – Michael16
    Apr 28, 2022 at 2:18
  • Jesus words "from the beginning it wasn't so" means the ideal situation and instructions was not so, marriage is supposed to be permanent. Moses only introduced divorce due to sins in our society. He is saying divorce should be the last resort. Don't see divorce as a quick available solution of conflicts. You should not even see divorce as an option. Nobody marries someone with the idea of divorce. It should be avoided by all means. Seek God's guidance for everything. Don't see any rule as blanket absolute rules.
    – Michael16
    Apr 28, 2022 at 2:26
  • The whole point is that you must not use any excuse(even her sin) for div; if you do so you will b committing the same sin of adultery if you sought reasons for divorce to replace wife. Only separate when it is the only option left with God's guidance w patienc. Otherwise seek the power to forgive her unlimited times as God forgave you. Matt 18:21-35. We must remember that we could have committed the same sins as our spouse, & when God has forgiven us for them we must forgive others for offenses against us. God can show our errors and guide us if we seek him.
    – Michael16
    Apr 28, 2022 at 3:10
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I would argue there is no rational answer for this problem unless we read it in the context of Matthew 5 (and in particular Matt 5:27-30) where Jesus is transcending ethical rules (not so-called traditional customs/‘law’). The emphasis is on the required bond for a long-term relationship (which has a crucial impact on the health and wellbeing of their children in the long term as well). So, people should be extremely wise when choosing their partners and after marriage wise settlement of disagreements as moral agents and image of God. However, if after best efforts of both sides it doesn’t work a peaceful divorce would undoubtedly be an obligation!

1
  • How a person perceives the consequences of her behavior and actions has an impact on preventing bad behavior and wrong doings. Some guidelines in Matt 5 seems to be for this purpose: 27 "You have heard that it was said, Don't commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. 29 And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It's better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
    – EarthCare
    Apr 25, 2022 at 1:31
0

1 Corinthians 6:15-17 ESV Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

The question when discussing marriage is clarity over where the unity is and how that unity was obtained. Adultery is a violation of that unity and to the one who made the unity possible. The apostle Paul explained this describing Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:31-32 ESV “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

God’s holy people are a recipient of God’s holiness. They cannot be holy without Jesus. Christian marriage is no different. Christians are not only united to each other but united by God himself to himself. Adultery in the church is a violation to what God has joined.

Divorce is to ‘let go’ or ‘release’ someone. When God separates how does man reunite? 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 explains the seriousness of being united together and united in Christ.

Polygamy is the unity of many. The repetitive phrase of “two becoming one” is the basis for how marriage is defined. In polygamy unity is happening, yet the question of who they are being united to and what unites them needs to be answered. Is polygamy adulterous? Yes.

0

It seems to me that your question is really about polygamy (is it a sin) AND the definition of adultery. As for adultery, at one point you used a contemporary definition of adultery, calling it "cheating on your spouse." "Cheating" is really just a euphemism for having sex with another woman. There is no such definition in the Bible. Actually, I can't think of anyplace in either the OT or NT where adultery is clearly and unambiguously defined. It was just understood. So we have to (in my opinion) use careful thought about the matter and understand it by looking at what is intended when the word is used. We have to let God talk to us in HIS manner, not as what we would want, i.e. in our manner of speaking and thinking.

As others have quoted, Jesus noted in Matthew 5:28 that someone who looks on a woman lustfully commits adultery in his heart. "but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

Sooo, taking that literally, if I look at my wife lustfully I'm committing adultery, right? No. Of course not. You're SUPPOSED to look at your wife lustfully! (If someone wants to disagree with that, I can't help him.) Well how about your fiance' then? She's a woman. Hopefully everyone will say no to that also. So Jesus did not want us to take this literally. Therefore you have to understand what Jesus is talking about. It's not literally "any woman."

The word in the Greek, according to Strong's G1135 is gynē and one of the common usages of this word is "a wife" or "of a betrothed woman". γυνή gynḗ, goo-nay'; probably from the base of G1096; a woman; specially, a wife:—wife, woman. Strong's

From my perspective the women he's talking about are married women. If you look on another man's wife lustfully you've already committed adultery with her. Therefore the foremost aspect of adultery is having sex with another man's wife. You are a partner with her in being unfaithful to her husband. Conversely, if you divorce your wife you are forcing her to be unfaithful to you.

I notice that in all the accounts of Jesus' statement here, he includes three conditions: be a married man, divorce your wife, marry another. This is where it's easy to interject your own opinion. You could think that marrying another is required for this to be adultery. So you could divorce the wife and it's OK if you don't remarry? I suppose maybe. Remarrying is kind of a final blow to the hope for reconciliation. Or you could think that merely breaking the bond (which God has put together) is the adulterous act, regardless of remarriage. You could say that, of course, a man doesn't get rid of a wife unless he has someone else in mind and Jesus is just adding "and marries another" as an acknowledgement of that general truth.

It's too easy to get into the business of splitting hairs on things like this and miss the underlying truth involved. God uses spiritual adultery in talking about the Israelites whoring after other gods. This means that they stop loving God and start making idols and worshiping them instead of the one true God. So it would seem obvious that physical adultery is when you cause a woman married to another man to break faith with him and join to you or when you commit to a woman but later reject her, abandoning her for someone else.

As for polygamy, people have referenced Genesis pointing out that God made one woman for Adam, not two or three or whatever. And it's certainly true that for a man it's hard enough to please one woman, let alone a harem. Marrying one woman whom you love and who loves you is certainly the best situation. But what does the Bible say? The only direct comment is Paul's admonition that a pastor or deacon is to be the husband of one wife.

Abraham had concubines. God never criticized him for that. Jacob had 4 wives. God never criticized him for that. David, a man after God's own heart, had 8 or 9 wives (perhaps more) and God told him that he would have given him as many more in 2 Samuel 12. That's what would be called a tacit approval. It could be pointed out though, that just because God gave someone something, it doesn't mean it's good. The children of Israel grumbled about manna and God inundated them with quail. He permitted Balaam to go and bless the Israelites for money but God was angry at him for wanting to go. There are other examples of that but to be fair, in the case of polygamy and David, it doesn't seem like it's at all the same thing. God shows no anger whatsoever at David's polygamy or for that matter at polygamy anywhere in the Bible. The only thing that was specifically mentioned was for having "many" wives, like Solomon. 700 is a lot different from 8 or 9.

Our western laws, apparently generated from Roman precedent, forbid polygamy but there is no such proscription in the Bible either in the NT or the OT. I suspect that there would be a lot fewer divorces and broken families if men were allowed to have multiple wives. In Christian circles it seems like polygamy is lumped in with such sexual sins as male homosexuality, bestiality, etc but the Bible condemns those things explicitly but gives tacit approval to polygamy. You have to make assumptions and turn implications (which are usually highly subjective) into dogma in order to classify polygamy as a sin.

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Just read the quotes

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." (Matt. 19:9)

So He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (Mark 10:11-12)

"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery." (Luke 16:18)

They clearly talk about divorce. If you are polygamous, you are still married to your previous wives.

So, no.

1
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