Creation’s Intimate Touch, Part 3: Creation and Marriage

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Creation’s Intimate Touch, Part 3: Creation and Marriage

In Part 1 of this series I looked at Paul’s reference to Creation in Romans 1 and the implications that arose from this. We noted that Paul presents three interlocked revelations—the righteousness of God in the gospel message, the wrath of God against human sin, and the power and deity of God in Creation. We saw that a rejection of God’s revelation in Creation led to sin and the revelation of God’s wrath. This wrath is seen in God handing people over to the passions they have chosen. But we also noted that God sends the gospel revelation to draw people back to the Creator.

In the second article we answered the objection about God’s revelation in nature. Some feel it is not there, at least not in an overt way. But we reviewed the deep complexity of all living things around and within us and the amazing concurrence of so many cycles and complexes in nature that have to be present for life to exist. We further noted the deep improbability of life arising from non-life and concluded that there is more than sufficient grounds to believe in the Creator.

These concepts lead to this final installment in this series of articles. It deals with Jesus’ argumentation in Matthew 19 on the subject of marriage. Some might feel that Paul is an outlier when it comes to arguments from Creation regarding our life today. Perhaps the other New Testament writers do not take much notice of Creation; perhaps it is rather peripheral to their argumentation. But if this is not the case, if Creation turns out to be an important teaching for the theology and life of others in the New Testament, then we can safely assume that this doctrine holds a place of importance in New Testament theology.

It seems the best place to look for such an example is in the teaching of Jesus. If the Master affirms the importance of Creation, then we can safely assume that Paul, rather than being an outlier or peripheral to New Testament theology, is one who presents concepts central to New Testament teaching. As we will see in Matthew 19, Jesus takes seriously the Creation account of Genesis 1-2. These two passages are, indeed, central to His argumentation.

The Opening Question

Matthew 19 begins with Jesus leaving Galilee and going to the region east of the Jordan River, where crowds come to Him for healing. At this location Pharisees approach Him and set before Him a question about divorce: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?”[1]

The Pharisees had two main schools of thought in Jesus’ day, known as the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, named for two famous rabbis standing behind these viewpoints. The two schools differed on quite a few things, as we find in reading the Mishnah, a listing of decisions on many topics that was compiled circa A.D. 200 but represented the decisions made in earlier times.

When it came to divorce, the two schools held very different views. The School of Shammai taught that legitimate divorce could be based only on a matter of adultery, unfaithfulness to the marriage vow. The School of Hillel, on the other hand, taught that divorce could be legitimate for almost any reason. Interestingly, the law courts based on Shammai had a more speedy legal pathway to divorce, whereas the courts based on the approach of Hillel went more slowly in allowing divorce.

So the question brought to Jesus was typical of the arguments going on among Jews of His day, and they wanted to hear His viewpoint—but with an edge. Matthew notes that they were “testing” Him. That is, they were looking for some way to bring discredit on Him, catching something in His words to bring reproach on Him before the people or legal authorities.

Jesus’ Response: The Basis of Marriage

Jesus responds in verses 4-5, “Have you not read that the Creator from the beginning, ‘made them male and female’?” And He said, “‘For this reason a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’” Jesus clearly refers to the Creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2, taking them as historical events, and joins them in a most interesting way.

In Genesis 1 the culmination of God’s creative activity is the making of human beings. They are made in the image of their Maker as described in the famous words, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”[2] This statement became the basis of the famous ethical standard known as Imago Dei (“the Image of God”)—people must be treated differently from the rest of Creation because they are made in God’s image.[3] They must be treated with respect because of this special linkage to God.[4]

The implications of Imago Dei are profound and enter into all human relationships. The words of Jesus here are an illustration of this deep truth. Our Lord draws a parallel between Genesis 1 (Imago Dei) and Genesis 2 (leaving father and mother and being joined to one’s wife). That is to say, He indicates that this creative order of male and female is the basis for marriage.

Jesus’ words clearly cut across the secular grain of Western society’s movement toward recognizing marriage as a contract between two people of whatever gender. The Lord posits that the basis of marriage is not a human decision, contract, or covenant. Instead it is rooted in God’s creative act of making two distinct genders at the height of Creation, a creative act that is not simply like others in the Creation week, but one that is based in God’s own image. Imago Dei thus stands against same-sex union.

Why Jesus Opposed Divorce

Jesus’ further argumentation that opposes divorce illustrates how these principles from Genesis are the basis of His argument. He counters both Hillel and Shammai by stating that what God has joined together people should not separate (Matt 19:6). Marriage is not meant to be dissolved because it is not simply a human contract; it is something that God has created by bringing together a man and a woman. Jesus bases this in the fact that “they are no longer two but one flesh.” The “two” is rooted in Genesis 1, two distinct genders. The “one” is rooted in Genesis 2, what they become in marriage.

Jesus’ argumentation counters the basing of divorce on Deuteronomy 24:1-2 that the two schools were doing. In that famous passage, the only reference in all of the Pentateuch to divorce, a long conditional sentence actually lays out not the reasons for divorce (divorce is assumed) but rather what the man’s relationship could be to his former wife (he could not remarry her). The text reads as follows:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.[5]

We can only briefly discuss the concepts laid out in this passage. First, as noted above, the passage assumes that divorce was already being practiced. It does not argue the rightness or wrongness of divorce. Rather, it limits the damage that divorce creates by limiting the options for the parties involved. Particularly it protects the woman. She is not to be treated like so much baggage moved from pillar to post back and forth between men. She is to be given a bill of divorce, which indicates that she could not be put to death for committing adultery. Furthermore, her former husband could not remarry her to profit by gaining her dowry and that of the second husband.[6]

The problem is that by Jesus’ time this passage had been turned on its head with a shift in interpretation that took the passage as a teaching affirming divorce. The question became on what grounds the divorce could be given. The Pharisees zeroed in on the phrase “found some indecency in her” (עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר). The School of Shammai focused on the word “indecency” and took it to mean sexual immorality: the woman could be divorced because she committed adultery.[7] The School of Hillel, on the other hand, focused attention on the word “some” and took it to mean just about any matter the husband deemed inappropriate or displeasing, opening the door for breakup of many homes. Thus the decree in Deuteronomy designed to protect women was turned into one abusing them.

Jesus swept this away, indicating that such argumentation was out of step with the original design for marriage that the Creator set forth at the beginning. It was not that Deuteronomy was out of step with Genesis but that the interpretation of Deuteronomy in Jesus’ day was. The Lord Jesus indicated that what God has joined together people should not dissolve.[8]

The Pharisees immediately objected that Moses had commanded that the woman be given a bill of divorce (Matt 19:7). Jesus indicated that Moses’ allowance of divorce was because of the people’s hardness of heart, thus an accommodation to human weakness. But He pointed back to God’s ideal: “From the beginning it was not so” (v. 8). Thus for Jesus the pattern set by the Creator at the end of the Creation week was the paradigm for human relationships even beyond the Fall. He enunciates this perspective in His closing statement, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” This principle became the rule for Christian marriage and still holds today.

Thus we see in conclusion that both Paul and Jesus maintain the importance of Creation not only as a doctrine but also as a source for ethical relationships between people. This understanding affirms the Adventist Church’s concern and focus on the doctrine of Creation at the upcoming General Conference. What we believe about Genesis 1-2 is anything but a peripheral matter.

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Notes:

[1] Scripture quotations are my own translation unless otherwise noted.

[2] Genesis 1:27, ESV.

[3] Cf. Gen 9:4-6, where the argument concerning why murder is wrong is the Imago Dei.

[4] This is not to suggest that the Scriptures teach disrespect for the rest of Creation. In Genesis 1 people were given stewardship over the rest of Creation, to rule and care for it under God’s commands.

[5] I have placed the conditional elements of the long sentence in bold to make them easily visible.

[6] See Richard Nelson, Deuteronomy, OT Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 288-289. See also see David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 7.

[7] In the Old Testament the penalty for committing adultery was death (though remember that David was not put to death for committing adultery with Uriah’s wife). However, in Jesus’ day Palestine was under Roman rule and the death penalty was not imposed for adultery. See Instone-Brewer, 126, n. 156.

[8] It is interesting that some today have done exactly with Jesus’ statement what the Pharisees had done with Moses’ statement. They take His words “What God has joined together” and turn them on their head, suggesting that they can divorce because “God did not join them together in their marriage.” What is needed, though, is not a change of partner but a change of heart. It is true today as it was in Jesus’ day and in Malachi’s day: God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).

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Thomas R. Shepherd, PhD, DrPH, is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University. He is also the Director of the PhD in Religion and ThD programs. Along with his wife, Sherry Shepherd, MD, he has been a missionary to Malawi and Brazil. They have two grown children and five grandchildren. Dr. Shepherd enjoys playing the cello in the Seminary String Quartet and loves walking, running, and riding his bike to work.