Loving, nurturing family relationships have been highly desired and sought during all human history. Divorce causes multiple reverberations throughout immediate and extended families of the divorcing parties as well as the larger community. It’s also fair to say that marital discord can have similar effects.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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.”
Matthew 5:31-32 ESV
What Jesus says in these verses can seem obscure. Here’s an essay explaining some Jewish customs found in first century Israel that may enhance your understanding of customs around marriage and divorce in Jesus’ time. I will highlight two customs discussed in the article which still exist in parts of the world practicing marriage norms closer to those of the First Century — different than those now held in Western Europe and the U.S.
One custom, prevalent in a little over half of today’s world and held over from earlier times, is marriage arranged by parents of both the bride and the groom. Intermediary agents are sometimes employed to ensure the best match.
To us, it might be surprising that these arranged marriages end in divorce only 4% of the time while the overall Western divorce rate has wavered between 40%-50% in the last few decades. (It might be comforting to know that surveys of committed Western Christians record divorce rates half that percentage.) Some researchers have also observed that a steady increase in cohabitation as a replacement for marriage in Western countries has led not only to a decline in marriage rates but a predictable drop in percentages of marriages ending in divorce.
Another ancient custom that carries over into some arranged marriages is that newlyweds are expected to live in such close proximity to their extended families that constant daily contact is inevitable. This extended family model is one Westerners experience far less frequently.
The U.S. has also been affected by two developments that have widened the gap between us and First Century Judaism in our attitudes about divorce: In 1937 women could file for legal divorce for the first time and in 1969 laws enabling no-fault divorce began to be instituted.
I will end this brief comparison of modern and ancient marriage and divorce customs with a final thought: It’s tempting to equate legal provisions developed by our secular government regarding marriage and divorce with what Jesus says about those subjects. While those government provisions can prove helpful in sorting out a distressed marriage, they may also lead us to discount Jesus’ teachings.
Using the Lord’s Prayer, pray for those you know who have been affected by divorce. Thank God for the godly, healthy marriages you have observed.
Note. To access scripture links that don’t appear in the email version, read the web version in your browser.