Herod's Unlawful Divorce

Herod Antipas had long been wary of John the Immerser, but John sealed his fate when he condemned Herod’s marriage.

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "The Death of John". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

Why was John the Immerser killed by Herod? The final straw cementing his fate was his condemnation of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife.

John the Immerser declared the marriage invalid by Torah. “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18), he announced to Antipas. Josephus agrees with John’s assessment of the union between Herod and Herodias. As a commentary on the morality of the situation, he wrote:

Herodias took it upon herself to violate the laws of our country. She divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and she married Herod Antipas, her husband’s brother by the father’s side. (Antiquities)

Josephus states that the marriage violated Torah because 1) she divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and 2) she married her husband’s brother.

The Torah does not grant women the authority to divorce their husbands. In those days, a Jewish woman with legitimate cause could obtain a divorce from her husband only by requesting the elders of the community to force the husband to divorce her. As a Roman citizen, however, Herodias could obtain a divorce through a Roman court of law. Circumventing the Jewish courts altogether, she obtained a civil divorce and left her husband.

The Torah does not allow a man to marry his sister-in-law if his brother is still alive: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness” (Leviticus 18:16). “If there is a man who takes his brother’s wife, it is abhorrent; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They will be childless” (Leviticus 20:21).

A woman may marry her husband’s brother only if her husband has died, but so long as her husband remains alive—even if she is divorced from him—she may not marry her husband’s brother.

Josephus may have simply been echoing John the Immerser’s condemnation of the marriage. John the Immerser rebuked Herod Antipas, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” He did not hesitate to publicly denounce the marriage either.

Rabbi Yeshua added His voice to the protest with a startling interpretation of the Torah’s laws of divorce. Yeshua told His disciples, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). This saying also appears in Matthew 5:32, Matthew 19:9, and Luke 16:18, but only in Mark’s gospel does it allow for the possibility of a woman divorcing her husband.

Rabbi Yeshua’s radical interpretation of the laws of divorce seemed to imply that anyone divorced for any reason other than marital infidelity commits adultery if he or she remarries.

Brad Young points out a possible alternative rendering of the Master’s words regarding remarriage and adultery, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.” Young notes that the Hebrew vav-conjunction (the word “and”) might imply a cause-and-effect relationship between the two phrases. If so, “anyone who divorces his wife” in order to marry another commits adultery:

Whoever divorces his wife in order to marry another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband in order to marry another man, she is committing adultery. (Mark 10:11-12)

In other words, Rabbi Yeshua considered a divorce issued for the sake of remarriage as invalid.

Young’s reconstruction fits a criticism of the marriage between Antipas and Herodias. Both Antipas and Herodias divorced their spouses in order to marry one another. Again, in Jewish law, a woman did not have the option of divorcing her husband. Herodias circumvented Jewish law and obtained a civil divorce by Roman law. Is it possible that the Master’s condemnation of that marriage has been misapplied as a standard pertaining to all divorces?

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