Q. What does Messiah mean? What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Messiah?
The word “Messiah” comes from a Hebrew term meaning “anointed.” The Greek equivalent, “Christ,” also means “anointed.”
In the Old Testament, a person was anointed, that is, someone would pour oil on their head, to show that God had chosen them to fulfill a special purpose. Aaron, for example, was anointed to show that God had chosen him to be the high priest. David was anointed to show that God had chosen him to be king.
So while Messiah or Christ literally means “anointed,” it really indicates “chosen.” When Christians call Jesus the Messiah, they mean that they believe God chose him to be the Savior of the world.
This title has a close connection to the figure in the Old Testament known as the Servant of the Lord. God says of that figure:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.
So, briefly stated, the Messiah is the one God chose to be the Savior.
Q. Did God give the information about not eating of the tree’s fruit to just Adam, or was it for Adam and Eve? Or did Adam give the information to Eve after God created her?
As I read the narrative in Genesis, it seems pretty clear that God gave the command just to Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that Adam passed this command along to Eve.
Specifically, it was only after God told Adam not to eat from this tree that God then said to himself, “It is not good for the man to be alone, I will make a helper suitable for him,” and God created Eve. There is no subsequent record of God repeating the command to her. But when the serpent asks her what God said about this tree, she doesn’t respond, “This is the first I’ve heard anything about that.” She knows that they’re not supposed to eat from it. We can only infer that Adam told her this.
Significantly, it appears that Adam actually added something to what God said. God only told Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” But Eve tells the serpent that God said, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it.” This is admittedly speculative, but we may infer that Adam was so concerned about the consequences of disobeying God that he figured, “We better not even touch the fruit,” and so that’s what he told Eve.
Later in the Bible there are warnings not to add anything to what God commands, and we can understand why. God gives us the grace to obey all of his commands so that they are not burdensome. But anyone who tries to require people to do more than God commands is asking them to do something they aren’t being given the grace for. Then it’s only too easy for someone else to come along and persuade them that they don’t have to do that. This was actually the serpent’s strategy—to persuade Eve that God had asked too much of her and that she didn’t need to obey. He just had a different version of “too much,” initially. He asked whether God had really said, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden.” Eve knew that God hadn’t said this, but she didn’t realize that He hadn’t actually said that they couldn’t even touch the fruit. And this gave the serpent something that could legitimately be contradicted, with tragic results.
So one lesson we can take from the story is that those who have the responsibility to communicate God’s commands to others need to be careful not to add anything to them. We may have a good motive, to keep people as far as possible from disobedience. But God’s grace can keep willing hearts obedient without that kind of assistance.
Q. I noticed in the Genesis account of the Fall that God didn’t clothe Adam and Eve with animal skins until they said, “I did eat the fruit.” This reminded me of what John wrote in his first letter: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Can we conclude that Adam and Eve repented, and that God forgave them?
To be honest, as least I read the account of the Fall and its aftermath, I don’t see Adam and Eve really making the kind of “confession” that John seems to be talking about. Rather, they each try to blame somebody else for what they did. God asks Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” He replies, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Adam is practically blaming God for what he did!) And Eve, for her part, says, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” These are confessions of a sort, but they’re definitely trying to spread the blame around.
We would want to see people take much more responsibility for their own actions if they expected to be forgiven.* Nevertheless, after explaining what the consequences of their actions would be, God clothes Adam and Eve in animal skins. Many Christian interpreters note that this required the animals to be slaughtered, that is, sacrificed. They hold that this sacrifice, like others in the Old Testament, looked forward to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which would have been the ultimate basis on which Adam and Eve were forgiven for their sin. But how could they be forgiven if they didn’t really repent and confess, but instead tried to blame somebody else?
I think there’s a clue in the passage. God had told them earlier, “You shall not eatof the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” But they didn’t actually die on this same “day.”
Many interpreters account for this by explaining that the Hebrew phrase “in the day” can refer to a period of time beginning with a named event. For example, after Jacob returns safely to Canaan after twenty years of exile, he dedicates an altar at Bethel, where he encountered God as he was first fleeing. He wants to do this, he says, because God “answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went.” The “day of my distress” isn’t just the one day on which he had to flee; it’s the whole twenty years that began with that event, “the way which I went.” Similarly, for Adam and Eve, “the day that you eat of it” could mean “the period of time beginning with when you eat the fruit.” (Accordingly, some versions translate the command, “When you eat from it you will certainly die.”) Since part of Adam’s curse was that he would be expelled from the Garden of Eden and have to work himself to death just to survive, that could be the meaning.
However, there’s another possibility. God may simply have shown mercy to Adam and Eve by sparing their lives on this day. And the passage tells us that right after God announced the consequences of their disobedience without including immediate death as one of those consequences, “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” Previously he had named her ishshah, “wife,” and at the same time given himself a new name, ish, “husband,” when he recognized a new aspect of his own identity in relationship to her. But now, by giving her this proper name, Adam may be expressing the realization, “We’re not going to die—at least not right now—we’re going to live on! We’re even going to have many generations of descendants!”
In other words, Adam (and presumably Eve with him) was accepting God’s mercy, which ought to mean that he was also accepting the judgment that was tempered by this mercy, and thereby acknowledging his own fault. And right after this, the passage tells us, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” This would be forgiveness—what some traditions call “assurance of pardon”—on the basis of their repentance.
Now I admit that the passage doesn’t say this explicitly, and that other interpretations are possible. Celebrating receiving mercy may not always be the same thing as accepting the judgment that may come with that mercy. This may simply be a description of Adam and Eve being spared, rather than forgiven upon repentance and confession. Still, I think that all the specific details in the passage are important and potentially significant, and so I believe we do have a basis, in the naming and the clothing, on which we could conclude that Adam and Eve did repent and were forgiven—even if their verbal “confessions” were not all that one might hope for.
*I’m speaking here of forgiveness in the sense of reconciliation, that is, the wrongdoer admitting fault and taking responsibility, so that it’s safe to begin rebuilding and restoring the relationship. However, as I explain in this post, it’s actually possible for someone to forgive another person internally, and so be set free from anger and bitterness, even if that person doesn’t admit their fault.
The Bible doesn’t answer this question directly, but I personally feel that the narrative in Genesis gives us some good reasons to believe that Adam was saved.
The most important is the announcement God makes that Eve’s descendant will crush the serpent’s head. Like most Christian interpreters, I see this as a statement that can be recognized, in light of later redemptive-historical developments, as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus and his victory over Satan at the cross. This “bad news” for the serpent was “good news” for Adam and Eve, and I personally believe that they trusted in it.
One significant reason why I say this is that the two of them accepted and wore the “garments from animal skins” that God made for them. Again like most Christian interpreters, because these required the death of the animals, I see them as foreshadowing the blood sacrifices that would come later under the covenant with Moses, which themselves foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In other words, accepting the garments was a way of “looking forward” to the cross, as believers did for salvation in the First Testament (just as we, under the New Covenant, “look back” to the cross).
I personally don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see these “garments from animal skins” in Genesis as the equivalent of the “white robes” that believers are symbolically portrayed as wearing in the book of Revelation: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”; “The one who is victorious will be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”
So I don’t think Adam was lost. Paul does say about him in Romans, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” But Paul goes on to say, “If the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” In other words, the same people—the whole human race—who were affected by the sin of Adam are also recipients of grace through Jesus. And that would include Adam himself, so long as he “looked forward” to the cross—as I believe he did.
Q. Your most recent post comparing the God of the OT and NT made me think of a question. What do you see as the relationship between the Mosaic covenants and the new covenant? As far as I can tell from Jeremiah, the new covenant has the same information, it is just that all the previous terms of the Biblical covenants were written on stone and scrolls, where in the new covenant, they will be written on one’s heart. Therefore the new covenant will be better, as we will want to do the stipulations in it.
I think this is basically right. The covenant with Moses had some things that I believe were identity markers for God’s people at the time, such as keeping kosher, observing certain days, etc. The New Testament makes clear that these are no longer obligations for followers of Jesus.
But certainly the ethical imperatives of the covenant, summed up by Jesus as “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself,” remain. As you say, under the new covenant, we now want to fulfill them, as we are given new hearts. Our identity markers as covenant people are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit.
As I believe you’re saying, when seen from the perspective of the character and actions that God wanted to produce all along in His people, there is more continuity than discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant.
Q. For years I’ve been struck by the stark contrast between how God’s judgment is portrayed in the Old Testament and how it is portrayed in the New Testament. Even before Jesus’s death, God seems to have a gentler spirit with his people. I pondered this for a long time but never came up with an explanation that seemed to make sense until the other day.
Let me run a hypothesis by you. Do you think God changed after Jesus walked on the face of the earth, because he experienced first-hand some of the struggles we face? This may seem like a pretentious suggestion, and I really don’t mean any disrespect to our sovereign God who created the universe and is all-knowing. But I do see a an inexplicable difference between the Old and New Testaments. Would love to hear your thoughts.
I think you may actually be on to something here, but let me offer a couple of qualifiers first.
We should observe, for one thing, that God actually shows mercy as well as judgment towards people in the Old Testament, and judgment as well mercy to people in the New Testament.
For example, there’s a beautiful passage in Hosea that speaks of God’s love for the wayward nation of Israel: “Therefore I am now going to allure her;I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. . . . I will betroth you to me forever;I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.” And then there are the words that open the second part of the book of Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” And so forth, in the Old Testament.
On the other hand, in the New Testament, along with all the grace and mercy, we find passages like this one in 2 Thessalonians: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you. . . This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.He will punish those who do not know God . . .They will be punished with everlasting destruction.” Even from the lips of Jesus himself we hear things like this, spoken to the Pharisees: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (I won’t even get into all the plagues and destruction in the book of Revelation.) So it seems there’s plenty of both mercy and wrath to go around in each testament.
Still, we have the impression that there’s more wrath in the Old Testament. What creates that impression? For one thing, in that period God was using the law to govern His relationship with His people. The New Testament itself says that the law has a positive purpose, to restrain and to teach. But laws need to specify what the consequences will be if they’re broken. That’s one reason why we hear so much about punishment in the Old Testament.
If teenagers found themselves constantly threatened with punishment, or actually being punished, they might marvel at how different their parents seemed from the days when they used to cuddle them and coo over them as babies. But the parents haven’t necessarily changed. The teenagers have actually moved into a life stage where they need the guidance and restraint of enforceable rules to help them become more mature and eventually independent adults. In the Old Testament, that’s the stage the people of God are in. Things do change in the New Testament, where God’s relationship with His people is governed instead by the Holy Spirit living in them. “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
One more consideration is that the Old Testament is the story of how the original chosen people kept disobeying the covenant through which they were supposed to be God’s instruments to reach the rest of the world, and how they needed to be corrected as a result. Ultimately, a new kind of covenant was promised. The New Testament is the story of how Jesus came to earth to live out perfect obedience, inaugurate that new covenant, and fulfill the intentions of the original covenant, to bring all peoples in. So the story of disobedience in the Old Testament is going to feature a lot more judgment and punishment than the story of obedience in the New Testament. It’s not so much God’s “learnings” as a human being that lead Him to be more merciful in the New Testament as the unfolding of a plan by which God, in Jesus, supplies the obedience that He was looking for from humans all along.
All of that said, however, let me return to your hypothesis and explain why I think you may still be on to something. The book of Hebrews says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” As a result, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
This seems to suggest that there was some kind of “learning” as a human being on Jesus’ part that has resulted in Him being a more effective intercessor for us in heaven. Should we therefore conclude that when Jesus intercedes for us, since God is talking to God (that is, God the Son is addressing God the Father), God is now more able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” in His own self-reflections? If so, this would reflect no prior deficiency in objective knowledge on God’s part, but rather a gain in God’s subjective or experiential knowledge. It makes sense to me, at least, that even if God knew everything from the beginning, He hadn’t necessarily experienced everything. Something to think about, anyway!
This would not account for any difference in God’s dealings with us “before Jesus’s death,” however, because Jesus had not yet taken His place back in heaven as our intercessor at that point. So I wouldn’t appeal to this to explain how justice and mercy work in the Old and New Testaments. But I would still marvel, and worship, at the thought that Jesus came and shared our humanity to such an extent that He could bring an experiential appreciation of it back to share with the Father in heaven.
I don’t know that this has necessarily changed God’s character, to make Him more merciful. Even as God is first giving the law through Moses, He describes compassion as His primary and outstanding characteristic, at length, before describing justice as well: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished . . .” Still, I recognize that God in His graciousness has identified with us in an amazing way through Jesus, and this must give a very special quality to His compassion.
God gave Moses the power to turn his staff into a snake as a sign to authenticate his ministry before the Israelites. But I’m not sure that the snake itself represented the authority and power of God, or of Moses as God’s emissary. We find out shortly afterwards in Exodus that this was the kind of sign that Pharaoh’s magicians were also able to do, and when they pitted their arts against Moses, his snake consumed theirs, showing that God’s power was greater. But once again, I don’t think we need to look for symbolism in the snake itself.
I also don’t think there’s necessarily a connection between God giving Moses the power to turn his staff into a snake and God commanding Moses to make a brazen (brass) snake and put it on a pole. The simple purpose of this was to provide a visual focal point for those who wanted to turn from their rebellion against God and trust Him for healing from the poison of the snakebites.
If there’s any connection between the two incidents, it’s that venomous snakes are dangerous and potentially deadly; that’s why the magicians chose to produce them–to make a memorably scary impression on their audience–and that’s why God used them to send a plague among the people.
In other words, at least as I see it, just because there are snakes involved at two different points in Moses’ ministry, there’s not necessarily a symbolic significance to them, or connection between them, beyond their plain role in the narrative.
There are other places in the Bible where snakes do have a symbolic significance, but this is pointed out clearly in the text, for example, in the book of Revelation, “The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.”
A good interpretive principle to apply is not to look for symbolic significance in, or attribute it to, an element in narrative unless the text itself points you clearly in that direction.
Q. Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?
In my first post in response to this question, I showed that the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God does not want human sacrifices. Now in this post I will consider the cases of Isaac and Jesus, which might appear to be exceptions.
To start with Isaac, when we consider in its entirety and in its cultural context the story of God telling Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, but then stopping him at the last minute, we realize that this story was actually included in the developing Hebrew Scriptures to discourage later generations of Israelites from offering human sacrifices. As I say in another post, in response to a slightly different question, “It’s not as though God thought up human sacrifice as an extreme way to test Abraham’s loyalty. Rather, God was asking of Abraham what it was believed the other gods were asking of their followers. When Abraham demonstrated his complete devotion, God then made clear that he didn’t want human sacrifices.”
In other words, this episode from the life of Abraham was recorded and retold in the Scriptures precisely so that later generations of Israelites would follow the example in the story and offer the animals God had designated as acceptable sacrifices, instead of their own children. The need for this example is understandable. The surrounding cultures were offering human sacrifices, and the Israelites might otherwise have felt that they were not as devoted to their own God, or that their God was not as deserving of costly devotion as other gods, if they did not do the same.
Turning to the case of Jesus, even though his death is often spoken of as a “sacrifice,” it’s important to understand that it was not a “human sacrifice” in the sense of the sacrifice of a human being to God. Rather, it was God, in human form, sacrificing himself for our sakes. Jesus described his own death in this way: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”
The death of Jesus is so rich in meaning that in the Bible and Christian theology it is described and explained in many different ways. Each way brings out a different facet of its significance. One common understanding is that our sins and wrongs against God and other people were so serious and destructive that they were deserving of death. But Jesus willingly accepted the death penalty in our place, satisfying the justice of God. This is the sense in which he “sacrificed” himself for us.
But there are many other understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ death as well. Perhaps the one that comes closest to what ancient cultures were trying to accomplish through human sacrifice is the idea of “propitiation.” This term refers to the act of doing something generous for, or offering something valuable to, another person in order to change their disposition from hostile to gracious. (The term comes from the Latin word propitius, meaning “gracious,” “favorable,” or “well-disposed.”) The idea is that Jesus’ death on the cross was a precious gift to God that won His favor.
Accordingly John writes in his first epistle that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Later in this same epistle John elaborates to say, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” In other words, God himself provided the gift that won back His own favor for us!
We should note, moreover, that what made Jesus’ sacrifice such a precious gift was not that it embodied the value of a human life, not even that of the long-awaited Messiah, as opposed to some less valuable offering. Rather, it was the spirit of obedience, humility, generosity, and especially love in which Jesus offered himself that made his sacrificial death so pleasing to God.
And so we can see that the cases of Isaac and Jesus are not exceptions to the Bible’s consistent teaching that God does not want human sacrifices. When we do consider them, however, these cases reveal more about what God has done for us in Christ. Christian interpreters, in fact, have long seen a foreshadowing of Jesus’ incarnation and self-sacrifice in Abraham’s statement to Isaac that “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” As Micah said, in the words I noted last time, God does not want me to “offer my firstborn for my transgression,” or “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul.” God himself, in Christ, has graciously made all the provision any of us needs to be forgiven and restored.
Q. Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?
Actually, the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God does not want human sacrifices. I’ll demonstrate that in this post, and then in my next post I will consider the two cases you mention and explain why they are not exceptions.
The pagan nations surrounding ancient Israel did make human sacrifices to their gods, but the law of Moses insisted that this was not the way that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Creator of the world, wanted to be worshipped. One law, in Leviticus, prohibits making any child a burnt offering to the Canaanite god Molech: “You are not to make any of your children pass through the fire to Molech. Do not profane the name of your God; I am Yahweh.” A more general law in Deuteronomy says, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire.”
As I explain in this post, Jephthah, one of the judges, sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of a vow because he was ignorant of the further law that said a human being who would otherwise be the subject of such a vow had to be “redeemed” (bought back), not sacrificed. This story is included in the book of Judges to show what tragic and evil things happen when “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.”
The other historical narratives in the Bible uphold this standard from the law of Moses and use it to evaluate the later Israelite kings. It is said about King Ahaz, for example, “He did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He . . . even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.” About King Manasseh it is said similarly, “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. . . . He sacrificed his own son in the fire . . . He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.”
Such human sacrifices were a chief reason why the kingdom of Israel was taken into exile, again according to the historical biblical narratives: “All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God . . . They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them . . . They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They . . . sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.”
The prophetic tradition within the Bible similarly says that God does not want human sacrifices. The prophet Micah, for example, reflecting on what he would have to offer to make up for his sins and be restored to God’s favor, considers greater and greater sacrifices, all the way up to the sacrifice of his own firstborn child, but then realizes that what God really wants is for him to live a life of humility and compassion:
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
So the biblical teaching against human sacrifice is clear and consistent. Why, then, did God say to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you”? And why is the death of Jesus so often described as a “sacrifice”? I’ll explore both of these questions in my next post.
Q. If morality is based on God’s character and is absolute and unchanging, why is it that God didn’t establish the modern Christian morality from the beginning? That is, why didn’t He directly punish or hinder those who had multiple wives and that sort of thing? Of course, Genesis subtly subverts many of the customs of that time such as that of having multiple wives, of giving preeminence to the first born, and of worshiping idols, but why isn’t it more overt?
I think Jesus actually taught that God’s ideal wishes for human life were presented right from the start in the laws and covenants that God gave Israel, so long as their true meaning was understood. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In the context of the book of Matthew, “fulfill” means to reveal the fullest and deepest meaning of something that happened earlier in redemptive history. So Jesus is saying that in his teaching, he will not change what came before, or substitute something else, but rather show how God’s ideal intentions have been disclosed all along.
And that’s just what Jesus does in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. He shows that the command against murder, for example, really teaches that we’re not supposed to hate anyone or hold grudges, but actively pursue reconciliation with others. The command against adultery is actually a call for a pure life that’s free from lust. The law against breaking oaths is really teaching that we should speak sincerely and truthfully, without the need for external guarantees of our honesty. And so forth.
But let’s take one more specific example, from another of Jesus’ teachings, to explore a bit further how this works. Matthew tells us that some Pharisees, trying to “test” Jesus (that is, to put him in a “can’t win” situation by making him commit to one side or another of a controversial question), asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” In his reply, Jesus appealed to the original creation order, as described in the Scriptures: “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Now when the Pharisees were asking about what was “lawful,” they were thinking not of the original creation order, but of a specific command in the law of Moses. They were hoping to embroil Jesus in the controversy surrounding it. So they counter, “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (The only issue for them was the grounds on which a man could do this.)
Jesus replies, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” This reply is very instructive, because it shows that this question about divorce is a specific case that illustrates a general principle. Many of the laws in the Bible are accommodations to protect people in less-than-ideal situations in which they otherwise might be exploited. But the situations behind these laws do not express God’s ultimate intentions, and they are not being endorsed in the process of being regulated.
These are specifically casuistic laws, which describe what to do when a given case or situation arises (as opposed to apodictic laws that speak universally, i.e. “Do not oppress a foreigner.”) In this case, the full law is considering a situation in which a man decides to divorce his wife and so “writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house.” Then, “if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.” This, the law concludes, “would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord.”
Notice that nowhere in this law does Moses “command” husbands to give their wives certificates of divorce, as the Pharisees claim. Moses simply says, on God’s authority, that if men do this, they are not to use it as a pretext to pass women around among themselves. In other words, this law is really designed as protection against sexual trafficking, not as a license for men to go back on their wedding vows.
God’s ideal intentions for marriage are the ones that Jesus describes: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” Nevertheless, even in the New Testament we find a further accommodation to unfortunate human situations in terms of divorce. Paul writes to the Corinthians that if a person becomes a follower of Jesus and for that reason their unbelieving spouse wants to divorce them, “If the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”
Why doesn’t Paul uphold Jesus’ teaching that marriage is for life and say that we shouldn’t let anyone separate what God has joined? Like Moses before him, he’s making a realistic accommodation to a less-than-ideal situation. He sees no point in requiring believers to engage in a protracted and hopeless fight against divorce when their very faith is the grounds their spouse is holding against them. But when we read Paul’s counsel in its full context, we see that he is nevertheless urging believers to do everything they can to save their marriages even in these situations—the believer is never to be the one to start divorce proceedings on the grounds of incompatible faith, for example.
So, in short, there is an ideal for human life that is revealed from the start in God’s laws and covenants. But at the same time, there are accommodations to protect people in less-than-ideal situations. (Another such law is the one that requires husbands to continue to love and provide for their first wives even if they also marry other women—this is not meant as approval for polygamy, but rather as protection for women who might otherwise be neglected and abandoned.)
And this much said, I would also stress that in any situation, we should exercise all of our daring and creativity to try to live out God’s highest and best ideals, counting on God’s help and even intervention to make it possible for us to do that. We shouldn’t fall back on the accommodations we find in the Bible to excuse any lower aim.