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What the Bible says about....

Divorce and remarriage in the
Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament)

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Overview:

There are relatively few Bible verses which deal with divorce. They have been interpreted by Jewish and Christian theologians down through the years as:

bullet Allowing men to divorce their wives for various reasons.

bullet Prohibiting divorce except for adultery, or desertion.

bullet Totally forbidding divorce.

Other religious leaders promote non-Biblical grounds for divorce, including relationship breakdown as evidenced by separation for a defined period, or spousal violence.

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Divorce in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):

The Mosaic Law, which historical Christianity believes was handed by God to Moses, assigned a very low status to women. They were generally viewed as inferior to men, as sexual predators, and deceitful and untrustworthy. They were considered an item of property: A girl was considered to be owned by her father. At marriage, her ownership was transferred to her new husband. We still see vestiges of this practice in marriages today, where a woman's father will walk her down the church aisle and hand her to her future husband.

During biblical times, fathers could sell their daughters into slavery. Men could divorce their wives for various reasons. There was no reciprocal arrangement by which women could divorce their husbands.

Some passages relating to divorce from the King James version (KJV) of the Bible:

  • Genesis 2:24: Becoming one flesh: The Bible discusses a man "cleaving unto his wife." "Cleave" is a translation of the Hebrew word "dabaq" which means to make a permanent alliance with (Joshua 23:12, Ruth 1:14, 2 Samuel 20:2). In its noun form, the word refers to soldering two pieces of metal together. Some theologians have suggested that this term refers to permanent actions -- those that cannot be undone. Thus, the passage implies that divorce is impossible.
    "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."
  • Exodus 21:7-11: Fate of a woman sold into slavery: If a father decides to sell his daughter as a slave, she is not automatically released after 6 years service as in the case of male slaves; she is a slave for life. (The term "maidservant" in the KJV has become a mistranslation in modern English; it really means female slave). If she does not satisfy her owner, then her father (or a close kinsman) may buy her back. If the woman's new owner takes her as a wife or concubine, then she is no longer considered his slave. If her owner gives her to his son as a wife or concubine, then she becomes a daughter of the original owner, not his slave. If she becomes a wife and her husband marries another woman, then he must maintain her standard of living and level of sexual activity.  Otherwise, she can simply leave her husband at no charge, and become, in essence, a divorced woman.
    "And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money."
  • Deuteronomy 21:10-14: Divorce of a female prisoner of war: A soldier could kidnap any enemy woman that appealed to him, keep her in his house for a month, and then engage in sexual intercourse (whether it be consensual sex or forced rape). If he becomes dissatisfied with her he can, in essence, divorce her. But he was not allowed to sell her as a slave.

    "When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall...bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her."

  • Deuteronomy 22:13-19 Divorce prohibited if the a husband accuses the wife of not being a virgin and she can prove that she was: If a man accuses his wife of not being a virgin when she married him, and she is able to prove that she was a virgin, then he had to pay her father 100 shekels of silver, and was prohibited from ever divorcing her. The passage continues, by saying that if she cannot prove her virginity, that she was stoned to death. Interestingly enough, this passage allows a husband to arrange the murder of his wife in certain circumstances, and thus obtain a divorce through her death.

    "If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate: And the damsel's father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him; And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days."

  • Deuteronomy 22:28-29 Divorce not allowed for seducers of virgins: If a man engages in sexual intercourse with an unmarried virgin, he is considered married to her, and would never be permitted to divorce her.
    "If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days."
  • Deuteronomy  24:1-2 Permission to divorce, but only for ancient times: This passage allowed a man to divorce his wife (or wives), if he found that she had committed an indecent act. It is unclear what the term "uncleanness" means. Presumably it does not mean that she had committed adultery, because then she would have been executed by stoning. It was probably behaving immodestly or excessively friendly towards other men. However, the law did not allow a woman to divorce her husband. Also, if her second husband died or divorced her, she could not return to her first husband.
    "When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance."
    The passage does not approve of divorce. It merely accepts it as a practice that had been imported by the ancient Hebrews from adjacent Pagan cultures, where it was a universal custom. Author J. Carl Laney speculates that if God had generally prohibited divorce, that the ancient Hebrews would not have honored the law. So, God "chose to progressively reveal his displeasure with divorce and direct his people back to his standard." 1,2

  • Ezra 9:1-2 and 10:1-16: Religious intolerance -- forcing couples in mixed-marriages to separate: Ezra was a scribe who had led a small group of Jews from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. He found that many Jews had entered into inter-faith marriages with women from nearby Pagan countries. He felt that the Jews would quickly lose their national identity and start to worship other Gods. The Mosaic Law prohibited such marriages. He decided that those Hebrews must "put away" their wives. The Hebrew text in this place uses the word "yasa" (to cause to go out) rather than the normal term "salah (to send away, to dismiss, to divorce). Similarly, in Ezra 10:11, he uses the word "badal" (to separate oneself from). It is probable that the scribe was recommending marital separation, not divorce. The end result is not clear. Many women and their children would be without support and would starve and die. Others may have gone on to marry other, non-Jewish spouses. Some husbands may have allowed their wives time to abandon the religion of their family of origin, adopt Judaism, and be reunited. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 allows this latter practice for the case of foreign women who have been kidnapped and confined in captivity as a result of war.
    Ezra 9: "...The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.
    2 For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass."

    Ezra 10: "Shechaniah...answered and said unto Ezra, We have trespassed against our God, and have taken strange wives of the people of the land: yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law."
  • Nehemiah 13:23-30: Forced divorce of foreign wives: This is similar to the passage in Ezra. However, this time, the Prophet reacted with violence towards the Jewish men who had married foreign wives.
    "In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab...And I [Nehemiah] contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves."
  • Esther 1:10-19: A Pagan divorce based on wifely disobedience:  The Persian king Ahasuerus ordered that one of his wives, Vashti, be brought into the presence of himself and his guests, wearing her crown. She refused for some unknown reason. Early rabbinic interpreters speculated that perhaps she was expected to wear only the crown, and no other clothing. She is seen to have insulted the King, the Princes and all of the other people in the empire. He divorces her, and leaves her penniless.

    "On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded...the seven chamberlains that served in the presence of Ahasuerus the king, To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on. But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment by his chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him... Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus...let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she"

  • Jeremiah 3:1: God accepting Israel back: This passage expands on Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which prohibited a woman, who has been divorced and remarried, from returning to her first husband and remarrying him. The author drew a parallel between the remarriage of a divorcee, and God forgiving Israel. God was "willing to do the unthinkable. He was willing to take back" Israel, even though they had backslid many times: 2
    "They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man's, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the LORD."
  • Malachi 2:10:  Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in religiously mixed-marriages to separate: Malachi is faced with the same problem as Ezra, described above. Jewish males were marrying foreign women who followed different religions. "Daughter of a strange god" refers to a foreign woman who worshiped a Pagan deity or deities in place of Yahweh. In Verse 12, he predicted that God would "cut off" (that is, murder) any man who remained in a mixed marriage. Again, these marriages may have been considered illicit. Also, the husbands may have simply separated from their wives, and not divorced them.
    "Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god."
  • Malachi 2:14: Divorce is treacherous behavior: Malachi is condemning Hebrew men for abandoning their wives after many years of marriage and marrying a different woman. Here, marriage is referred to as a covenant between God, the husband and wife. One property of a covenant is that it is permanent. The contract between God and the ancient Hebrews at Sinai is one example of a covenant. See Numbers 30:2, Ecclesiastes 5:4-6, and Psalm 15:4.
    "... the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant."
  • Malachi 2:14-16: Marital separation (or perhaps divorce) is detestable: Theologian C.M. Laymon writes: "Marriage is a solemn agreement before God; hence those who divorce their wives are guilty not merely of covenant breaking but of blasphemy."3
    "Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant...Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away...therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously."
    There is a difference between the original Hebrew text, and most English translations of the Bible, The Hebrew says that God hates "putting away" or kicking the wife into the streets. This is equivalent to a forced marital separation in contemporary society. This meaning is followed by at least two Bible translations. However, most Bible versions change the Hebrew word for "putting away" into the word for issuing a bill of divorcement. Two other biblical translations indicate that God hates both marital separation and divorce. We suspect that the translators' abhorrence of divorce colored their translation of this verse. More info.

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See also a companion essay on divorce passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible," at: http://www.cyberhighway.net/
  2. J.D. Douglas, Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible; Old Testament Volume," Tyndale, (1990), Page 984.
  3. C.M. Laymon, ed., "The Interpreter's One-volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon, (1971), Page 513-514.
  4. "Is there life after divorce," http://www.biblestudy.org/ 

 

Related essay on this web site:

bullet Interpretation of two passages from the Hebrew Scriptures about divorce

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Copyright © 1998 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-MAY-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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