Dallas Willard on Divorce and Remarriage
In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard teaches through the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:32, Jesus says,
“But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “
Why does Jesus say that the husband forces his wife to commit adultery? Keep in mind that Jewish tradition did not allow a woman to divorce her husband. Only the husband had the legal authority to “send his wife away” (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.259). In the broader Gentile world, women had the right to divorce their husbands (Mark 10:12), but this was not permissible to the Jewish people. Willard suggests that this reflects the cultural realities of the day.
In the Jewish society of Jesus’ day, as for most times and places in human history, the consequences of divorce were devastating for the woman. Except for some highly unlikely circumstances, her life was simply ruined. No harm was done to the man, by contrast, except from time to time a small financial loss and perhaps bitter relationships with the ex-wife’s family members.
For the woman, however, there were only three realistic possibilities in Jesus’ day. She might find a place in the home of a generous relative, but usually on grudging terms and as little more than a servant. She might find a man who would marry her, but always as ‘damaged goods’ and sustained in a degraded relationship. Or she might, finally, make a place in the community as a prostitute. Society simply would not then, as ours does today, support a divorced woman to any degree or allow her to support herself in a decent fashion.
Therese circumstances explain why Jesus says that to divorce a woman causes her to commit adultery and to marry a divorced woman is to commit adultery. To not marry again was a terrible prospect for the woman. It mean, in nearly every case, to old with no children as well as with no social position, a perpetual failure as a human being. But to marry was to live in a degraded sexual relationship the rest of her life, and precious few husbands would allow her to forget it. As in the phrase ‘adultery in the heart,’ Jesus speaks of being forced into ‘adultery’ to point out the degraded sexual condition that was, then if not now, sure to be the result of divorce.
What do you think of Willard’s proposal? Was divorce in the ancient world harder on the woman than it was on the man? How would have Jesus’ policy of “one wife-one lifetime” benefited women in the ancient world?