Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Part 2 – Old Testament

For Part 1, click here.

Old Testament Laws regarding divorce and remarriage

I’m surprised at how many attempts to discuss divorce and remarriage in the Bible actually ignore three-fourths of the Bible. Christians seem to start and stop with the New Testament. The New Testament does have a lot to say on the subject, but the Old Testament does as well.

The Old Testament allows for four reasons for a valid divorce (source). If a divorce is valid, the wife is allowed to remarry. The husband always may remarry, as polygamy was not forbidden by the Law. An important point here is that if a divorce is valid, remarriage is always permitted.

The first passage referring to divorce is Ex. 21.7-11. It provides three reasons for a valid divorce: a wife may obtain a divorce if the husband does not provide food, clothing, or sex (source):

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

Exodus 21.7-11

Verse 10 specifies the three causes for which a slave wife may obtain a divorce: food, clothing, and marital rights (that is, sex). Verse 11 provides the consequence of the lack of this provision: the wife may go free.

This passage refers specifically to slave wives, but it is not limited to such. Ancient interpreters have assumed that this right extends to free wives as well as slave wives. This was based on the logic that any right that a slave had would surely be held by a free wife as well. This was extended to husbands, too, on the assumption that any right a woman had would also be a right of a man. This type of a fortiori reasoning is commonly used by Jewish interpreters in explaining and applying laws (source, original here).

I will discuss the interpretation and application of this law in the section below. First, I want to address another Old Testament passage, which provides the fourth reason for a valid divorce: indecency.

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.

Deuteronomy 24.1-4

It seems the word “indecency” (more closely, “a matter of indecency”) has been commonly understood to refer to adultery. I doubt this was the original meaning! The penalty for adultery is death (Leviticus 20.10), and it wouldn’t make sense to give an adulterous wife a certificate of divorce and then execute her. It stands to reason, then, that this word is not exactly equivalent to adultery.

When this word is used elsewhere in the Bible, it refers to inappropriate or sinful sexual behavior, which may include adultery but is not limited to that act (ex. Genesis 9.22, many times in Leviticus 18). This term was still under debate at the time of Jesus, as we’ll see below.

The law in Deuteronomy says that if a wife has been found to have committed this sin (indecency, whatever that means), she is to be given a certificate of divorce. One problem: the law doesn’t say what is written on the certificate! So, this law appears to allow for a legal divorce, but does it also allow for a legal remarriage?

One way to determine the answer to this is to look at actual certificates. We know from all certificates discovered from ancient times up to today that the language of the certificates include something similar to “you may marry any man you wish” or “you are permitted to any man” (source, original here).

Ancient interpretations of Old Testament laws

Jewish interpreters recognized that husbands are required to provide food, clothing, and marital rights to their wives (source, original here). They further recognized that wives were required to provide for their husbands in similar fashion. The husband buys/kills/grows the food, and the wife prepares it; the man provides the cloth, and the wife uses it to make clothing for them both. They are required to be sexually intimate on a regular basis. The spouse who has failed to meet these requirements has broken the marriage covenant; the man may divorce his wife and the wife may demand a divorce from her husband.

Interpreters also recognized that a wife must not commit a sexual indecency, and if so, her husband can and should divorce her. When he does, he must give her a certificate which states that she is free to marry any man she wishes.

One may ask why there is no provision in Deuteronomy 24 for the man to avoid sexual indecency. The lack of provision here, however, doesn’t give the man any freedom in this area, as there are a number of other laws which command that a man should also not commit a sexual indecency (see Leviticus 18). The law in Deuteronomy 24 does not exclude the man from this prohibition. The focus on the actions of the wife appears to ensure that the wife receives the certificate of divorce even for an offense as serious as what is described in this passage.

Using the same a fortiori principle as seen above, interpreters determined that if a wife were to receive a certificate of divorce (and therefore the freedom to remarry) for such a serious offense as indecency, then surely she is to receive one for a lighter offense such as not providing clothing for her husband (source, original here).

Interpreters held that wives could demand that their husbands divorce them if the husband was not providing for her in the above noted manner. He must give her a certificate, just as if the decision were his and not hers.

Note that there is no law specifying a man should receive a certificate of divorce saying he is also free to marry. Such a law is not necessary, as the man is always free to marry. Remember, the Old Testament did not forbid polygamy, so the man was always free to marry any eligible woman he wished. He didn’t need permission from a former (or current) wife to do so.

Conclusion regarding Old Testament Laws

There are four reasons for a valid divorce: the denial of food, clothing, and sex; and sexual indecency. For any of these reasons, the husband was to give the wife a certificate of divorce, stating she was free to remarry.

Interpreters were not in agreement as to what constituted “indecency.” Debates continued through the time before, during, and after Jesus.

It’s important to note here that even if a modern reader of these Old Testament passages disagrees with the conclusions stated in this section, that reader must understand that these are the conclusions which every ancient Jewish interpreter reached. It’s not overstating the point to say that every ancient Jewish commentary on these passages agreed with these four reasons for a valid divorce, and those commentaries also stated that both the man and the woman were free to remarry. This is the context of the debates in the New Testament, and to ignore the context in which Jesus had his debates on the subject of divorce and remarriage can lead to significant misunderstandings.

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