Divorce on the Old Testament

Divorce was not commonplace in Israel and there are no examples of divorce in the narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible. A husband might divorce his wife for any reason, but in practice childlessness and adultery are the two chief causes of divorce. In most cases childlessness is dealt with through a second wife or a concubine rather than divorce. For example, Abraham and Hagar (Gen 16), Jacob and Bilah (Gen 30:1-8), Elkanah and Penniah (1 Sam 1).

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is the only divorce text in the Law, but there was considerable diversity of opinion on how to interpret the “shameful thing” Deuteronomy 24. The problem in Deuteronomy 24 is the definition of “indecency” (ESV). This was the subject of sometimes fierce debate among teachers of the Law within the Pharisaical tradition. The Hebrew word (עֶרְוָה) refers to something shameful (such as nakedness), but it is used often for sexual sin (Lev 18:6-19 uses this word 24 times for sexual sins, “to uncover the nakedness”).

By the first century, there were two views on the meaning of the “shameful thing.” One view followed the great rabbi Shammai and understood this to refer to a women was caught in adultery or found not to be a virgin at marriage. Only in this case was a man permitted to divorce his wife. This is the situation Joseph was in when he discovered his betrothed wife Mary was already pregnant. He wanted to “divorce her quietly” not only because he was a righteous man, but also because the situation would have been cultural shameful to him.

The other view followed the rabbi Hillel and taught that man could divorce his wife for any reason. The phrase “indecent” was interpreted as “find favor,” thus if the wife no longer finds favor in the husband’s eye she could be divorced. Hillel said if a wife ruined dinner, a man could write a certificate of divorce.  There is not much evidence this ever happened, but the point is Hillel permitted divorce for reasons other than adultery.

M.Git 9:10 And the House of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his dish, “since it is said, ‘because he has found in her indecency in anything.’” R. Aqiba says, “Even if he found someone else prettier than she, since it is said, ‘and it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes.’” The Mishnah goes further, allowing for divorce if the wife becomes deaf (m.Yebam 14:1), if she develops epilepsy, tetanus, warts, or leprosy, or failed in her duties about the home. In addition, a man can divorce his wife if she has a physical deformity, including a wedge shaped head, a turnip shaped head, or even if she has poor posture and thinning hair! As one might expect, the woman does not have the same right to divorce her balding, warty husband.

One potential check on divorce was that most marriages were arranged by the parents and wedding contracts protected the wife from an easy divorce (return of dowry, a penalty if adultery was not a factor). If a man made a frivolous charge against his wife in order to divorce her, he was liable to be sued and lose reputation and honor, as well as paying penalty to support his ex-wife. Until the first century A.D., even Roman women rarely were able to divorce their husbands.

Divorce was discouraged in the wisdom tradition. Proverbs 5:15-20 and Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 develop this creation mandate to encourage the person of wisdom to enjoy their spouse exclusively. In addition, the Song of Solomon 8:6-7 praises exclusive love within a marriage. The Second Temple period wisdom literature was more direct. Written about 200 B. C., Sirach 7:19 and 7:26 is a warning against a hasty divorce, yet 25:25-26 permits a man to divorce an “evil wife.” These sayings are directed at the husband, it is almost certain Sirach would not have expected a woman to divorce her husband.

Sirach 7:19 (NRSV) Do not dismiss a wise and good wife, for her charm is worth more than gold.

Sirach 7:26 (NRSV) Do you have a wife who pleases you? Do not divorce her; but do not trust yourself to one whom you detest.

Sirach 25:25–26 (NRSV) Allow no outlet to water, and no boldness of speech to an evil wife. 26 If she does not go as you direct, separate her from yourself.

Jesus does not follow the trajectory which resulted in the any-reason divorce. Rather he seems to focus on the positive view of marriage in which partners are devoted to one another for life. How does this background help understand Jesus’s teaching on divorce in Matthew 5:31-32?

30 thoughts on “Divorce on the Old Testament

  1. I think this is one of my more favorite blogs. 🤔 Usually when people talk about divorce from a biblical perspective, we probably don’t think to look back at things such as the Mishnah for more cultural context. If a man could’ve divorced a woman for anything like her appearance or function and not her own sexual immorality, I kind of read how Jesus is saying it like “You’d Better Not”.

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  2. Divorce is one of the trickiest topics the church faces today. In my opinion, our world doesn’t have a divorce probably, but a commitment problem. Marriage was never promised to be easy. It is a selfless commitment to love an imperfect person and to work hard to make the marriage blossom. Because we live in a broken and sinful world we suffer with divorce. So, as Christians how do we approach divorce? What are “good” reasons for a divorce? I find it funny that in Matthew 5:31-32 we read the reasons for a valid divorce and in the next few verses we learn about vows. Jesus says, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made” (Matt. 5:33). Again, I circle back to the fact that we have a heart issue, and that is our inability to make a vow and stay committed to it. Overall, based on my reading and the initial blog post, I think we are still left with uncertainties about divorce. God’s design was for one man and one woman to marry and stay committed to one another for a lifetime. We will never fully understand or have the correct answer for divorce. From Genesis through Revelation, God has used imperfect people to share His beautiful story. He uses adulterers and divorcees to show His grace, mercy, and love for us. In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus doesn’t say that divorce is bad or not okay. He also doesn’t say that it is a good thing. I think He is trying to make His listeners really think it through.

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    • I definitely agree with your statement of “God’s design was for one man and one woman to marry and stay committed to one another for a lifetime.” The World today does have a commitment issue and many marriages are failing because of it. Divorce is very clearly not what God intended, but there are cases where it can be permitted. Just because it can be permitted does not mean that it should be permitted. McKnight alludes to the use of pastoral leadership for help making these tough decisions. “Divorce and remarriage decisions are not to be left to the individuals but require both pastoral leadership and ecclesial discernment” (McKnight, p. 105). Pastoral leadership is placed in their position by the will of God, so therefore can be trusted to help guide us in these situations. Reconciliation is still always the number one answer when exploring the option for divorce, because ultimately God’s intention for marriage was to be between one man and one woman.

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    • Bailey, I really like your thoughts on divorce. I like that you pointed out that Jesus never says if it is okay or a bad thing. He wants us to stop and really think about divorce. I also believe that divorce is something that we face today because of sin in the world. Divorce occurs because we have commitment issues. We live in a world that tells us we have to have the newest and best things. We are told that if a relationship is not going perfectly and giving us what we want, that we can just give up and move onto someone “better.” We live in a world that doesn’t want to fight and work towards things. God never tells us that marriage is going to be easy. It is, like you said, committing to love an imperfect person for the rest of our lives. Divorce is such a tricky topic in our world today. I really like the point that Nick made about how reconciliation is always the first option when exploring options during an issue in a marriage. As a married couple, you need to work towards forgiving each other because both partners make mistakes and have to remember the commitment they made to each other, until death do us part.

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  3. The first thing I got from reading the bible when it’s on topic of marriage and divorce, is they are really rare for people. In addition, the interesting thing about what was said in the article, “Only in this case was a man permitted to divorce his wife. This is the situation Joseph was in when he discovered his betrothed wife Mary was already pregnant.” (Long, 2018) The reason that reason being if the woman isn’t a virgin, or she unfaithful, etc. Divorce for any other reason, you are aiding your wife to commit adultery. Matthew 5:31-32, “31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (ESV, 2010) within the bible commentary from McKnight says, “Jesus expresses about divorce emerges from the factors sketched above: Adam and Eve’s intent, design, and task; the glory of loving relationship; the covenant relationship of God” (McKnight, page 95, 2013) this was a clear statement of how God intended people to be when they get married. Divorce is going against God’s plan for people when it comes to marriage. Marriage is supposed to reflect the image the unity of Jesus and the Church. If the church freely leaves Christ on occasion and the become divorced, then that may cause some problems. In my opinion, the church has left Christ side today, therefore does this permit divorces?

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  4. The Old Testament was a much different time period than the one that we are living in now. In the Old Testament time period, divorce was rare; while today, it is very common. The key takeaways that I got from McKnight and this blog post were that marriage was meant to be a covenant between the husband and wife that they would put each other first, and fulfill their “marital duties.” “If covenant love is commitment to be ‘with someone and for someone as someone who is working unto divine ends,’ then marriages are destroyed when one partner refuses to be ‘with’ the spouse or who becomes someone who is ‘against’ that spouse” (McKnight, p. 107). The fulfillment of the marital contract becomes a key element when talking about divorce. Understanding what the contract is becomes crucial for success of your marriage. Marriage should be two people working together for one another. I believe if both the husband and wife are fulfilling that, then their marriage will be successful.

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  5. I believe that marriage is a sacred thing and is for a man and woman to stay together after making a commitment to that person. After reading this article, it is interesting and crazy to me to read about the different ways people would look at marriage and divorce. I like how at the end of the article it says that Jesus focuses more on the marriage rather than the divorce. I think Jesus looks more at marriage is because divorce should not be an option, only in extreme cases such as adultery. It says in Mark 10: 9, that what is joined together may not be separated. “It is important for the follower of Jesus to remind the struggling spouses that divorce is not God’s will” (McNight, pg. 106). It is not God’s intention for divorce to come upon a married couple. That is why it is important for those who want to be married to truly know who they are marrying.

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    • Maddie, I completely agree. Marriage is a sacred thing and now society has made it into something that everyone can do, and if they want an out that have one. Yet that should not be the way we should look at things. Divorce was not what God intended, he wanted man and woman together until they die. Unless they are being abused or commenting adultery. I agree with your last sentence people have to be sure who they are marrying, because they are in for the long haul. Pray, of that person that God has for you, it is the only way to avoid divorce.

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    • Maddie, I also agree with you completely marriage is something important sacred and it is definitely a complete important commitment to make. God definitely did not intend divorce to be an option but for obvious reasons it there like you said if someone was to commit adultery. I really also like that you pointed that Jesus focuses more on marriage then divorce because I think that is a big importance in this article.

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    • I agree with everything you have said. I feel like its also good to keep in mind that our marriage is also with God besides the spouse we may end up having on earth. I like to keep in mind to not stray from God so that it doesn’t turn into divorce since just as you stated it is not Gods will for us to have divorces. The different ways people view marriage is crazy I can definitely agree with you on that.

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  6. Living in world that is so broken, it tough especially when it comes to commitments and vows. Not being able to be sure that the person you chose to love and marry, will love you until the end of days is very sad. The Old Testament is vastly different than the twenty-first century. In the Old Testament like you mentioned it was shameful for a man to divorce his wife. Yet, now it is something that people cannot stop doing. “Love, marriage and divorce are confusingly connected” (Hendricks, 94). Love is nothing like the movies, it is not all about the feelings and it is not all about the passion. It is a choice to love someone for the way they are, we may want them to grow and change for the better, but we still choose to love them even when they are still at that confusing state. We value so much of what the movies say, yet we do not open the Bible in order for us to find true love. People just want someone so they are not alone, not because they are in love. I would say that, that is the reason why so many people get into divorce now a day.

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  7. First and foremost, P. Long I would like to thank you for your humor in this topic. I will be looking for the candle online and googling what a turnip shaped head looks like. All joking aside, this background is very important in understanding why Jesus was teaching about divorce. God created marriage to be a life long commitment since the beginning of marriage in Genesis 2. These Jewish teachers had began to teach falsely and created great amounts of sin and suffering within the Jewish community because of it. McKnight discusses how marriage and love is designed in nature to reflect the love of God. This love requires spouses to be there for their spouse and to be faithful to them (p. 95). God did not create marriage so that the woman would live in fear that her husband could divorce her at any moment for situations that are not even her fault, she could not help she was born with a turnip shaped head. Marriage was designed so that man and women would know that their spouse would be faithful to them and know what a reflection of God’s love looks like.

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  8. Back in Old Testament times, divorce was rare, and it is all too common today, but I love how Jesus focuses on the positives of marriage rather than on divorce. The intention of marriage is for it to be a covenant for life, and where divorce is the action of destroying this covenant, Mcknight writes on the importance of reconciliation (p. 106). Love is more than just a happy feeling, and it is a dedication of one person to another, and in Ephesians 4:2 we are reminded to be patient, bearing with one another in love. There will be struggles in this life, but true love has Christ at the center of their relationship, constantly striving to grow closer to Him while, at the same time, growing closer to eachother.

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  9. I totally agree with this article. I wish everybody would think about marriage in terms of how Jesus taught about it. I think it would make peoples images so much better on marriage. It is so crazy to think about that if a woman would even make a meal the wrong way, that a man could then divorce his wife. I think it is hard to imagine how hard this would have been on the women. there is so much going on today with women who are in charge of big things, and personally I think it is great. I think that McKnight hit it on the head when he was talking about how today our perception In regard to love is a little messed up because of what we see around us and on television. That is a good reason that divorces are happening is that reel life can’t relate to what we see on the television. Divorce, I think our culture has made it hard to get a divorce, and at the same time very easy. it is hard for the same reason Joseph did not want to divorce his betrothed wife Mary, there was a lot of shame in it, you are giving up on your family, and you are giving up on a wonderful institution that God has put in place. I think that our culture has made it easy because everybody is doing it. When I was in junior high it seemed like that’s all kids talked about, was that their parents were getting in a divorce, so I think because everybody “seems” to be doing it, it makes it ok. I think that divorce is a horrible thing and that couples should stick it out.

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  10. I understand that divorce was not too common at the time when Jesus spoke this, however I wonder why he took such a simple approach to address such a heavy topic. The irony is, today many people take divorce lightly as it is the “norm” because we have been doing it for centuries now. I believe most unbelievers look at divorce in the same light as rabbi Hillel in that if their wife (or husband) is not “working for them” in any way they have the right to divorce them. Jesus does not speak on the aftermath of divorce and how it affects so many people, not just the two involved. Instead, like you mention he focuses on the good that devoting yourself to one person in marriage brings to one’s life. In verse 32, Jesus goes on to say that if anyone goes on to marry a woman who has been divorced commits adultery. This furthermore discourages divorce as a new relationship would be looked down upon. The one exception that Jesus includes is divorce only if the wife was sexually immoral to her husband. McKnight discusses this looking into the original Greek word porneia, which he concluded has a meaning of either incest or general sexual sins. Because there is no way to be certain how specific this sexual sin is, many people run into problems when trying to decide if their divorce is lawful or not (McKnight 100). Either way, God’s intent was for man and woman to be one, and whether it is lawful or not divorce will always bring some sort of shame and sadness.

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    • I really liked your post Mary. God knows us, he created marriage in order to be kept because he knows how rewarding it is to keep pushing through even when situations get hard. Divorce is definitely not God’s will (p. 106, McKnight). He knows that to stay together will reap better results than to look at divorce as an option. I also like how you pointed out that even though there are many consequences to divorce, Jesus prefers to speak about the positive of pushing through. We are broken people and our tendency will be to be selfish and try to look for what’s best for our own selves, but if we look at God and the “spouse” first, there will be a bigger chance of being able to continue and keep the relationship. After all, Jesus knows that it will be the best decision after all.

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  11. “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord (Proverbs 18:22).” God puts certain people in our lives when we really need that certain person. God knows what we need for our lives. Marriage is a something that is suppose to be holy and pleasing to God. it says in Genesis 2:14 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh”.
    Marriage is suppose to be something that brings two people together, and they form a bond that no one can break. However there were some people who broke their bonds because they decided they didn’t want to be with that person any longer. and a law was written to try to do it in a God pleasing way. And so the law was made that divorce was only permitted by means of adultery. And so divorces were allowed if one or both people involved committed adultery. “But even the rigorous believed divorce was sometimes necessary (McKnight pg. 97).”
    What Jesus was teaching was that divorce can be the something as adultery. And divorce of any kind is displeasing to God, because God never intended people to get divorced. That’s what got us in this mess thousands of years ago because people couldn’t listen to what God told us not to do.

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  12. Divorce is something that is common in today’s society when in the old testament divorce was not common. Marriage was meant to be a covenant between the husband and wife that they would put each other first, and fulfill their “marital duties.” Marriage is something happily done you have to be able to count on one another. Divorce is rough it is hard painful especially if the family has children it is something very stressful for the parent and the children it takes a big huge toll on the kids thought they are the ones that get hurt the most in my opinion. Parents are supposed to be your role models every child would like to be like their parent one day and for something difficult like that to happen in their lives is something rough. Marriage is a strong commitment and Jesus focuses more on marriage then divorce because that was the way it was supposed to be intended to be the only way divorce should be an option is for an extreme case whether it is committing adultery which is awful and not right.

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    • Alicia, I agree with what you have said. In today’s society people focus a lot on divorce. It is even worse when their children are involved. Our parents and their marriage is something we should be able to look up to, but not if it ends in divorce. That is an example of a bad example. McKnight says, “It is important for the follower of Jesus to remind the struggling spouses that divorce is not God’s will” (McNight, pg. 106). Divorce is not what God intended for his people and we need to know this and be reminded of this.

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  13. This is an interesting post. I honestly thought that the Bible taught that a man could not divorce a woman for any reason except acts of sexual immorality. So it was a good surprise to learn that the Bible teach in Deut. 24:1-4 that he can divorce a woman for anything shameful. While this is usually interpreted as something immoral I think if applied it to today’s world it could apply towards pornography for people, and other things that today’s culture may find shameful. A few examples I can think of is, abuse, abandonment, and sexual immorality.

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  14. Divorce was a big deal when it became a headline. Especially in the OT, in those days it was almost unheard of because the covenant that was made was to never be broken – which is the same for today. However, on few occasions there were accounts of divorce cases in a violent situation where a divorce would take place. Marriage is a life long commitment, a vow not to be taken lightly. McKnight mentions in his book that marriage is a strong bond between two people, male and female. It’s an image of the marriage between Jesus Christ and the Church because for us, that example is something as Christians that we can understand so for the marriage relationship to be compared to Jesus and the church puts its seriousness into perspective. McKnight stresses this idea as well, making sure that there is a fine line between how the world views divorce and how God looks at it and handles it. It was designed / intended to be the strongest of bonds, never to be broken.

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  15. This background really helps readers understand that although what Jesus says about marriage still works for today, marriage back in the ancient world is still quite different. The temptation to get a divorce would be much higher in the ancient times as marriages were arranged by family members. I don’t know about you, but know exactly who my parents would have picked for me to marry and to be honest, I would probably do everything I could to find a loophole out of it. The temptations would be enormous for anyone involved. Love in the ancient world was more of a partnership that turned into love after years of just coexisting together. Sexual attraction would be just another bonus. It just bring out the idea that Jesus was still dealing with a different kind of marriage when he said what he said. It still works for todays context but it also helps to understand why he said it in the first place.

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  16. Marriage from the beginning of time has been one of the most “sacred” things that we as humans enjoy. However, the topic of divorce can make a lot of people nervous. Divorce is one of those things that in the world that we live in today is so easy to get. If you wake up one day and don’t like your spouse for the way they sleep talk you can most likely get a divorce for that.
    In the article it writes, “Divorce was discouraged in the wisdom tradition.” Throughout the bible we read that divorce is something that was considered bad. Mathew 5:31-32, says that one you get divorced, you then become an adulterer. Besides the act of sexual assault. With this verse in place, I don’t think that it was meant to sound pretty at all. If you divorce, you are an adulterer. Marriage is sacred, and was never promised to be easy, at all. Jesus is constantly talking about all the positive attributes of marriage rather than the negatives. We just as humans have a problem with committing to things. And it’s an issue.

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  17. I think this article does a really good job of describing what divorce looked like during the old testament. I think it is really important to look at the importance that God places on marriage. Marriage is a vow between two people and God. This vow is not meant to be broken, and a marriage is meant to be worked at and made better. I think in today’s world married couples do not focus enough on the part of patience, forgiveness, not getting angry etc coming from 1 Corinthians 13. Too many people in today’s world just see their marriage not working out and just give up. Jesus says that their is only one reason to divorce and that is sexual immorality. That’s it, otherwise you should keep your commitment.

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  18. This post shows exactly what divorce was like many years ago. It showed what the consequences were and how they were to go about it. As you mentioned above; it was rare for a divorce to actually happen. Scot McKnight mentions the third antithesis. Back then, the text was understood as there are minimal consequences and conditions for divorce (McKnight, 2013). But, in this statement, Jesus shows that there is no excuse and it is very strict. Moses said divorce is wrong except for in one condition. This is because divorce not a part of God’s design when he created man and woman. The only way divorce is acceptable is if the most unspeakable sexual sins have happened. This is anything that destroys a marital covenant (McKnight). McKnight said something that really got my mind turning. He said that anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. If the woman committed the act of porneia, then she is the adulteress. The person she marries is then entering the prohibited union (McKnight, 2013). All that to say. Jesus is not for divorce at all. Marriage is meant to be sacred and for man and woman. There are to become one and live their life together until they die. As I mentioned above, Jesus does allow the permission to divorce when sexually immoral acts are performed (McKnight, 2013).
    I also it found it very interesting that the Bible does give permission to divorce under one circumstance, but that there is no permission to remarry. This is something that I feel is not looked at or practiced often. Many marriages end and most people end up getting remarried.
    There are many things that kind of shocked me in the required reading. I knew that marriage was sacred and that there was only reason for divorce. I never really thought about remarrying and how that would make you the adulterer or adulteress.

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  19. This post is very insightful. Divorce was never in God’s plan. He values commitment and he wants us to as well. Malachi 2:16 shows that God hates divorce so it makes since that there’s not a lot of leeway on the topic. There’s so much scriptural advice on how to keep a marriage together but little when it comes to divorce. Divorcing for any type of grounds is not supported by God. Malachi 2:13-16 shows that Jehovah was aware of the tears shed by women that were dealt treacherously and he did not look on their (the husband’s) gifts on the altar with favor. With that fact, anything other than adultery provides no grounds for divorce as Jesus mentioned (Matthew 19:3-9).

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  20. NO DIVORCE? What about the thousands innocent married women and children that are being beaten or killed hourly or daily? What about the woman/girl that are verbally, emotionally, sexually abuse….in these violent marriages? No divorce really? What God are you serving and believing in….?

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    • I am curious if you actual read the article above. It is commenting on the Jewish Law and the provision there for divorce, as well as a trajectory from the Old Testament to the New which permitted divorces for any reason. Your more or less knee-jerk reaction makes me think you already had an opinion that “God is bad because he does not permit divorce” before you read anything here. Both Jesus and Paul (1 Cor 7) have options for divorce. Modern Christians divorce at the same rate as non-Christians, so maybe your offense ought to be taken at the fundementalist Christian who cannot get their head around the possibility of divorce.

      Anyone in an abusive relationship ought to get out of that relationship immediately, and any abuser ought to be punished to the full extent of the law (and those laws ought to be revised and penalties increased for abusing spouses and children).

      Also, you can read this, posted October 2018:

      https://readingacts.com/2018/10/05/the-offense-of-jesuss-teaching-on-adultery-and-oaths/

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