Matthew 5:27-32 — Marriage and Divorce
We have to understand how the Covenant confirmed an awful lot of custom in the Ancient Near East (ANE), yet radically changed a few items. One of those was in the area of marriage. In the previous lesson regarding murder, Jesus reminded His audience that a genuine covenant believer held people as the most precious feudal possession on earth. The Law of God rests on treating others as ultimately a feudal grant from the Lord, something that requires a good stewardship. This is why we summarize shalom as social stability. One of the strongest human needs is a sense of peace and security that comes from an orderly life in an orderly community. It was a heavy obligation laid on the feudal servant to make that a priority.
In typical ANE custom, a man had unlimited feudal power over his wife. If he became convinced she was cheating on him, he could take her life. There were real world consequences in dealing with the in-laws, of course, but it was legal. Under the Covenant, a man was no longer a solitary master of his household, but held it in trust on behalf of Jehovah. He no longer had a free hand over his wife. Further, she had some feudal claims on him. There was this ritual of Bitter Waters that was frankly designed to bring moral pressure to bear on a guilty woman (Numbers 5:11-31). In the context of that society, it probably worked more often than it failed, but tradition asserts the husband also had to be pure of heart before God would bless the ritual.
It will seem incomprehensible to most people today that the Covenant assumes a wife is more likely to stray than a husband. We struggle to imagine the consequences in a world where your neighbors were your cousins and you lived in each other’s armpits, as it were. It was an entirely different world, and in the common daily experience of Ancient Israel, most men would have little opportunity to fool around. But there were some sneaky guys, and when caught, they were stoned with the woman. When there was only suspicion and no proof, the woman would be divorced. Men suspected of fooling around were treated as a threat to the community for obvious reasons; no man tolerated another man poaching on his wife.
By the time Jesus went up on the mountain to teach that day, the rabbis had perverted this expectation with specious legalism. Men got away with just about anything, but women were treated as slaves. Worse, trophy brides were traded among Jewish leaders like fine breeding stock. Thus, He begins yet another session of, “you have heard…” with this issue.
First, Jesus restates the obvious bottom line from the Ten Commandments prohibiting adultery. His audience was mostly male, so He is already stirring things up. Clearly this contradicted the common teaching of the Pharisees and their snarky excuses in redefining the term “adultery.” Talmudic teaching openly admits that the Law as stated was just too demanding on men. But Jesus turns that on its head: It’s not enough to keep it in your pants, guys. You have defied God merely in thinking about it.
Then He goes on to raise the bar even higher. If you can’t stop looking, gouge out your eye. If you can’t stop touching, cut off your hand. But this is Hebrew mysticism, loaded with hyperbole. You’d be a fool to take this literally in most cases. What we need to understand is that we are fallen; the fleshly side of our nature is wholly unreliable. If you can’t learn how to squelch the unreasonable demands of your fallen nature, then you need to look into extreme measures. Don’t talk about how unfair it is that you can’t just do what everyone else does; find your individual place in God’s holiness. If you don’t nail your fleshly nature to the Cross, you’ll slide right down into Hell with it.
But He doesn’t stop there. This business of treating women like breeding stock and sex toys defiles the whole Covenant community. You don’t just pick one out because something about her appeals to you, only to later find she’s not perfect and discard her. The unstated implication here is a return to the ancient Hebrew match-making, based on what was in everyone’s best interest. It’s not a man’s world; it’s God’s world. Put aside your petty lusts and think about holiness as pleasing the divine Sheikh. Get it through your head that He treasures His people, so you better learn His ways or risk damnation. Men have certain limited privileges only because they have a heavier responsibility. It’s not a birthright; it’s a mission.
There was a good reason adultery was a symbol of idolatry. You cannot pretend loyalty to Jehovah if you treat His people as mere tools of convenience. Want to see the Messiah? Repent and obey what God demands of you with a personal commitment.