Moses on Divorce

jailWhat does the Pentateuch say about divorce? Not a whole lot, really; but what it does say is particularly relevant for Jesus Christ’s own discussion from the New Testament. He quoted this passage. That tells us He believes the Old Testament is authoritative and binding. It also gives us some important insight into God’s own view of marriage. But, that is a topic for some other post. Today, we’ll simply look at what Moses wrote on the subject. Here it is:

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance (Deut 24:1-4)

Because I really like bullet-point lists, I’ll outline the passage thus:

  • A man has married a woman
  • She does not find or obtain favor in her husband’s eyes, because of some indecency or uncleanness
  • He may write her a bill of divorce and legally terminate the marriage
  • She will then be expelled from his household
  • She is then free to marry once again
  • If either . . .
    • her new husband despises her and divorces her, or
    • he dies while they’re still married,
      • she may not re-marry the first husband
  • The overarching point seems to be that re-marriage to the original husband is not permissible under any circumstances

The real puzzle here is what on earth this “uncleanness” is that makes a divorce permissible! Now, we certainly aren’t the first people to mull this very question over in our heads. The Jewish Pharisees asked Jesus Christ this question, attempting to back Him into a corner:

The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? (Matthew 19:3)

There were two dominant schools of thought on what, exactly, this “uncleanness” in a wife meant. One group of people believed it referred to gross sexual immorality and indecency, but falling short of adultery. The other group believed this was a broad category for all sorts of real and imagined offenses, such as cooking a meal incorrectly! What does the term mean?

William Tyndale went with uncleanness, with the sense of impurity and unholiness. The KJV imported Tyndale right in, and it also has uncleanness. The NKJV, unsurprisingly, kept uncleanness also. The NASB, however, rendered it indecency. So did the ESV. The NET used something offensive in her. The ISV chose objectionable, as did the LEB. Interestingly, the LEB includes a footnote which further explains the sense is something shameful or repulsive.

The LXX reads ὅτι εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ ἄσχημον πρᾶγμα. The key word here is the adjective ἄσχημον, which means something shameful, unpresentable, indecent, or unmentionable. For example, when Shechem sexually assaulted Jacob’s daughter, the Bible says he had “done a disgraceful thing,” (Gen 34:8, NASB). It sometimes has specific reference to genitalia, the unmentionable and indecent part of one’s body (cf. 1 Cor 12:23; BDAG, s.v. “1235 ἀσχήμων”).

So, what does all this mean? The sense seems to be that a divorce was permitted under Mosaic Law if the wife had done something sexually immoral and indecent. This sexual indecency probably does not rise to the level of outright adultery, because the Law proscribed the death penalty for this act. So, the sexual immorality was something less than adultery, but it was plainly unseemly, outrageous, and beyond the pale of holiness and moral purity.

Messiah Himself gave credence to this viewpoint when He responded to the Pharisees:

They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery (Matthew 19:7-9)

So, we can tentatively conclude that the Mosaic Law only allowed divorce if the wife was engaged in sexual inappropriate, indecent, morally impure and unholy behavior. Of course, this was never intended to be a blank check or a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card to escape from a bad marriage. But, a good understanding of these four verses will ground Christians to better grasp Jesus’ own teaching in the New Testament.

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