Last time I listed the main biblical passages dealing with divorce and remarriage. I also previewed some of the conclusions I had come to when studying these passages.
But now let’s clear our minds, forget everything we (think we) know about divorce and rediscover what the Bible says with fresh eyes. Today we’ll look at Old Testament passages that deal with these topics.
The Foundation for Marriage
Before we look at what the Bible says about divorce, let’s first see what it says about marriage. The foundational passage on marriage in the Bible is Gen 2:24.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
This verse is foundational for a few reasons. First, it appears early, in reference to the first husband and wife, Adam and Eve. It’s the Bible’s first word on marriage. Second, later passages will use this verse as an anchor for further teaching on marriage. For instance, when Jesus says, “What God has joined together let no one separate,” he’s talking about Gen 2:24.
The idea of “two becoming one flesh” is the crucial image. It’s a strange image. It could mean a lot of things. “One flesh” might be a metaphor for unity: the married couple are tightly aligned, unified in life goals and decisions. It might be an image of sex—”one flesh” might evoke the intertwined bodies of a man and woman.
In a literal sense, a man and woman who produce a baby truly become one flesh. Armed with this understanding, we might almost paraphrase, “The two DNA sequences will become one DNA sequence.”
We will see in later passages, however, that although the Bible may include all these understandings, it also envisions a more mysterious, spiritual, permanent union that is associated with sex but is far more pervasive and lasting.
Now that we’re armed with this foundational passage on marriage, let’s see how the Old Testament talks about divorce.
No Going Back
Oddly enough, the Old Testament (OT) has little direct teaching about divorce and remarriage. The most important passage on these subjects is a peculiar one: Deut 24:1–4.
The first thing to understand about this passage is that it’s an instance of case law. That is, this is a law addressing a particular type of situation, a situation that happened to come up. There is a great deal of case law in Deuteronomy, and this is one example. Moses probably wouldn’t have thought to write this law out of the blue. It’s more likely that the situation actually occurred and Moses had to address it. Similar situations would come up from time to time, so writing down the right judgment about this situation helped to decide future cases.
Deut 24 describes a case in which a married man and woman—let’s call them Billy and Jane—got divorced. Jane went away and married another man, Ted. Then Ted either died or divorced Jane. She finds herself free to marry again. The point of this law is that she cannot marry Billy again. She cannot go back to the first husband.
That’s not the ending we expect, is it? The law sounds arbitrary at best—maybe even unreasonable and harsh. The Bible prevents a woman from remarrying her first love? What gives?
Probably what this law is concerned about is flippancy toward marriage. You can’t switch marriage partners like moving from a summer home to a winter home. When Jane and Billy split, the marriage was over, but they could have got back together again. But when Jane moved in with Ted, the split with Billy was final. Jane needs to know, as she makes that decision, that there’s no turning back. That, I think, is where this law is coming from.
You might even see it this way. Deut 24:1–4 is cautioning against a kind wife-swapping. A wife cannot move back and forth between two men. There’s something not right about that.
The situation in Deut 24 is pretty unusual. Why, then, is this such an important passage in our study of divorce and remarriage? The answer lies in a detail of the story that we’ve overlooked so far.
The Certificate of Divorce
Verses 1 and 3 mention Billy and Ted each in turn giving Jane a “certificate of divorce.” This idea becomes very important to Jesus’ discussion of divorce in the Gospels, so we need to understand it here.
In the Gospels, the Pharisees will challenge Jesus by referring to this certificate. “Why then,” they will ask, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matt 19:7).
Our understanding of the Pharisees’ question and Jesus’ answer is confused by difficulties in translating Deut 24. If you read Deut 24:1 in the NIV, the giving of the certificate doesn’t seem to be something Moses commands—it’s just something “Billy” does. But other translations, including the King James Version and the NET Bible, suggest that a command or permission does appear here.
“…let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.” (KJV)
“…he may draw up a divorce document, give it to her, and evict her from his house.” (NET)
It’s difficult to be dogmatic about this, but the NET probably has the best translation here. Although the Qal verbs that appear in the original Hebrew aren’t usually translated as commands, Hebrew verbal forms are quite flexible, and the Qal could represent a command or permission here. The translators of the ancient Septuagint version seemed to think that these verbs were more than mere narrative—that permission or command were implied. And of course the Pharisees in Matt 19:7 saw a command here, and Jesus saw permission (Matt 19:8). So most likely Moses was encouraging, or at least permitting—and not simply describing—that the man would give his wife a certificate.
The reason that the man divorces the woman is often overlooked. The NIV says, “He has found something indecent about her.” The key phrase “something indecent” is the Hebrew “a matter of nakedness.” This is more than a husband taking a disliking to his wife, discovering he hates her cooking or no longer finds her attractive. “A matter of nakedness” refers to indecency, probably with a sexual tone. If we read it as “sexual immorality” it jibes well with Matt 19. But “a matter of nakedness” isn’t necessarily sexual (cf. Deut 23:14, where “indecency”=”a matter of nakedness” is contrasted with holiness, and thus perhaps implies a broader idea of uncleanness).
The point, in any case, is that the Pharisees’ later question about a man divorcing his wife “for any reason” is not supported by this verse. This verse points to a particular, shameful, probably sexual, cause for divorce.
We’ll come back to these issues when we visit the New Testament and Matt 19 in particular. For now, it’s enough to remember that Deut 24 is where this idea of a “certificate of divorce” comes from.
Next time we’ll continue with other crucial passages from the Old Testament.