“testing him.” This record in Matthew 19:3-9 is the same event as is recorded in Mark 10:2-12, which includes different details than the Matthew record . However, this event is different than Jesus’ teaching at the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:32), and when he spoke directly to the Pharisees about divorce (Luke 16:14-18).
The short phrase, “tempting him,” reveals the heart of the Pharisees in this situation. Their question about marriage and divorce was a genuine one and hotly debated in the culture of the day. However, they were not being genuine in asking it. They had no intention of changing what they believed based on Jesus’ answer to their question. In that light, we can see that the real reason they asked the question was to discredit Jesus. They were supporters of the school of Hillel and champions of “easy divorce,” which was popular in their culture just as it is in ours today. It is likely that they thought that Jesus would not support easy divorce (a correct conclusion) and that by making that fact public they could take away part of his popular support and possibly even sow division among his followers. Thus God calls their question a “temptation.” Jesus was tempted, as all ministers are, to avoid “hot topics” that may cause division in the Church. As we see from Jesus’ answer, he was more interested in pleasing God and telling the truth than he was in pleasing people—something we should all emulate.
“for any reason at all.” The Pharisees were asking Jesus a technical question about the Law: they were asking him how he would interpret Deuteronomy 24:1, which is about divorce. At the time of Christ, the Jews differed in their interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1, which allowed for a man to divorce his wife if he found something “shameful” or “improper” in her. The problem is that the wording of Deuteronomy 24:1 in the Hebrew text is unclear. The relevant Hebrew word is `ervah (#06172 עֶרְוָה), translated “some uncleanness” in the KJV; the man could divorce his wife if he found “some uncleanness” in her. `Ervah has a rather wide range of meanings and interpretations including nakedness, pudenda, shame, shameful exposure, indecency, and improper behavior.
Many rabbis, particularly those of the school of Hillel, believed that Deuteronomy was saying that a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever; he just had to find something indecent, improper, or displeasing in her. The rabbis of the school of Hillel thought `ervah could not just be referring to sexual immorality because the woman was married. That would mean that any “sexual immorality” would almost always be adultery, and adultery was punishable by death, not divorce. The teaching of Hillel was very popular at the time of Christ and many men were divorcing their wives on all kinds of pretexts just because they found another woman they liked better.
In contrast to the school of Hillel, rabbis in the school of Shammai taught that Deuteronomy 24:1 was speaking of sexual sin. They pointed out that a man did not have to have his wife stoned for adultery. He could have her stoned, but he could also just divorce her, just as Joseph was going to divorce Mary when she was found to be pregnant before they had come together sexually. Since the debate on the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1 was a “hot topic” at the time of Christ, the Pharisees came to Christ and tempted him by asking for his opinion.
It is the social context of the time and the Pharisees’ specific question that sheds light on Jesus’ answer about divorce in Matthew 19:9, an answer that has been mistranslated in most English versions and misunderstood by most Christians.
[For more information on divorce and remarriage, see commentary on Matthew 19:9.]