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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 53, 2005

DAVID INSTONE-BREWER, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002). Pp. xi+355. $US26.00.

David Instone-Brewer, Senior Research Fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge, is eminently qualified to write on the topic, “Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible.” He has written extensively in the area (as a list of his publications reveals—see www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/Tyndale/staff/Instone-Brewer/Staff.htm.

The book comprises eleven chapters: 1. The Ancient Near East: Marriage is a Contract; 2. The Pentateuch: The Divorce Certificate Allows Remarriage; 3. The Later Prophets: Breaking Marriage Vows is Condemned; 4. Intertestamental Period: Increasing Rights for Women; 5. Rabbinic Teaching: Increasing Grounds for Divorce; 6. Jesus’ Teaching: Divorce on Biblical Grounds Only; 7. Paul’s Teaching: Biblical Grounds Include Neglect; 8. Marriage Vows: Vows Inherited from the Bible and Judaism; 9. History of Divorce: Interpretations in Church History; 10. Modern Reinterpretations: Different Ways to Understand the Biblical Text; 11. Pastoral Conclusions: Reversing Institutionalized Misunderstandings.

One of the strengths of this book is the close attention paid to primary sources, and the careful and considered approach to their interpretation. For readers who do not have Instone-Brewer’s expertise in either ancient near eastern texts or Rabbinics, this book is especially helpful. Instone-Brewer insists that, to properly understand the New Testament texts relating to divorce (and remarriage), it is essential that they be read “through the eyes of a first century believer.”

Instone-Brewer says the key to understanding Jesus’ teaching on divorce is to recognise that it was given in answer to the question whether he accepted Hillelite divorce based on ‘any matter’ (equivalent to ‘groundless divorce’). This would have been self-evident to first-century Jewish readers. Instone-Brewer says that when the Matthean and Markan accounts of Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees about the Hillelite and Shammaite interpretations of Deut 24:1 are unpacked, it is clear that Jesus was asserting the follow-ing: “Marriage should be monogamous; marriage should be lifelong; divorce is never compulsory, divorce should be avoided unless the erring partner stubbornly refuses to repent; marriage is optional; Hillelite ‘any matter’ divorces are invalid.”

Turning to the teaching of the apostle Paul, Instone-Brewer says Paul had to respond to problems faced by believers in the Greco-Roman world—a context in which divorce by separation was commonly practised. Paul told his readers that Jesus rejected this practice (when he repudiated Hillelite ‘any matter’ divorce) and told them not to be the initiators of divorce. But, if they were divorced against their will, they were free to remarry (and a widow was also free to remarry without worrying about the levirate law). The right of a divorced person to remarry was not spelled out by Paul because this was firmly established in both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture.

In the final chapter, Pastoral Conclusions: Reversing Institutionalized Misunderstandings, Instone-Brewer describes modern church practices (those of the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and non-established churches) and especially the way they handle divorce (or, in the case of the Catholic Church, annulment). He offers a personal view based on pastoral experience on what the Church might do in preparing people for marriage, constructing the marriage service (Instone-Brewer is a Baptist pastor), helping people when the marriage is going wrong, handling the difficult issues of remarriage (including suggestions about a service of “repentance for broken promises”) and what to do when a church leader becomes divorced.

He concludes with the strong statement:
The message of the NT is that divorce is allowed but should be avoided whenever possible. Divorce is allowed only on the grounds of broken mar-riage vows, and the decision to divorce can be made only by the injured party … If divorce does happen, remarriage is permitted. All this would be obvious to a first-century believer, but the meaning of the text was obscured at a very early date due to ignorance about the Jewish background after 70 C.E. … The Church should now be humble and admit that a great mistake has been made. Too many generations of husbands and wives have been forced to remain with their abusing or neglectful partners and have not been allowed to divorce even after suffering repeated unfaithfulness.
Instone-Brewer’s book is a tour de force on this subject, and while it will inevitably raise serious questions and some disagreement, his treatment of the texts upon which debate must focus and the competent and judicious way in which he handles them de-serve the most serious attention.

Review by
Colin G. Kruse
Bible College of Victoria
PO Box 380
Lilydale Vic 3140, Australia