Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
Divorce is no longer a disease contracted only by Hollywood movie stars. People from all walks of life, including Christians, are affected by divorce. There is hardly a Christian family that, directly or indirectly, does not know the pain of divorce.
An important factor contributing to the alarming escalation of divorce among Christians is the growing acceptance of the societal view of marriage as a social contract, governed by civil laws, rather than as a sacred covenant, witnessed and guaranteed by God Himself. Instead of promising each other faithfulness "till death do us part," many couples are adopting the modern version of the marriage vow, by pledging to remain together "as long as we both shall love."
The recent "no fault" divorce law makes the dissolution of marriage so easy that some lawyers advertise divorce services for less than $100.00: "All legal fees and services included in one low price." What a sad commentary on the cheapness of marriage today! What God has united, many will put asunder for less than the price of a good pair of shoes.
We live today in a time of cultural transition when old values are being challenged both within and without the church. "They have been pulled up by the roots, thrown up into the air, and are now beginning to come down like tossed salad."1 The result is that many Christians today are confused and do not know what to believe, especially in the area of divorce and remarriage. Many are asking, "Are there Biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage? Is a person who remarries guilty of continuous adultery? Why do some denominations prohibit their ministers from marrying divorced persons and yet allow them to receive divorced people into their membership after they have been married by ministers of other denominations? Isn’t it better to suffer the pain of divorce than the tragedy of a marriage without love?"
Pastors, teachers, and Christian writers often contribute to the prevailing confusion about divorce and remarriage with their conflicting interpretation of key Bible passages. Some teach, like the ancient Pharisees, that the Bible allows divorce and remarriage for "every cause," while others maintain that the Bible prohibits divorce and remarriage under any circumstance. A reason for such conflicting interpretations is that many interpret the Bible more in the light of their experience in dealing with divorce than in the light of their study of what the Bible actually teaches on this subject.
The time of cultural transition and confusion in which we live offers unprecedented opportunities to seek truly Biblical answers to the questions Christians are asking. We must not allow the extremes of radicalism or liberalism to impede progress in understanding and applying what the Bible teaches on the important subject of divorce and remarriage affecting so many lives. Encouragement for such an effort comes to us from the growing number of conservative Christians who are seeking truly Biblical answers to their questions. My aim in this chapter is to meet the expectations of these Christians by examining the Scriptures in order to come to a more definite and concrete understanding of its teaching on divorce and remarriage. The reader must decide whether or not I have succeeded in "rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15).
Objectives of Chapter. The objective of this chapter is to ascertain what the Old and New Testaments teach regarding divorce and remarriage. We shall pursue this investigation by examining all the relevant passages. In the following chapter we shall consider how we can apply the Biblical teachings to concrete situations today.
DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE IN THE BIBLE
No one knows how divorce began. The Biblical record shows that, unlike marriage, divorce was not instituted by God. There is no indication in the Bible suggesting that God introduced and institutionalized divorce after the Fall as part of His order for human society. Divorce is "man-made," not divinely ordained. It represents human rejection of God’s original plan for the indissolubility of the marriage bond.
In His comments on divorce, Jesus explained that divorce represents a change in God’s order because "from the beginning it was not so" (Matt 19:8). He further observed that it was because of the "hardness" of human heart that Moses "allowed" divorce (Matt 19:8). To allow a practice is not the same as instituting it. When divorce first appears in the Bible, the practice was already in existence. What God did through Moses was to regulate divorce in order to prevent its abuse. This does not mean that God winked at divorce. Rather, it means that God acknowledged its existence and regulated it to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse.
The fact that God did not lay down a specific law in the Pentateuch prohibiting divorce reveals His realistic approach to human failure. It shows God’s willingness to work redemptively on behalf of those who fail to live up to His ideal for them. Before considering the implications of God’s attitude toward divorce in the Old Testament for us today, we want to examine the most explicit Old Testament passages concerning divorce.
1. The Teaching of Moses
In the pre-Mosaic period, divorce was common among the heathen nations. A man could divorce his spouse for any reason simply by telling her before witnesses, "You are no longer my wife." The divorced wife would have no recourse but to leave her home with only the few belongings she could carry on her back. This explains why women wore all their rings, jewelry, and coins on their bodies, since these provided a financial resource in the case of divorce.2
The practice of easy divorce became common among the Hebrews, encouraged by the absence of regulations restricting it. "Men were divorcing their wives for a ‘weekend fling’ and then taking them back again when the dirty laundry had piled up and the house needed cleaning."3 It was this situation that occasioned the legislation found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The chief concern of the law is to discourage hasty divorce by preventing remarriage after divorce. The law contains three elements: (1) the grounds for divorce (Deut 24:1a), (2) the process of divorce (Deut 24:1b), and (3) the result of divorce (Deut 24:2-4).
The Grounds for Divorce. "When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce . . ." (Deut 24:1a). Note that the law does not prescribe or encourage divorce. It simply assumes the course of action a husband would take if he found "some indecency in her."
The precise meaning of the phrase "some indecency" (literally, "the nakedness of a thing") is uncertain. Rabbinical interpretation of this phrase was sharply divided. The school of Shammai interpreted it as unchastity, while the school of Hillel as anything displeasing to her husband. Neither of these two views is supported by the evidences. Shammai’s view is discredited by the fact that in the Old Testament, divorce was not granted for adultery (Lev 20:10; Deut 20:22-24) or for morally defiling one’s wife before marriage (Deut 22:28). This suggests that the "indecency" of Deuteronomy 24:1 must refer to something other than adultery or sexual uncleanness.
Hillel’s looser interpretation is also devoid of Biblical support. The Hebrew word erwath (generally translated, "indecency" or "uncleanness") is often used to refer to shameful exposure of the human body (Gen 9:22,23; Ex 20:26; Lam. 1:8; Ezek 16:36, 37). In Deuteronomy 23:13-14, the word is used to describe the failure to cover human excrement. We would conclude, then, that according to Deuteronomy 24:1, divorce was allowed for some kind of shameful act or indecency other than illicit sexual intercourse.
The Process of Divorce. The procedure required of a man intending to divorce his wife was for him to write out a bill of divorce and give it to her: "he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house . . ." (Deut 24:16). The wording of the bill of divorce was probably similar to the one generally used by the Jews of the Diaspora which reads:
"On the ______ day of the week, the ______ day of the month ______, in the year ______ from the creation of the world, in the city of ______, I, ______, the son of ______, do willingly consent, being under no restraint, to release, to set free, and to put aside thee, my wife, ______, daughter of ______, who has been my wife from before. Thus I do set free, release thee, and put thee aside, in order that thou may have permission and the authority over thyself and to go and marry any man that thou may desire. No person may hinder thee from this day onward, and thou art permitted to every man. This shall be for thee from me a bill of dismissal, a letter of release, and a document of freedom, in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.The bill of divorce served several purposes. It deterred a hasty action on the part of the husband by restraining frivolous and rash dismissal. It testified to the woman’s freedom from marital obligations from the husband who sent her away. It protected the woman’s reputation, particularly if she married another man.
______ the son of ______, witness.
______ the son of ______, witness."4
The process of divorce that Moses required was not a license to repudiate the wife at will, but rather "a stringent requisition that whoever did so should secure his wife from injury by certifying that she was not chargeable with unchaste conduct, but divorced upon some minor pretext."5
It is important to note that Moses did not require a man to divorce his wife if he found "some indecency" in her. He simply permitted it due to the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts (Matt 19:8; Mark 10:5) who had rejected God’s original plan for marriage (Mark 10:9; Gen 2:24). What Moses required was that a divorce document be written to discourage hasty divorces and to mitigate the hardship of divorce. Even when the divorce document was given, the way for reconciliation was still open as long as the woman did not form a second marriage.
The Result of Divorce. The primary purpose of the divorce procedure was to close the way forever for the man to remarry his former wife once she had remarried: "And if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter husband dislikes her and writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt upon the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance" (Deut 24:2-4).
The main point of this legislation is to prohibit a man from remarrying his former wife if she had married another man. Even if her second husband divorced her or died, she could not return to her first husband. To do so would be an "abomination before the Lord" (Deut 24:4) on the same level as fornication. The reason is that if a husband could easily remarry the same woman, divorce would become a "legal" form of committing adultery. Later prophetic writings confirm this truth set forth by Moses. For example, the prophet Jeremiah says: "If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted?" (Jer 3:1).
Another possible reason for the Deuteronomic ban on the remarriage of divorcees to each other after one of them had married someone else is that such a marriage would constitute an incestuous relationship. From Leviticus 18, we learn that prior to the Israelite conquest, the land of Canaan had been "defiled" by "incest" among the Canaanites (Lev 18:25-26). On the basis of this connection, Heth and Wenham argue that Deuteronomy prohibits the remarriage of a divorced couple after one of them had married someone else, because such a remarriage constituted incest. A blood relationship was formed by the first marriage which made them not only husband and wife but kin relatives as well. Consequently, if they divorced and remarried each other again, that remarriage was akin to the marriage between a brother and sister.6 If this interpretation is correct, then Deuteronomy 24 supports Genesis 1 and 2 by showing that divorce cannot break the bond established by marriage.
It is significant to note that what the Mosaic legislation strongly condemns is not the remarriage of a divorced woman, but her remarriage to her first husband after the termination of her second marriage. This suggests that remarriage per se in the Old Testament was not stigmatized as adulterous nor was a remarried woman regarded as an adulteress. The Pentateuch did not require that a divorced woman and her second husband be put to death, as was the case with adultery. This consideration should lead us to exercise caution before stigmatizing remarriage as adulterous.
Conclusion. Divorce was not instituted by Moses, nor was it approved as an intrinsic right of the husband. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 indicates that Moses sought to curb the evil of divorce by requiring the husband to give a bill of divorcement to his wife to protect her after her marriage to another man. The Mosaic concession does not alter God’s original plan for marriage to be a sacred, permanent covenant. It simply provides protection for the divorced wife when sinful hearts violate God’s original plan for marriage.
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