Mark 10:1-12. No man is an island.

“And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them. And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:1-12) 

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) 

Mark’s Gospel is a book of two halves. In the first half, Jesus has been demonstrating that he is the Messiah, teaching God’s kingdom has now come, and warning Israel to repent and believe. In the second half, Jesus is travelling to Jerusalem where he will die, and teaching his disciples about the nature of his kingdom.

 1. The Pharisees are asking a question “in order to test Jesus”. They don’t want to know the answer- they just want to trip Jesus up. But how is this question supposed to be a trap? Where is the danger?

 2. Perhaps related to question 1, why are we told that Jesus is in Judea, beyond the Jordan?

 3. The Pharisees quote Deuteronomy 24. They say that Moses permits divorce in this passage. Are they right?

 4. Jesus says that Moses gave the command he did because Israel’s hearts were hard. What does he mean? What would have happened to women if Moses hadn’t given this command?

 5. Jesus then goes back to Genesis, and the first marriage. What is this “one flesh” business about?

 6. In private, back in the house where they’re lodging, the disciples ask Jesus for more teaching about marriage and divorce. What are the implications of his teaching for us?

 7. The question we ask in every study; why is this passage here in Mark’s Gospel?

 8. As we apply Jesus’ teaching, we should bear in mind certain profound differences between the laws and culture of Israel as opposed to the UK. Which ones?


1 & 2. The Pharisees are asking a question “in order to test Jesus”. They don’t want to know the answer- they just want to trip Jesus up. But how is this question supposed to be a trap? Where is the danger? Perhaps related to question 1, why are we told that Jesus is in Judea, beyond the Jordan?

Jesus and the disciples continue the journey to Jerusalem. Jesus has made it plain that he is going there to be rejected by the chief priests, but the disciples are somehow able to put that aside, as people do seem to be able not to think about things they find uncomfortable. Along their journey, crowds gather, and Jesus stops to teach them, as he has been doing for a long time now. And some Pharisees come along- as they have done before- and they test Jesus by asking him about divorce. What does “test” mean here? These men aren’t looking for Jesus to teach them, but in what way are they testing him? Are they just seeing if Jesus knows the answer, as a sort of exam question?

No. This sort of test isn’t merely an examination. It is a trap. The word is first used in Mark’s Gospel to describe Satan “testing” Jesus in the wilderness. The Pharisees are continuing Satan’s work for him. They are trying to give Jesus a question which he can’t answer- where any answer he gives will get him in trouble. They want to catch him out, and they ask this question because they think that the answer he gives will land him in hot water. This test is an attempt to trip Jesus up.

Why would this question be “testing” Jesus? Firstly, this is a question on which the Pharisees will already have made up their minds. This topic is one of their favourite debating points. There is a split between different schools of Pharisees, and they’ve already rehearsed their arguments against one another. So the Pharisees aim to get Jesus to pick a side, and then whichever side he doesn’t pick can criticise him. But that alone is not a very serious trap. The second, and more dangerous, trap is the part where the Pharisees go off to tell Herod what Jesus’ answer was.

Jesus has already said some very offensive things about the Pharisees. He’s not going to alienate them any further by picking sides in an intramural quarrel than he has by saying, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-7). But what he might do is to say something that will offend Herod. Bear in mind where Jesus is currently teaching. Mark tells us that he is in the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. This is in Herod’s jurisdiction. Bear in mind also the things that happened to John the Baptist. Jesus is around John’s old stomping ground, and we know what happened to John, and why. John got into hot water for being outspoken on issues of divorce and remarriage. Specifically, he was imprisoned for saying that Herod should not have his brother’s wife. The Pharisees are hoping that if they get Jesus talking about the issue, if they get him to say something pungent about people who take other people’s wives, then they can go and tell tales to Herod. This whole question of divorce and remarriage was got John arrested and eventually killed. The Pharisees suspect that Jesus will come out against divorce-on-a-whim, and they know that they can make sure that Herod gets to hear of it, and Jesus might get into trouble with him. Who knows, Herod might even arrest Jesus, and have him killed. The Pharisees would love that.


3. The Pharisees quote Deuteronomy 24. They say that Moses permits divorce in this passage. Are they right?

The Pharisees looked at Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (quoted above), and they all agreed that in this passage, Moses permits divorce. That seems pretty clear. Divorce is allowed- but only in certain cases. A man can send his wife away only under certain conditions, only in certain situations. The woman, of course, cannot divorce her husband on any grounds. Jewish jurisprudence tells us that she can sue for her husband to give her a divorce. There’s an important distinction between divorcing (which the man does) and getting a divorce (which the wife does). So far, the Pharisees all agreed. Where they disagreed among themselves, was when it came to defining the proper grounds for a divorce. The Pharisees were concerned to define the law minutely. They said, “Well, we’d better make it absolutely clear what is a proper ground for divorce and what is not. We need to be absolutely sure where the boundaries lie here. So they debated among themselves the precise meaning of those terms in Deuteronomy- the “some indecency” which the first man found in his wife, and the “hates” which the second husband ended up doing to the woman. All Pharisaic schools agreed that Moses implies that these things are reasonable grounds for divorce. So what sort of indecency in the woman made it permissible to divorce her?

If she slept with another man, well obviously that was enough. But adultery probably isn’t so much in view. If your wife committed adultery, divorcing her wasn’t an issue- not in Moses’ day. Adultery was a capital offence, the adulterous couple would both be stoned, and the marriage would be ended with the wife’s death. No divorce would be necessary. So what is this indecency? Was gossiping enough? If your wife dishonoured you with her inveterate gossiping in the marketplace, could you divorce her for it? Or how about nagging? The Pharisees disagreed- some schools of Pharisaic thought took a stringent line, making divorce quite hard, and others would allow divorce for almost anything. The two main schools of Jewish thought followed two rabbis, who had been around at the beginning of the century, men named Shammai and Hillel. The school of Shammai took a hard line, and argued that indecency meant something morally shameful- some clear transgression of the law. The Hillel-ites took a more liberal line, and argued that anything likely to cause irritation or embarrassment to the husband was a reasonable cause for divorce. A genuine example from the Hillel-ites would be that if a wife burnt her husband’s dinner, then divorce was permissible.

Jesus is wise to the Pharisees. He knows that there is a long rabbinic tradition of teaching about divorce, so he goes to the root of the matter, and asks the Pharisees what the law actually says. Both Jesus and the Pharisees are well aware of what Moses has to say, and Jesus knows that the Pharisees think the answer is to be found in Deut. 24:1-4.

But in their debate over the details, the Pharisees had missed something pretty big. When Moses talks about “some indecency”, and “hates”, he isn’t issuing commands. He’s being descriptive, not proscriptive. The command in that passage is a forbidding of remarriage to the same woman after a divorce, not a permitting of divorce. Moses is recognising that divorce happens, but he isn’t saying it should happen. Notice therefore that Jesus asks them for a command, and notice that they don’t cite one. They can’t cite one. The passage in Deuteronomy is not really a command about divorce at all. It’s a command about remarriage. Jesus says, “What does Moses command you”, and they reply “Moses allows us”.


4. Jesus says that Moses gave the command he did because Israel’s hearts were hard. What does he mean? What would have happened to women if Moses hadn’t given this command?

The Deuteronomy passage presupposes divorce rather than permits it. But although it isn’t a divorce law as such, it is still a description of divorce. And when Moses was describing it, he would have been aware that his description would probably become a template for how “proper” divorce would be done. He knew full well that men would leave their wives, and so he gave directions about how it should happen. It must be done properly, with a written paper of divorce. The man is to give the woman a certificate to show that he has divorced her.

Moses never meant to make it OK for men to divorce. Rather, Moses was limiting the damage that would happen anyway. What would have happened if Moses had not given this regulation?

Think about the way Israelite society worked. There were only four sorts of women in Israel:

1. Young girls who weren’t yet married.

2. Respectably married women.

3. Widows.

4. Bad women.

A woman who was divorced, unless she could remarry, would fall into category 4- not a nice place to be. Category 1 girls belonged to their fathers, lived in their fathers’ houses and were fed with their fathers’ food. Category 2 wives belonged to their husbands, lived in their husbands’ houses and ate their husbands’ food. Category 3 widows were supported by their sons or by the community at large. Women in Israel did not work for blue chip companies and support themselves in comfort. They did not hold down steady jobs. For a youngish divorced woman, remarriage was the only respectable option. There was at least one other way in which she could earn money, but it wasn’t respectable.

The scenario Moses paints of a woman being divorced by one husband, then remarrying, then having her second husband die or divorce her, sounds convoluted to our ears. Why not just forbid the first husband from remarrying the same woman, regardless of what she’d been doing in the interim? But Israelite ears would understand that the woman had to remarry.

If divorce were allowed to go on un an unregulated manner in Israel, you’d have had Israelite women out on the streets, abandoned by their husbands, and with no way of setting up another home. Imagine an Israelite couple where the man gets fed up with his wife, and decides to leave her. If there was no law about divorce, he could just kick her out of his house, and that would be the end of it. She would have no rights, and nowhere to go, nobody to provide for her. Nobody else would marry her, because they couldn’t be sure that she didn’t still belong to the man who had kicked her out. No man would risk marrying a woman if there was a possibility that her angry ex-husband could turn up a few months later and accuse him of adultery. Moses gave a proper system to Israel. Following Moses’ pattern, men couldn’t just kick wives out of the house. They had to write out a certificate and hand it to the wife. And once they’d done that, they had renounced all future claims on her. Even if they were to be reconciled, they couldn’t re-marry one another. This meant that a) there had to be a proper reason for the divorce, and b) the woman could remarry another man without difficulty. She could show her new husband her certificate, and he would be reassured that she was a free woman.

The scene-setting in Deut. 24 is a recognition, not a command. It acknowledges that Israelite men would abandon their wives- that men would not remain faithful to one woman all their lives long, and that they would be leaving their wives and marrying new ones. The command is about remarriage and is given in order to limit the damage, and restrict divorce. There would be no ex-husband changing his mind and coming round to claim his wife again- if he tried, then the wife had a document to prove that she wasn’t his wife any longer, he had given up his claim on her. And in fact, even if she wasn’t married to another, he wasn’t allowed to take her back. Divorce was not something to be taken lightly, not something that a man could just do on a whim, and then reverse the next day, after he’d thought about it a bit more. If you divorce your wife, it is permanent, so you’d better be sure that you really want to divorce her.

As Jesus says, Moses gave this command because men’s hearts were hard. It shouldn’t have been necessary to give it, because there shouldn’t have been any divorce- but there was, and so it is better to have proper clean divorce, which leaves everyone knowing where the man and woman stand; than messy ill-defined divorce, which leaves the woman in no-man’s land. The law of Deut 24 is a witness to the evil of men’s hearts, and does not smile at divorce.

So although the Pharisees kind-of understand Moses correctly, they’ve really gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick. They’re not seeing the wood for the trees. They are so interested in what “indecency” and “hates” mean in practice, that they ignore the wider issue of whether divorce was ever meant to occur at all. They’ve understood that Moses is talking about divorce and how it should be done, but they haven’t understood that Moses was not talking about an ideal society, but about damage limitation. That’s what Jesus means when he says that this law was given because of hardness of heart.


5. Jesus then goes back to Genesis, and the first marriage. What is this “one flesh” business about?

Had the Pharisees understood Moses correctly, then when asked about divorce, they’d have gone where Jesus goes- back to the first chapters of Genesis and the teaching there about the first marriage in history. Jesus goes on to talk about what Moses actually wrote concerning marriage The divorce regulations did not make it OK to divorce, they just recognised that divorce would happen, and tried to make the best of a bad job. They did not mean that God had changed his mind about what marriage was supposed to be.  He hadn’t. God created a man and a woman, and he made them for each other. They were to live in harmony, to have no secrets from each other, to be united, to desire the same things, to enjoy doing things together, to love one another. They were to be a family unit. Men were to leave their families, the families they grew up in, and to hold to their wives, and to become one flesh. When Adam saw Eve, he said, “This now is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”(Genesis 2:23). “This is not like the animals. This creature is made of the same stuff as I am. She shares my life.” The man and the woman are joined together. She is made out of him. They are made like one organism, and their unity should be that close, that intimate.

Physical intimacy is a part of that, but only a part. Marriage is what happens when a man and a woman bind themselves to one another permanently; make promises to one another to stay together until death parts them. They then function as one entity. They live together, make decisions together, sleep together, raise children together, and have their goods in common. They share life. No man should ever separate the couple.

The Pharisees wanted to get away with divorce if they could do it legally. They debated what constituted indecency in the woman; which cases were OK for divorce. Their attitude was all wrong. The Pharisees were asking what the law allowed them to get away with. They were interested in what was a legitimate divorce under the law. Jesus isn’t asking what the law lets you get away with. He is interested in restoring people to the life for which God made them.


6. In private, back in the house where they’re lodging, the disciples ask Jesus for more teaching about marriage and divorce. What are the implications of his teaching for us?

The disciples, as they so often do, ask Jesus privately to explain- and Jesus comes down even more clearly on the permanence of the marriage bond. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  When a couple are married, it is for life. Any break up of the marriage is wrong. And a divorce that happens for a bad reason simply doesn’t count. If a man divorces his wife for burning his dinner, and then remarries, he’s committing adultery against his first wife. The two are still married in God’s eyes, no matter what his divorce papers might say. We should understand that Jesus is talking in the context of the Pharisees’ question about divorce-on-demand. Jesus isn’t saying that a man has to stay with a wife who sleeps around, or that a wife has to stay with a husband who abuses her. In those situations, the marriage bond is already broken. But God made man and woman to live happily together in a marriage- and though breaking up a marriage is sometimes the only thing to do, it can never be done lightly or happily, and it is always bound up with evil. Christian marriages shouldn’t get to that point.

Marriage demonstrates one of the fundamental problems of being human. We are made for relationships- marriage is the pinnacle of human relationships, but all relationships are affected by this problem. Primarily, we are made to relate to God, but in God’s image, we are made to relate to others too. People are made to interact with other people. Eve was made as a companion for Adam, and humans desire companionship. It is natural. Nobody wants to live on a desert island, alone and friendless. No man is an island, entire of itself. We want family, friends, wives, and children. We have this deep desire to talk to people, to love people, to share joys, share experiences.

But humanity is fallen. We are all selfish. This creates a massive tension. You want friends, but you want your own space. You love your family, but you want them to fit in with you, rather than the other way round. You want to be married, but sometimes you have to give up what you want, because of what the other wants. That is difficult for us because each of us wants our own way. People are born thinking that everyone else ought to fit in around them. Babies automatically assume that they are the most important being in the universe, and everybody else’s job is to attend to their desires. But when everyone thinks like that, relationships become difficult. So we have the break-up of marriages, we have arguments, and we see people stomp off to sulk on their own.

The application really is about the hardness of hearts- but this hardness is seen particularly clearly in a marriage. It is such a serious thing to be married. You stand there and promise that you will love this man or woman as long as you both shall live. I mean, OK, you love her now (I’m switching to talking about a man marrying a woman, just to avoid clunky language). It’s easy to love her while she’s young and beautiful, but how about in 40 years time, when she’s old and wrinkled? She’s not perfect, and she will do things that upset you, and make you angry. And you’re not perfect either, and you’ll be more offended and angrier than you ought. How can you keep loving her for so long? How can you realistically make that promise? How do you know you’ll be able to keep it?

There is an answer. Jesus salts his followers with fire. He makes them pure. He wipes out from their hearts the sinfulness that makes them selfish. In God’s kingdom, everybody will live in perfect unity. And God gives grace now to those who ask him. Those in Jesus’ kingdom who ask him for the strength to forgive, for perseverance in marriage- he will hear their prayer.

 And that’s only an individual application. Israelites lived in Israel, as part of a community in covenant with God. They had a responsibility to one another, to ensure that God’s standards were upheld among them. As Christians, we too are part of a covenant community. We are (or should be) members of churches. We should have other believers we’ve promised to live with, pray with, learn with. We have responsibilities to our churches. When illegitimate divorce happens in a church, the whole church has a responsibility to see that things are done righteously. The ideal is for reconciliation, but the church needs to be concerned to see that happen. That’s life in God’s kingdom.


7. The question we ask in every study; why is this passage here in Mark’s Gospel?

The passage fits with the theme of the gospel at this point. Jesus is teaching about his coming death, and about the nature of his kingdom. Both of those themes are here.

We’ve seen that Jesus is teaching where John used to teach. John doesn’t teach there any more, and we all know why not. It’s because he ended up with his head on a plate. We saw back in Ch. 6 of Mark’s Gospel that John’s imprisonment and death are presented as a prefiguring of the sort of persecution that Jesus and his disciples can expect. The disciples in chapter 6 are going out and enjoying visible victory over evil. They’re casting out demons, healing illnesses, preaching to crowds. They come back all excited. But along with that account, Mark reminds us that the reward of the Elijah-figure who came to prepare Jesus’ path, was death. So also, death is a real prospect for those who follow after Jesus. Herod thinks that Jesus is John come back from the grave to haunt him. He’ll be happy enough to see Jesus dead, and happy enough to see Jesus’ disciples follow him to the grave. That’s there in chapter 6, and there’s an echo of it here too.

We see also that the teaching here does have bearing on Jesus’ kingdom. Think back to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus is more explicitly giving a kind of kingdom manifesto. He tells his disciples that in his kingdom, the law is fulfilled. In Jesus’ kingdom, the law is written on the hearts of his subjects, and it reaches fuller dimensions. Part of the application Jesus makes of that principle is that divorce, except on the grounds of marital infidelity, is not to happen in his kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom is a place where a man and a woman can get together, become one, and stay together for the rest of their life. It isn’t a place where allowances have to be made for hardness of heart in the way allowances were made in OT Israel. Jesus has changed the rules, and changed the hearts of those in his kingdom.


8. As we apply Jesus’ teaching, we should bear in mind certain profound differences between the laws and culture of Israel as opposed to the UK. Which ones?

 I can’t provide proper answers, but here are a few scattered thoughts.

The issue is confused by lack of clarity in our definitions. What actually is marriage? What is divorce? What is adultery?

 Under UK law, legal marriage is a government affair. A representative of the government witnesses a contract made between a man and a woman, and watches them sign their names to that contract on the official register of marriages. But that isn’t the essence of marriage. People managed to get married perfectly well before the existence of the marriage register. We need to think carefully before automatically equating legal marriage in the UK with marriage in God’s eyes. The two are not the same thing.

 According to the Bible, what actually makes a marriage? Is it separation from parents and formation of a new family unit? Is it physical union? Is it a joint promise to be faithful until death? Does the promise have to be formal and witnessed publically, or can it be informal and private? Is it when a man and a woman both say, “I love you”?

Of course you’d hope that all of those would go together. And so they should. They make a full marriage-package. But in a depraved world, we often get partial packages. It isn’t always clear whether a couple are “married” in God’s eyes or not.

 For example; here is a woman who grew up never thinking about God, but who has recently become a believer. She already has a boyfriend. They are both in their mid twenties, and have been together for several years. They’ve had sex often, but have taken care not to have children. They’ve never signed the marriage register because it never bothered them. She’s often wanted to be more sure about their future together, but hasn’t wanted to put him under pressure.

Are they or are they not married? This has just become a pressing question for the new believer. Should she treat the man as her husband, and seek to stay with him even though he is not converted, or should she end an immoral relationship? If they are married, it is her duty to stay. If they are not married, she’d be a fool to stay.

Maybe it depends on a whole host of things: What has his understanding been of their relationship? Has she considered herself free to leave at any point? Have they been free to have other sexual partners? Has it been an exclusive commitment? Do they agree about their mutual level of commitment? Does he still want to stay with her now she’s a Christian? If all those boxes are ticked, then maybe she should seek to get the piece of paper and stay with him. But most cohabiting couples will only be ticking some boxes, or only some of the time. Things just weren’t that messy in Israel.

 For another example; imagine a man who has married a wife who nags him a bit. After seven years together, he can’t stand her, and walks out on her and the kids. Five years later, he’s converted. He goes back to apologise to his wife and to offer to restore the relationship and be a proper husband and father. But she’s married to somebody else already and says she doesn’t care what he does. Should he be allowed to remarry somebody else? Is there some kind of statute of limitations on things Christians did before conversion?

Compare his situation with another man who’s had a string of serious girlfriends, and made promises of undying fidelity to all of them. But when push came to shove, he didn’t want to marry, and he left them all in tears. He was engaged to some of them, but broke off the engagements. He’s also converted some years after all this. Should he go back and seek reconciliation with any of them? All of them? Only the most serious one among them? None of them? Should he be allowed to remarry somebody else? Arguably, his fault is worse than the fault of the man in the first situation. The only difference is that the Government thought the first man was married, and not the second.

 Should a wife stay with her husband even if he’s a murderer? Should she remain faithful while he’s in prison for 20 years? Israelites didn’t have that sort of problem, because the murderer would be put to death, and the marriage therefore dissolved. Because Israel was a theocratic nation state, they didn’t have many of the questions we would have.

 Our laws wickedly denigrate marriage. There’s been recent debate about recognising marriage in the tax code, but the problems run much deeper than taxation. Under pretty much any interpretation of the Bible, adultery is a much more serious crime than theft of property. But UK law punishes a man for making off with another man’s wallet, but not for making off with another man’s wife. A man can seduce someone else’s wife, and the injured man has no redress against him under our laws.

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