Previous Verse


But I say to you that whoever dismisses his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery, and he who marries the one that has been dismissed commits adultery.  (See comments below.)


Let me tell you something important. If a man wants to send his wife away, the situation must fit the exception given in Deuteronomy, i.e. it must be a case of a wife who is involved in sexually inappropriate activity that is leading toward a sexual affair. If this man dismisses his wife and marries another woman, he commits adultery, and any man that marries the dismissed woman also commits adultery.  (See comments below.)

Hold on With Me

Please hold on as I walk slowly through this. Don’t react strongly without reading to the end or you will miss some important pieces of this puzzle.

What Is the Meaning of the Key Words Used Here?

The word which is often rendered “fornication” can refer to any sexually indecent or sexually immoral act, including adultery. Growing up I always heard that fornication referred to sex before marriage, and adultery was a sexual affair by a married person. Now I see that the truth is not that narrow.

The word that is often translated “divorce” means “to release, set free, send away, dismiss, or divorce.”

Why Does My Paraphrase Sound So Different From the Translation?

It sounds like my paraphrase has changed the meaning considerably from what the translation says. Yes, that is true and here is why. The translation tells you what the words of the original language said, but sometimes the meaning of those words includes an assumption or two that went unstated in the original statement because the original audience would have understood those assumptions. In this case there are several assumptions, and they are all very important. Those assumption deal with the following issues: How is the woman still alive? Did the exception start at the fall of Adam and Eve into sin or at the giving of the Law? Did the exception refer only to divorce or also to remarriage? What is the correct interpretation of Dt 24:1-4 and the answer to the Pharisees’ question? Was remarriage ever permitted? These questions will be answered as I present my perspective below.

Instead of dealing with all the possible interpretations of this passage and their respective strengths and weaknesses, allow me to jump right to what I think is the most plausible interpretation.

God's Plan

Marriage was intended as a picture of what our relationship with God is like. It is a flawed image because we are flawed people, but it is still helpful.

It appears that the authority structure which names the husband and father as head of the home was intended to be for life. My reading of Scripture is that a separation or divorce did not change it. While separated, the woman was considered to be under the joint authority of her husband and father. It is not clear which one had greater authority. Her estranged husband still had some authority because the separation was intended to be temporary, while the couple worked out their problems. They were not free to marry someone else (see I Cor 7:11). Only death changed the authority structure allowing a widow or widower to remarry (I Cor 7:39). A sexual affair violated the marriage covenant, that is one reason it resulted in death. So there was no divorce and remarriage after adultery because the one involved in the sexual affair would be dead.

What Did These Regulations Teach?

They taught that God is the ultimate source of authority, He is where authority begins and all humans with authority are to function under God’s authority, striving to do His will.

They taught that a relationship with God was intended to be for life, without any allegiances to other people or other things. There can be no competition for our allegiance.

The words of Jesus pertain to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, so let’s go there for a moment.

The Dt 24 passage appears to refer to a situation where a man noticed that his wife was showing some of the private parts of her body to other men. That is the meaning of the word often translated with some form of our word “indecent.” She had not yet gone all the way and had a sexual affair, but she seemed to be heading that direction. The law gave the husband the recourse of sending her back to her father as a wakeup call, or a shot across the bow. He knew what was going on and if it continued, she would end up having an affair and she would be stoned. Although the husband may have intended the dismissal to be permanent, it seems like God wanted it to be temporary so that she would recognize the need to amend her ways and then be able to return to her husband. After that their marriage would be free of such dangers. (The only recourse the woman had in cases of abuse was to return to her father or brother. This would protect her from future abuse and keep her under an authority figure that loved her.)

After she had been dismissed, only the husband could have her again as a wife. This taught that remarriage to someone else was not a good option; it caused uncleanness of a serious kind. Most of the things we do, like going to work or taking a walk, or mowing the lawn, are considered common and clean. However, remarriage after a separation or divorce was considered unclean, unacceptable, not according to God’s standard.

Why Did Jesus Mention an Exception?

If Jesus was highlighting the marriage relationship as a picture of our relationship with God, why did He mention an exception?

The answer is that He was also upholding the Law as well as recognizing our fallen condition that has been true since Adam and Eve sinned.

Jesus definitely did not agree with the school of Hillel which taught that a man could divorce his wife for anything that displeased him. In answer to the question by the Pharisees (Mt 19:3), Jesus clearly sided with the school of Shammai, which saw Dt 24:4 the way I have described above, as a description of a separation due to a wife that is headed toward an eventual affair because she is showing other men more of her body than she should. From the definition given above we see that one of the key words used here can mean any sexually inappropriate action.

What Should We Make of the Exception Jesus Gave?

Jesus must have addressed this issue several times, for it appears in the Gospels in different places. The exception is mentioned in Mt 5:32 and Mt 19:9, but in Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18 no exception is given. This means that truth being communicated could be stated without any exception granted, but it was sometimes mentioned for the sake of clarity because of the debate between Shammai and Hillel. When stated without any exception it placed greater emphasis on God’s design by highlighting how things were at the beginning.

According to the law, sex outside of marriage brought the death penalty. The woman in the example of Mt 19:9 was still alive to possibly marry again. That means we are not talking about a case of premarital sex, nor of an affair after marriage. You can’t get remarried if you’re dead!

The exception Jesus gave in Mt 19:9 followed Dt 4:1-4 and since He supported Shammai instead of Hillel, it referred to sexually inappropriate acts that were an obvious lead-up to a sexual affair. This is the only way I see to interpret the exception Jesus gave.

Did other references to divorce in the Law have to comply with Dt 24, or was the allowance for divorce broader than Dt 24? The other passages mention divorce in the process of explaining something else, whereas Dt 24 is directly addressing the issue of marriage after divorce. Therefore, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 seems to be the key passage on divorce and remarriage in the Law and the other references to divorce had to comply to what is found in Dt 24.

Scholars agree that the question of the Pharisees came from Dt 24. Many scholars also agree that the Law permitted divorce (under limited circumstances), but it did not permit remarriage.

What Was Jesus Really Saying?

Twice in Matthew 19 Jesus emphasized how things were at the beginning.

God’s plan does not include divorce.

We should not consider divorce as an option.

(Although this is all I have to say about Matthew 19, it is not I have to say about remarriage after divorce. I encourage you to go to How Should We Treat People Who Have Been Divorced and Remarried?