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This passage deals with an additional way (other than lusting after a woman in your heart) to become guilty of breaking the commandment regarding adultery.  The teaching of Jesus brings us back to God’s original intent for marriage that the sacred contact be permanent and exclusive until death.  Divorce cannot be used as a legitimate excuse to take another man’s wife.  The complicating factor in the text is the extra phrase “except for the cause of unchastity.”  Why is that included here and not in other parallel passages on the subject?

D. A. Carson: The introductory formula “It has been said” is shorter than all the others in this chapter and is linked to the preceding by a connective de (“and”). Therefore, though these two verses are innately antithetical, they carry further the argument of the preceding pericope. The OT points toward insisting not only that lust is the moral equivalent of adultery (vv.27–30) but that divorce is as well. This arises out of the fact that the divorced woman will in most circumstances remarry (esp. in first-century Palestine, where this would probably be her means of support). That new marriage, whether from the perspective of the divorcée or the one marrying her, is adulterous.

Leon Morris: In the other passages in this section Jesus is dealing with a specific command of God. But people were not commanded to get divorced; this passage assumes the practice of divorce and speaks of the way it was regulated in the Mosaic law.  The bill of divorce was a protection for the woman; a capricious husband could not drive her from his home and afterward claim that she was still his wife. He must give her the document that set out her right to marry someone else. It was accepted throughout Judaism that a man was entitled to divorce his wife (the procedure is given in Deut. 24:1-4). A wife was not permitted to divorce her husband, though she could petition the court, and if her plea was accepted the court would direct the husband to divorce her. The husband’s right was regarded as inalienable, and the only question was the ground on which he based his action. The school of Shammai took a hard line and saw the meaning of “some indecency” (Deut. 24:1) as adultery, whereas the school of Hillel allowed a much wider range of interpretation, and, for example, permitted a man to divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner (Mishnah Giṭ. 9.10; it adds the further information that R. Akiba allowed divorce “Even if he found another fairer than she”).  Against such a background Jesus calls on people to appreciate the true meaning and solemnity of marriage. We should bear in mind that he is laying down great principles that should guide conduct; he is not making laws or giving a precise list of occasions when divorce might take place.

John Nolland: It is, therefore, likely that the intention of the present Gospel text is to challenge easy divorce, whether initiated by the husband or provoked by the wife, in each case by labelling the subsequently formed relationship as adulterous. In each instance the challenge is addressed to the man: whether he be the one contemplating divorce or the one planning to collude with the stratagems of a woman who has found her way out of a marriage in pursuit of something better. Marriage is not a contract to be cancelled when no longer convenient but rather, as testified to in Mal. 2:14-16, a covenant relationship that calls for sustained faithfulness.

E. Michael Green: The plain meaning of Jesus’ words is that divorce followed by remarriage is tantamount to adultery in the eyes of God. Jesus is even stricter than Shammai! As we see from 19:3, Jesus takes his hearers back to the purpose for which God instituted marriage. It was intended to be exclusive and lifelong. That is the ideal. To fail to keep this ideal is to spoil God’s plan for man and woman. It does not mean that failure cannot be forgiven, or that a subsequent marriage cannot be happy and fruitful. It simply asserts that such a marriage is adulterous and can never bear testimony to the one-man-one-woman relationship, for good or ill, which marriage was intended by the Creator to be. And that was a shattering statement by the new Moses, going back behind the Mosaic concession in Deuteronomy 24:1 (designed, incidentally, not to facilitate divorce but to restrict it) to the original purpose of God. In the kingdom, as at the creation, marriage is meant to be exclusive and lifelong.

Donald Hagner: The husband who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery because in the culture of that day, unlike ours, a single woman could hardly survive on her own, except through prostitution. She was therefore bound to take another husband and so be made into an adulteress. And the man who married such a divorced woman himself committed adultery in so doing, because he has married the wife of another man. This viewpoint presupposes the permanent character of the marriage bond. For Jesus, not even divorce can change that fact.


And it was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away,

let him give her a certificate of divorce’;

Walter Wilson: The unusual brevity of the unit itself (it is the only section of the antitheses without supporting illustrations) is offset by the extended treatment devoted to the question of divorce in Matt 19:1–9 (cf. Mark 10:1–12).

R. T. France: the debate concerns not one of the ten commandments but a single piece of regulatory law which occurs in Deut 24:1–4. This, the only pentateuchal passage which directly speaks of divorce, served perforce as the basis for subsequent Jewish teaching on the subject, even though it was not concerned with the rightness or wrongness of divorce in itself, nor with permissible causes of divorce, but only with the aftermath of a divorce which is assumed to have taken place.

Van Parunak: Grammatically, the text does not authorize the issuing of a “bill of divorcement,” but simply describes the fact that such a custom existed. It contains, not three commands, but only one, with a lengthy condition that includes the existence of one or more divorces. The only command is that under these conditions,

Deut 24:4 then her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled.

I discuss the reasons for this translation extensively in chapter 4 of Except for Fornication. One important piece of evidence is Jeremiah’s summary of this law:

Jer 3:1 If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s, shall he return unto her again? Shall not that land be greatly polluted?

Jeremiah treats the putting away as a condition, not as a command or permission. . .

The references to the certificate of divorce and putting away in Deuteronomy 24 are a regulation of an ungodly practice, not an endorsement of the process and certainly not a command. . .


A.  Divorcing Your Wife Puts Her in Jeopardy of Committing Adultery (Unless She Has Already Committed Adultery)

but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery;

R. T. France: What effect then does Jesus’ new teaching have on the understanding of Deut 24:1–4? Ideally it makes it obsolete, if God’s purpose for marriage is truly honored, since the prior divorce for which it legislates will not in fact occur in the ethics of the kingdom of heaven. In opposing current divorce legislation Jesus is rescuing Deut. 24:1–4 from misuse for a purpose for which it was never intended. It was not meant to provide a positive basis for the ethics of God’s people, but only a trouble-shooting provision in case things went wrong. In 19:4–5 he will ground his positive understanding of marriage on a different pentateuchal source, and if that prior principle is observed there will be no divorce and therefore no use for the remedial legislation of Deut 24:1–4.

Robert Gundry: “Except for the reason of sexual immorality” means that it won’t be the wife’s first husband who makes her to be adulterated by divorcing her. She has already been adulterated. But emphasis falls on the responsibility of husbands not to put their unadulterated wives in a position that pretty much dooms them to adulteration by remarriage out of economic necessity. The passive voice in “be adulterated” reflects male dominance in Jewish marital culture. Strikingly, on the other hand, the man who marries a divorcée adulterates himself whether or not he himself is divorced.

B.  Marrying a Divorced Woman Always Constitutes Adultery (if Her Former Husband Is Still Alive)

and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.