Divorce in the Bible

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 17 July 2007; Revised 4 August 2015

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Sources: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.

Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ).

Grammar: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Hebrew words is derived from The New Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1981). The meaning of Greek words is derived from Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (1957).

Divorce Terminology in Scripture

References to divorce are common in Scripture and several different words are used to describe marriage breakup.

• Heb. badal, to divide or to separate (Ezra 10:11).

• Heb. garash, to drive out (Lev 21:7, 14; 22:13; Num 30:9; Ezek 44:22).

• Heb. yatsa, to go or come out, to put away (Ezra 10:3, 19).

• Heb. sepher keritut, “bill of cutting off” (Deut 24:1, 3; Isa 50:1; Jer 3:8).

• Heb. shalach, to send away (Gen 21:14; Deut 22:19, 29; 24:4; Jer 3:1; Mal 2:16).

• Grk. aphiemi, to send away (1Cor 7:11, 12, 13).

• Grk. apoluo, set free or release (Matt 1:19; 5:32; 19:3, 8, 9; Mark 10:2, 11, 12; Luke 16:18).

• Grk. apostasion, a bill of divorce (Matt 5:31; 19:7).

• Grk. chorizo, to separate (Matt 19:6; 1Cor 7:10, 11, 15).

Theology of Divorce

By definition divorce is a official action which severs a relationship so that it no longer exists in the same state as previously enjoyed. Thus, as a theological concept divorce in Scripture is not generally a sin, but a judgment on a breach of covenant. Divorce, then, may be spiritual or marital. The first divorce took place when God both sent out (shalach, Gen 3:23) and drove out (garash, Gen 3:24) Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because of their rebellion against their covenant with God. Would anyone seriously label God's actions as sinful to divorce Adam and Eve from the garden?

While God takes no pleasure in spiritually divorcing anyone (Ezek 33:11; cf. 2Pet 3:9), He does not allow sentimentalism to determine justice. As a result of God's judgment on the first parents, all their descendants are born spiritually divorced from God. In addition, Israelites could be cut off, or divorced, from the community for transgressing provisions of the In biblical history a marriage existed when a woman consented to belong to one man and their agreement was consummated with the joining of their bodies. (See my web article Marriage in Ancient Israel.) Divorce is rarely commented upon in Scripture. The first divorce occurred when Abraham sent away (shalach) Hagar (Gen 21:14), whom Sarah had given to him as a legitimate wife (Gen 16:3). The interesting point to note about the story is that when Hagar first fled from Sarah God told Hagar to return to her marriage (Gen 16:9). Yet, when Hagar openly rebelled against the marriage covenant God approved the divorce demanded by Sarah (Gen 21:12). There is no mention of fornication by Hagar, which many believe to be the only acceptable grounds for divorce (cf. Matt 19:9). The precedent established by Abraham clearly shows that while divorce is not preferred, it is acceptable when a spouse is an unbeliever or continues to rebel against God and the marriage covenant.

Divorce was an apparent fact of life, though not necessarily frequent, when the Torah was given to Israel. God gave three important rulings pertaining to divorce. First, priests were expressly forbidden from marrying a divorced woman (Lev 21:7, 14). Second, husbands were absolutely forbidden to divorce their wives in specific cases: (1) a man who falsely accuses his virgin bride of unfaithfulness before marriage (Deut 22:19), and (2) a man who seduces or rapes a woman and subsequently marries her (Ex 22:16-17; Deut 22:28-29). Third, a woman who has been twice divorced may not return to her first husband (Deut 24:4).

The second record of divorce is found in 1 Chronicles 8:8, "Shaharaim became the father of children in the country of Moab after he had sent away Hushim and Baara his wives." No explanation is offered as to the reason for divorcing these two wives.

The third record of divorce is found in the books of Ezra and Malachi and amounts to a national crisis during the post-exilic era. Ezra learned to his horror that a number of Israelites, priests and Levites, had divorced their wives of many years (Mal 2:14) in order to marry younger foreign women (Ezra 9:1-2). After a period of prayer and fasting Ezra decreed that the offenders would divorce (Heb. yatsa) their unbelieving wives (Ezra 10:3), even though some had children by them (Ezra 10:3-44). Thus, in context the divorce (shalach) God hates (Mal 2:16) is the one in which there is no just cause as defined in Scripture. The rationale of Ezra is comparable to the situation of Abraham and Hagar. It may have been because of this disgrace that Jewish authorities began requiring bridegrooms to present their brides with a marriage contract as a way to discourage divorce.

Joseph, the stepfather of Yeshua, is the only example in the Besekh of someone who contemplated divorcing his wife because of her pregnancy (Matt 1:18-19). but the Lord prevented Joseph from carrying out his plans for obvious reasons. He was willing to consider conception as having occurred before their betrothal and therefore she belonged to the man who impregnated her. Otherwise, Miriam would have been charged with adultery. Nevertheless, because of the betrothal Joseph had to divorce her so she could go to the supposed father of her baby. The process would have been very simple. He would have hired a scribe to prepare the bill of divorce. The document was short and to the point, giving identifying information about the couple and declaring that she was dismissed and would have the liberty to marry another man as she wished. The bill of divorce would then approved by a panel of three rabbis. The husband only needed to present the bill to his wife in front of witnesses and she would be divorced from him. But, an angel quickly disabused Joseph of his reasoning.

Grounds for Divorce

The subject of grounds for divorce has been long debated in Christendom. In the controversy between Yeshua and the Pharisees Yeshua responds to a question about grounds for divorce (Matt 19:1-12; see my commentary on Mark 10:1-12). In Matthew's narrative the Pharisees ask about acceptable grounds (verse 3) and Yeshua's answer in verse 9 infers that the Pharisees were really asking what grounds would be acceptable that would allow the man to remarry. The assumption, then, is that the man would be divorcing his wife in order to marry another woman. Under the Torah a man could simply add another wife and Jews did practice polygamy in the first century. However, a man had to be able to support additional wives (Ex 21:10).

Under Jewish law in the first century a man could divorce his wife at his pleasure, although authorities had imposed numerous restrictive measures. It was not until the eleventh century A.D. that the absolute right of the husband to divorce his wife at will was formally abolished among the Jews. Yeshua was drawn into a controversy that raged between two prominent Pharisaic schools of the day - that of Hillel, who had been President of the Sanhedrin when Yeshua was a child, and Shammai, who was then President of the Sanhedrin. Shammai asserted that the husband could only divorce his wife for unchastity, based on Deuteronomy 24:1,

"If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something [lit. "thing"] indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,"

The legislation mentions the basis for a man divorcing his wife as something "indecent" (Heb. ervah, lit. "nakedness"). The school of Hillel, however, interpreted ervah in light of the word "something" (Heb. davar, lit. word, thing, matter) and concluded that divorce could be justified for the offense of spoiling food. The hypothetical grounds alluded to the basic duties of a wife, namely grinding corn, baking bread, washing clothes, cooking, suckling her child, making ready his bed and working in wool (Ketubot 59b). The school of Hillel held that the husband need not assign any reason whatever; that any act on her part which displeased him entitled him to give her a bill of divorce. The opinion of the school of Hillel prevailed. In fact, Rabbi Akiva (50-135 A.D.), reputedly the founder of Rabbinic Judaism, declared that a man could divorce his wife if he found a woman more beautiful (Gittin 9:10).

Before answering the question about grounds Yeshua reminded the Pharisees that by God’s design marriage is sealed by male and female joining their bodies ("one flesh"). God intended that with mutual consent and consummation marriage would last for the lifetime of the couple. Yeshua was not disputing a husband's authority, but asserting the obligation of a husband to act according to God's will and honor his wife (cf. Heb 13:4) instead of plotting ways to divorce her. Yeshua typically interpreted both the intent of God's Torah and made it even stricter as he did with other commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. While the ruling of Yeshua appears to agree with Shammai, Yeshua imposed two stipulations not considered by Shammai.

The first stipulation dealt squarely with the issue of grounds. Most Christians think that Yeshua decreed the only acceptable grounds for divorce to be adultery (Grk. moicheia) in agreement with Shammai. This view is problematic for two reasons. Under the Torah adulterers and adulteresses were to be put to death (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:24). Divorce was unnecessary. It could be argued that in the first century Jews were subject to Roman authority and could not exercise capital punishment, although certain Pharisees were quite ready to stone a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-5). The second reason is that Yeshua had previously defined lust as adultery (Matt 5:28), and yet lust is hardly an acceptable reason for divorce.

Yeshua actually insisted on porneia, which translates Heb. zanah, or “harlotry,” as the only grounds that would permit remarriage. Porneia is usually rendered with the general term "immorality," or sometimes "fornication," in English Bible versions, but in Greek culture porneia referred to harlotry and sexual practices associated with the prostitution industry. Zanah included both the practice of prostitution and wives intentionally having multiple lovers (Lev 21:14; Deut 22:21; Josh 2:1; Judg 19:2; 2Kgs 9:22; Prov. 6:24-32). Unlike adultery, porneia/zanah in ancient times was directly associated with pagan religion (cf. Ex 34:16; Num 25:1f). All the serious sins prohibited in the Torah have their root in idolatry. Based on interpretation of Leviticus 18 Rabbinic law defined porneia as including marriages between prohibited degrees, any kind of extra-marital sexual intercourse, unnatural sexual intercourse and sex during menstruation.

Yeshua reaffirmed the grounds given to Isaiah and Jeremiah for God divorcing Israel, namely unbelief, harlotry and idolatry (Rom 11:20, 23; 1Cor 10:5-11), that is breaking covenant with God (cf. Prov 2:17). Yeshua insisted on proof of abdication of the marriage covenant and covenant with God. Paul emphatically forbade believing couples from separating or divorcing without any mention of grounds, which reinforces the interpretation that Yeshua was making a wider application for the people of God and His disciples. Then Paul applied the same grounds as Yeshua by authorizing a divorce when the spouse who wants out of the marriage is an unbeliever (1Cor 7:15). The issue of a specific sin does not apply to that situation, because the fact of the leaving spouse being an unbeliever constitutes the grounds. A person who has never professed faith in Yeshua cannot really be judged by Torah standards, but any serious sin that threatens the marriage covenant by a believer should automatically invoke intervention and discipline, if necessary, by congregational leaders (Matt 18:15-17; cf. 1Cor 5:1-13; Titus 3:10-11).

The second stipulation had to do with remarriage. The Pharisees were only concerned about the grounds for divorce. Any one who divorced under Jewish law could freely remarry. Yet, Yeshua made a moral judgment about the intentionality of the divorce in relation to remarriage. The context in which Yeshua was asked the question is relevant to this point. He had gone to Perea, which was under the rule of Herod Antipas, who had divorced his first wife Phasaelis in order to marry Herodias and Herodias had divorced her husband, Herod Philip, in order to marry his brother Antipas. Yochanan the Immerser's denunciation of this conspiratorial divorce and remarriage led to his beheading. The issue of intentionality is evident in each of the passages that contain the ruling: "anyone who divorces and marries another" (Matt 19:9; Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18). Of the three, the passages in Mark and Luke contain no question or answer concerning grounds.

In Yeshua's ruling the conjunction "and" (Grk. kai) is very important. Kai is used to mark connections or additions in thought, and is extremely flexible in usage. In the LXX kai is used to translate the Heb. vav, which has an even broader usage. When kai is used to connect verbs, the action normally occurs in the same time frame, not months and years apart. In addition, little considered by commentators is that with Yeshua speaking in Hebrew the conjunction was likely the vav of intention or purpose, "in order to, in order that, so that" (David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context. En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007; p. 116). So, Yeshua declared that a man who divorces his wife in order to marry someone else commits adultery against her.

Only a few Bible versions convey the intentionality in Yeshua's ruling. For Matthew 19:9 intentionality is found in one version, "you must not divorce her to marry someone else" (CEV). For Mark 10:11 intentionality is expressed in two versions: "A man who divorces his wife so he can marry someone else commits adultery against her" (MSG) and "When a man divorces his wife to marry someone else, he commits adultery against her" (TLB). For Luke 16:18 intentionality of divorce is found in three versions (GW, MSG and NOG). The Message offers this insightful interpretation, "Using the legalities of divorce as a cover for lust is adultery." In making his ruling Yeshua did not abrogate the Torah legislation requiring a bill of divorce nor the restriction on a twice-divorced woman returning to her first husband. In fact, Yeshua does not issue a new prohibition of remarriage. He simply adds divorcing in order to marry someone else to the definition of adultery.

Congregational Intervention

Congregational leadership should inquire into the reasons when a member initiates divorce against a believing spouse. Since spiritual divorce and marital divorce are parallel, the congregation should invoke the discipline process of Matthew 18:15-19 for either the sin causing the divorce or for a wrongful divorce. A sinning spouse should be repeatedly confronted by both fellow believers and congregation leaders, and, when repentance is not forthcoming, the congregation has the responsibility to treat the unrepentant member as an unbeliever (Matt 18:17). Conversely, timely intervention offers the best hope of reconciliation. Even in the case of an “unequally yoked” marriage, leaders could still provide scriptural guidance and help to the believer. Unfortunately, innocent spouses are frequently put in the double bind of no intervention by the congregation while being condemned when a divorce is filed. Leaders need to recognize their duty to promote justice for victims of bad spouses.

In addition, Yeshua clearly gave the congregation authority to “bind” (impose obligations) and “loose” (free from obligations) in matters affecting relationships between believers (Matt 16:18-19; 18:18). The terms "bind" and "loose" are used to refer to marriage and divorce (Rom 7:2; 1Cor 7:15, 27, 39). In a pertinent example Paul used this authority to declare, "I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves" (1Cor 5:11-13). The disassociation ruling would apply to the believing spouse, as well.

Not only did Yeshua authorize the local congregation to make moral judgments about sin (Matt 18:16f), but also to decide pragma issues between disputing parties (translated as "anything" in Matt 18:19 and "dispute" or "case" in 1Cor 6:1). Pragma refers to substantive or practical matters dealing with such things as money, property and legal duties. While one person can serve as an arbitrator in non-domestic cases (1Cor 6:5), two or three are preferred for pragma issues in divorce (Matt 18:19-20; cf. Matt 19:6, "man" is singular). The congregation cannot unilaterally impose its will on the couple regarding pragma issues, but should respond to the request of the couple (“they may ask,” Matt 18:19 NASB).

Personal Decision-making

There is no more difficult situation in life than to be forced to respond to a divorce petition against one’s will or to file for divorce to obtain relief from a destructive relationship. If congregational leadership fails to respond to a request for assistance and counsel, then the innocent believer spouse would have the right to apply the biblical disassociation standard. No child of God should tolerate addictions, abuse or adultery in a spouse.

If the congregation is to cut off fellowship with a member that breaks covenant with God through willful and egregious sinning, then how much more does that rule apply to an innocent spouse? Innocence in this context does not mean perfect; it only means that no evidence of moral wrongdoing can be attached to the victim.

Summary

While many opinions abound regarding divorce, I believe the following assertions may be safely made:

God does not prohibit divorce, since divorce by design is intended to be an act of justice.

God hates any divorce of a marriage done for reasons other than those He has sanctioned.

Divorce is clearly sanctioned when the one who wants out of the marriage is an unbeliever or is a believer that recants his faith or breaks his covenant with God through willful unrepentant sinning.

Divorce between spouses renders them truly unmarried. To say that a divorced couple are still married violates the exegetical principle of taking God’s Word literally and reduces plain words to nonreality (cf. Prov 8:8-9; 1Cor 4:6).

God’s Torah prohibits a person who has been divorced and remarried and subsequently divorced again from returning to the first spouse.

Divorce should always be the last resort when dealing with marital crisis and avoided if at all possible. The Lord can transform the home and marriage of willing spouses.

 

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