[2] Is Jesus Among the Pharisees? – Divorce in the Hebrew Bible – The Law

September 14, 2015 — Leave a comment

1“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, 2and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife,3and 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, 4then 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.

Dictionary definition of divorce

Dictionary definition of divorce

This is the second post in our series Is Jesus Among the Pharisees? looking at marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the Bible.

You can read the first installment here.

A fundamental presupposition to any helpful discussion on this subject is that since Jesus spoke and taught in the context of first century Palestine, an understanding of that context is of critical importance to interpreting what Jesus meant. In order to do that, we first have to look at the witness of the Old Testament.

The Deuteronomy passage above is the foundational teaching–the starting point–of the Hebrew Bible concerning divorce, but it’s actually part of a larger literary until that sets out a hypothetical situation.

According to the text, a man divorces his wife and she subsequently leaves his home in order to marry again. He then desires to remarry her, perhaps realizing that he’d made a mistake. The Deuteronomy passage makes clear that this  behavior is not appropriate:

her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled (Deut. 24:4)

The passage speaks explicitly to only two issues:

  1. The reason for the divorce
  2. The prohibition of remarriage in the case of divorce and remarriage to another

According to Deuteronomy 24 the only suitable grounds for divorce is “a matter of indecency.” Precisely what that phrase means, will become a central point of disagreement between the two prominent rabbinic schools of thought: Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel.

Despite their disagreements on many matters, the two schools of thought did arrive at some level of consensus about the meaning and practice of Deuteronomy 24:

  1. The right of divorce rests exclusively with the husband
  2. Divorce requires some sort of written document–a writ of divorce

[See Bablyonian Talmud, b. Gitten 20a]

Divorce was prohibited in cases where it could be demonstrated that a husband falsely accused his wife of not being a virgin upon their marriage (Deut. 22:19) or if a husband had previously raped his wife (i.e., prior to their marriage)–“because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives” (22:28).

To modern eyes–accustomed as we are to no fault divorce–the Torah’s {law} teaching seems shockingly conservative.

The premise is that divorce ought to be limited to a serious breach of morality by the wife. However, the Law also carves out critical protections against abuse by husbands. By requiring the man who had raped his wife prior to their wedding day to remain married to her, the Torah ensures that she will be provided for. By requiring a writ, the Torah insures that a woman will have the ability to remarry should she have the opportunity.

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