October 23, 2017

Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 4: The Law and The Prophets

divorcebw.jpgDivorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 1
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 2: A Map For the Road
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 3: One More Question

The old covenant law has many mentions of divorce. Only a few of these passages are ever mentioned when Christians discuss this topic. Instead, most of the passages dealing with divorce are passages on the Biblical view of marriage. Of course it is important to know the Biblical basis of marriage and to uphold a Biblical standard of marriage. It is, however, frequently distorting to act as if the reality of divorce was not part of the ordinary life of ancient Israel. These old covenant passages correct that distortion.

Many Christians are shocked to discover that there are more verses in the Bible about divorce than a rather free wording of the King James version translation of Malachi 2:16: The Lord hates divorce. In fact, the old covenant has a lot more to say about this topic. Here are the majority of the relevant passages. Read them all. Some are without context, so take some time to put each passage into the Biblical story.

Leviticus 21:7 They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled, neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband, for the priest is holy to his God…14 A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people, 15 that he may not profane his offspring among his people, for I am the LORD who sanctifies him…Leviticus 22:13 But if a priest’s daughter is widowed or divorced and has no child and returns to her father’s house, as in her youth, she may eat of her father’s food; yet no lay person shall eat of it.

Numbers 30:9 9 (But any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her.)

Deuteronomy 22:13 “If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her 14 and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ 15 then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate. 16 And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; 17 and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, “I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.” And yet this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city. 18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days. 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days…28 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.

Deuteronomy 24:1 “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, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 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, 4 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.

Isaiah 50:1 Thus says the LORD:”Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away? Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away.

Jeremiah 3:1 “If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD…8 She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore.

Malachi 2:14-16 14 But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who hates and divorces, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

Ezra 10:3 Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law. 4 Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it…” 19 They pledged themselves to put away their wives, and their guilt offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt…44 All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children.
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It’s clear that divorce is part of a fallen world. It’s sinful. It’s particularly bad because it breaks something that is particularly representative of God himself and his covenant relationships in the world.

For this reason we find that priests are given special instructions to not marry a divorced woman. As representatives of Yahweh to his people, Priests presented Yahweh’s exclusive devotion to the covenant through marriage.

Deuteronomy mentions divorce in the context of “case” law. For example, a man who falsely accuses a woman of not being a virgin at marriage is punished, and one of the consequences is the loss of the right to divorce her for any reason. (“That’ll teach him.”) If a man takes a woman’s virginity, he must marry her to bring justice and honor to the woman and her family, but he also forfeits the right of divorce and must always remain married.

Deuteronomy 24 is the passage most often referenced as the background of Jesus’ comments on divorce in the Gospels. (Mark 10:1-12) This is also “case law” and says that a woman who is divorced twice may not be “reclaimed” by her first husband. That would be considered an abomination, according to the law.

The Isaiah and Jeremiah passages are important because, despite the sinfulness of human divorce, it is sometimes the right response as far as God is concerned. How can I say this? Because God says that he has written a bill of divorce to the nation of Israel because of their spiritual, covenantal adulteries. God says that divorce would be justifiable because of Israel’s blatant adultery.

God does not, ultimately, divorce Israel, but the use of this picture is very important in approaching the topic of divorce. Not only did Yahweh allow divorce in the old covenant, he understood it as a way of explaining his own broken relationship with his people. God identifies himself as one who had the right of a justifiable divorce, caused by sin on the part of the other party.

In Malachi, God condemns those who abuse and divorce their wives for other women. God calls this violence against women. It is important to see that modern translations correct the wrong grammar of the KJV. God does not say he hates divorce- though that is certainly not illogical- but that the one who “hates and divorces” has covered himself with violence. This makes it very clear that in some divorces, there are victims who are not at fault. Ironically, this passage has been used to make thousands of people feel guilty for being divorced, and in truth it is a primary text saying that in some divorces, one part is at no fault.

In Ezra, those who have married foreign wives are instructed to divorce them in obedience to the renewal of the covenant in Israel. These men are named, and it is clear the divorce is commanded by Ezra as a renewal of exclusive faith.

What do we find in these passages?

Obviously, the fallenness and brokenness of marriage result in divorce, and God wants the moral distortion and outrage of divorce to be preserved, but at the same time, divorce is allowed. It is sometime justified. It is sometimes necessary. God himself understands it and identifies with it. Even commands it.

Remarriage is allowed, though it is a morally complex matter that wades into the same flood of sinful, broken consequences.

Whatever we might say about divorce and remarriage, we must remember that even in the law of God, Yahweh is surprisingly merciful and understanding. Divorce is bad, but there are worse things. Divorce was allowed and regulated. Divorce did not cause a person to lose their place in the community of Israel. There were consequences, but divorce was integrated into God’s gracious dealings with sinful persons in the old covenant.

Comments

  1. Michael, a couple bones to pick…

    It’s sinful. God doesn’t command sin. Divorce is a result of sin, if it’s a justifiable divorce, it’s not sin.

    God does not, ultimately, divorce Israel,

    Michael, Isaiah 50 says, “I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce…”

    Giving Israel a writ of divorce means that He divorced her.

  2. Divorce is sin in that it is part of the fallen order and is a result of the fall. I am not here to judge what I am not privy too, so I surely don’t plan to judge the divine command to divorce non-Israelite wives. God isn’t the author of sin, but I am not sure I agree that he never commands what is sinful in the general sense.

    God’s faithfulness to his covenant to Israel- the true Israel- transcends this “divorce” from national Israel.

  3. Illness is part of the fallen order also, yet that is not considered “sinful”.

    I’m not sure that I could say that sometimes God commands divorce, but it is always sinful. Certainly there is always sin involved in a divorce, but I’m not sure that you can say that it is the divorce that is sinful, only that sin triggered it.

  4. Sorry, I hit submit too soon…

    I believe that the difference between divorce (always) being sinful and divorce being the result of sin is important.

    If an action is sinful, then the person doing that action is sinning.

    If a woman discovers that she is married to a pedophile and that he has committed adultery with a minor and that her children are in danger, is she sinning if she divorces him?

    Is the action of doing that divorce sinful?

    Another case – a woman who was in my small group. Her father told her that divorce is always sinful and even though she didn’t file (her husband left her for another woman), she was still involved in the sin. Is this woman in sin?

    These are not “armchair theologians” (as I can be), these are real people that are hurt when the church tells them that all divorce is sin.

  5. Ellen,

    First of all, let me be extremely clear: I am not going to pronounce the rightness or wrongness of actual situations about which I know nothing. I listen to family tragedies every day that I work with students. I listen to husbands and wives going through terrible problems and situations in their relationships. I am will aware of the pain of divorce.

    It is a tribute to what a bad writer I am that I have written four posts on this subject and you are asking me if I believe it is sinful to divorce a pedophile threatening one’s children. If that were an actual, factual situation, I would advise divorce asap.

    Please note two of the last three paragraphs of the above post:

    “Obviously, the fallenness and brokenness of marriage result in divorce, and God wants the moral distortion and outrage of divorce to be preserved, but at the same time, divorce is allowed. It is sometime justified. It is sometimes necessary. God himself understands it and identifies with it. Even commands it.

    Whatever we might say about divorce and remarriage, we must remember that even in the law of God, Yahweh is surprisingly merciful and understanding. Divorce is bad, but there are worse things. Divorce was allowed and regulated. Divorce did not cause a person to lose their place in the community of Israel. There were consequences, but divorce was integrated into God’s gracious dealings with sinful persons in the old covenant.”

    Consider the difference in the following two paragraphs:

    “Divorce is God’s perfect plan for you. This is the complete fulfillment of God’s intention. It would be sinful NOT to divorce.”

    “This is a tragic breakdown of a family. It is never God’s perfect plan for a marriage to end, but sometimes there is no other choice. There are considerations of safety and care for others in the home. This is a sinful, broken world where these events happen, but God is forgiving and kind to us when they occur.”

    In the extreme situation of a threatening pedophile, I would take the second paragraph as the tone of my dealings with that person.

    My understanding of sin is primarily fallenness and depravity. “Sinning” as in breaking a postive moral precept is not what we have here. I am not trying to assign blame, and I believe that a Biblical understanding of divorce accepts the sinful brokenness of the situation as a premise to any action.

    Mercy and compassion are often responses to sin and evil. Mercy and compassion are never sinful, but they take place in sinful situations. As such they are redemptive, but are not perfect fulfillments of righteousness.

    A policeman may kill a rapist. It is a merciful and just thing to do, but the fact that people must be killed is because the world is a broken, sinful place and all of us are involved.

  6. Michael:

    I’m not saying “you’re wrong, I’m right,” as some may take me, but rather offering a different understanding the Jer passage you cited.

    For me, introducing the notion of “true Israel” isn’t necessary. I’ve understood Jer 3 – as best as I can reconstruct the context – as describing the treatment of the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah). God did divorce Israel – sent her away at the hands of the Assyrians, whose foreign policy assured the demise and dispersion of the people; He did not divorce Judah – didn’t allow the Assyrians to conquer Judah but instead used the Babylonians, whose policies allowed for the Jews to remain an intact community even during their captivity of 70 years, and thus allowed for their return as a nation to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah.

    History, if I understand it, seems to bear out the fact that God put an end to His marriage to idolatrous, unfaithful Israel but not to the (seemingly) equally unfaithful Judah. Another evidence of grace and God’s eternal purposes (since the lineage of Jesus is traced through Judah).

    Of course, I could be wrong in all of this and would welcome any and all arguments against my understanding. I don’t claim to have the definitive answer to such interpretative matters.
    -30-

  7. In some of these passages, God used the divorce language to get Israel’s attention about the gravity of her adultery (idolatry). While I don’t think we can use such passages as a straightforward take on what God commands about divorce, they can help us understand how deeply he loves his people and how much he longs for full relationship to be restored.

    God also calls us to be faithful to each other. Jesus had harsh words for people who divorced because they lusted after other lovers. He wants marriage to reflect the covenant relationship he has with his people–in fact, the cup of the new covenant at the last supper was like a marriage proposal.

    As with the whole story the Bible tells–covenant broken by sin, covenant restored by Christ, covenant not yet fully grasped by believers–we still embody it imperfectly. Divorce is only one of the evidences of that.

    To make sweeping commands against divorce and apply them to to every situation is like refusing to heal on the Sabbath–a form of legalism that doesn’t seek to minister to the whole person.

  8. Taken in context of this whole series, I understood that you were not stating that divorcing is always sinful but that divorce, itself, ‘misses the mark’ of God’s perfect intention for marriage.

    To divorce someone(an action)requires making a choice. Depending on the circumstances, that choice may or may not be sinful. To be divorced (passive) is a condition that has resulted from the sin of one or both parties involved. Divorce is inextricably linked to sin. But that doesn’t always mean that both parties are sinning when one of the two makes the choice to divorce.

  9. This is a very useful series. I especially appreciate the question you asked in #3. That is a question to keep in mind anytime we are studying.

    I do not disagree at all with the general direction of your comments and conclusions so far. I do however want to ask about one issue. In a lot of your writing you discuss the use of metaphors in Scripture and how many people get off track by taking metaphors literally (not the best word use, but I think you understand what I saying). Now I as read the OT passages about God giving Israel a writ of divorce and so on, I think this is metaphorical language. God is in a very real sense joined to Israel by a covenant and He can very well send them out on their own and abolish said covenant and be just in doing so. But this does not involve going to a judge or an elder and going through the actual physical process of asking for a divorce. So what I would like to ask is do you see any problems with taking the examples of God’s metaphorical divorce of Israel and applying them directly to the institution of human marriage and the process of divorce in those marriages?

    Like I said, I don’t disagree with your main points or conclusions but based on what you said in the past about the use of metaphors I was just a little surprised here. This comment is late anyway and the next essay (#5) is already up. But if you get a chance I would be interested to know what your thinking is on this.

    Thanks, I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

    Brian