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?