Last year, as we were teaching through 1 Corinthians, I had the privilege of doing many hours of reading in preparation for preaching through 1 Corinthians 7. The chapter deals with instructions to the church in Corinth on the subjects of marriage, singleness and divorce. I read a lot as I wanted to understand the first century cultural and religious norms for marriage into which Paul was inserting his instructions and guidance. What I discovered was amazing to me and helped me to better understand Jesus’ pushback against his context’s divorce and remarriage practices (see Matthew 19). Divorce was an allowance under the law of Moses (Deut 24), but only under certain circumstances and only with the proper legal release of the woman from the marriage contract. The reason for this was that the culture was so patriarchal, that a woman had very little value and respect outside of her union with her husband, and so would be desperately vulnerable as a women who had been abandoned but not properly released to pursue another protective union. Of course, this law, designed to protect women from harm, became a way for men to enter into a pattern of serial monogamy with multiple women, with religious scholars providing reasons that were acceptable for divorce, so long as a man issued a certificate of divorce.
Some Rabbinic schools only allowed a man to issue divorce in the case of marital unfaithfulness. Some found grounds for divorce for reasons like poor cooking ability, visible ankles, talking to another man, or having an annoying mother-in-law. I am not making this up. Some even found that a man could divorce his wife if he found someone else more attractive and didn’t want to be unfaithful. What is important to note is that in no school of thought would a woman be able to initiate a divorce on her own. She could apply for one (well she could apply for her husband to divorce her), but she would need a male advocate, and usually adultery needed to be proven to a religious council who could decide whether to grant it or not.
The whole time I was reading this, I was thinking of the story of the woman at the well in John 4. Now, I must make a couple of important disclaimers before discussing that further. Firstly, the primary point of the story in John 4 doesn’t seem to be a discussion around marriage. It has a lot more to do with how Jesus offers the living water of salvation to a Samaritan, a foreigner, a previously unclean and unwelcome person, and so we must be careful to not miss the main teaching point of the passage. Secondly, Samaritan views of marriage and divorce may have been different from the Jewish ones. I haven’t managed to find any key differences in the literature, but I don’t want to assume, as I am not a scholar with that sort of knowledge. With that said though, cast your mind back to the story of the woman at the well.
How many of us know this story as the story of the immoral woman? I did too for many years, and there is some reasoning for that, but as I have studied it afresh, I really think we have flattened out the woman and inserted her into our context and largely ignored her own. We paint her as a flirtatious, immoral woman who refuses to settle down. She has chewed through five marriages and is now shacking up with her new boyfriend. That is how many have portrayed her, but I don’t think it is possible. Go and read the story again. It is quite remarkable.
John never calls her sinful, when the gospel writers are very specific and deliberate in doing that with other characters.
Jesus never calls her to repentance for her actions or lifestyle (even though he knows everything about her circumstances), which he does with the most fragile of other sinners.
Knowing what we know about marital customs, it seems quite frankly impossible that this woman had chosen to be married five times, and her current living situation probably wouldn’t have been her choice either. We read our own notion of cohabitation back into the story as if this woman is a young, restless rebel refusing to be tied down. In reality, she is probably totally stuck, and likely having to live with a man who won’t even commit to being faithful to her. The only possible reasons in that context for her having being married five times are:
- Five husbands had died.
- Five husbands had found fault with her and rejected her.
- Some had died and the others had divorced her.
Whichever option it is, this woman is a victim of lots of heartache. She is a tragically overlooked and terribly treated woman, who is now experiencing further vulnerability because the man she is living with is probably treating her as a concubine. Her story is a very sad one where she has repeatedly had power taken from her.
And then our King Jesus … goes out of his way to meet her; treats her as a person; refuses to define her by her past; and gives her the dignity of engaging with her on theology. He then offers her eternal life, and instantly puts her to meaningful work as an active partner in sharing the news of the Kingdom of God.
I don’t want to flatten out the woman in John 4 again. She may have been an active participant in the dissolution of all of her relationships (although I think it is seriously unlikely), but even if she was, when Jesus meets her, she is vulnerable, rejected, broken and undoubtedly abused because of her position of powerlessness in the culture. His posture towards her is one that we could use a lot more of in the church. A posture of a people going out of their way, into places and spaces previously seen as unreachable, and recognizing the humanity of people who have had their humanity erased and their power stolen.
In the context of #metoo and #churchtoo, and the horrific things we are learning through that, I am seriously before the Lord asking how we might create churches that are safe spaces for broken and abused women. Churches where we go out of our way – like our Lord – to dignify women’s stories, to offer the living and restorative water of the gospel, and to give meaningful purpose in mission to women who previously felt like they had no place.
God help us.