Divorce and Remarriage in the OT: Deuteronomy 24:1-4 – Establishing Grounds for Divorce

by Dave Miller on January 27, 2012 · 31 comments

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.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4

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, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 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, 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.

1 Dave Miller January 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm

This is installment three of this series on Divorce, Remarriage and Ministry.

This passage is especially important because it lays the foundation for Jesus’ teachings in the gospels.

2 Dave Miller January 27, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Oh, and I would prefer that any discussion (if there is any) would focus primarily on this passage. Of course, my preferences are often not authoritative!!!

3 dr. james willingham January 27, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Thanks, David, for addressing the issue. It has been for centuries an issue among the churches. I do wonder if the person divorced, though that person is in the wrong, has a right to remarry? In any case, I have a copy of an article by a leader in the Reformation that was reprinted in John Milton’s Prose Works that upholds the right of divorce and remarriage. It makes for interesting reading. And second marriages do not always end quickly. My wife and I have been married 42 years, and I was talking with a friend in Ky. yesterday who has been married for 55 years (not bad for a second marriage). The legalistic attitude is problem for churches and believers, and the same can be said for the antinomian attitude. Either one is an evil and destructive to marriage and to peace.

4 Dave Miller January 27, 2012 at 2:07 pm

It is my belief that the one who breaks the marriage covenant cannot claim the right of remarriage. The one who attempted to keep the covenant has that right.

What happens over time through the process of repentance and restoration is still a little bit of a mystery to me – the one piece of this whole thing that I am still working through.

5 Christiane January 27, 2012 at 5:00 pm

DAVID, how are you defining the term ‘restoration’ ?

6 Dave Miller January 27, 2012 at 5:05 pm

“to restore”

How do you define restoration?

7 Christiane January 28, 2012 at 2:36 am

Any ‘definition’ or clarification I had of that word would depend, of course, on the context in which had I used it.

8 Rob Faircloth January 27, 2012 at 5:22 pm

You might plan to address this in upcoming posts, but what does the church do with those who have not sought divorce for a proper reason or following the proper process? This leads, also, to how the church ‘restores’ such a one to a position from which remarriage is permissible.

9 Dave Miller January 27, 2012 at 5:29 pm

This study will focus more on what God’s Word says about divorce, remarriage and ministry to those who are the “innocent” party in the divorce.

The thornier issue is what happens to the man or woman who is the guilty party. Obviously, we all believe such a guilty person can find forgiveness. But does forgiveness give that person the freedom to remarry? To minister in some way?

Say a man left his wife for another woman when he was 22. He is now 57 years old, repented 34 years ago and has been married and faithful to one woman for 35 years. Does the sin he committed at age 22 restrict his service to God at age 57?

I will deal with these issues in future posts on the subject. The answers, though, will be difficult here.

10 Rob Faircloth January 27, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Thanks for tackling this…I am interested in your views on how the ‘innocent’ party’s congregation would know that a subsequent remarriage is biblically permissible (or whether it needs to know that), and the role of church discipline/reconciliation in the process.

11 Jake Barker January 27, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Dave,
I appreciate (I think) what you are trying to do with this subject. But for the life of me I can’t imagine why a couple would choose to involve their current congregation or any future congregation in their married life. Given the average number of busybodies in the average congregation…..why would anyone choose the drama? My wife and I will be married 26 years this coming August and when we chose to leave the UMC, the SBC congregation we were considering felt like it was their business why my wife had maintained her maiden name. The preacher broached the subject at a family dinner after services one Sunday and had not the chairman of the deacon board been standing there and interceeded (he and his wife had been at our wedding), I suspect that there would have been fireworks as the insinuation was that we were shacking up.

12 Dave Miller January 28, 2012 at 12:09 am

Well, the problem is that the scriptures (1 Tim 3, Titus 1) use marriage in the process of determining fitness for service as an elder or deacon.

Plus, when people want to be married, they come to me and ask me to perform it. Should I perform such marriages?

I’m not into extreme interference in people’s lives, but marriage, within the church, is hardly simply a private or personal matter.

13 Christiane January 28, 2012 at 2:41 am

“Should I perform such marriages?”

well, examine your conscience . . .

if answer is ‘no’, might be a kindness to help couple find a minister whose conscience permitted him to preside at the exchanging of their vows . . .

14 Jake Barker January 28, 2012 at 10:17 am

Dave,
Your statement “but marriage, within the church, is hardly simply a private or personal matter.” makes it sound like the SBC is a cultish organization.

15 Dave Miller January 28, 2012 at 10:43 am

Jake, maybe its cold in Missouri right now, but now as cold as Iowa. Iowa isn’t as cold as Minnesota and Minnesota stays warmer than Canada. All are cold but they aren’t equally cold. IT’s a continuum.

Marriage involvement is also a continuum. You are on one end, if I understand you rightly. “Marriage is my private business and the church should just leave me alone.”

I think that misunderstands the teaching of 1 Cor 12 and others that teach that we are part of one another. We suffer together and rejoice together and are involved in one another’s lives. So, unless I’m misunderstanding your viewpoint, I believe it is completely unbiblical. We are not private individuals who attend the same church like we shop at the same grocery store. We are part of one another.

ON the other end of the spectrum there is what you call cultish. Mind control. Individuals lose their rights to the group. I reject that as well.

But your comments seems to assume that there is no middle ground. There is. There is a biblical place between absolute individualism and cult-like overlords.

In your church, if a couple is constantly fighting, would everyone just leave them alone and say, “They should just work it out on their own?” I hope not.

Would your church hire a pastor who treated his wife like dirt? I hope not. Marriage is, to some level, church business.

16 Jake Barker January 28, 2012 at 12:14 pm

CB,
Dave is a SBC pastor so I presumed that this discussion was relevant to the SBC and not the “church catholic”. If the discussion was about marriage and “the church” in general then I failed to make leap in the post…..so sorry.

17 Jake Barker January 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Dave,
My comment is not meant to be contentious. Just stating how it appears to me.
Marriage and the people involved vary greatly. Some are private and others not so private. As for my wife and I, we are private….if we want you to know and think you have need to know then we will inform you otherwise please butt out…..that is how we (both of us) generally approach our marriage.
You post: “In your church, if a couple is constantly fighting, would everyone just leave them alone and say, “They should just work it out on their own?” I hope not.” This very thing did occur some 4 years ago in our church and the church is still reeling…..church member went to pastor with spousal problems, pastor got involved, other spouse had different story…..church took sides…..stink hit the fan….end of story. Maybe this is an isolated incident, however I think it is probably more common than not.
You post further: “Would your church hire a pastor who treated his wife like dirt? I hope not. Marriage is, to some level, church business.” Don’t disagree a bit with you here, problems in the pastoral family tend to spread into the church….and your bias against men shows too….how about a pastor’s wife treating him like dirt? ;-) I think you were using that as an example but bias against men seems to be the norm rather than the exception and it makes me weary to hear it time and again.

18 cb scott January 28, 2012 at 1:41 pm

OK Jake Barker,

I will go out on a limb here and state that I do not think that Dave is in reference to the SBC in this series of posts.

I think he is presenting what he has found the Scripture reveals about marriage, divorce and remarriage and the qualifications for people to serve as pastors and deacons having been divorced and single or divorced and remarried.

In addition, we have discussed a few other issues related to Christian marriage. One of which I think you have brought to the table has to do with how involved is the church to be in a person’s marital relationship. Is it totally private or does the church/a local church have an accountability to itself to speak to the marital relationships of those in covenant with one another in a specific and visible part of the body of Christ–a local church?

I think we are, in a local church, accountable to each other to seek biblical relationships in our personal marriages and to speak to the issue of biblical marriage to one another.

19 Dave Miller January 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I’m really not focusing on “the SBC” here – at least not at this point. I’m trying to present a biblical argument about divorce, remarriage and ministry – biblical arguments apply to all denominations, or at least they should.

I’m not trying to be contentious either, Jake, nor did I think you were being so. I’m just arguing a point, as I assumed you were doing. This is when blogging is fun.

There are several points at which the church is involved in marriage.

1) When a couple seeks a church wedding – the church and the pastor who performs the wedding have some responsibility there.

2) The church should provide resources for building a growing marriage.

3) When a couple is having marriage problems and it becomes known, the church should offer some kind of help. This is a fine line. You cannot force yourself on a couple, but you need to be there to assist them.

4) When sin in a marriage becomes public (abuse, adultery, etc) it becomes a church disciplinary matter.

5) When someone desires to become a part of church leadership, their marriage becomes a point of measurement. Both the qualifications of the deacons and that of elders have to do with the way a leader fulfills his home responsibilities.

I’m certainly not going to go around to each home in my church and ask, “How are things in your marriage.” I don’t try to control everything in people’s lives. But there are places where the marriage is, in some way, public record.

My key point here is that there is a place on the marriage involvement continuum between laissez faire and cultish. I don’t think we should go to either extreme.

20 Jake Barker January 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Dave,
In response to your post #19: very good Grasshopper, you nearly snatched stone from my hand. ;-)
You answered well, this was what I was trying to draw out from you…..a middle ground, which is what I believe your series of posts seeks to establish.

21 Dave Miller January 28, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Funny, Jake.

22 cb scott January 28, 2012 at 10:48 am

Jake Barker,

Think about that for a moment. How could his statement that marriage in the church “is hardly simply a private or personal matter” have anything to do with the SBC?

The concept of Christian marriage has always been an intricate part of body of Christ.

23 Jake Barker January 28, 2012 at 12:16 pm

My post above was in response to you, CB. The gremlins of blogtown are moving posts again.

24 Phil Miller January 28, 2012 at 9:57 pm

Jake,
As a now divorced man, I wish to God, our churches would feel more competent to intervene in marriages. Perhaps there would be less of the sucess of the enemy in slaughtering families and marriages. But my real intent in responding to your comment is to point the various elements of a traditional marriage ceremony that point to the appropriateness -nay, obligation- of the church to be involved in marriage. Why do you think the church is involved in the marriage covenant ceremony? Why are there witnesses? Why do the families participate by providing the two sections that complete the covenant? I think the answer to all the above is that marriage is not a private matter, or even merely a legal matter, but a covenant between God and man- including the witnesses; the church.

25 Jake Barker January 29, 2012 at 10:34 am

Phil,
I can’t go into details here because there are people who read this blog that are from my part of the country. If I gave you details of how “the church” malpracticed in interfering in my first marriage it would be the same as calling my first wife out. I made myself a promise well over 20 years ago that if she etal wanted to slander me then so be it but I would take the high ground and not make negative comments about what happened prior to and during the divorce. Suffice it to say that 2 different “pastors” intervened, one had incorrect information and did not want accurate information. The other intervened because he was single and had selfish motives.
In most instances I have seen, the church is not competant to intervene. This is where it is incumbent on the church pastor, deacons etc to refer the couple to competant counseling where there is neutral ground and a counselor who seeks the truth rather than a presupposed position.

26 Don Johnson January 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm

My suggestion is to study David Instone-Brewer. He is a Second Temple scholar who has written books on this subject. There are many idiomatic Jewish phrases that are easy to misunderstand.

For example, in Mat 19, Jesus corrects seven (7!) misunderstandings of the Pharisees on the subject of marriage and divorce, but if you do not know what the Pharisees taught, you will not understand the 7 corrections, that is, you will not even understand the question, let alone the answers.

Another resource is seeing what Jews in general and the Karaite Jews in particular teach on marriage and divorce. The Jews has the Hebrew Scriptures long before the Christians did. The Karaites are a Jewish group that do not use the Talmud, but only Scripture, which for them is the Tanakh, not what we call the New Testament. So they do not believe Jesus is Messiah, but their methods of interpretation of the Tanakh are worthy of investigation and consideration. They (alone with Instone-Brewer) use Ex 21:9-10 as part of their teaching on divorce, along with the famous Deu 24:1-4.

27 Dave Miller January 28, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Interesting – I also looked at Piper’s view of Instone-Brewer. He has a decidedly more negative view of it. Should be an interesting study.

28 Mike January 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm

One reason I left the SBC is because of people who treated all divorce as unpardonable, and that I could never serve as a preacher again. In spite of the fact that my wife left me, it didn’t matter, I was unfit.

29 Dave Miller January 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm

That is precisely the scenario that I will be confronting in future posts. I’m sorry for how you were treated, Mike. However, the “SBC” does not have a particular viewpoint on this subject. Not all churches hold the same viewpoint as you ran into.

30 dr. james willingham January 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm

As a SBC minister who experienced divorce and remarriage and who served as a pastor before and after the fact (most service after the fact), I can say that the views and practices vary from church to church and minister to minister. The biggest problem one has with serving after the fact is, often, other ministers who hold to strict and legalistic views concerning what the Bible has to say on the subject. A part of the problem also relates to the all too common tendency to see everything in the context of immediacy, that is, of focusing on the immediate text as the hard and fast rule. Our whole approach lacks a synthetical element, an ability to consider two or more aspects or presentations of positions on a subject. David is doing a good job of looking carefully at the issue, clearly set on working his way through all of the materials bearing on the subject in Scripture. We really need some methods like we used in race relations some forty years ago as, e.g., the johari window, thinking outside the box (Not known as such then but used nevertheless), along with training in principles of negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution, especially as it relates to biblical teachings. Another area to be addressed is that of forgivenness. We are coming on, if I mistake not, a time of a major paradigm shift in scientific methodology as a result of the paralysis of analysis that follows from a too narrow focus on the analytic aspect. There are times, when both the original hypothesis and the null hypothesis need to be considered as true…though some fail to see this, thinking it is a failure in analysis when it is really a failure in perceiving phenomena. It is in the returns from application that the short comings of one-sided analysis become evident. One can either then go back and reconsider the other side and switch poles with the same incongruity of return on the opposite approach or one can consider the two together, a synthetical method, which better explains the reality and the results.

31 Phil Miller January 28, 2012 at 10:11 pm

As someone who is also divorced -but not remarried- and have had my ministry aspiration cut out from underneath me, this topic is of great interest and relevance to me. I have studied the texts and how others, who I respect, have interpreted and applied them. But in all honestly I find the above nothing short of goobly-gook. With all due respect, I read that as an attempt to read a real life application INTO the relevant passages, rather than derive real life applications from the passages. Maybe I’m an example of what you’re talking about, but I find that approach most unhelpful in understanding “what hath God said”.

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