Marriage, Divorce, and the Misuse of Scripture
This Sunday I did not address the elephant stomping around the appointed Scripture – divorce, and by extension, human sexuality and the tortured interpretation history of Genesis 2 and Mark 10.
To be clear, no Scripture should ever be used as a “clobber text” to blame and shame people for their identity, life decisions or circumstances. Sadly, that’s precisely how these texts have been used – unfaithfully, harmfully, and divisively – for centuries.
Let’s take a moment to set the record straight.
A Trick Question
In Mark 10 the Pharisees approach Jesus “trying to test him,” part of their ongoing quest to silence Jesus by getting him in trouble with and arrested by the Roman authorities who rule the Holy Land. The question about divorce in this passage does not come from a place of genuine curiosity or faithful concern, but from a place of malice.
What is Lawful?
The Pharisees ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The Roman rulers who governed Israel held an excessively casual approach to marriage and divorce, freely marrying and divorcing without much concern. If Jesus says that divorce is not lawful, he potentially gets in trouble for casting the marital lives of the Roman leaders as sinful. If he says that divorce is allowed, he risks appearing to bless off on the immoral practices of the imperial rulers and to reject the longstanding honor given to marriage by Scripture and tradition.
Knowing the Pharisees’ deceitful intent, Jesus doesn’t answer “yes” or “no” to this gotcha question about whether a man can divorce his wife. Instead, Jesus leapfrogs over the laws of Moses and turns our attention to the Garden of Eden and to the creation of man and woman. He sets up this relationship of the first couple as the model for married relationships. Rather than answer what a man “can do” (or what a man can get away with) Jesus casts a vision of God’s intent for human relationships.
In Genesis 2, Woman is made from man to be a “helper,” a word that in Hebrew is employed in Psalm 115:9-11 to describe The LORD’s help to Israel. So “helper” certainly is not “less than” or “subservient.” If anything, as God’s final act of creation, Woman is the pinnacle of God’s creative work created not from the dirt of the earth (as is the Man) but of flesh and blood to be akin to God’s own help for the Man.
[In his treatise On Christian Liberty, Martin Luther wrote that Christians are called to be Christs to one another. Scripture and tradition both point to the high calling of us to be like God for others.]
Genesis 2:23-24 serves as an origin story for marriage, that two people sharing the same flesh would join together to become one flesh. Jesus picks up on this interpretation of marriage in Genesis, declaring that the two people joined together should not be separated (Mark 10:9).
So, Jesus is against divorce? Probably … but divorce 2000 years ago in a Jewish community controlled by an occupying Roman Empire is quite a different thing than divorce in the United States today. Ancient practices of divorce left most women and children destitute and subject to abuse, poverty and death. Jesus is certainly against a quick and convenient divorce for men that leaves women and children vulnerable.
So what about divorce today? Is it permissible? And if so, under what conditions? To return to the vision laid out by Jesus and by Genesis, marriage is the joining of two to become one in mutuality and in God-like help for one another. When that is not happening in a married relationship, are the two even still living in a covenantal relationship? Let’s not get hung up on technicalities. The vision for a marriage is mutuality and unity. When that is lost the marriage is already dissolved, legal details notwithstanding.
There are many situations in which a divorce is not only permissible, but is preferable, necessary, and demanded by any sense of justice. Marriage, just like any other human endeavor, is marked by human sin and brokenness. Whether abuse or neglect enter in, or infidelity or irreconcilable incompatibilities erupt, there are occasions to give thanks to God for whatever good was shared within the marriage while also proceeding to dissolve those bonds when that good is no longer operative.
There’s been much harm done using these Scriptures as cudgels to shame women into staying in abusive and unsafe marriages. Western society, with the lead of the church, has long ostracized divorced women as somehow not fit for polite society (while often giving divorced men a pass). Certainly, times have changed to a significant degree, but the shadow of this unholy and harmful history lingers to this day.
Marriage for Whom?
These texts, particularly Genesis 2, have been used to limit marriage to the union of a man and a woman, rejecting outright the idea of same sex marriage. Furthermore, the creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 is presumed to be an absolute and inflexible binary archetype for human sexuality with no room for diverse sexual identities or expressions. Such a presumption places narrow and unbiblical limits on God’s creative wonder, and cannot be reconciled to the real and joyful gift of LGBTQIA people as children made in the image of a non-binary God. Let us never use Scripture to dehumanize God’s people.
When people use Scripture to limit the rights and privileges of our neighbors and friends, or to heap shame upon whole classes of people because of certain life circumstances or identities, they are behaving as enemies of God abusing Scripture for their own narrow ends.
There is so much more to say. For now, let love govern our lives, grace govern our judgments, justice govern our convictions, and humility govern our relationships.
The peace of Christ be with you.
I extend credit and appreciation to The Rev. Erik Doughty, an ELCA Chaplain in Minneapolis and longtime Facebook friend, for providing insights into the Hebrew vocabulary of Genesis 2 and for recalling the impact of divorce on women and children in ancient Roman-occupied Israel in his recent sermon posted online.