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:
The Old Testament
The contemporary Jewish rabbinic debates on divorce
The trap being laid by Jesus' enemies
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
- 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.
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)
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
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.
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.