Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Understanding Divorce from a Biblical Perspective

The Lord hates divorce. That was one of the messages of the prophet of Malachi.
Malachi 2:16
For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.
So, naturally, I also hate divorce - and you should too. Before we get further, though, it is perhaps important to provide a little background into what divorce is, in Biblical terms.

From a Biblical standpoint, a divorce is the husband putting away the wife. The classical passage is this:
Deuteronomy 24:1-4
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.
There is no similar provision for wives in the Old Testament law. A wife could not decide that her husband was unclean and write him a bill of divorcement and put it in his hand and send him out of her house. There was no category of women divorcing their husbands.

This is important to remember when dealing with the text of Scripture. It is easy to anachronistically apply contemporary cultural norms to the text. In an age when people are redefining marriage to include reference to same sex couples, one might think that Christians would be on their guard to remember that this is not the first redefinition of marriage.

There is some question about whether women ever divorced their husbands even in the NT era. There is no discussion about wives writing writs of divorcement for their husbands, and yet the discussion of marriage relationships is sometimes balanced (see Mark 10:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 7).

Regardless of what the practice may or may not have been, the "bill of divorcement" passage was inauthentically interpreted by the Jewish leaders, and this wrong interpretation was corrected by Jesus:
Matthew 5:31-32It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
Matthew 19:3-10The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?"
And he answered and said unto them, "Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."
They say unto him, "Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?"
He saith unto them, "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery."
His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.
Mark 10:2-12And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?" tempting him.
And he answered and said unto them, "What did Moses command you?"
And they said, "Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away."
And Jesus answered and said unto them, "For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."
And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery."
Luke 16:18 Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.
Jesus' argument relies on the authority of the institution of marriage:
Genesis 2:22-24And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
The apparent rabbinical view was that the "uncleanness" mentioned was anything that the husband found undesirable. Jesus, however, tightly confined the exception to adultery/fornication. Recall that the law had taught:
Deuteronomy 22:13-21If 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.
But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.
Likewise the law had taught:
Numbers 5:11-31
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man's wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, and a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; and the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord: and the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: and the priest shall set the woman before the Lord, and uncover the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: but if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the Lord doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.
And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: and he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter.
Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman's hand, and shall wave the offering before the Lord, and offer it upon the altar: and the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water.
And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.
And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.
This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled; or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law.
Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity.
So, what the law says is that there is one legitimate ground of divorce, and that is fornication/adultery (see Jesus' own interpretation of Deuteronomy above).  Moreover, it was not supposed to be the mere suspicion of that fornication/adultery (for mere suspicion there was a remedy in Numbers 5).

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul describes marriage and provides for the case of a believing spouse married to an unbelieving spouse.  Jesus and Paul command:
1 Corinthians 7:10-16And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, "Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife."
But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: "If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?
So, Paul announces the general rule that husbands and wives should stay together and if, despite this command, they separate they should only remain unmarried or be reconciled to their spouse.

Paul then turns to the specific case of unbelief.  Husbands are not to divorce their wives and women are not to leave their husbands over disbelief.  However, if an unbelieving spouse desires to break the marriage, the believing spouse is allowed to permit this.

This provides a second exception to the general rule.  The general rule is "no divorce," and the two exceptions are a breaking off of the marriage by an unbeliever and adultery/fornication.  For those of us who are Presbyterian, our confession of faith also affirms this (Westminster Confession of Faith 24:5&6).

There are no other grounds for divorce authorized in Scripture.  So, it gives me great sorrow to read Christian brethren promoting the idea of divorce in other cases.

For example, I recently read a Christian brother's blog, in which he tried to argue that "domestic violence" is a legitimate ground of divorce.  The Scriptures don't teach this, and our confession doesn't recognize this ground.

In anticipation of the inevitable, let me affirm that husbands ought to love their wives as Christ loved the church.  That's a husband's moral obligation.  On the other hand, two wrongs don't make a right.  Just because a husband sins against his wife doesn't justify her in having put asunder what God joined together.  There might be a reason for her to leave her husband for the preservation of life or for a husband to leave for the preservation of his life.  But even in those cases, the Scriptures do not authorize a divorce - the parties in such a situation are not free to remarry.

Your reaction may be that of the disciples, namely that if marriage is that permanent, it is good not to marry.  And if so, at least it is good that you see how serious marriage is. God hates divorce, and we ought to as well.


P.S. It might be interesting to get into the question of whether women should be permitted to divorce their husbands at all (given that the law does not provide for it), but that question goes beyond the scope of this post.

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