Saturday, October 03, 2009

For Your Hardness of Heart: Understanding Jesus' Teaching on Divorce

In the video I posted for this Sunday's readings, I mentioned that some ancient writers believed that the concession for divorce was made by Moses out of the desire to prevent wife-murder.[1] I want to explore yet another avenue which might help us further understand Jesus’ teaching here. Specifically, I want to highlight the fact that the so-called commandment for divorce is only found in Deuteronomy. Now, in his new volume, Meier has actually shown that the widespread acceptance of divorce in Second Judaism seemed to make more out of the Deuteronomic legislation than is actually there. Here I want to focus on a slightly different issue.

It is noteworthy that the concession for divorce is found only in the Deuteronomic legislation. In fact, the book makes other concessions not found in the laws of Exodus–Numbers. Indeed, it seems that Ezekiel himself referred to this book when he spoke of how God had given Israel “laws that were not good”. That Ezekiel had the Deuteronomic legislation in mind has been persuasively argued by Scott Hahn and, my co-blogger, John Sietze Bergsma.[2]

“Laws that Were Not Good”
The Ezekiel passage in question is found in Ezekiel 20. The chapter contains three panels (20:5–9; 20:10–17; 20:18–26), which each contain five common elements: “I lifted my hand” (20:5: ואשׂא ידי ; 20:15, 23: נשׂאתי ידי); “I am the Lord” (20:7, 12, 20: אני יהוה); an account of Israel rebelling against God (20:8, 13, 21); the threat of divine wrath being unleashed (20:8, 13, 21); God’s explanation that he withheld judgment because “I acted for the sake of my name” (20:9, 14, 22; וָאעשׂ למען שׁמי [14: ואעשׂה]. Clearly, the three panels are meant to describe the experience of the Exodus and Israel’s wilderness experience.

In the first panel, Ezekiel 20:1–9, we have a description of Israel in Egypt. The second panel, which begins in 20:10, begins with an account of how the Lord led the Israelites out to the wilderness. This is followed by a description of God giving his law to Israel in the wilderness, which is almost certainly meant to be taken as a reference to Sinai (20:11-12). The revolt that is described next and the following account of how God threatened to pour out his wrath upon the people should therefore be linked to the episode of the sin of the Golden Calf (20:13–15; cf. Exod 32–33). The final panel then, which describes the revolt of the second generation in the wilderness, should thus be linked with the disobedience associated with them in Numbers 22–36. The laws described as “not good” then are most likely a reference to those given to them in Deuteronomy.

That Deuteronomy is in view in the latter panel is further evident from a close examination of the words used for the divine legislation in 20:25. Significantly, the word used here for the “laws” that were “not good” in 20:25 is חקים, a male plural. A different form of the word, the feminine plural form, חקות, is used everywhere else in the chapter to refer to divine legislation (e.g., 20:24). The male plural is especially associated with the Deuteronomic laws. It is the male plural which introduces the Deuteronomic laws in Deuteronomy 12:1. In fact, the male plural form dominates the book of Deuteronomy. Significantly, the male plural appears only twice in all of Leviticus (10:11; 26:46), while the female plural occurs eleven times (18:4–5, 26; 19:19, 37; 20:8, 22; 25:18; 26:3, 15, 43). In addition, Ezekiel 20:25 also uses the term משׁפטים, which occurs only in Deuteronomy.

Distinguishing between the legislation at Sinai and that given in Deuteronomy is thus key to understanding the reference to these “laws that were not good” and the difficult statement in 20:26: “I defiled them through their very gifts, in their offering up all their firstborn, in order that I might horrify them, so that they might know that I am the Lord.” While some have interpreted this last verse as a reference to Molech worship due to the fact that the word העביר appears here, a word which is elsewhere associated with the Molech cult (cf. Ezek 20:31), it should be noted that the word was also frequently used for offerings which had no association with Molech at all (cf. 5:1; 14:15; 20:37; 37:2; 46:21; 47:3-4; 48:14). It should also be noted that Molech worship was never linked to the offering of firstborn children. Rather, the “defiling” nature of the sacrifices appears related to the priestly perspective of the author of Ezekiel. The Deuteronomic laws permitted something which was expressly condemned by the Levitical legislation: the killing and spilling of blood of animals in the land. While Leviticus requires one to bring all animals to be killed to the central sanctuary (cf. Lev 17:1–8), Deuteronomy only requires an annual sacrifice of the firstlings (cf. Deut 12:6, 17; 15:19, 20). It seems that it is this “defiling concession” to which 20:26 refers. See the article by Hahn and Bergsma for further arguments in favor of this interpretation and further interaction with other approaches.

Understanding Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce
I believe that Ezekiel’s prophetic explanation of the Deuteronomic laws as “laws that were not good” is helpful for understanding Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Of course, though Ezekiel seems to attribute God’s allowance of the Deuternomic “defiling concessions” to Israel’s sinfulness, there divorce is not specifically mentioned. Yet it is also important to note that nowhere in Deuteronomy is Israel’s “hard heartedness” explicitly stated as the cause for the concession to divorce. Where does Jesus’ teaching come from then? Well, first it is clear that divorce is criticized in other prophetic traditions. In Malachi, for example, the Lord does state “I hate divorce” (Mal 2:16). When combined with the recognition that Deuteronomy made defiling concessions―something clearly recognized by at least Ezekiel―we can begin to form a backdrop for understanding the prophetic matrix out of which Jesus’ teaching flows.

[1] Early Christian writers suggested that Moses allowed for divorce because he was concerned to prevent a greater evil―the murder of unwanted wives (cf. John Chrysostom, De virginitate 41.1; idem., Hom. 17 Matt. 4; Theodore of Mopsuestia, Comm. Mal. 2:14-16; Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Interp. Mal. 2:14-16;[Anonymous] Opus imperfectum in Matt. 19:8; Jerome, In Math. 3 (19:8).
[2] “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekekiel 20:25-26,” JBL 123/2 (2004): 201–218


Father Schnippel said...

Why is gender significant in your second to last paragraph?

You clearly highlight it, but i can't find the reasoning.

(If it is explained in the video, I can't get it to play smoothly on my computer. Alas)

Dim Bulb said...

You forgot to mention that the Hahn/Bergsma article WHAT LAWS WERE "NOT GOOD?" is available online from the St Paul Center For Biblical Theology.

John Bergsma said...

What a freakin' awesome post! You've really hit on a hermeneutical key that unlocks so much in the OT and NT!

Dim Bulb said...

Father Schnippel,

I believe the reference to the differing genders is meant to suggest that Ezekiel had the Deuteronomy legislation in mind when he wrote "the second panel."