Terror Texts: Divorce

You know the joke –  why did God create Eve after Adam?  The answer?  So that he could get it right second time round!

But today the Good News looks like bad news.  Two of the readings are terror texts.   They are passages of the Bible which are used to terrorise some people.  The first is the story of Adam and Eve which is used by some people to put women down, to tell them that they were created second, and to remind them that men are their masters.  The second is the Gospel passage which is used to hit people who have been divorced over the head and tell them that they are wicked adulterers.

It might not come as a surprise to you to learn that that’s not how I understand the texts – but if you go to countless christians churches today that is what you would get. Women obey your husbands, … divorce is a sin.

But in order to show you why I read it differently I have had to hunt out two different translations of the Bible. Both are given at the end of this sermon.  For the first I have used a quaker version, and for the second I have gone back to the King James Bible.   Let me explain why.

Obviously the Bible was not written in English.  The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek.  That puts us at a disadvantage.  Whenever we read the bible we are always reading a translation.  .. and as you know from reading foreign menus, some translations can be misleading.

In Hebrew the word for soil is ‘adamah’ and so when God made a creature out of the soil of the earth he called him ‘Adam’  Soily or Earthy.  What’s more at first the story always says ‘the earthling’ – the Adam …  so that all the word the Adam means is ‘the human being’ … it doesn’t mean man, and it doesn’t mean ‘a man’ 

Eventually God realises that the earth creature is sad and needs a partner – in hebrew ‘a parallel helper’  It’s worth noting at this stage that God is merely creating someone to be an equal partner for the earthling – the Adam – it is not about having children or making families.  God tries all the animals first, to see if the earth creature would be happy with a dog or a horse or a sheep – but no, the earthling wanted someone who was just like him – bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh.  So much for men and women being different – the thing Adam wanted was that they should be the same!

So God divided the earthling into two .. and for the first time we get two new words .. man and wo-man,  in Hebrew Ish and Ishah.  So you could say that God created the male earth person at exactly the same time as God created the female earth person. Up until then Adam was a sort of intersex person.  And then the word ‘the Adam’ becomes just a name … Adam, the male earthling is called soil, earth, land, –  and the woman?  Well she is called ‘Eve’ – which is the Hebrew for ‘Life’ – Chaya – as in LeChayim. The two of them – earth and life – make up all creation.

You know the story well – the Devil tempts Eve, she tempts her husband, and it all goes wrong. Sin and evil enter the world and the equal relationship between Adam and Eve is destroyed.  There is pain in childbirth and pain in conceiving. There is hard labour in the field and there is violence between men and women.  This is not how it is meant to be. .. and we’re stuck with it.

And now on to St Mark’s gospel and divorce.  By now you should realise that words are important – and that translations affect how we read them. I’ve chosen the King James Version because the King James Version is the most accurate literal translation of this passage.  The pharisees ask Jesus whether it is lawful for a man to put away his wife? The greek word is ‘apo-lusai’ and it means ‘to send away’.   Can a man send away his wife?  …   Jesus answers by saying that Moses allowed men to divorce their wives – the greek word apo – stastion – and then send them away.  It sort of makes sense –  No you can’t just kick your wife out of the house – you have to divorce her first.

The problem comes that almost every modern translation have swapped those words round and have decided that the Pharisees must have meant ‘is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife’ 

Perhaps they did?  Perhaps they didn’t –  but if you were an orthodox jewish woman you knew exactly what was at stake.  In Jesus’s time a man could remarry without a divorce, – serial polygamy was frowned upon, but not forbidden outright – but the woman would still bound and could not remarry until she was granted a Jewish divorce – a GET.  What is more in first century Israel, where would she go?  So I think the first thing Jesus is saying is that men may divorce their wives – I like to think that he thinks that women may divorce their husbands too –  but .. and here is the but – men cannot just sent her out into the desert. If he just kicks her out of the house and then marries another women – Jesus calls that bigamy and adultery.  First he must divorce her – because, of course, it’s all about money – if she is divorced the man must pay back her dowry and agree a divorce settlement.  Jesus’s words are good news for women in a patriarchal society. 

But .. and there is a but ..  jesus goes on, because actually the pharisees were not really interested in whether or not Jesus allowed divorce. They were putting him to the test, in exactly the same way as they put him to the test when they asked him whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or to do work on the sabbath.  It’s a bit like asking me even nowadays ‘it is alright to get a divorce?’ –  on the one hand I want to say ‘yes, if your relationship breaks down, if there is no future in it, then of course you can get a divorce and start again – of course it’s not a sin’  But at the same time I want to say that divorce is not a good thing – it’s messy, it’s expensive, people get hurt and it’s a sign of failure.  The test question is a bit like asking me ‘is it alright to cut my leg off’ – the answer is no, it’s not alright – unless you have gangrene, in which case you must.

And the moral of the story for us and for our everyday living is that the Bible is Good News, and if it ain’t Good News then it ain’t the Bible.  If the Bible is being used to destroy people, put them down, hurt them, diminish them or make them live in pain, then we, not they, have got it wrong.  If the Bible is being used to subjugate women and deny them their rights then the translators have to go back to the text because Jesus did not do that. 

And if the Bible is being used to trap women – or men – in loveless, violent or dead marriages then the translators have to go back to the text because Jesus did not do that.

As the second of our three readings tells us God has set Jesus over all things – even over the Church and the Bible.

The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington

First Reading  A Reading from the Book of Genesis                           (2:18-24)
Yahweh God said, “It is not good for the earthling to be alone. I will make a friend for it.”  So, out of the earth, Yahweh God made all the wild animals and all the birds of the sky. Yahweh God brought all of them to the earthing to see what it would call each one. Whatever the earthling called each living creature, that would be its name. The earthling gave names to all the tame animals, to the birds of the sky, and to all the wild animals. But, no friend for the earthling was found. Yahweh God made the earthling fall into a deep sleep. While the earthling slept, God took one of its sides and replaced the side with flesh. Yahweh God took the side that was taken from the earthling and generated it into a woman. God brought the woman to the earthling. Then the earthling said, “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called ‘woman’, for from ‘man’ was this one taken.” Therefore, a man leaves father and mother and joins woman, so that the two become one flesh.                                          (Quaker translation: J. M Spears)

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark
All                Glory to you O Lord.                                                        (10:3-11)
The Pharisees came to Him and asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” — testing Him. And He answered and said unto them, “What did Moses command you?” And they said, “Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.” And Jesus answered and said unto them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation, ’God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.’ So then they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” And in the house His disciples asked Him again about the same matter. And He said unto them, “Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband and be married to another, she committeth adultery.” (King James ‘authorised’ Version)