Divorce & Remarriage According to Jesus

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7)

a letter of divorce dating back to the 1st century AD (source: 1000 Bible Images, German Bible Society)
a letter of divorce dating back to the 1st century AD
(source: 1000 Bible Images, German Bible Society)

Jesus had been confronted with the question of divorce. The Pharisees, trying to trick Jesus into painting himself into a corner on a controversial issue, asked if a man could divorce his wife for any reason. Jesus responded by pointing them back to Genesis where the man and woman became one flesh, says they were made so by God, and declares that no man should separate what God has joined together.

The Pharisees think they have Jesus trapped. Jesus declared in verse 6 that man should not separate what God has joined together, but the Law clearly allowed for the possibility of divorce. They think their knowledge of the Law was finally superior to Jesus’. In the succeeding verses, we see how Jesus responds to this follow-up question, but for now we’ll look at the passage from Deuteronomy that the Pharisees were referring to:

“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, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and 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, then 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. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

These first four verses in Deuteronomy 24 deal with divorce and remarriage and have tended to be hotly debated (both in Jesus’ time and still today). I can’t claim to completely understand what exactly God was saying here, but at the very least it immediately becomes clear that the Pharisees were misinterpreting Scripture and twisting it to accuse Jesus and excuse sinful behavior.

Notice that they said, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” Reread Deuteronomy 24:1. Look at the verbs. Are any of them commands? The answer of course is “no.” This passage in Deuteronomy wasn’t commanding a prescribed course of action. It’s an “if, then” passage, not a “thou shalt” passage. Let’s look at what’s going on here:

  1. A man finds something wrong with his wife. (The phrase translated as ‘has found some indecency in her’ literally means ‘has found her genitals exposed.’ It possibly refers to adultery, but probably not since the punishment for that was death. It seems to be similar to our phrase, ‘caught with her pants down.’ Basically, there is some imperfection that was unknown to the husband prior to marriage, but that, now that he knows it, displeases him to the point where he no longer wishes to remain married to her.)
  2. The man gives his wife a certificate of divorce and sends her away.
  3. The wife remarries.
  4. The wife’s second husband either dies or also divorces her.

It is only at this point (in verse 4) that we find a command: 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.

So what can we learn about divorce and remarriage from this passage?

1. Divorce was permitted by God, but he was not pleased by it, and he certainly did not command it. Deuteronomy 24:1 (coupled with the fact that there are no laws regarding divorce in the Mosaic Law) seems to intimate that there were cultural standards for divorce already at play. This passage doesn’t command divorce; it just assumes that divorce happens. There is a big difference between what God permits and what God expects or desires. J. Vernon McGee puts it this way:

There are a great many things which God permits in His permissive will. He permits it because of the hardness of our hearts. This is still true today in many cases of divorce. It is also true in many of our homes, and it is true in the personal lives of many individuals. God is merciful and gracious to us and permits things in our lives that are not in His direct will. It is His permissive will that manifests His grace to us.

God permitted divorce to happen, just as he permitted polygamy. This does not mean that either of those were part of his design for marriage. But they happened because of sin. And if divorce was going to be a part of reality, God was going to dictate how it should be handled. That’s what Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is.

John Calvin went a step further and said that God permitted divorce for the good of the woman, writing in his commentary on the last four books of Moses:

God chose to make a provision for women who were cruelly oppressed, and for whom it was better that they should at once be set free, than that they should groan beneath a cruel tyranny during their whole lives. Thus, in Malachi, divorce is preferred to polygamy, since it would be a more tolerable condition to be divorced than to bear with a harlot and a rival. (Mal. 2:14.)

He saw divorce as being preferable to a life with a husband who finds no pleasure in you and who will probably take additional wives to meet his needs. He goes on to say,

And undoubtedly the bill or scroll of divorce, whilst it cleared the woman from all disgrace, cast some reproach on the husband; for he who confesses that he puts away his wife, because she does not please him, brings himself under the accusation both of moroseness and inconstancy. For what gross levity and disgraceful inconstancy it shews, that a husband should be so offended with some imperfection or disease in his wife, as to cast away from him half of himself! We see, then, that husbands were indirectly condemned by the writing of divorce, since they thus committed an injury against their wives who were chaste, and in other respects what they should be.

In Calvin’s view, a husband divorcing his wife says more about the man than it does about the woman.

2. Remarriage was permitted by God because it was the lesser of 2 evils, but it also is not part of his design for marriage. If divorce was apparently part of God’s permissive will, so was the ability for the divorced woman to remarry. Again, God does not command that she remarry. He simply is providing for a situation in which she does. (In fact, one interpretation of “she has been defiled” is that it is the second marriage that defiles her because it is technically an adulterous relationship. Although once again, an argument against this is the fact that adultery should result in death according to the Law, and God does not command that here.)

The assumption that she does remarry could be taken as a sign that this was best possible outcome of the divorce for her. Think about it, her husband rejected her as being somehow “indecent” or imperfect. By the cultural standards of the day, she would have been looked down on. The other possible interpretation of the phrase “she has been defiled” is that it refers to the original divorce, not the fact that she remarried. A divorced (and defiled) woman, therefore, would have had very few options. She would have been alone and probably destitute. She might have been forced to turn to prostitution to support herself. Remarriage would have been a way for a divorced woman to be supported so she did not end up in poverty or prostitution. Again, permitted by God but not preferred.

3. God’s design for marriage is for one man and one woman to be joined “till death do they part.” Whether “she has been defiled” refers to the divorce or the second marriage, the fact that God prohibits the original husband from remarrying her after she has been married a second time shows that God’s original intent is that the couple had remained married to begin with. You also see that in the verse that immediately follows this passage:

If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married (Deuteronomy 24:5, NIV).

Marriage was such a sacred act that it took precedence over the military needs of the nation. The man was to be given an entire year, without having to worry about going to war or being drafted into another public duty, in order to “bring happiness to the wife” (a phrase that can refer to both sexual gratification and conceiving a child). It is this view that the Word Biblical Commentary takes when it says,

…it seems that the issue at hand is not so much the matter of divorce per se as it is the meaning of marriage, with a profound reflection on “the great evil” that is present wherever divorce is experienced. Divorce wreaks havoc in the lives of all concerned. The original intent of the Torah in matters concerning marriage is that of an inviolable union. The man’s responsibility in this relationship is “to bring happiness to the woman he has taken” (24:5); but in some instances this may not be possible.

Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:

1. Am I misinterpreting God’s permissive will for his direct will in any areas of my life?

2. Do I judge those who have been divorced and/or remarried without knowing the entire story?

3. Am I open to God using me to bring healing to the havoc that divorce wreaks on all involved?

4. Do I accept my responsibility to bring happiness to my wife, like the man in Deuteronomy 24:5? Or am I like the man in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 who puts his own needs ahead of his wife’s needs?

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