Is Divorce Allowed In The Old Testament?
Filed under: Divorce, Family, Old Testament
Yes it is, even for silly reasons.
Disclaimer: Divorce is not being encouraged here but the reality is, it does happen. Realism demands we allow for it and graciously work with those who experience it. A first step in accomplishing this is understanding what the Old Testament actually says on this topic.
If divorce was not allowed ever, under any circumstances, we would expect to find the Bible clearly stating this fact or at least indicating the rare conditions under which it is only occasionally allowed. What we find is quite different.
The Old Testament plainly says divorce is allowed and puts very few restraints on when and why this option may be exercised. In almost a casual manner, Deuteronomy 24:1 makes the following remarks…
If a man marries a woman and then it happens that he no longer likes her because he has found something wrong with her, he may give her divorce papers, put them in her hand, and send her off.
If there were any restrictions disallowing divorce they would surely have been mentioned here. Instead, we find nothing. Divorce is described as just a matter of procedure and the only condition – he no longer likes her because he has found something wrong with her – is extremely broad. It could mean anything from she’s a serial murderer to she’s overweight.
Marriage, Not Divorce, Regulated
The only regulation in the passage applies to marriage not divorce. The passage goes on to say, if wife “A” is married and divorced by husband “A” and then is later married and divorced by husband “B” she is not allowed to remarry husband “A.” Frivolous marriage is being disallowed not “senseless” divorce.
It is important to note that Moses instituted only the “Bill of Divorcement” not divorce. Divorce was widely practiced before Moses and could be quite barbaric. Remember that Abraham tried to get rid of Sara twice, albeit in a way that looked out for her material well being. In both cases he tried to unload her on another man, not the street, and both men were well off to say the least.
Women could be “thrown out” with no required procedure and no legal repercussions to the man. And since the culture – not God – allowed men to have multiple wives, he could marry a second woman while the first woman was still viewed as married. Not only would others not know the rejected woman was now available but she now had to fend for herself.
The divorce ruling was gender driven. It brought a little more fairness to a seriously abusive cultural trend particularly for the ladies. God was taking special measures in the early stages of social development to protect the fairer sex from the abuses of men.
Moses’ “Bill” offered official proof that the first marriage contract was aborted and she could now be married to another.
Both the “Bill” and the regulation disallowing the wife’s remarriage to husband “A” were designed to protect property rights and security issues, again for the wife. These laws had nothing to do with allowing or disallowing divorce or remarriage.
Divorce was a fact of life then and is still a fact of life today. Instead of hammering people who navigate this difficult experience with pontifications about the sanctity of marriage we need to graciously provide support.
That was Moses approach and he was led by God in the matter.
No Condemnation Attached
Also, if divorce was seriously damning, as some people suggest, we would certainly expect to find this clearly stated. Instead there’s not even a hint of condemnation to be found in this passage or anywhere else.
Disallowing Divorce Under Certain Circumstances, Allows It In All Others
It doesn’t stop there. In Deuteronomy 22 there are two cases mentioned in which divorce is definitely not allowed and in both cases the circumstances are clearly spelled out:
- Slander: If a husband falsely accuses his wife of not being a virgin when they married he is never allowed to divorce her, Deuteronomy 22:13-19.
Of course, this raises a few questions. Why would a husband make a false accusation about the wife’s virginity or even care if it was true? Understanding the cultural context helps answer the questions.
Many of these unions were arranged by the parents and one condition of the contract was virginity. In this case, a non-virgin could be executed as an adulterer if found guilty after the marriage was consummated.
Again, that was the cultural practice not one stipulated by God.
It is very possible, however, that the two “love” birds actually find each other repulsive but wouldn’t know that until after the marriage is consummated. In the case of arranged marriages the bride and groom wouldn’t have met until the wedding and wouldn’t have gotten a good look until the morning after. Brides were heavily veiled – not to mention bashful – and honey moon suites weren’t flooded with light. Getting a good look wasn’t possible until morning light.
That was exactly what happened to Jacob. He arranged to marry the younger daughter only to discover the next morning that he was deceived into the marrying the older daughter.
So, what better way to get rid of an unwanted bride than accuse her of adultery after the fact.
If the man can’t get out of the marriage because he doesn’t love the candidate the only other option is to lie, claiming she wasn’t a virgin.
Allowing a “no contest” divorce was one way to avoid senseless slander and abuse.
Clarification: Even though a husband couldn’t initiate divorce proceedings against his wife, once his slanderous ways were revealed, there is nothing to suggest the wife couldn’t divorce the husband.
Clarification number two: Being a virgin when one got married was the ideal situation but not a requirement under law for either the man or the woman. It was, however, considered a serious breach of contract to claim to be a virgin when, in fact, you were not.
- Statutory Rape: In the case of statutory rape or any rape that is of the less violent type, if marriage followed, divorce was never an option for the man, if he happened to be the rapist.Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
Clarification: Even though the man could not divorce the girl, she could refuse to marry him. Her father also had the option to disallow the marriage.
Although it wasn’t a culturally accepted option, there is also nothing to suggest she couldn’t divorce him later should they get married.
To see why a woman would marry a rapist go here. That type of thing still happens today.
The point? The only two approaches to the divorce issue are:
- One, disallow it completely (which God did not do) or
- Two, disallow it conditionally (which God did do).
Once conditions are established for disallowing divorce it is then understood to be allowed in all other circumstances, even silly ones. Or, to say it another way, if the Bible gives conditions under which divorce is not allowed that implies it is allowed in all other conditions, even for reasons we might think are shallow.
Note: God did not tell us the conditions under which divorce is ALLOWED. He gave us the conditions under which it was NOT allowed suggesting that the default setting in the Old Testament was quite different to what it is today. Divorce, rather than a smudge on society, was an improvement. Instead of throwing a wife out unceremoniously she was to be given a legal document declaring her changed married status.
Seriously speaking, divorcing someone only because a few wrinkles are discovered after saying “I do” is very frivolous and such a response doesn’t speak well of one’s character, but it was allowed.
Sadly, there are many divorces that could be avoided today but condemning those who entertain the idea is not the best approach. The divorce rate reflects as badly on the support structures as it does on those getting divorced.
Those who oppose divorce absolutely, for any reason, tend to become so critical and demeaning they are the last ones troubled couples turn to when they need help. Divorce is hurtful enough without having to endure the pain of rejection, condemnation and isolation.
And those who suggest God would never approve of divorce have a real problem with Abraham and Hagar. Not only did Abraham divorce Hagar and send her away, along with Ishmael, it was God who said this must be done. I’ll discuss it more in another post but there are situations in which divorce is less sinful and more rational than staying married.
Truth? If we spent more time helping people prepare intelligently for marriage there would be fewer break-ups. As it is, many people get married too young and unprepared and we do little to help them avoid this.
I don’t think we should be glib about divorce but we should be more cerebral and honest with the text and more accepting toward those who have been divorced. What we learn from the Old Testament is that divorce should always be civil when it can’t be avoided.
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14 and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,”
15 then the girl’s father and mother shall bring proof that she was a virgin to the town elders at the gate.
16 The girl’s father will say to the elders, “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her.
17 Now he has slandered her and said, ‘I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.’ But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.” Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town,
18 and the elders shall take the man and punish him.
19 They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the girl’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.