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According to the Jewish tradition, marriage is a sacred duty derived from God’s commandment to be fertile and multiply (Gen 1:28). The only reason for a delay or for abstaining from marriage was for the full-time study of the Law. Divorce is against the divine plan, God Himself stating that He hated divorce (Mal 2:16).

The divorce procedure during the pre-Christian era was simple. “When a man, after marrying a woman, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, he may write out a bill of divorce and hand it over to her, thus dismissing her from his house” (Deut 24:1). When the numbers of divorce and its misery for women were unconstrained, Moses demanded a formal separation of couples for a genuine reason with an official document. That would provide a legal check upon uncontrolled separation of the couple and to provide an opportunity for the divorcee to get remarried.

Two witnesses were necessary for the divorce record. That was the proof for the divorcee that the marriage was legally dissolved, and s/he could enter into another marriage. A major part of the bill of Jewish divorce states thus: “And now I do release, discharge, and divorce you to be on your own, so that you are permitted and have authority over yourself to marry any man you desire. No person may object to you from this day onward, and you are permitted to every man. This shall be for you from me a bill of dismissal, a letter of release, and a document of absolution, in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel.”

The husband was the judge to decide the divorce leading to misuse of freedom in a given marriage. The cause of divorce could be interpreted in a strict sense as marital infidelity or as broad as anything that displeased the husband, like a mistake in cooking food, a quarrel with her, her talking with strangers, or her immodest dressing. The scholars of the school of Sammai upheld a strict interpretation that the law was applicable only to adultery. The school of Hillel justified it in a broad sense as anything that displeased the husband. Many men found this as an excuse to get rid of their wives when they detested them or just wanted to get rid of them.

Because of these different schools of thought, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” (Mt 19:3). Jesus replied, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:6). When the Pharisees continued questioning Jesus on the command of Moses to give the woman a bill of divorce to dismiss her, Jesus replied, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). So, divorce was not a law, but a sign of tolerance that the husband could implement for legitimate reason in a legal format. However, Jesus abolished that allowance of the past.

The Israelites adopted the practice of divorce from the Egyptians while they were in Egypt for centuries. They continued that even after God gave them commandments on Mount Sinai. Moses could not control the increase of divorce among his people because of their hardness of heart. So later, he conceded to tolerate it with a bill of divorce when there was a legitimate reason to do so. Moses restricted the divorce to serious reasons and demanded documentary evidence for the safeguard of women. That in no way meant that God approved divorce as a practice to be followed. It contradicted God’s plan that “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Gen 2:24).

Divorce, resorted to for silly reasons, was making the lives of women and children difficult. Hence, Jesus nullified the concession Moses gave because of its inconsistency with the divine plan of marriage and its misuse by men. Jesus confirmed the indissoluble marital union of couples, saying, “They are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:6). Through his revision of the law, Jesus secured family life and safeguarded the lives of women and children.

The only concession Jesus allows for divorce is the unfaithfulness of the wife because she became one flesh with another man, breaking the marital covenant with her husband (Mt 5:32). It is against the essence of marriage.

Jesus restored marriage to its original status and sanctity. Based on Jesus’ teaching, Paul wrote, “To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): A wife should not separate from her husband – and if she does separate, she must either remain single or become reconciled to her husband– and a husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor 7:10-11). This instruction is to prevent the couple from the guilt of adultery and to preserve the unity of the family.

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