Connecting Faith and Life

Divorce in OT Era

The biblical record shows that, unlike marriage, divorce was not instituted by God. There is no indication in the Bible suggesting that God introduced and institutionalised divorce as part of His order for human society. Divorce, is therefore, a human innovation. It is the result of human sinfulness. It represents human rejection of God’s original plan for the indissolubility of the marriage bond. In His comments on divorce, Jesus explained that divorce represents a change in God’s order because “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8). When divorce first appears in the Bible, the practice was already in existence. Let us try to track the concept and practise of divorce before Christ entered the world scenario.

In the pre-Mosaic period, divorce was common among the heathen nations. Almost all the ANE cultures had divorce practices and regulations, mostly favouring the male community. The rights of women were mercilessly curbed and they could hardly initiate a divorce. Hence, like the contemporaries, the practice of divorce became common among the patriarchal Hebrew society.

As already mentioned the practice of divorce was not instituted by God. Therefore, any reference to divorce in the Old Testament should be seen as corrective or regulative step and not as divine sanction for divorce. We shall discuss some of the key passages of the Old Testament in the following paragraphs.

The Understanding of Deuteronomy 24:1-4
This is a crucial passage of the Old Testament for two reasons. First, the Hebrew idea of divorce depended much on the interpretation of this passage. Second, Jesus Christ made a direct reference to this when he answered Pharisees regarding divorce. The passage in NIV reads: If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

It should be noted that the passage begins with “if” and has a series of “if’s” suggesting that this is a legislation for a particular circumstance and not a provision for divorce. The legislation here does not encourage or prohibit divorce, rather regulates the practice of divorce and remarriage. In fact, the thrust of the legislation is concerned with remarriage and not divorce (Deut.24:4). As pointed earlier, women were treated badly by men. Carl Laney observes, “Men were divorcing their wives for a ‘weekend fling’ and then taking them back again when the dirty laundry had piled up and the house needed cleaning.” In order to prevent hasty divorce and protect the women, such a legislation was necessary. The legislation had three important implications. First, it required that divorce, if happened, must be permitted only for an adequate reason – “something indecent / erwat dabhar” (Deut.24:1). Second, it required that a certificate of divorce be handed over to the woman, making her free to marry another. Third, the legislation prevented the woman to return to her first husband after her second marriage.

The Meaning of the Term “erwat dabhar”
The precise meaning of the term erwat dabhar (something indecent), the only ground on which the Old Testament seem to grant divorce legally, is difficult to identify. Literally it means “the nakedness of a thing.” The meaning of this term has been in dispute among the Jews and Christian commentators. Jewish Rabbinic schools of first century B.C. interpreted this in two extremely opposite directions. The Shammaites, named after Rabbi Shammai, understood erwat dabhar to be a sexual offence which fell short of adultery or promiscuity. The Hillelites, named after Rabbi Hillel, by contrast, understood uncleanness as anything.

Rabbi Akiba, who lived during or shortly after Jesus’ time understood this term even more loosely. He said, “A husband may divorce his wife, if he found another woman that is more beautiful.” Shammaites’ interpretation seems to go well with the parallel exception for divorce in Matthew 19:1, but raises many problems. The punishment for adultery and other sexual sins was death, according to the law, and not divorce (Lev.20:10, Deut.22:22). Similarly, the liberal views of Hillel and Akiba does not have the support of the Scripture. They are perversions of Moses’ law.

Modern writers too have tried to understand this elusive term. Abel Isakkson argues that the term refers to “the wife’s attempt to expose herself voluntarily or involuntarily.” This interpretation seems to fit reasonably well with the text, and the general outlook of sexuality and personal modesty seen in the Old Testament. Some understand the term to refer to a variety of items a husband might find objectionable such as barrenness or birth defect but not as silly as that of a burnt meal. We would conclude, then, that according to Deuteronomy 24:1, divorce was allowed for some kind of shameful act or indecency other than illicit sexual intercourse. John Murray,  comments, “There is no evidence to show that erwath dabhar refers to adultery or an act of sexual uncleanness. It probably means some indecency or impropriety of behaviour.”

Other Passages Dealing With Divorce in Deuteronomy
Apart from Deuteronomy 24:1-4, there are two situations in which divorce was forbidden: when a man falsely accused his wife of pre-marital unfaithfulness (Deut. 22:13–19); and when a man had relations with a girl, and her father compelled him to marry her (Deut. 22:28–29; Ex. 22:16–17). However, there is one situation in which divorce was permitted – in the case of an Israelite who wanted to get away with a captured slave girl (Deut.21:10-14). The view of the law, as we see in the book of Deuteronomy, clearly shows that there was no legislation whatsoever to enable divorce, and there were only laws to restrict the ability to divorce. David Atkinson comments, “Divorce in the understanding of Deuteronomy was a kind of amputation, though permitted, it could not happen without damage to both partners.”  The Mosaic concessions does not alter God’s original plan for marriage to be a sacred, permanent covenant. It simply provides protection for the divorced wife when sinful hearts violate God’s plan for marriage.

Divorce in the Prophetical Books
The prophetical books also give us helpful insights into the concept of divorce. Prophets like Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah present a spiritual imagery – God married to Israel. This is to show the intimacy of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. God chose Israel, took her as His bride, but she became unfaithful. She did more than enough to justify not only divorce but judicial death (Hos.2, Ezek.23). Hence, God indeed divorced her but only for a brief moment (Isa.54:7). Cornes observes, “It never entered God’s head to remarry. Indeed, even while divorced, God regarded Israel’s sexual escapades as adultery and clearly considered that she was rightfully, his wife.” After punishing and disciplining Israel God went after her and reconciled with her. He restarted His married relationship with Israel again (Hos.2:16-20). This again proves that God never planned separation in a married relationship.

Nevertheless,we see Ezra and Nehemiah insisting on divorce (Ezra 9-10, Neh.13). Some scholars believe that the situation required such a strong action. Many of the Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile married unbelieving heathen women. Such marriages were strictly forbidden by the Mosaic law (Deut 7:1-4; Jud.3:5-6; 1 Kings 11:1-8), and therefore, these divorces are justified. However, there are others who believe that the actions of Ezra and Nehemiah were wrong.

Divorce in Malachi
After the exile it appears that the practise of divorce may have become easier and more trivialised that God had to come upon His people heavily through His prophet Malachi.  Through the prophet God exposed the sin of divorce that was prevalent (Mal.2:13-16). The passage reads in NIV as follows:
Another thing you do: You flood the LORD’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not [the LORD] made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. “I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the LORD Almighty.

Malachi informs us that God sees marriage as a sacred covenant binding two persons in a permanent relationship before God (Gen 31:50; Prov 2:17). Since “the Lord was witness to the [marriage] covenant,” breaking it by divorcing one’s wife meant to be faithless not only to one’s spouse but also to God. The fifteenth verse clearly points to the creation ordinances (Ge.2:22-24). Based on this, Bacchiocchi argues, “Divorce, then, threatens not only the institution of marriage but also the security needed to raise a godly family.”

Moreover, divorce is likened to “covering one’s garment with violence.” This figurative expression may refer to the custom of spreading a garment of protection over a woman by a man who wanted to claim her as his wife (Ruth 3:9; Ez 16:8). The intent is that those Jews who had divorced their wives had acted treacherously, spreading over them a garment of violence rather than of protection. It is particularly insightful to note that Malachi compares divorce to violence. The section comes to an end concluding divorce as a grievous sin that God hates (Mal.2:16).

Divorce during the Inter-Testamental Period
Divorce in the Rabbinic world of the Inter-Testamental period was highly influenced by the interpretations of several Rabbinic schools. It is understood that divorce was legally permitted on the grounds of infertility, sexual unfaithfulness, material or emotional neglect. Moreover, there was little stigma attached to divorce.

By Sam K John

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