God’s Own Divorce

6 The LORD said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? 7 And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return to me, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. 8 She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.

Jeremiah 3:6-8a (ESV)

In Bible interpretation, some insist on the most demanding reading, believing that the holiness of God requires it. Others choose the most accommodating version, basing it on the love of God. But both the tough and the tender approach to Bible reading are prone to error, since Scripture can have nuance.

The clash of these two approaches shows up in debates over divorce. On the tough side, some Christians argue that adultery provides no grounds whatsoever for divorce. They contend that the Matthew 19:9 “exception clause” (for “sexual immorality,” porneia) refers only to incest or, perhaps, fornication committed during the betrothal period. True to form, they want to minimize any behavioral leeway. But there are good reasons for believing that “sexual immorality” has a broader meaning here, including adultery. Certainly the Old Testament witness of Jeremiah 3:6-8 suggests so, for in this passage, God “divorces” Israel for precisely that offense—adultery.

In this instance, “adultery” was figurative for “idolatry,” hence the reference to its location, an echo of 2 Kings 17:10-11a: “They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places.”[1] Whether using honorific and isolated hilltops for worship or huddling in the shade of an “oak, poplar, or terebinth” tree (Hosea 4:13), they were devoting themselves to Asherah, the Phoenician/Canaanite fertility goddess, who was claimed to be the mother of Baal. This was a most unholy union for God’s people.

The text suggests that God’s divorce was not based upon a single act of infidelity, but upon Israel’s consistent, unrepentant lifestyle of unfaithfulness. But whatever the quantity of offense, the horrendous quality of the sin—that it was tantamount to adultery—was the issue. And therein lies the problem with insisting that a couple remain married despite the willful, repeated adulteries of one spouse: It underplays the gravity of adultery, suggesting that marital unfaithfulness is more a bump in the road rather than a covenant breaker.

Of course, the pastor must not build his entire case for divorce on this passage, for God has His prerogatives and His deeds are not all templates for Christian action. But since Jesus and Paul speak of divorce exceptions in the New Testament, Jeremiah’s words can be appropriated to help round out the picture of God’s will on this matter. And if a moral watchdog insists that divorce is illicit whatever the circumstances, he should be asked to explain how God’s own avowed act of divorcement was permissible in ancient times.

[1] Italics added for emphasis.