Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Part 9 – Still More Questions & Answers

Still more answers to common questions brought up as a response to my series on divorce and remarriage. It’s best to start with Part 1 here.

Questions addressed in this post:

  • Does Exodus 21.10-11 really talk about divorce?
  • What does “unmarried” mean in 1 Corinthians 7?
Does Exodus 21.10-11 really talk about divorce?

Before I began research for this study, I had no idea that the passage in Exodus 21 was used by the nation of Israel to define the duties of a husband and wife and the corresponding provisions for divorce. It was a surprise to me and perhaps to others, but when looking at what Jesus says and doesn’t say, what the text really means is in some way secondary. What matters is that everyone thought of it as a marriage and divorce law, and it’s noteworthy that Jesus does not address it.

For the purpose of argument, let’s say that all of the contemporaries of Jesus were wrong and the passage does not apply to divorce. In this case, Jesus had the perfect opportunity to correct their wrong thinking, just as he did on the subjects of polygamy, lifelong marriage, celibacy, and other issues. Why did Jesus not take that opportunity? According to this understanding, Jesus knew what they thought of this passage, knew they were wrong, and yet chose not to address it, apparently hoping or assuming that his response to their question on “for any reason” would cover the reasons in Exodus 21 as well. I’m not convinced.

What does “unmarried” mean in 1 Corinthians 7?

The word translated “unmarried” occurs four times in the New Testament, all of them in one chapter: 1 Corinthians 7. It’s insightful to see how Paul uses this term and the instructions he gives to those in this unmarried group. Before we examine those passages, let’s identify the possible definitions of the word:

  1. A person who has never been married.
  2. A person who was once married but is currently not married.

Really, that’s it. I conclude that the second definition is what Paul means throughout this chapter. My reasoning follows.

The first occurrence of the word is in verse 8. In verses 8-9, Paul writes,

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

1 Corinthians 7.8-9

From these verses, we learn the following:

  1. An unmarried person referred to here is not equivalent to a widow.
  2. The unmarried person referred to here is sexually experienced, as contrasted with the “virgins” Paul will address in verse 25.
  3. Paul prefers that these two types of persons (unmarried and widows) remain single, presumably for the reasons outlined in vv32-35, but he recognizes the power of “passion” and allows them to marry.

The second occurrence is in verse 11. In verses 10-11, Paul writes,

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

1 Corinthians 7.10-11

From these verses, we learn the following:

  1. The unmarried person here refers to a woman who has separated (divorced) from her husband.
  2. She should remain unmarried or else remarry her husband.

The third and fourth occurrences are in verses 32 and 34. In verses 32-35, Paul writes:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

1 Corinthians 7.32-35

From these verses, we learn the following:

  1. It’s unclear whether the unmarried man has always been single or has previously been married. All we know is that he is unmarried.
  2. The unmarried woman here is not a virgin, as she is contrasted with a betrothed (literally “virgin”) woman.
  3. Paul advises the unmarried persons to remain single, but does not require it (cf verse 9).

Now for a bit of detective work, involving logic and deduction. From the first occurrence of this word, we learn that unmarried is not equivalent to widow, nor is it equivalent to virgin. From the second occurrence, we learn that it can mean divorced. From the third occurrence, we learn nothing more. From the fourth and last occurrence, we learn again that it is not equivalent to virgin.

It would be a mistake to conclude that unmarried means only either “virgin” or “never married.” Nothing in the text supports this; on the contrary, the context of each use strongly supports the second definition: an unmarried person is a person who is currently not married, which includes divorced persons. Paul’s advice to persons in this situation is that they remain single; however, they may marry if they choose. Some interpreters choose to switch between definitions of “unmarried” in this passage; this switching is ad hoc in order to support their own notions of marriage and divorce.

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