Marriage - OT Divorce Clause



Part Five – Old Testament Divorce Clause


Let us do a quick review to get us up to speed on where we have come over the last four weeks of our study on divorce and remarriage. We have noted the following biblical teachings on marriage

1) God’s original design for marriage as found in Genesis one and two is to be the pattern followed in all marriages – this is the teaching of our Lord Himself (Matt. 19:3-6)

2) Marriage is the defined as the union God creates between one man and one woman who enter willfully into that union through the taking of vows one toward the other (Mal. 2:14-15)

3) The authority to dissolve a marriage is held by God only and God does so through the death of one or both mates (Matt. 9:6)

4) Marriage became perverted almost from the fall of man and thus it became necessary for God to set down OT laws regulating marriage. All perversions of marriage under Mosaic Law required the death penalty with the exception of polygamy and pre-marital relations. (Lev. 18; 20; Deut. 22)

The Pharisees, who asked Jesus what grounds God allowed for divorce, believed that such grounds did exist. The historian Josephus wrote that the practice of divorce and remarriage was so ramped among the Pharisees that it was an embarrassment. Their issue then was not if grounds exist but which ones were recognized by God. This had become a heated issue among the Pharisees as some saw even a minor issue such burning the evening meal as grounds for divorce. On the other hand others believed only the most serious matters such as adultery were legitimate grounds. Because this had become such a complex issue the Pharisees believed it would be sufficient enough to finally stump the Lord. 

The Lord’s response in Matt. 19:4-6, was not what the Pharisees expected. Jesus indicated that God did not create marriage with an escape clause. He indicated no man had the authority to dissolve a marriage only God held that right. Therefore in our Lord’s eyes, once a couple made their vows to each other, they were committed to each other until separated by death. This was true even if they had separated from each other and were living apart. The fact that this was Jesus view can be substantiated by three facts. 

1) The response of the Pharisees (7). Jesus position of no grounds for divorce prompts the Pharisees to ask a second question. It was a challenge to His position based on the bill of divorcement given by Moses. Their question, if there are no grounds for divorce why did Moses command the certificate of divorce? It is clear from this question they understood Jesus position clearly.

2) The reaction of the disciples of Jesus (10). The position of Jesus on this matter has caught the disciples by surprise. Living in a society where divorce was so much a part of daily living that no questioned its legitimacy, their shock at this teaching leads to make a very radical conclusion. If divorce and remarriage are not an option it would be better not to marry than to run the risk of spending a lifetime with a woman who makes life unbearable (). Jesus response to the (11-12) disciple’s conclusion is that most individuals are not capable of living a celibate’s life. For most the natural drive to marry is so great that they have no alternative but take this risk and marry. This was the idea behind Paul’s comments in 1 Cor. 7:1-2, 8-9.

3) The record of Paul (1 Cor. 7:10-11). In Chapter 7, addressing the matters of marriage and celibacy, he stops in verse 10 to state the Lord’s view on the permanence of marriage. Paul begins by making it clear He is not speaking for himself but rather restating what the Lord taught during his 3 years of ministry. Paul states it was the Lord’s teaching that if it become necessary for a couple to separate they are to not to remarry someone else but leave open the door of reconciliation. It is clearly the position of Paul that the Lord gave no grounds for divorce that leads to remarriage.

So what did God have in mind in giving the bill of divorcement if God does not recognize any grounds for divorce? Let’s look at the passage in question and see why it was given to Moses. The passage the Pharisees are addressing is found in Deut. 24:1-4 and as we deal with this passage it will be clear that this bill does not contradict the Lord’s position but actually confirms it. To correctly understand it let us note the following points.

1) The correction of Jesus (8). Jesus corrects the Pharisee’s version of the law of divorcement as given by Moses. 

a. It was not commanded. In their citing of Duet. 24 they indicate that this bill of divorcement was a command. Such was not the case. Jesus states it was not a command but an option. There was no requirement in the Mosaic Law that the husband had to divorce his wife. He could choose to forgive her and stay married.

b. It was not the desire of God. Jesus indicates this bill of divorcement was given through Moses because of the hard sinful hearts of the husbands who find something “displeasing” in their wives. If God had not granted this law, the husband being bound in marriage to a displeasing wife would be more likely to mistreat his wife, making her life absolute miserable and their marriage a shambles. It would be God’s desire that these husbands be willing to forgive their wives and remain married to them. However, knowing the unwillingness of these men to forgive He gave this law to protect the wife.

c. It was not in violation with God original design. Jesus states it was not so from the beginning. The preparation “from” as used with a present perfect active verb conveys the idea of eternal permanence (Robertson Word Pictures). The idea s that it was set forth in the beginning and has continue on into the time of Christ and will continue on throughout the history of man into eternity. Therefore Jesus is indicating that this Law of Moses does not contradict or negate the original design of God. One man, one woman joined by God for as long as they live.

2) The time frame of the Law. What many Christians do not take into account when interpreting passages in the gospels is that most of what is recorded takes place under the Old Testament economy. By this we mean that until the death and resurrection of Christ, the Mosaic Law was still in effect. This was clearly expressed by Jesus Himself when he indicated that He did not come to destroy the Old Testament Legal system but rather to fulfill it to the letter (Matt. 5:17-19).

Matt 5:17-19, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

Therefore, as Jesus is address this matter He is addressing His answer in the context of the Mosaic Law not the age of Grace. To miss this point is to end up misinterpreting our Lord’s answer. Remember this Law of Divorcement was not given during the first 2600 years of man’s existence. The Pharisees support such an understanding by mentioning that this is a Law given by Moses. Likewise it is only found recorded only in Matthew which is the gospel written to the Jewish people who would fully understand the Jewish practice of divorce and remarriage and the Mosaic Law. In the other gospels which were aimed at all peoples in the Church, most of which were Gentile and were never under the Mosaic Law, this whole matter would have been a mute point. Therefore to take this exception and apply it to the Church is to subject the Church to the Mosaic Law, a Law that was replaced by the age of Grace. One must conclude that this bill of divorcement was never intended to be a rule or guide for the Church Age. 

3) The context of law of Duet. 24:1-5. To understand this law and its intention we must note the context of the passage. The Pharisees who questioned Jesus had not considered this verse in the context which it was given. Rather, they were looking for a law that would permit them to Divorce their wives and to pull such a verse out of context meant nothing to them. It is to frequent to find many good pastors today doing the same thing and thus teach an unbiblical view on divorce and remarriage. Let us note what the context tells us.

a. The context of Jewish Marriage. It must be understand as mentioned earlier, that marriage in the Jewish mind began at the time of the espousal or betrothal. This is when the couple said their vows to one another but they did not physically consummate the marriage or cohabitate at this time. This would usually take place sometime over the next year when the groom had made all the preparations for the wedding feast and a home for them to live in. This is the picture our Lord painted when He told His disciples He was leaving them to go to His Father’s home to prepare a place for them (John 14:1-4). Because the couple did not have physical relations at this time nor did they live together, it has been the mistake of modern Christians to equate this period with the present engagement period. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike the present engagement period, these vows constituted the forming of the marital union and were considered as bidding as our wedding ceremony is today. They were viewed as husband and wife and were considered married in every way except living together. It is this time period that this law pertains too and as we will see in a moment, it would have to be carried out no longer than 8 months after the taking of the vows. 

b. The context of Jewish Law. What we have here is a couple is married through the vows of the betrothal and during this time the husband find some “uncleanness” in his wife. Because of this “unclean” thing, she has lost favor or acceptance in his eyes. He no longer has the husband any desire to be married to her. 

The question that must be answered now is what is the “unclean” thing that causes this loss in favor? The Hebrew term “uncleanness” means something shameful that is associated with nakedness or genitalia. For example it is this term that is used to describe the sin committed against Noah in Gen. 9:22-23. It is used in Leviticus 18:6-19; 20:11-21 of the shameful practice of incest and in Deut. 23:14 of the exposure of one’s private parts when relieving oneself. With this in mind, we can conclude that the shameful thing that has taken the favor or acceptance of the bride must have to do with some type of sexual immorality. The question is, what type of immorality is Moses talking about? This term alone is to general to give us a clue as to what is in the mind of the author. The context of the Mosaic Law will have to give us the answer.

The sinful immorality that is the “unclean thing” in Deut. 24:1 can only be one sin, the sin of pre-marital sexual relations. This is the only possible form of sexual immorality that would allow the separation of the couple by any means other than the death penalty. All other forms of sexual immorality under the Mosaic Law demanded the death penalty. Incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, rape, prostitution all carry with it the death penalty. God gave no other options when it came to these sins. There was no room for grace and forgiveness. Under the law if your mate committed any of these sins you were bound by the law to turn them into the elders with the proof of their immorality and they were to be put stoned to death. Therefore If your mate cheated on you there was no need for a divorce in order to remarry. Your mate was to be put to death and you as the innocent party would now be free to remarry. If you refused to so you would be guilty of the same sin since you covered it up rather than deal with it. Therefore if any of these sins of immorality were in the mind of God as He gave this bill of divorcement, He would have been in indirect contradiction to the law as He gave it earlier.

Only two sexual sins did not require the death penalty. The first was polygamy but the concept or idea of “shamefulness” is not associated with polygamy in the OT. The only other sin that did not require the death penalty was premarital sex. The reason this did not require the death penalty is because both parities had not yet made a marriage covenant with another person. Since no covenant was broken, the death penalty was not required. However, it was a shameful thing in OT times to be found unmarried and pregnant. It may not have required the death penalty but those individuals who were discovered paid a heavy price of shame and ridicule. This is something to think about in light of the modern attitude even among Christians concerning the practice of premarital sex. Likewise, we can understand the great courage Mary demonstrated by allowing herself to become pregnant before she was espoused.

To put this altogether, the bill of divorcement was designed for a husband who after the giving and taking of the marriage vows discovers that his bride is pregnant and he is not the father. It is clear that the wife has conceived before the vows were taken so she has committed the sin of premarital sex. If she did this thing after the vows the law required the death penalty and the husband would be free to remarry. The husband realizing that his bride is going to birth someone else’s child and the possibility exists that if the child is a male he will receive the future inheritance, the husband finds this more than he can take. He wants out of the relationship. He can not find it within himself to forgive her for her sin and raise the child she carries as his own. In this case, because of the hardness of his heart, God permitted him to divorce his wife and both are free to remarry someone else. 

We are given a marvelous example of this in the first chapter of Matthew. In Matt. 1:18-25, Joseph being betrothed to Mary, discovers she is pregnant and recognizes that she was pregnant when they took their vows. Being a “righteous man” he chose to give her a bill of divorcement and do it privately trying not to bring undo shame upon her. It was only when the angel of the Lord appears to him and explains that Mary had not sinned but this was the work of God, he drops the divorce, accepts Marry as his wife, and determines to raise her child as if it was his own. 

Because the Jews of Jesus day refused to abide by God’s original design, they sought ways and reasons to get out of difficult marriages rather than live up to their vows and work at making the marriage last. Likewise, the Jews refused to turn in cheating mates for the death penalty possibly because many of them had been guilty of adultery themselves. This may have been the reason Jesus dealt in an unusual way when the Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery. The church today too often reflects the same approach to divorce and remarriage as the Pharisees did. It is not wonder that the divorce rate among believers equals that among unbelievers.