Old Testament Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage

By Sprinkle, Joe M. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Old Testament Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage


Sprinkle, Joe M., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The OT contains a great deal of material relating to divorce ethics. Unfortunately, many of the relevant passages have generally been ignored by theologians reconstructing a Biblical ethic of divorce. This paper tries to fill the gap by emphasizing these neglected texts in the OT where divorce is either allowed-or, sometimes, even commanded-and where God's estranged relationship with Israel is described by using divorce imagery. From these data I seek to formulate a systematized OT rationale for the cases that permit or command divorce within the concept of marriage as covenant.

It will be observed that the OT permits divorce for a variety of fundamental violations of the marriage covenant. In addition I will attempt to show that the OT teaching on this topic is compatible with the NT teachings about divorce and that both together are required for a complete Biblical divorce ethic. Only such an approach, it will be claimed, avoids the Marcionite heresy by fully acknowledging the divine authority of the OT teaching on this subject. And only this view is practical in our current, fallen world.

There is no question that OT law allows for divorce. What is less well recognized is that under some circumstances divorce is commanded by God. I will start with evidence that shows that OT law allowed divorce, and then I will go on to look at places where God commanded people to divorce.

I. DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE ALLOWED UNDER SOME CIRCUMSTANCES

A number of passages support the notion that, though divorce was not encouraged, it was assumed that Israelites under the old covenant could in fact under some circumstances divorce their wives. In addition, where divorce occurred the right to remarry was assumed. 1. Deut 24:1-4. Because of its prominence in the discussion between Jesus and his opponents in the NT, Deut 24:1-4 is the best-known passage in the OT concerning divorce. Unfortunately it is a text riddled with exegetical difficulties.

One problem is that of syntax. The KJV of Deut 24:1 reads: "When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favor 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." This interpretation sees v. 1 as having both a protasis and an apodosis in which the apodosis actually adjures that the man divorce his wife if some "uncleanness" is found in her. It is, to be sure, not impossible grammatically to take the Hebrew this way. The consensus of modern exegetes, however, is that the second half of v. 1 should be taken as the continuation of the protasis that continues through v. 3, followed by the apodosis in v. 4. Hence the NASB reads: "When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that 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 from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled." Taken this way, the text does not command divorce at all. Assuming a divorce has taken place, it prohibits the remarriage of the wife to her original husband if she subsequently married another man. This is the universal interpretation among modern commentators and translations (e.g. Keil, Craigie, Thompson, Mayes, Kalland, Merrill, RSV, NIV). I have not run across any modern interpreter who defends the KJV. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 appears to be a single complex law rather than two laws (as the KJV makes it).

Read this way the law does not command divorce but does, under certain circumstances, acknowledge divorce as a cultural institution. …

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