Within the narrative of Mark, Jesus now leaves Galilee (Capernaum–the upper purple region on the map) and begins his journey to Jerusalem (10:1, 32). His route takes him into Perea (the lower purple region), the region “beyond the Jordan, on the eastern side of the river.” This is particularly significant since Jesus, though having left Galilee, is still in the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the one who beheaded John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29). John the Baptist was beheaded in Perea. If Jesus had gone to Judea and stayed he would have fallen under the jurisdiction of Pilate and out of the reach of Herod. This geographical note contextualizes the question Jesus is asked.
Apparently in no rush to get to Jerusalem, Jesus stays in Perea for an uncertain amount of time. As in Galilee, so here, his ministry attracts a crowd and he continues his teaching ministry. Some from Perea had earlier travelled to Galilee to hear Jesus (Mark 3:8) which means that Jesus was already known in the region.
Given his geographical location, the Pharisees seized the opportunity to “test” Jesus. The Pharisees and Herodians had a common interest in the demise, even death, of Jesus (Mark 3:6; 12:13). The intent of the question is hostile and was probably an attempt at entrapment. The Pharisees (and probably the Herodians as well) hoped Jesus might say something that would get him into the same trouble that John the Baptist had fallen. The theological question had a political purpose. Divorce was not only a “hot” theological topic debated among the rabbis but its condemnation was also a form of political protest.
Jesus answered their question—“is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”—with a question: “What did Moses command you?” This tactic commits them to an answer before he does. Moses permits divorce, they answer, but only if one provides a certificate of divorce. The Pharisees provided the standard response based on Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But the only command Moses articulated was that man should not remarry the wife he divorced. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 regulates (and thereby permits) divorce but does it in such a way that it protects the woman from ongoing abusive relationships (as would happen if for economic reasons if a woman had to go back to a former husband or, worse, go back and forth between several husbands).
While most think this is the text Jesus had in mind, I think it is more likely that when Jesus asked the question he had in mind Genesis 1-2. The Pharisees answer the question about command with Mosaic permission, but that was not the question. Jesus acknowledges Mosaic permission, “but”—Jesus says—this is not the most pertinent text. The Mosaic imperative, embedded in the Genesis narration of creation, calls husbands and wives to the permanency of their covenant as a mirror image of God’s own life.
Thus, while Moses permitted divorce, God intended union. Jesus draws on Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24. God created two—male and female. The language of “from (apo) the beginning” suggests intentionality and purpose as well as a sense of idealism. Male and female are intentionally diverse but at the same time intended for mutual bonding. The two are to become one; more specifically, “one flesh” which assumes a sexual union. Humanity was created male and female as a bonding mechanism—a mutual attraction to create a oneness that reflects both the diversity and unity of God’s own Triune life.
Jesus concludes (“therefore”) that this union is a permanent one. This is the ideal. No human agenda should disrupt this oneness. God created male and female, and God married or united (“joined together”) them as male and female. This is the divine ideal. It is the intention of creation and it functions as a divine imperative.
As has happened so often in the Gospel of Mark, the disciples inquire further. Jesus’ statement is insufficient or problematic to them. They have questions, and once they are with Jesus privately they ask them.
Privately, Jesus restates the ideal in negative terms. Genesis 1-2 offers a positive model but human brokenness fosters chaos within God’s good creation. While the positive vision of the ideal promotes intimacy and relationship, the negative vision condemns divorce and remarriage. More specifically, Jesus condemns the proactive decision to divorce one and marry another—perhaps even to divorce one in order to marry another. And—uniquely here in Mark among the Gospels—this is true of both men and women.
Whoever divorces their spouse and marries another sins (commits adultery). It is an adulterous act. It adulterates the previous union. Mark states that the adultery is committed against the former spouse (“commits adultery against her”). When anyone divorces and remarries, they sin against the former spouse. In effect, they treat the former spouse as unworthy of union. Adultery is a metaphorical picture of this act of betrayal and disunion. They have adulterated the former union since it cannot be renewed because Deuteronomy 24:1-4 forbids remarriage.
This is where the geographical setting comes into play again. Herodias had divorced her husband Philip in order to marry Herod Antipas—something quite rare for a Jewish woman but not totally unknown. The explicit comment by Jesus—unique to Mark—that even if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she sins is said against the political backdrop of that public scandal which ultimately cost John the Baptist his head. In private Jesus states his disapproval of Herod and Herodias and sides with John the Baptist. Publically, he only offered a positive vision while conceding Moses gave permission for divorce.
While Moses permitted divorce, this was not God’s ideal. Divorce is a divine concession to human frailty, brokenness and weakness. God hates divorce—and so does everyone who has ever experienced one. Yet, though God hates it, God permits it. Jesus does not countermand Moses’ permission.
The divine ideal, however, is still in play. God yearns for the emotional, spiritual and physical union of husbands and wives that they might experience the joy of intimacy and relationship that mirrors God’s own life. But chaos often reigns; sin often breaks trust; and humans have a tendency to abuse and use each other rather than love each other. God still permits divorce; it is God’s concession—as in the days of Moses, so even now—to the hardness of human hearts and the brokenness of human lives.
Mark has no exception clause as Matthew does (Matthew 19:9). Nor does Mark discuss particular circumstances that might justify divorce as both the Torah (Exodus 21:10-11) and Paul do (1 Corinthians 7:12-15). This is not Mark’s interest. Mark focuses simply on the ideal, the divine intent. Nevertheless, even in stating the ideal, Jesus concedes that divorce is permitted as even Moses legislated. Mark does not deny exceptions or permissions; his purpose is to reinforce the ideal.
Divorce is an ugly reality in human culture. It was pervasive in Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures just as it is in ours. Jesus hates divorce and calls his disciples to embrace the ideal embedded in the creation narratives of Genesis. It is our goal too, though we often fall short.