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.