Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Part 8 – More Questions & Answers

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:

  • Has a woman who has remarried been “defiled”?
  • Does the term “one flesh” mean the marriage is permanent?
Has a woman who has remarried been “defiled”?

Deuteronomy 24.1-4 says:

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, 2 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.

The word used for “defiled” is very common in the Old Testament. The word means “to be or become unclean, either sexually, religiously, or ceremonially” (source/original). It has clear connotations to a person or thing being unclean or impure and therefore unsuitable to either God or others. Sometimes persons become defiled because of idolatry (ex. Psalm 106.39); persons or things can become unclean because of what others do to them (ex. Dinah in Genesis 34.5, the high places in 2 Kings 23.8); and persons can become unclean through normal human experiences (ex. childbirth in Leviticus 12.2).

It’s doubtful that the term is used here to describe the result of a sinful act, as at no time in this passage is divorce described as sinful. Nor does it seem to be a state of ceremonial or ritual uncleanness, as there are no measures to remove the uncleanness (for example, wait until evening or offer a sacrifice). It’s also notable that the woman is only described as being defiled with regard to her first husband; this law does not forbid remarriage in general, but only a remarriage to her first husband.

Keep in mind that a valid divorce in Israel was not a sin, nor was remarriage. When some interpreters claim to find “clues” that divorce and remarriage were not legitimate, and therefore that any remarriage after divorce defiles a woman (source p.6), they are going beyond the meaning of the text. Think about it: is God giving the hard-hearted Israelites a law that really isn’t a law, and if they obey it they are actually disobeying? Does God fool his own people in this way? The text says only that the woman may not remarry the first husband if she has been married to another; in this way she is unclean — but only to the first husband. Interpreters in the “never divorce, never remarry” camp tend to gloss over this important distinction, and try to claim that any remarriage defiles a woman. The text does not support this interpretation.

Does the term “one flesh” mean the marriage is permanent?

The notion of a permanent one-flesh union is 1) incoherent and 2) not supported by the Bible. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the biblical data. We find the mention of “one flesh” in Genesis, in the gospels, and in Paul. Here is the Genesis passage:

Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

Genesis 2.24

Jesus quotes this passage in his dispute with the Pharisees in Matthew 19.5-6 (Mark 10.7-8 is virtually identical):

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Matthew 19.5-6

Paul alludes to the Genesis passage in his first letter to Corinth:

Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”

1 Corinthians 6.16

Paul also writes to the Ephesians, quoting Genesis:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Ephesians 5.31

That’s all the biblical data. Based on these passages, There are a number of assumptions and conclusions made by proponents of a permanent one-flesh marriage union; assumptions which have confusing or incoherent consequences. Here are a few:

  • When God joins two persons, they cannot be separated by anything other than death. This, however, robs Jesus’ warning of its force. If the spouses cannot actually separate what God has joined, then why does Jesus command us not to do it? Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19.6). There’s no indication that it’s actually impossible to separate; on the contrary, Jesus states that it is possible — and he forbids it. In order to make Jesus’ words fit the impossible-to-separate interpretation, we have to add phrases like “let not man [act like they are] separate” or “let not man [try to] separate [because it won’t work]” or “What therefore God has joined together [in heaven] let not man separate [on earth].”
  • The sex act alone is enough to create a permanent one-flesh union. Claiming that the “one flesh” of Genesis 2.24 refers to a permanent one-flesh union means that the act of sex is all that is needed to create such a union. Paul quotes the Genesis passage in 1 Corinthians 6.16, and it’s not in the context of marriage, but instead in the context of sex. Paul is claiming that sex with a prostitute creates a one-flesh union. He doesn’t specify that there must be a marriage covenant in place; all that is needed is sex. If we require the Genesis passage to speak of a permanent union, then we must interpret Paul to be affirming a permanent union with every person with whom one has had sex. Some interpreters claim that there is such a thing as a permanent one-flesh marriage union, which is different than the one-flesh union Paul is referring to, but that does not seem to be how Paul sees it. Instead, he applies the Genesis “one flesh” union to what amounts to a random hookup. Paul doesn’t indicate the duration of this union, only that it is created via sex and we should avoid it at all costs. Proposing a distinct permanent one-flesh marriage union is an ad hoc interpretation which is not supported by the text.
  • Every marriage everywhere results in a permanent one-flesh marriage union. This includes marriages in which the participants are worshipers of other gods, such as Hindus in which the wedding includes prayers to Ganesha. We are now faced with the disturbing prospect of God answering prayers not prayed to him.
  • We can have multiple one-flesh unions at the same time. If the permanent one-flesh union interpretation is true, then Jacob had a permanent one-flesh union with Leah, and another one with Rachel. King Solomon had 1,000 simultaneous permanent one-flesh unions with his wives and concubines. It is not clear how two persons can become one and at the same time each of those two can become one with any number of other persons.
  • The law in Deuteronomy 24.1-4 makes no sense. This law states that if a woman is divorced from her first husband, then marries and is divorced from another, then she cannot return to her first husband because she has been defiled. But if she had a permanent one-flesh union with that first husband, then why is God prohibiting them getting back together? What amount of defilement can nullify a permanent marriage?

These issues can be resolved if we instead affirm these truths:

  1. As heartbreaking as it is, we weak and fallible human beings can in fact separate what God has joined together. It is a tragedy every time it happens, and Jesus warns us against it, but it does happen.
  2. The act of sex makes one flesh out of two, but does not create a permanent one-flesh union.
  3. The Bible recognizes the existence of divorced persons, and several of them acknowledge the right of the divorced person to remarry. If the marriage were permanent, then it would be a sham to call these persons divorced, and immoral to allow their remarriage. In addition to the Deuteronomy text above, examples are Leviticus 21.7, Leviticus 21.14, Numbers 30.9. Search the Old Testament for the word “divorced” and see how the Bible treats these people as actually divorced, and not still permanently married to their first spouses.

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