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Sermon on the Mount: Jesus as Legal Decider

David Nekrutman - 24 October 2022

When I first read the expression, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you…” within the Sermon on the Mount in my Jewish-Christian relational training at the Israeli Consulate in New York 21 years ago, I immediately connected the expression to a famous teaching within Judaism that dates sometime between 410 BCE and 310 BCE:

The Men of the Great Assembly said three maxims: Be measured in the legal process’, raise up many disciples, make a fence for the Torah.

Understanding the power and attraction of sin, these sages, which included Ezra, Malachi, and Mordechai, began to introduce a network of institutional directives to prevent the nation from violating the biblical commandments. The basis of institutional directives can be inferred from the Nazarite text in Numbers 6:1- 21. Although the vow is to distance oneself from the intoxicating beverage of wine, the Bible prevents the Nazarite from eating raisins or tasting vinegar. Although raisins and vinegar never get a person drunk, the possible association with these items might ignite a chain reaction which could shortly lead to drinking wine and violating this sacred oath. The idea of abstaining from raisins and vinegar was a fence. Making a fence also applied to other areas of national Jewish life and practice.

It is important to note that in the time of Jesus, the Tanakh (Old Testament) was the only Bible. Furthermore, besides the Essenes and Sadducees, there were many Pharisaic and other Jewish movements during the time of Jesus. Judaism was not a monolith during the end of the Second Temple period. Therefore, the expression “you have heard it said…, but I say to you…” is Jesus acting as legal and ethical decider for his followers in a time when different schools of Judaism were expounding on Jewish law and ethics.

To highlight the above idea, let’s address the topic of the justifiable grounds for divorce. While the biblical source for divorce is contained in four verses in Deuteronomy (24:1-4). The justifiable grounds for separation is how one interprets Deuteronomy 24:1 which states, “If a man takes a wife and is intimate with her, and she becomes unfavorable to him because he discovers in her an unseemly matter (ervah davar)…” Focusing on the expression of ervah, the term’s association with sexual immorality (Leviticus 18), the House of Shammai says divorce is only allowed when infidelity is suspected. However, the House of Hillel honed in on the term ‘davar’ and permitted divorce even in a case as trivial as a wife burning dinner. However, Rabbi Akiva focuses upon the earlier part of the verse, “she becomes unfavorable to him,” as separate grounds for divorce. Even if she has done nothing wrong, he may divorce her if he desires another woman.

The Bible allows divorce, but it is unclear as to the justifiable grounds for it. The rabbis are also aware of the tragedy of a failed marriage where even the altar in the Temple sheds a tear. When governing a nation in times when spouses may not be living the most exemplary life of Torah and commitment to the sacredness of the covenant of the marriage bond, the question remains on how to properly legislate. In the mainstream of Second Temple Jewish governance, divorce was allowed beyond suspicions of infidelity. However, to protect the covenantal bond of marriage and for his followers to live to a higher standard, Jesus enacts a fence around the Torah (Matthew 5:31- 32). He does not abolish divorce, rather Jesus, within the context of Jewish law, follows within the contours of the House of Shammai and allows divorce when there is suspicion of infidelity.

Matthew 5-7 did not take place in one day at one setting. The author of Matthew is presenting the greatest hits of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount as well as an introduction into the Gospel message. However, to grasp the Sermon on the Mount teachings, in high definition, one must hear as first century Jews heard within the Judaisms of the day, the geographic location, and cultural mindset. Therefore, I conclude when reading the, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you…,” a bracket should be added for Jewish legal and ethical context:

“You have heard it said [in the discussions of this subject within different Jewish movements] …, but I say to you [as legal (or ethical) decider]…”

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