Matthew 19 and the ‘Definition’ of Marriage

The two primary biblical texts being used by the No camp in the same-sex marriage debate are Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 19. In what follows, I will concentrate my attention on the Matthew passage. There is no actual definition of marriage in the bible, and so these two texts are used to derive a definition, whether justifiably or not. The danger is that we end up with a definition that fits in with our cultural and social expectations.

Let’s start with a little background to Matthew. Scholars think that Matthew was written in the last part of the first century. The original manuscripts are anonymous, although we know that ‘Matthew’ was a Jewish Christian, writing in the period after the Jewish-Roman war, and after the destruction of the Second Temple. It is important to note this because the Gospel of Matthew is a text that pre-supposes a Jewish perspective, and many of the passages assume a knowledge of Jewish culture from this time. Chapter 19 is a good example of this.

Matthew is particularly concerned with proving that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah that they have been waiting for. So, he starts his gospel by providing a genealogy that shows a link to King David. He also notes the Virgin birth, and the visit of the Magi to demonstrate that this is no ordinary birth. (No shepherds here though). The divinity of Jesus is placed in contrast to the religious authorities who are trying to prove Jesus is a fraud. So, after the initial introduction, Matthew spends a number of chapters talking about what Jesus taught, and those that he healed. It is in this way that he demonstrates who he believes Jesus was. In 5:32 he notes that Jesus says

‘But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes HER to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’  Matt 5:31-32

Why does a man divorcing his wife cause her to commit adultery? Well, a woman who is without husband is often without protector. She is vulnerable. The best way to deal with this vulnerability is to remarry, but the illegitimate divorce makes the new marriage illegitimate also. This piece sits within a group of explanations of the laws. This chapter talks about the law, murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, and revenge, but it starts with the beatitudes (Blessed are the….) and ends with the injunction to love everyone, even one’s enemies. In this way, the law is always to be understood as bounded by love.

By chapter 9, we see the emergence of the theme of anger towards Jesus from the Pharisees and the scribes culminating in the crucifixion. The Pharisees are the ruling leaders; the scribes spend their days writing out copies of the Hebrew Bible, so both of these groups are very familiar with the law. Further, these two groups are consistently rebuked throughout the New Testament, for enforcing the law without love, mercy or grace. By the time we get to chapter 19, Matthew shows us that the scribes and the Pharisees are consistently testing Jesus on his of the knowledge law, so that they have a something to charge against him.

So, in that context this is the passage that we are considering, as translated in the NRSV.

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

There is a similar passage in Mark chapter 10, and I have highlighted one of the main differences. Mark also adds into his text the earlier teaching, that divorce causes a woman to commit adultery but does not include the section about eunuchs.

The highlighted words are very important. David Instone-Brewer in his book Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context argues that at this time there were two Jewish ‘schools’ of thought. One school only allowed divorce for infidelity, neglect, and abuse. These are the laws that Moses allows ‘because your hearts were hard.’ The other school had introduced a ‘no-fault divorce’ scheme. Instone-Brewer argues that the out-come of this ‘for any reason’ divorce was that women became very vulnerable. Their prospects of finding a new husband to look after them is low, and they often did not have the legal capacity to earn their own living.  So, the Pharisees are asking Jesus, what are the suitable grounds for divorce?

And the response from Jesus is that there are no suitable grounds really. People were made to commit to each other, but because humans are human, there are exceptions written into the Torah. These rules protect vulnerable women from men who would divorce their wives because they burnt the tea, or because they nagged, or for any other reason that felt good. His reference to the Genesis verses is that it is not good for someone to be alone, that the two have been joined by God, and that no human should break that connection. This is not a definition of marriage. It is a recognition of the benefits of marriage, and of the legal union that protects the vulnerable parties – the woman and her children.

It should be noted that the word ‘cleave’ used to describe the joining in Genesis, is also a word used to describe Ruth and Naomi. These two women cleave together to become family. It is in this way Ruth’s son, is also Naomi’s son. What God has joined, let no (hu)man destroy.

The family unit provides protection for all who are placed under its banner. This applies to Ruth and Naomi. It applies to Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, and all the other family units we see in the biblical text. The widows, the orphans, the divorcees, anyone outside the family unit is vulnerable. And so again in Ruth we see Boaz argue for the protection of these vulnerable people through leaving some of the grain for these others to gather.

Secondly, the verses about eunuchs should also grab our attention. The term eunuch can be understood to mean people who are physically castrated, but the clause which refers to those ‘who have been made eunuchs by others’ would suggest a wider application. There have been arguments made that within this reference to eunuchs we can begin to see recognition of intersex or transgender people. It may even incorporate homosexual identities. Jesus indicates that coupling and marriage are not straightforward, or simple, even in his cultural context.

Matthew tells us that Jesus agrees that it is better to live alone, if the person can handle it, but there is a recognition that not everyone can. Those who cannot, should be supported and protected to the mutual benefit of all involved, as in the marriage relationship. As it says in Genesis, it is not good for a man to be alone, and I think that we can extend that to include women. It is not good for people to be alone.

In a modern context then, we allow all people to choose a suitable life partner (ezer kenegdo*), equals who cleave together for their common good, and for the good of any other members of their newly created family unity. And once this unit is formed, by marriage or by another form of cleaving, then no one should seek to destroy it. In fact, it is in everyone’s best interest to build it up for the common good. In this way, marriage equality could be argued from this passage, as the union of two people who have cleaved together and have become one flesh, which no human should seek to destroy this.

It is tempting to read these passages with our twenty-first century glasses on, and to argue for a plain reading of what we think is in the text. It is tempting to see the word marriage and extrapolate a definition. It is tempting to think the bible is clear, simple and straightforward, but it is not. The bible attests to all the messiness of life, and it is our pastoral duty to all people, married, single from birth, single by society, and single by choice, to seek to understand it better. And we must remember that ‘all the law and commands depend on this command,’ (Matt 22:40) to love.


*this is the term used in Genesis to describe Eve’s relationship to Adam. See: