Divorce in 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). So what does the Bible say about divorce?

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”).

Divorce papersBy 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. 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?

Jesus and Divorce – Matthew 5:31-32

This is the third of Jesus’s six comments on legal matters. The first two (murder and adultery) took a command from the Decalogue and extended it to the thoughts and motivations which lay behind the particular sinful act. So, “do not murder” becomes “control your angry thoughts” and “do not commit adultery” becomes “control you lustful thoughts.” With his comments on divorce, Jesus enters into a rabbinic discussion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the meaning of the “indecent thing” in 24:1. He will then deal with making (and breaking) oaths (5:33-37).

As Scot McKnight points out, the reason for Jesus’s “utter horror” about divorce is his understanding of love and marriage based on the Hebrew Bible (Sermon, 95). Marriage is grounded in the creation of man and woman. Humans were designed by God marry and create families. There are examples of men and women enjoying live and marriage in the wisdom literature. In Ecclesiastes 9:9 the writer tells his readers to “enjoy life with your wife whim you love.” The Song of Solomon celebrates the joy of marriage in a way that makes some readers blush.

Jesus deals with divorce by grounding the idea of marriage in the creation. Humans were designed to enter into lifelong relationships, spiritual unions which create families and foster a community where children are raised. He alludes to the creation of humans as male and female (Gen 1:27) and quotes Genesis 2:24 as support for marriage.  In the context of Genesis humans were designed to work and they were designed to build communities around the ideal family. This is the way things work best, although in the present world they are corrupted by sin.

Since marriage is embedded in creation itself, it is foolish to try to live in another way. (A related question is the issue of a person choosing not to marry at all. It is not my point here to say the only way someone can be happy and wise is to marry, see below on Matthew 19). People often choose to do the less-than-ideal thing and often indulge in foolishness with wild abandon!

With respect to the application of this teaching, the ideal for humans is a life-long marriage, but sin corrupts everything and sometimes things happen which prevent us from reaching that ideal.

Jesus intended divorce to be a rarity, but the fact he teaches on the issue indicates he knew it would happen. Like the wisdom tradition, he recognizes that God has designed humans to have marriage relationships, but he also recognizes human frailty (hard-heartedness) results in a breakdown of what God has intended.  No one goes into a marriage expecting it to fail, but sometimes it does.  A person experiencing marriage problems ought to be treated with grace and acceptance, in the same way we might accept a person who is an alcoholic as we help them to deal with their problem.

In a contemporary context, there are far more things breaking down marriages than adultery. If there is any abuse of either the wife or the children, the wife should separate for the safety of herself and children. Divorce and remarriage is one of those things which is “not the way God created us to be” and our sinful world makes it very difficult to live our lives fully to the ideal to which we have been create.

Jesus gives a similar teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-12. In response to a question from a group of Pharisees Jesus draws attention to the creation story and the original intention of marriage. If God’s intention was for a marriage to continue “until death do us part,” then the Pharisees ask why Moses permitted divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus repeats what he said in the Sermon on the Mount but adds the observation Moses added the possibility of divorce because the human heart is hard (19:8).

This might have surprised the disciples, who wonder if it is better not to marry (v. 10). Jesus responds to this with one of the more enigmatic sayings in Matthew” there are some people who are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (v. 11-12). Not all can accept this voluntary celibacy, but those who can, Jesus says, should accept it.

With respect to modern application, this verse has been used far beyond Jesus’s original intent to defend traditional marriage or to prevent a woman from leaving an abusive marriage. In order to understand Jesus, we need to learn something about the state of marriage and divorce in Second Temple Judaism, read his brief comments in that context before drawing reasonable application to contemporary practice.

Historically, has the church missed the point on marriage and divorce? Is divorce permitted for a Christian? How can contemporary Christianity help develop a biblical view of marriage and reach out to people who have experienced the pain of divorce?