The Text: Matthew 5:31-32
“It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32 CSB).
Matthew 5:17-48 and Exemplary Righteousness
All verses in the Bible must be read in context with an appreciation of the genre and tone of the writing. Jesus’ brief words on divorce in Matthew 5:31-32 are no exception.
Matthew 5:31-32 is part of a larger passage, Matthew 5:17-48, that is included in Jesus’ Sermon on Mount. This passage is an appeal to live by a higher ethical standard than stipulated in the Law of Moses and to live by a higher ethical standard than what the scribes and Pharisees practised:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20 CSB).
To make his points, Jesus first refers to a Law from the Hebrew Bible or to a rabbinic interpretation of the Law and then gives a short explanation. Jesus often uses the rhetorical device of hyperbole (overstatement or exaggeration) in these explanations. He does this for emphasis as well as to provoke and hold the attention of his audience. In some verses this hyperbole is obvious.
Perhaps the most obvious example of hyperbole is in the verses on adultery.
“You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell [i.e. Gehenna]” (Matt. 5:27-30 CSB).
I know no one who believes Jesus actually meant that people were to gouge out their eye or cut off their hand if they were lusting after someone and sinning. This is evidenced by the fact that most of us still have two eyes and two hands. And how does removing one eye or one hand solve the problem of lust and sin when we have two of each?
Jesus’ words are forceful and provocative. His intention is that his audience think deeply about his words and take them as a serious warning against adultery and its root cause, lust. He wants the problem to be nipped in the bud. His intention is not that people maim themselves.
Jesus’ words on murder and anger in Matthew 5:21-22 also include hyperbole.
“You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court [of the Sanhedrin]. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire [i.e. the destructive fire of Gehenna]” (Matt. 5:21-22 CSB).
Jesus is trying to shock his audience. Again, he wants them to think through what he is saying and take it seriously. But he did not mean that they, or us, are to believe that we are literally and irreversibly damned if and when we are angry with our brother or sister. Otherwise, we’re all doomed.
Law and Perfection
Right at the start of this passage, Jesus begins with statements that contain hyperbole or overstatements, including this one:
“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished” (Matt. 5:18 CSB).
Turning the other cheek is also an example of hyperbole, as is going an extra mile with a wicked person (Matt. 5:38-42). And Jesus closes this section with more hyperbole.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 CSB).
Jesus cannot have expected his audience to have the same level of moral and ethical perfection as God the Father. Nevertheless, Jesus’ meaning is clear: we are to live by a high standard of righteousness. Perfect righteousness and exemplary moral integrity are the ideal.
So what about Jesus’ words on divorce?
Divorce and Deuteronomy 24:1
After addressing murder-anger and adultery-lust, Jesus brings up divorce. Here are these verses again.
“It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:31-32 CSB).
Jesus begins by referencing Deuteronomy 24:1. He only speaks one line, but this one line would have reminded his audience of these words:
“If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house” (Deut. 24:1 CSB, italics added).
Divorce was not uncommon among first-century Jews. As discussed in another article (here), some Jews in Jesus’ day had greatly relaxed the meaning of “indecent” in Deuteronomy 24:1 and were allowing men to divorce their wives over trivial matters such as a wife burning the food. But Jesus indicates that Moses’ meaning of “indecent” was sexual immorality. Note that Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:31-32 are not a general discussion on divorce—he does not mention a spouse leaving an abusive marriage, for example—Jesus is focussing only on husbands divorcing their wives for no valid reason.
Jesus’ Rhetoric on Divorce–Adultery
According to the Law of Moses, the certificate of divorce allowed a divorced woman the freedom to marry again. In Jesus’ day also, divorce came with the right to marry another person. But Jesus is saying that a woman divorced by her husband, even if she has a certificate, becomes an adulterer, presumably, when she marries someone else. And the man who marries her also becomes an adulterer, presumably, even if he hasn’t been married before or is a widower. This is provocative teaching; it would have raised eyebrows and elicited a few outbursts of surprise from the original audience.
It’s also confusing if we take it literally. Note however this translation which is credible.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to be regarded as an adulteress. And whoever marries the divorced woman is regarded as an adulterer” (Matt. 5:31-32 EHV).
Would a husband who is divorcing his wife over a trivial matter be concerned that Jesus calls his soon-to-be former wife an adulterer? Or that she might be mistaken for an adulterer? (The idea of “not being able to his woman” might wound his male pride, however.) And why does Jesus say nothing at all in Matthew 5:31-32 about the (first) husband remarrying after divorce (cf. Matt. 19:9)? Is Jesus only concerned here with the status of the woman and her second husband as adulterers, or that they may appear to be adulterers?
The logic of Jesus’ statement is not clear but he was not criticising or condemning an innocent wife who had no option but to marry after being divorced by their husband. Perhaps Jesus was being deliberately controversial so that people might ask questions, think about and discuss the injustice of wives being unfairly dumped, and censure those who were divorcing their wives over trivial matters.
Jesus was against divorce. Elsewhere he upholds the life-long, one-flesh unity of husband and wife (Matt. 19:4-6). And in Matthew 5:31-32 he uses strong language and overstatement to send the message that divorce should be avoided. As in the previous verses in Matthew 5:17ff, however, we must not jump to a literal understanding of every aspect of Matthew 5:31-32. Paul did not take these words literally when discussing divorce in 1 Corinthians 7, assuming he knew them.
In Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels, there are other verses that mention divorce and that do not employ hyperbole. These other verses may help us to better understand what Jesus has to say about divorce and about remarriage. (I’ve written about Jesus’ teaching on divorce here.)
According to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:17-48, getting angry and calling your brother a fool is wrong, looking at someone with lust is wrong, divorcing your wife (except in the case of sexual immorality) is wrong. So is breaking a vow (Matt. 5:33-37), resisting a wicked person (Matt. 5:38-42), and not loving your enemies (Matt. 5:43-47). All these things must be avoided and Jesus uses forceful words to convey the seriousness of these things. Most of us will fail in at least some of these areas, but the church has focussed more on the divorce statements than the others.
Jesus isn’t making new regulations in Matthew 5:17-48, he is asserting ideals. We must understand the principles he teaches here and take them to heart, but we are not necessarily expected to practice them literally or on every occasion. Paul, for example, didn’t turn the other cheek in Acts 23:2-3.
All the principles and ideals given in Scripture must be applied with wisdom, common sense and kindness. This includes Jesus’ words on divorce in Matthew 5 and elsewhere. Righteousness must be balanced, and practised, with mercy (Matt. 5:7).
At the heart of Jesus’ ministry is love for humanity, and sometimes accepting divorce is the merciful and loving thing to do, even when there is no evidence of sexual immorality. And insisting that a person endure a marriage where the other spouse is violent and habitually cruel to their partner or to their children is the opposite of what Jesus wants for his followers. Insisting a spouse stay in a harmful marriage is not an example of high moral or ethical standards or of exemplary righteousness.
 Hyperbole is “a figure of speech in which exceptional exaggeration is deliberately used for emphasis rather than deception.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. © 2012, Columbia University Press. (Source)
Craig S. Keener writes that the verses on divorce in Matthew 5:31-32 employ “the same teaching technique of rhetorical overstatement that pervade the context (e.g., 5:18-19, 29-30; 6:3) …” Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Scio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 190.
 The wording here is a bit different from similar verses on divorce in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18. Only in Matthew’s Gospel is there an allowance for divorce where there is sexual immorality (Matt. 5:31-32 and 19:9). Some believe this phrase was added by the author of Matthew’s Gospel and was not part of Jesus’ original teaching. If so, this means Jesus gave no provision for divorce in his teaching.
 The Greek word here porneia is not the Greek word for adultery (moicheia), so some scholars have suggested all kinds of sexual sins to explain “except for sexual immorality.” However, porneia is sometimes used by Jewish writers to refer to adultery when done by a woman. The word porneia is not used in the other three Gospels or in Paul’s letters when discussing divorce.
“Behold, you are permitted to any man.” Rabbi Judah [135 to 217 CE] says: [he must add] “And this shall be to you from me a writ of divorce and a letter of release and a bill of dismissal, with which you may go and marry any man that you wish.” The body of a writ of emancipation [of a female slave] is: “Behold you are a free woman,” [and] “Behold you belong to yourself.”
In 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul uses some of this same language. Mishnah Gittim was composed around 190 to 230 CE, but parts of it reflect earlier Jewish traditions and teachings.
 Polygamy was rare in the first century and against Roman law. In Jewish law, however, it was permissible for a man to have more than one wife at the same time. So if he divorces a woman and marries another, someone might argue that he still has two wives and has not violated Jewish law. But no law allowed for women to have more than one husband at one time.
 Remaining single was not a feasible state for many, but not all, ancient Jewish women as it could be difficult for women to support themselves.
 Some Christians focus on the divorce-adultery verses in Matthew 5 without giving equal attention to the other verses in the passage but, according to this passage, lusting after someone and getting divorced both result in adultery.
© Margaret Mowczko 2020
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Chapter 7 of Scot McKnight’s book on the Sermon on the Mount. (Google Books)
Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce, Remarriage and Adultery
Paul’s words on divorce, and leaving an abusive marriage
God on Divorce (Malachi 2:16)
A Note on Divorce Terminology in the Bible
Paul, James, and Jesus on “Hell” (Gehenna”)
The Onward, Upward Call – Philippians 3:10-14
Maturity and Perfection – Philippians 3:15-19
In this 10-minute video, Craig Keener speaks about divorce and remarriage, including hyperbole in Matthew 5.