A line in the first reading (from Genesis 2) caught my attention today: “The man gave names to all the cattle…” I wondered how many species of cattle there are that they are worthy of a special mention? Mainly, the line caught my attention because it reminded me of growing up on our farm, and the fact that my parents gave names to all the cows. Usually it was just the house cows – the ones that we still milked – but later on Mum tended to give names to almost all the cows in our smallish herd. Family members came to the rescue in terms of supplying names for the cows – including male and female names. So, for example, Mum would take delight in pointing out which cow was called ‘Rickie’. Yep.
In turning to Mark 10, we begin a section of the gospel that looks at living out discipleship in everyday life, addressing topics like marriage, children and work. The first trap that is set before Jesus concerns the question of divorce. Unfortunately, we are not given verse 1 which provides the geographical context for the question posed by the Pharisees. That it takes place in Judea beyond the River Jordan immediately evokes the ministry of John the Baptist, who had been killed by ‘King’ Herod for challenging his marriage to his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. The reason that the question that the Pharisees put to Jesus is a test is because it is not just marriage in general, but this marriage specifically that the question is about. They hope to trap Jesus in the same way that John was caught up in this political intrigue. The fact that ‘back in the house’ (code for the church) Jesus gives two possibilities: both a man and woman divorcing – when the Jewish law only allowed the male to initiate divorce is also an indication that this is really about Herodias. [It could also be provided for the Roman Gentile community who were the recipients of this Gospel, where the law allowed men or women to divorce.]
The first answer that Jesus offers is, in Rabbinical style, to ask a question about the teaching of Moses. He refers to the only commandment contained in the Torah concerning divorce, namely Deuteronomy 24: 1-4. Here the case is posed of a couple who have married, but the wife ‘does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.’ The law allows the man to ‘write her a certificate of divorce …and send her out of his house.’ Scholars indicate that this text and law is primarily about the protection of the woman and her rights. When she entered into the marriage, her family would have offered a dowry which the first husband would keep. However, once she enters into a second marriage, she was able to keep the second dowry for herself. The law forbade her to return to the first husband, probably out of fear that he would take her dowry. Complicated enough?
The Rabbis debated among themselves about what constituted something that was sufficiently objectionable to justify a divorce. The three famous schools from the previous centuries all had interpretations to offer. The school of Shammai (noted for his hard-line and strict interpretations) said it could only be where the wife had been unfaithful to her husband. The more liberal house of Hillel suggested it was objectionable “even if she spoiled a dish”, whereas the Rabbi Aqiba suggested it was sufficient grounds if the husband simply found someone else prettier (and hence that rendered the first wife objectionable!) It is noteworthy that Jesus usually follows the interpretations of Hillel over those of Shammai, but in this case he takes the more hard-line interpretation. Why?