Thursday, August 14, 2008

Divorce: The Old Testament Evidence

When we look at the OT, we must remember what the place of women was in Ancient Near Eastern society. Women were essentially glorified slaves, property bought from the father, and replaced at the whim of the husband. Divorce was generally very easy for the man to get on any grounds. A well-known Jewish tradition permitted a man to divorce his wife for burning his food. The woman had no right to divorce, any more than a slave could sell his master. Men were free to use or abuse their wives in just about any way they desired. God’s Law protected women from gross mistreatment by their husbands.

One note on methodology is needed. We are going to look at the Old Testament evidence on divorce, but not in chronological or biblical order. We are looking at them in an order that seems logical to me in laying down the fundamental Old Testament teachings on divorce.

God’s Original Intent: A Blessed Partnership – Genesis 2:24

In Genesis 2:24, we see the clearest revelation of the original intent of God in marriage. No matter how far mankind has strayed from that intent, it remains God’s perfect design. A man was to separate from his parents to partner with his wife and become one with each other. In God’s paradise, marriage would have been a satisfying and pleasurable partnership and divorce would have been unthinkable.

Unfortunately, sin entered God’s world and messed up God’s perfect plan. The world became corrupt with sin. There is no record of the first divorce, but it is clear that divorce is a result of the fall of man into sin. Sin cursed the physical world with all sorts of disasters; it cursed men with fruitless toil, women with pain in labor; it cursed the spirit of man with death; and it cursed marriage with the specter of failure and divorce.

Several things are clear in this passage. First of all, monogamy was the intent of God. A man was to leave home and marry “his wife.” There is no hint that polygamy was what God intended. Why was it permitted during biblical times? That is a complicated issue, not in the scope of this study. My theory is that after sin marred God’s intent for marriage, He brought His people back to the original standard progressively. By the New Testament era, monogamy was clearly once again the biblical ethic.

It is also clear here that marriage is intended to involve a man and a woman. While this study is not about homosexuality, it cannot be argued that God’s intent in creation was for homosexuality to be an option. Homosexuality is a result of the fall not of God’s creation. We should minister to homosexuals with compassion, but we cannot approve a lifestyle contrary to the will of God.

Perhaps the clearest teaching here is that marriage was intended to be a blessed partnership, not open warfare. God meant for a man and woman to become one – united in body, in soul and in spirit. I noticed a trend in recent years at weddings. Now, when people do the unity candle, they leave the original candles lit. In days gone by, they were usually extinguished. The symbolism is clear. People today want to have independent, separate lives and then come together a share a small part with their husband or wife. Biblical marriage was a complete joining of the two into one.

This is the hopeful word in all this. We will be discussing divorce. It is a brutal act, severing two people meant to be one as long as they live. It is depressing to talk about it. But, when I have counseled couples considering divorce, I have been able to give them this advice. God is on the side of lifelong, blessed, contented, fulfilling marriage. If two people will both give themselves to God and to each other, God becomes your ally in making the marriage work. I have seen God work in marvelous ways when people gave Him the opportunity by looking to Him. Marriage in this world is not easy. But we are not alone in the world. We have the power of Almighty God at work in us to sustain us and help us.

Marriage in a fallen world may not be perfect, but God will work to rebuild what sin has broken. Marriage is still God’s will and He blesses those who seek Him in it.

God’s Attitude toward Divorce

What does God think about divorce? Most would start and finish their study in Malachi 2:10-16, where God says “I hate divorce.” But there is other scripture that must be balanced here.

God Hates Divorce – Malachi 2:10-16

For many, this verse is formative, a clear denunciation of divorce from the mouth of God. He states unequivocally, ‘‘I hate divorce’’. And He does. When there is a divorce, it is clear evidence that someone has violated His revealed will and it is a tearing apart of two people that God has made one. Divorce brings brokenness and pain. All of this grieves the heart of God. He hates sin and all its effects. God hates divorce.

The divorce in this passage was a particularly heinous form of divorce. Men were leaving their Israelites wives and marrying Canaanite women. Not only were they leaving the wives of their youth, but they were joining to women who would lead them into idolatry. It was the pattern Israel had followed in the period of the Judges and Kings and God did not want that to happen again. Israelite men were not only divorcing their wives, but were flirting again with the idolatry that brought such destruction on the people.

But this verse is not the only word on divorce. In fact, there are some significant issues with the common interpretation of the verse. First of all, the divorce in question here is an odious form of divorce, as stated above. God was not making a blanket statement here, but was addressing a specific situation. Men were leaving their wives for pagan women. God hates that. But it may not be the blanket statement it has often been taken to be.

Here’s the kicker. The quote, “I hate Divorce” is probably a bad translation. Newer translations have given what is probably a better rendering of the verse. God is probably not the subject of the verb “hate.” It is not God who hates divorce in this passage, but a man who hates and subsequently divorces his wife. Let us examine this verse in brief detail.

After the opening conjunction, the verse throws three verbs together in a row. Literally, it says “For he hates to divorce, says the Lord.” The verbs “hate” and “divorce” mostly likely identify the man who is the subject of the main clause later in the verse, “covers his garment with violence.” In the context, it probably means, “For he who hates (his wife) to (the point that) he divorces (her), says the Lord, covers his garment with violence…”

The first verb, “hates” is a different verb than was used in Malachi 1:3 (Esau I hated). This verb is more visceral. It speaks to someone having an emotional disgust. In this context, it refers to a man who treats his wife as if she were refuse, throwing her away in divorce to marry a Canaanite woman.

It is a third person verb, “he hates.” This is key to the understanding of the verse. If God is the subject of the verb, and God is speaking, why does He not say, “I hate divorce.” God is not the subject of the verb. The subject is “he.” Who is “he?” The person who despises his wife to whom he committed himself, divorces her and finds a pagan, foreign wife is the subject of this verse.

That does not change the fact that God hates the kind of divorce that is going on in this situation, a man leaving his wife for another woman (or vice-versa, I assume). But there is no blanket statement in this verse that governs all our discussions on divorce.

So, to summarize, this verse makes it clear that God was angered by Israelite men leaving their wives for pagan, Canaanite women. This buttresses the original intent of marriage: one man and one woman, sharing a lifetime together. But, this verse is not the authoritative, blanket condemnation of all divorce that some have made it out to be.

God Commands Divorce – Ezra 9-10

This verse, addressing a situation very similar to the one in Malachi 2:16, is a strange verse and is hard for some people to swallow. In this passage, God commands Israelite men to divorce their pagan wives and return to their Israelite wives. Through Ezra, the leader of Israel, God commanded divorce. If the men were going to be right with God, they would have to divorce the foreign women they had married.
I know this is a special and unique situation. My only point in bringing this up is that it proves that divorce is not ALWAYS a sin. Here, to stay married was the sin; the sin was NOT to divorce. In a sinful world, the ideal of God is not always possible. In this situation, the will of God was that men divorce their wives.

If all divorce is always wrong in every situation, then why did God command the people to get divorces? Would not that make it necessary to say that God told the people to sin? It is absurd to say that God commanded sin. It is equally absurd then to say that God opposes all divorce. Here, He clearly approved of it.

Why did God authorize divorce here? Because the marriages were founded on sin and could not be made righteous. There is no such thing in God’s eyes as a “no-fault divorce.” But sometimes, man’s sin causes situations in which the best option, perhaps the only option is divorce. Divorce is never God’s ideal and no man or woman of God should seek a divorce except in the most extreme and impossible of circumstances. But, at least in one situation in this passage, and I believe in other situations, human sin makes divorce a viable option. Jesus even mentioned this when he said that Moses made divorce exceptions “because of the hardness of man’s heart.”

On the other hand, if two people will confess their sin and accept God’s forgiveness, no marriage is beyond repair. Divorce may be an option only when the heart of one or both of the marriage partners is so hardened in sin that no reconciliation is possible.

I would make one other observation here. The intent of the command was that these men would divorce their foreign wives and return to Israelite women. When God authorizes divorce, remarriage is also authorized. It was God’s will that they not only divorce, but remarry as well.

There is no doubt that this is a unique situation and it would be a mistake to make this passage a formative teaching on divorce and remarriage. However, it does establish some truths beyond contestation. First, there is at least one time in which divorce was the will of God. I am going to argue that there are other times when divorce is God’s will as well. But this passage is clear that there was at least one time when God commanded divorce. I would also point out something that will become more significant in later discussions. A divinely-approved divorce seems to imply the right to remarry.

God Divorced Israel – Jeremiah 3, Isaiah 50:1

In several prophetic passages, God refers to the destruction of Israel and Judah as if it were a divorce. God is the aggrieved husband who has put up with his wife’s infidelity, then finally divorces her.

While this is another anomalous passage, and cannot be used definitively in this debate, it does lead to a poignant question. Why, if divorce is always a sin, does God describe Himself as divorcing Israel? If divorce is a sin 100% of the time, this seems to be a strange choice of figures of speech.


In these verses, we catch a glimpse into God’s heart about divorce. It is certainly contrary to His intent. When a divorce takes place, one party or both have committed grievous sin. Without sin there is no divorce.

But that does not mean that all divorce is sin. The Ezra verse, and to a lesser extent the prophetic divorce of Israel, illustrate the principle that sometimes, in a sinful world, divorce may be an acceptable alternative.

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