Matthew 19 and Deuteronomy 24: Moses and Christ

By Ron Holbrook

What regulations on divorce and remarriage were given in the Mosaic legislation recorded in Deuteronomy 24? What role did these regulations play in the teaching of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12? In answering the Pharisees as to whether it is “lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause,” Jesus reminded them that “at the beginning” God made one man for one woman for a lifetime. When God ordained the marriage relationship, he did not intend for a man and a woman to be “put asunder” after he joined them together. Jesus indicated that the Pharisees could have learned all of this by reading the book of Genesis.

At some point, as the discussion continued, Jesus asked, “What did Moses command you?” “‘And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away,” referring to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Thinking that this legislation somehow countered what Jesus taught and put themselves in a more favorable light, the Pharisees pressed Jesus to explain why Moses commanded it. The answer further exposed their ignorance and put them, rather than Jesus, into a more difficult position. Jesus said that “because of the hardness of your hearts” Moses wrote “this precept.”

For the Hardness of Your Heart

Jesus meant that many of the Jews of this time were like their forefathers in that they stubbornly resisted God’s original ideal for marriage and the home. That ideal was stated in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” The rule one man for one woman for a lifetime excluded homosexuality, bestiality, all forms of bigamy and polygamy, concubinage, and all cases of divorce (except where the one-flesh union was violated and desecrated).

Suffered You to Put Away Your Wives

The marriage institution was nearly in shambles when God brought his people out of Egypt, Adultery, polygamy, and wide-open divorce were common. Women suffered many abuses without recourse or protection. God reinforced the original ideal of Genesis 2:24 by condemning adultery with capital punishment for both parties involved. “The adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Exod. 20:14,17; Lev. 20: 10; Deut. 22:22). In such cases, God required the bond of Genesis 2:24 to be broken whether the innocent partner wished it or not, and he made certain the guilty parties would never take another victim either in marriage or in adultery.

Polygamy and divorce fell short of Genesis 2:24 but God dealt differently with these abuses because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. Like a zoning board does at times, God allowed a variance, yet he regulated and hedged the variance with severe limitations. God tolerated their hardness of heart with grief. Their stubborn practices contributed to the moral weakness and national decline of Israel, just as such practices affected other nations. The monarchy illustrates this process. “I gave thee a king in mine anger; and took him away in my wrath.” By letting them suffer the consequences of their own folly, God taught his people to trust in himself alone and not in the arm of flesh (Hos. 13:9-11).

Polygamy. When a man took “another wife,” he could not diminish his obligations to the first wife (Exod. 21:10). This financial burden tended to limit polygamy to a few of the wealthier people. If a less favored wife bore the man’s firstborn, “the right of the firstborn is his” and could not be transferred to the son of a more favored wife (Deut. 21:15-17). Other complications arose out of the experience of polygamy, including bitter rivalry, jealousy, and provocations among the wives taken (Gen. 29:30; 1 Sam. 1:4-7).

Divorce. Deuteronomy 24:14 was God’s way of curbing the divorce craze. Men took women and sent them away at will. Woman was treated as property and the pawn of man’s unbridled passion with no recourse or protection. God certainly did not initiate the longstanding custom of loose divorcing but he determined to restrain their reckless practices, to regulate their stubbornness, and to soften the abuses suffered by women. Deuteronomy 24 was the inspired order, command, or precept of God through his prophet Moses. This revelation did not demand divorce but was permissive, variance, or contingency legislation (cf. Matt. 19:7-8; Mk. 10:3-5). As with polygamy, if a man was determined to divorce his wife in spite of God’s ideal for marriage, it would be permitted only within severe, prescribed limitations. The passage said,

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that he find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance (King James Version).

If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. This would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance (New International Version).

This passage does at least four things to circumscribe and discourage divorce. The variance was tolerated with very stringent restrictions.

1. It decreased the reasons for divorce to matters of shameful indecency. The exact expression used in Deuteronomy 24:1 is very rare, being used in 23:14 of human excrement. The famous Old Testament scholar S. Driver said, That the indecency denotes something short of actual unchastity may be inferred from the fact that for this a different penalty is enacted, viz., death (22:22); in 23:25 (14), also, the same expression is used, not of what is immoral, but only of what is unbecoming (Commentary on Deuteronomy in International Critical Commentary series).W.L. Alexander in the Pulpit Commentary and C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch in their well-known commentary concur. Matters of shameful indecency short of adultery might include the suggestive, seductive, and vulgar conduct which leads to adultery (Prov. 7).

2. To give the wife a document of divorce was to permit her to become another man’s wife. The original husband could not alternately send his wife away and then demand her return according to his moods, whims, and fancies. The terms for divorce emphasize the abuse and injustice perpetrated against her – “hewing off, cutting off, sc. from the man, with whom the wife was to be one flesh” (Keil & Delitzsch). Her recourse of marrying another man would cause her husband to think twice before sending her away.

3. It prohibited the man from ever having her back after she remarried. Even if her second mate divorced her or died, the first man could not call her back. God by this provision encouraged his people to rise above their hardness of heart so as to avoid rupturing the marriage tie. This caused the man to reconsider before divorcing even when provoked, or to be reconciled before his divorced wife married another man. His wife would more readily be modest and submissive “to avoid furnishing him with an inducement for divorce” (Keil and Delitzsch).

4. The whole nation would collapse if men defied God’s prohibition by taking their divorced wives back after the second marriage. The insistence on divorcing their wives in the first place worked against the moral stamina of the nation. The wife’s permission to remarry gave her some recourse but also left her in a position which fell short of God’s marital ideal. The men who caused their wives to suffer the stigma of a second marriage were forbidden from having them back upon pain of national destruction. Her defilement in this situation anticipates and approaches the teaching of Christ which stated that a man who puts away his wife in the absence of adultery causes her to remarry into an adulterous union.

Additional Laws and Limitations. 1. Deuteronomy 21:10-14. A woman taken in war could be married, but “if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will” (as per Deut. 24). She could not be a Canaanite (7:3).

2. Deuteronomy 22:13-21. If a man reported that his wife was not a virgin when he married her, the tokens of virginity could be produced in her defense. Among other consequences, “he may not put her away all his days.” In other words, a man who shows he is looking for a pretext to put away his wife could not utilize Deuteronomy 24. If no tokens of virginity were produced, she was put to death. This shows that the “uncleanness” of 24:1 was not the discovery that she was not a virgin at marriage.

3. Deuteronomy 22.28-29. A man who raped a virgin was expected to marry her, “and he may not put her away all his days.” The provision of 24:1-4 was not designed to accommodate every whim and passion of men with abusive attitudes toward women.

4. Numbers 5:11-31. In order to execute a man and a woman for adultery, witnesses had to be produced, and they must cast the first stones (Deut. 22:22; 17:6-7; 19:15; Jn. 8:5). If a man suspected his wife of adultery but found “no witnesses against her,” the priest gave her “bitter water” to drink. If she was innocent, nothing happened. If guilty, she suffered a horrible death by the miraculous rotting of her entrails (cf. Acts 12:23). The Jews may have resorted to the use of Deuteronomy 24 to put away a suspected adulteress rather than to face the ordeal of the bitter water (Albert Barnes). Such circumventing of the Law would in some cases release immoral women to remarry and in other cases leave a cloud of suspicion over innocent women who could have been easily cleared of unfounded charges.


God hated adultery, polygamy, and divorce as falling short of his ideal of one man for one woman for a lifetime. The Law of Moses insured that the parties guilty of adultery were severed from their marriage, barred from remarriage, and prevented from repeating their immorality. The death penalty opened the way for the innocent party to remarry but made certain the guilty never could. God did not institute polygamy nor initate the custom of loose divorce, but he severely regulated and restrained these practices until a time when he could eliminate them.

I Say Unto You

By his own authority Jesus reaffirmed the ideal of Genesis 2:24 in such a manner as to eliminate both polygamy and divorce (except where the sanctity of the bond is violated). All such practices are excluded by the rule of one man for one woman for life.

As Jesus announced his coming kingdom in Matthew 5-7, he spoke of its blessing, the character of its citizens, and his law for mankind. His teaching was purer than that of the scribes and Pharisees who made loopholes in the Law of Moses; he taught a proper respect for the Law. More than that, his teaching made the highest ideals of the Law clearer andplainer in practical application than they had ever been before. Moreover, he went in advance of the Law itself, speaking with the personal authority of a prophet like unto Moses in stature. He did not speak as a mere interpreter of Moses like the rabbis and scholars of the Law. “And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:28-29).

Some incorrectly suggest that Jesus referred to certain garbled misinterpretations of the Law and not to the Law itself when he said, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time.” Plummer notes in his commentary on Matthew that Jesus addressed a mixed and unlettered crowd who depended for “their knowledge of the Law” upon “public instruction in the synagogues, where the letter of the Law was faithfully read.” “When he is addressing the educated classes, Pharisees or Scribes or Sadducees, Christ says, ‘Have ye not readT (12:3,5; 21:16,42; 22:31).”

Jesus made a succinct reference to Deuteronomy 24 and then rescinded its provision, speaking as one who had authority equal to and higher than that of Moses:

It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give, her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery (Matt. 5:31-32).

The law of Christ would no longer allow the variance tolerated under Moses’ Law. If a man puts away his wife for any reason other than fornication, he causes her to commit adultery when she marries another. The differences between Moses and Christ can be summarized as follows:


1. Fornicator put away by death penalty – not marry another.

2. Man permitted to put away wife for conduct short of fornication.

3. Woman put away for cause other than fornication not said to be in adultery if marries another.

4. Man she marries not said to be in adultery.

5. First husband barred from ever getting her back if she remarries.


1. Fornicator put away by divorce – not marry another.

2. Man not permitted to put away wife for conduct short of fornication.

3. Woman put away for cause other than fornication said to be in adultery if marries another.

4. Man she marries said to be in adultery.

5. First husband barred from ever getting her back if from ever getting her back if she remarries.

Alluding to Deuteronomy 24 in the light of their own sectarian controversy, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” (Matt. 19:3) Jewish rabbis and sects had so perverted the Mosaic regulation as to practically nullify God’s law on marriage. The school of Hillel broadened “uncleanness” to include anything the man considered displeasing. Following this school, Josephus said that a man can “be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever, (and many such causes happen among men),” leaving her “at liberty to marry another husband” (Josephus, W. Whiston, transl., “Antiquities of the Jews,” Book IV, chapt. VIII, Sec. 23, p. 99).

The school of Shammai explained “uncleanness” as adultery. Both schools taught that the one put away could remarry. Thus Hillel nullified the restraints enacted by Deuteronomy 24 and Shammai nullified the death penalty of 22:22.

Jesus said neither school understood God’s original institution of one man for one woman for life. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:4-6). When the Pharisees asked why Moses allowed a variance, Jesus said that God did not institute their easy divorces but only regulated their stubborn abuses. “From the beginning it was not so.” From the beginning until now, God’s ideal and intentionsfor marriage have never changed. On this basis, Jesus announced by his authority the end of the Mosaic regulation with its temporary concessions (vv. 8-9).

And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery (Matt. 19:9).

God wants no divorces. He makes one exception where the sanctity of the marital union is desecrated by fornication – any form of unlawful sexual intercourse. In that case, the innocent party may put away the immoral person and marry another without committing adultery. The guilty party is given no such authority to marry another.

God does the joining together only when a marriage is approved by his law. When a man puts away his wife without the one scriptural cause, and marries another, it is marriage only in a human sense but is not the marriage of Matthew 19.4-6. So long as they continue in this relationship, it is adulterous. Likewise, when a man puts away his wife without cause, God does not release either party from the bonds and obligations of marriage by which he joined them together. When there is a divorce for the one scriptural cause, then and only then does God dissolve the union he joined together. God set the conditions for joining and God sets the conditions for dissolving. Among the class of those who are divorced, God authorized only the innocent mate who divorced a fornicator to remarry, thus excluding all other persons and cases, including the divorced fornicator.


By returning to the original foundation laid in Genesis 2:24, Jesus taught that marriage means one man for one woman for a lifetime. His teaching rises above all the abuses and perversions of the past, and above even the temporary variances which tolerated polygamy and divorce for a cause short of adultery. Two people joined by God in marriage are bound for life, the only exception being that an innocent partner may put away a mate guilty of fornication and remarry.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 1, pp. 3-6
January 4, 1990