Matthew 5:31-32 says:
“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”
We will start by focusing on the first saying of Jesus here in Matthew 5:32a:
“Whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery.”
Unfortunately, many English translations have caused confusion over this statement due to a poor translation. In the Greek, this literally reads: “causes her to be adulterated” or “causes her to be the victim of his adultery.” In other words, this innocent woman is the victim of her husband. The man is the one who is guilty and the woman is the victim. This is seen as an action actually done to her.
The NIV correctly translates Matthew 5:32a as:
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery.“
His adultery against her is the result of his unlawful ending of their marriage. This is a sin her husband committed against her, not a sin she committed. Therefore, the first person guilty is the male who unlawfully divorced his spouse. He is rightly the “adulterer” by unlawfully ending his marriage. It is vital that one notes this man commits adultery against his wife here by simply unlawfully divorcing her with no remarriage taking place. He is guilty of adultery by unlawfully divorcing his wife. The “adultery” takes place in the unlawful divorcing.
Therefore, Matthew 5:32a could rightfully be paraphrased as:
“Whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality is guilty of committing adultery and makes his ex-wife the victim of his adultery.”
Now, let’s go to Matthew 5:32b:
“And whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”
Many Bible students read Matthew 5:31-32 as a continuous statement. They assume this is the same woman who was just unlawfully divorced by her husband. However, grammatically, such is not the case. Matthew 5:32b is a completely different statement than Matthew 5:31a. In Greek, the participle is indefinite when speaking of this woman. This means this woman should not be understood as the same woman just spoken of in Matthew 5:32a. This is a different woman and a different scenario to which Jesus is speaking.
Furthermore, if Jesus was condemning the remarriage of an innocent woman who was put away by her hardhearted husband, then this would mean that Jesus was abolishing the protection laws for innocent women found in Deuteronomy 24 and Exodus 21 that gave the woman the right to remarry, as well as protected her from any future exploitation her ex-husband may attempt. If Jesus was abolishing the protection laws of innocent women, then this understanding would make absolutely no sense culturally or historically.
Contextually speaking, this is the exact opposite point Jesus is making. Why would Jesus negate the laws put in place to protect women only to give the hardhearted man further power by putting the divorced woman in a position where she could never remarry? This would mean that not only would the husband not have to financially provide for her living rights as the law states (Ex. 21:10), but she could no longer be free to go to someone else. The tenor of this passage and the marital teachings of Jesus is to protect the innocent, not destroy the regulations that were put in place to protect them.
So, if the woman in Matthew 5:32b is not the innocent woman who was divorced by her husband, who is she? Well, she would be a woman who unlawfully divorced her husband. When considering the “divorced woman” in Matthew 5:32b, the participle could be understood as middle (reflexive intensive) which would emphasize the woman’s unlawful initiation of the divorce in this statement. This also harmonizes nicely with what Jesus said in Mark 10:12:
“If a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Therefore, this would mean that in the first saying in Matthew 5:32a, a man who unlawfully divorces his spouse is guilty. In the second saying in Matthew 5:32b, a woman who unlawfully divorces her husband and the man for whom she divorced her husband are both guilty. This would also make sense as to why the man in Matthew 5:32b who would marry this divorced woman is guilty of adultery. He is guilty because he is the complicit partner and beneficiary of this woman’s unlawful divorcing of her husband. In other words, the “homewrecker” is not innocent. This would emphasize that the adultery is not in the future marriage itself, but in the way the new marriage was being attained (i.e., through an unlawful divorce, specifically caused by a third complicit party).
The preferred paraphrase of Mathew 5:32b would be:
“And the homewrecker whom the woman unlawfully divorced her husband for is also guilty of adultery because he is the beneficiary/complicit partner of her unlawful divorce.”
Therefore, when considering Matthew 5:31-32 grammatically, contextually and historically, we should conclude that Jesus was teaching against:
- A man (or woman) who unlawfully divorces their spouse.
- If applicable, a complicit third party (man or woman) whom the man (or woman) unlawfully divorced their spouse for because they are the beneficiary/catalyst of the unlawful divorce.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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