Harmonizing Matthew 19:9

Matthew 19:9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

In debate after debate and discussion after discussion, we try to determine exactly what this verse is saying to us. I think the best way to know what it says is to figure out what it does not say.

1. The verse does not say that a man may not marry a second wife.

Jesus was speaking to Jews who were descendants of Jacob. Jacob was a polygamist. He had four wives, Leah and Rachel and the maids of Leah and Rachel, whose names were Bilhah and Zilpah. Many men of God had a plurality of wives and God never said a single word about His displeasure in the practice. It is not wise for us to speak where God has not spoken and condemn polygamy. It might not have been the ideal but it certainly was a way of life for many and was sanctioned by God. In fact, in certain circumstances God commanded it under the Law of Moses

Deuteronomy 25:5 If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her.

God made no stipulation that the brother of the deceased must be single. So we must assume that even if he already had a wife he must nevertheless perform the duty of a husband's brother to the wife of the deceased.

Based on the above, it is not reasonable for us to think that these Jews would have thought Jesus was condemning a man's taking on a second wife; nor is it reasonable to think Jesus would speak against a practice God Himself had sanctioned. Therefore the adultery being discussed is not polygamy. If it were, Jesus most likely would have said that whoever puts away his wife and marries another commits polygamy.

2. The verse does not say that the woman who is put away and who subsequently marries is active in the adultery that is committed.

The adultery that is mentioned here is not committed by the woman. It is instead something that is committed against her.

Matthew 5:32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery [literally, causes adultery to be committed against her]: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

Mark 10:11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.

I think we can understand from this that the man who puts the woman away is the one who is causing adultery. George Howard published The Gospel of Matthew according to a Primitive Hebrew Text. Apparently there had been a Jewish criticism of Matthew floating around in old documents, one called Even Bohan by Shem-Tob ben-Shaprut. Howard located various versions of the text and was able to "recover" the Hebrew text of Matthew from them. The following is from this text.

Matthew 5:32 And I say to you that everyone who leaves his wife is to give her a bill of divorce. But concerning adultery he is the one who commits adultery and he who takes her commits adultery.

Jesus was talking to Jews about their law. We know this for several reasons, one of which is that they had asked Him a question concerning their law. So it might be good at this point to look at what their law said.

Deuteronomy 24:1 When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.
2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife.
3 And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife;
4 Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

Although the Law of Moses gave men the right to divorce their wives, and although the divorced woman was given the right to go be another man's wife, she was, nonetheless, defiled by this arrangement. The word defiled means to become unclean, either sexually, religiously, or ceremonially
(http://www.blueletterbible.org/tmp_dir/words/2/1156094507-2959.html). This word is used in the sense of a woman's being polluted by adultery (http://www.blueletterbible.org/tmp_dir/words/2/1156100205-3793.html).

Nothing is being said here about the woman's sinfulness or her culpability for her defilement. It is simply a statement of fact. She is being defiled.

3. The verse does not say a man commits adultery with his second wife.

As we have determined, the man had the right to marry a second wife. This was, as was mentioned previously, called polygamy and is very much alive on the pages of the Old Testament. As a matter of fact, God Himself declared that He had given David his "wives."

2 Samuel 12:8 And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.

Also, as I mentioned before, the adultery is committed against the first wife, not the second. The man who puts her away commits adultery against her and the man who marries her commits adultery.

Based on all the evidence presented, it is safe to conclude that the adultery committed is against the first wife and is the act of defilement that occurs when she has a sexual relationship with her second husband. Her first husband causes it and her second husband is a party to it. This is not to say that the marriage to the second man is invalid or that the couple should not continue in it. Matthew 19:9 is simply showing who is responsible for the ensuing defilement of a woman when her husband puts her away.

Some people, supposing that the second marriage is not in harmony with God's will, declare that the second marriage must be ended and the woman must return to her husband. However, to do this would be an abomination to God, as is stated in Deuteronomy 24:4.

Deuteronomy 24:4 Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

When we study the Bible and try to interpret it, we need to make sure we do not pit one scripture against another. We should always be careful to make God's Word harmonize. I believe the explanation of Matthew 19:9 that I have presented here harmonizes well with all that we have been given regarding God's will on divorce and remarriage. I present it for the consideration of all, knowing that I am fallible and may be proven wrong.

Tina Rae Collins
August 20, 2006