The ongoing Paige Patterson implosion — now exacerbated by Patterson’s pseudo-apology — has lots of conservative white evangelicals revisiting their understanding of the “biblical teaching on divorce.”
That’s a problem, first of all, because it’s an attempt to change the subject — consciously or not. “Divorce is forbidden” is not a pertinent or valid response to the question of what a person should do if they’re getting abused by their spouse. That response suggests deeper, twisted problems — a desire to escape urgent pastoral questions for lofty abstract absolutes; an instinctive focus on the potential “sins” of victims and an instinctive avoidance of the sins of oppressors; an obsession with lawyering out the proper tithe for dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of justice.
It also reveals a warped, concordance-driven inability to grasp “biblical teaching on divorce.” Their discussion involves a bunch of circumscribed clobber-texts, using them all to determine that divorce is forbidden — that it’s against the rules. In nearly every case, though, the context for that prohibition involves a condemnation of that precise attitude — the elevation of the rules above the injustice being done to women.
This is, again, why I think any discussion of “biblical teaching on divorce” should begin with Ezra — the priestly prophet who commanded and facilitated mass divorce, proclaiming it to be the will of God. Ezra is canon, so let’s acknowledge that one of the things the Bible teaches about divorce is that God commands men to evict and reject their wives and to abandon their children.
If we’re going to talk about what the Bible says about divorce, we have to include this, from Ezra 9 and 10:
After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.” When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled.
… Shecaniah son of Jehiel, of the descendants of Elam, addressed Ezra, saying, “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it.” Then Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said. So they swore.
The book of Ezra goes on to describe the logistics of this mass divorce — a process that takes more than a week. It’s all presented as a pious act of devotion to God, an act of obedience to a divine commandment. “They sent them away” — their own wives, women they claimed to love — “with their children.”
So if the only way you know to “read” the Bible involves illiterate concordance-ism in pursuit of propositional clobber texts, then what does “the Bible say” about divorce in the book of Ezra? It says that divorce is not only permissible, but mandatory.
But a reading of Ezra that involves actual reading will come away from this text with a very different meaning. What does the book of Ezra teach us about “the rules” for divorce? It teaches us that men who consider the purity of their rules more important than the lives of women will delude themselves into committing monstrous atrocities.
Ezra is canon, but the biblical canon doesn’t end with Ezra. It also includes many direct challenges and rebuttals to that story’s ugly celebration of sending women and children into exile. One such challenge is the “God hates divorce” bit from Malachi — a passage that’s frequently wielded in Ezra-like fashion as a weapon against the same victims Malachi was defending.
And the canon certainly includes the entire book of Ruth. Not just the content of that book, but the very fact of its existence and inclusion in the canon. Ezra’s mass-divorce was an exercise in ethnic cleansing — elevating the rules and the purity of God’s (male) people above the lives of inconsequential others. For men like Ezra and Shecaniah, Moabite women and their half-Moabite children could be horrifically mistreated because they were less than God’s people. They didn’t count. Their lives didn’t matter. The book of Ruth utterly rejects that. It’s hero is a Moabite woman who marries a righteous Israelite man. Boaz demonstrates his righteousness and obedience by the act of marrying a Moabite woman. And their half-Moabite son becomes the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king.
The genealogy of David echoes throughout the Hebrew scriptures. And that same genealogy — with that same emphatic inclusion of the Moabite woman Ruth and her children — gets repeated in the Gospels. So we cannot consider those same Gospels’ subsequent discussions of “the rules” regarding divorce without understanding that within the context of Ruth’s epic smackdown of Ezra.
Women’s lives matter. Women’s lives matter more than men’s rules for moral purity. That is the overarching and underlying theme surrounding every biblical discussion of divorce. Get that wrong and you’re in danger, like Ezra, of arriving someplace truly monstrous.