“And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”” (Mark 10:2 ESV)
Sneaky question, this. As we will soon find out, the Pharisees new perfectly well that it was “lawful” for a man to divorce his wife. They refer back to Deuteronomy 24.1-4 without any hesitation. They didn’t want an answer to their question, they wanted to trap Jesus with it.
There were two schools of thought in Jesus’ day as to why a husband could divorce his wife. One school–influenced by the rabbi Hillel–claimed that one could divorce one’s wife for virtually any reason at all. She burnt the meal while preparing it? That’s a divorce! The other school–influenced by rabbi Shammai–held that only actual shameful conduct allowed a husband to divorce his wife.
Richard Lenski, in his commentary at Mark, points out that the Pharisees could trap Jesus in three ways with this question:
- If he sided with Hillel, they could accuse him of being morally lax.
- If he sided with Shammai, they could reproach him with his own friendly treatment of sinners.
- If Jesus said that he was against divorce in every case [which no doubt they were REALLY hoping], they could accuse him of being against the Mosaic Law which did allow divorce.
As he always did, Jesus easily sidesteps their perfidy. He points back to a verse before the verse in Deuteronomy (Gen 1.27). He explains that the Mosaic allowance for divorce was not God’s desire, it was an allowance for the hardness of human hearts. Indeed, it’s quite revealing that Jesus says “the hardness of your hearts.” No doubt the Pharisees did not appreciate the inference there.