It was not a great thing to be a woman in Ancient Semitic cultures. They were regarded as property, regarded as servile and given few rights or privileges. From our modern perspective, many of the teachings of the Law and the Old Testament seem harsh, even oppressive. But we must remember that in the era in which they were written, many of them were radical, provided a standing to women that they seldom had in the world at large and protecting them from the vagaries of misogynistic or domineering men. Many laws that today seem repressive were actually given to control men from treating women cruelly or arbitrarily.
There is precious little in the Old Testament about divorce, and what is there may seem to some to favor men. But the key teaching on the subject is actually given to protect women from the common practices of the day. We saw, in Genesis 2, God’s perfect purpose for marriage – one man; one woman; one lifetime. When a man and woman marry, the two become one in God’s eyes. Divorce is a violent separation of what God has joined together and was not part of God’s original plan. We looked at the Malachi passage, which is often used as a blanket condemnation of all divorce and saw that God was in fact displeased with Israelites who divorced their wives to marry Canaanite women. In Ezra, those men were commanded to divorce their Canaanite wives and return to the Hebrew women they had left. In one instance, at least, divorce was not only permissible, but commanded by God.
Now, we turn our attention to the key Old Testament passage on divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1-4. It is the only clear Old Testament instruction on divorce, but it serves as the foundation for Jesus’ teachings on the subject of divorce in the gospels.
Take a moment to read through the passage.
“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 certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 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 sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Dt 24:1-4)
In reality, this is not a passage about divorce, but about remarriage. It is a prohibition against capricious divorce and remarriage. Men in the day had almost unlimited discretion to divorce their wives and to remarry. Women had no such right. Divorce was not a long and drawn out process, but a simple public declaration. And there was nothing stopping a man from divorcing a woman and remarrying her whenever he felt like it. This game of musical wives could be repeated without any problem, since women existed for the pleasure of men. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 changed all that for the men of Israel. If a man divorced his wife and she remarries, the man may never again remarry her, even if she is divorced again. This passage, at its root, is a prohibition against men treating their wives cruelly or capriciously.
While that is the primary teaching, there are several other truths that may be derived from the passage. There are three inferences we can draw from the teachings of this passage. While they are inferences and not clear teachings, they do form the basis of Jesus’ teachings later.
Grounds for Divorce
In these verses, Moses indicates that to divorce his wife a man ought to have some sort o grounds for divorce – a condition that generally did not exist in that culture. Men did not have an absolute right to divorce, but need to establish a reason, what is called “some indecency.” He had made a covenant with his wife (and his God) and he was to fulfill that covenant until death. This would have been a radical imposition in the eyes of men who were used to having it all their own way.
The problem here is what the word “indecency” means in this context, and it is not an easy word to clearly define. The Hebrew word usually means “to expose the genitals” and is often translated “nakedness.” In Genesis 9:22, Ham found his drunken father and “saw the nakedness of his father.” There was shame attached to exposing the genitals. In Genesis 3:7, Adam and Eve realized their nakedness after they had sinned. Almost every other time the word appears in scriptures, it has this connotation – the shame that derives from exposing the genitals.
There are times, though, when the meaning of the word is clearly metaphorical, and this may be one of them. It doesn’t seem that Moses would be saying that a marriage is only permitted is a woman were to expose her genitals in public. Many have assumed that the indecency spoken of here must be sexual immorality or adultery. This is precisely what Jesus was to teach many years later. However, it would seem to be a mistake to read Jesus’ later teachings back into this passage. The problem is that the law had clear penalties for adultery, and divorce was not one of them. The penalty for either premarital or extramarital immorality was death, a point Moses had just made clearly in Deuteronomy 22:20-22. Why would he make a capital offense the grounds for divorce? It seems that something other than sexual immorality must be in view here.
But thus far my studies have not found a completely satisfying definition of the term “some indecency.” Maybe that is not such a bad thing. The key here is not to define specifically what the grounds for a divorce was but the fact that some justification for divorce was necessary. A man could not capriciously divorce his wife because she gained a few pounds or because someone new came along. He must find some moral flaw in his wife’s character that brought shame to him and his family. Unfortunately, there is nothing more specific here. Did it refer to a rebellious spirit, a sinful heart, a mean disposition? We do not know. But we know that men were not given carte blanche to impulsively divorce their wives.
Fortunately, Jesus spelled out the grounds for divorce more clearly in the New Testament, once the death penalty for adultery was no longer a reality. There are two deductions I would make from this passage.
First, divorce may only be sought for serious moral reasons. It can never be done lightly or frivolously. The Shammai and Hillel rabbinic schools argued over the meaning of this phrase in this passage. The Shammai school took a very narrow view and the Hillel school a very broad view. Those in the Hillel school maintained that a man could divorce his wife for burning his food. If there was anything he did not like about his wife; that qualified as “something indecent.” But it is clear here that a man was required to find serious moral fault in his wife before he could divorce her. Divorce was a serious act; the breaking of a covenant God intended to be permanent.
Second, this passage in God’s law opens the door to the later teachings of Jesus that there are grounds upon which a divorce is biblically acceptable. In a sinful world, a gracious God permits divorce in certain situations. Whatever “some indecency” means, it establishes that there are divinely acceptable reasons to end a marriage. Jesus said that this law was given permissively, because of human hardheartedness. Divorce may not have been a part of God’s original ideal, but in a sinful world, he makes allowances, because sinful people do sinful things. Divorce is never desirable, but in certain circumstances it is acceptable.
Process of Divorce
Men were not allowed, under this teaching, to simply send a wife away. He must give her a certificate of divorce, a document that legally establishes her freedom from the marriage. He could not simply act in uncontrolled emotion, but must act thoughtfully and legally in the process. There may not be a lot of significance for our modern debate here, but one point is derived from this process that is very significant.
Right to Remarry
Throughout the Bible, the right to remarry is assumed after a biblical divorce. As death ends a marriage, so does a biblically justified divorce. When one divorces on biblical grounds, the one who was divorced is free to remarry.
The Mishnah is not scripture, but it gives us insight into the way the Hebrews practiced the teachings of this passage. The wording of this certificate that was used among the Hebrews is recorded there. “Let this be from me your writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation; that you may marry whatsoever man you will.”
This establishes an important fact. A divorce done under biblical grounds and in a proper fashion is the ending of the marriage relationship. The person properly divorced is free to and expected to remarry. Divorce is the severing of the marriage relationship and frees the person to remarry.
Summary of Old Testament Teachings
The Old Testament establishes several principles related to divorce and remarriage. First, God’s ideal was a marriage that united two people as one “as long as they both should live.” It is still God’s desire today that marriages be permanent and be sources of joy and fulfillment to both parties. Second, human sin has sometimes made the divine ideal impossible. In view of man’s sinfulness, God gave certain reasonable instances in which divorce was an acceptable alternative to a broken marriage. Third, God severely limited the rights of men to capriciously or arbitrarily seek divorce. They needed legitimate grounds for divorce if it was to be acceptable. Finally, it is clear that remarriage is part and parcel of divorce – it is assumed that those who divorce will remarry. Divorce did not free someone just to live single, but to seek another spouse.
The Old Testament teachings lay the foundation on which Jesus’ teachings and those of the Apostle Paul are built. The New Testament expands and clarifies these teachings, but does not negate them.