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God permitted divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1, but divorce papers had to be given into the woman’s hand before the husband was permitted to put her away—that is, to send her out of the house. This regulation was the central focus of the law regarding divorce. There was no hint that divorce itself might NOT be permitted. Neither does Moses discuss the proper causes for divorce in that passage.
It is imperative that we understand the distinction between the divorce papers and the act of putting away the wife who is being divorced. The law did not allow one without the other. The law made the two legally inseparable and made it a sin to do one without the other.
When Jesus commented upon the laws of divorce and remarriage in Matthew 5:31 and 32, His purpose was to correct men’s understanding of the law. He had no intention of repudiating any law that had been written, whether by Moses or by the prophets. He says as much just a few verses earlier in Matthew 5:17-19,
17 Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter [י the yod] or stroke [keraia, “little horn,” line extension that distinguished some Hebrew letters] shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
In view of this statement, we are bound to interpret the entire Sermon on the Mount according to this foundational statement. The law regarding divorce and remarriage was one of the laws that Jesus upheld and clarified in His teaching. Hence, Jesus did not overrule Moses by forbidding divorce and remarriage. The only ones that He overruled were the scribes and Pharisees whose traditions of men had often invalidated the law (Mark 7:13).
Neither did Jesus say that Moses allowed men to sin, as some have said, on account of their desire to sin. Moses did not indulge sin of any kind, nor did any man twist his arm, forcing him to legalize sin. Divorce is not a sin, but is a judgment for sin.
With this in mind, let us proceed to study the law of remarriage. We will start with Deuteronomy 24:2 (KJV),
2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.
In other words, Moses, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us the word of God, saying that remarriage after divorce is not a sin. The only stipulation that Moses gives is that she must have written proof in order to validate her divorce. Conversely, if she were put away without the written divorce, she could not remarry, because by law she was still married to her first husband, even though her husband had sinned against her by sending her away without divorce papers.
Jesus commented upon this in Matthew 5:31 and 32. The biggest hurdle that we all face is that many translators have not made a proper distinction between “divorce” (apostasion) and “put away” (apoluo), even though these are two separate acts, described by two distinct Greek words. For this reason, we must resort to quoting from Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, even though the language is somewhat archaic:
31 And it was said that whoever may put away [apoluo] his wife, let him give to her a writing of divorce [apostasion]; 32 but I—I say to you, that whoever may put away [apoluo] his wife, save for the matter of whoredom, doth make her to commit adultery; and whoever may marry her who hath been put away [apoluo] doth commit adultery.
Jesus chose His words carefully, but many translators were careless in their translations, treating the two words as if they were interchangeable. In so doing, they make Jesus teach something contrary to the law of Moses, thus invalidating the law.
In verse 31 Jesus referred to Deuteronomy 24:1, where Moses gave instructions about divorce. In other words, if a man should put away his wife, he has to give her papers first. Jesus maintains this clear distinction between apoluo and apostasion. Then in verse 32 He tells us that a man who puts away his wife causes her to commit adultery.
How so? Obviously, Jesus was referring to a case where a man might violate the law of Moses. In this case, if a man puts away his wife without giving her divorce papers, he causes her to commit adultery. She cannot lawfully remarry without having divorce papers, for by the law she was still married to the man who put her away improperly.
Jesus was telling the people that they could not simply blame a woman for adultery in such cases; her husband was equally liable before God for placing his wife in such a position. In those days women had a difficult time supporting themselves. A woman that was put away would naturally seek to remarry in order to survive. Thus, if she remarried while still lawfully married to her first husband, she committed adultery as well as the man who married her. But Jesus said that the woman’s first husband was equally liable for causing her to commit adultery.
The only caveat is that a man may indeed put away (apoluo) his wife in the case of porneia, which Young translates as “whoredom.” The NASB uses the term “unchastity.” Gesenius Lexicon defines the word as “illicit sexual intercourse,” and he gives examples such as: adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals, and incest.
The word indicates that it is lawful for a man to put away (separate from) a partner when such a union is unlawful, for such a relationship is not recognized by law as a “marriage.” If the law does not recognize the marriage, then how can it demand a divorce? Divorce is only necessary when the union has first been recognized as a marriage.
For this reason, a man would not need to divorce a prostitute. The solution is separation, not divorce. The same is true in cases of homosexual relationships, incest, and bestiality. The solution is to separate, to end the relationship. If a man or woman lies with a beast, it would be ridiculous to demand divorce papers.
This is why Jesus briefly mentions this exception. And so, if we may paraphrase Jesus’ words for clarification, we may understand Him to say:
The law tells men to give their wives a written bill of divorce before putting them away. But I say that if anyone violates this law by putting away his wife without divorce papers—except in cases where they were not lawfully married in the first place—he causes his wife to commit adultery; for if she remarries while still lawfully married to the man who put her away, she and her new husband are guilty of adultery. But her original husband is just as liable as she, because his violation of the law is the cause of her adultery.
An abbreviated version of this is given again in Matthew 19:7-9, where again the NASB mistranslates apoluo as “divorce” instead of “put away.” This is unfortunate, since they destroy the law by their assumption that apoluo and apostasion are interchangeable.
In Mark 10:11 and 12, the author briefly repeats the same words, and again the NASB mistranslates it: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.” The verse does not refer to a divorced wife, but a wife who has been put away without divorce papers. By mistranslating it, the NASB twists Jesus’ words to say that it is adultery to marry a divorced woman, when in fact the law says it is adultery to marry a woman who is still married to another man.
Mark gives us another detail that is not mentioned in Matthew’s account. Mark 10:12 says,
12 and if she herself puts away [apoluo] her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.
In other words Mark recognizes that a woman might kick her husband out of the house and marry another. Because this is the flip side of verse 11, it is understood that the woman in question would commit adultery if she put away her husband without lawful divorce papers and then married another man. The interesting nuance of this verse is that it implies a woman’s right to divorce her husband. In other words, the law of divorce found in Deuteronomy 24:1 applies equally to women as to men.
Mark’s gospel was written with a Roman audience in mind, even as Matthew’s gospel was written for a Hebrew audience. Peter visited Rome around 45 A.D. after fleeing from Herod’s wrath in Acts 12. Recall that Peter and James were imprisoned, and how James was executed, but Peter was set free by an angel. Peter then fled to Caesarea, with Herod in pursuit (Acts 12:19). Herod died in Caesarea, but Peter continued into Asia and Greece, and eventually made his way to Rome itself.
Peter’s preaching in Rome created the need for a written gospel to be left with them, so he commissioned his disciple Mark to write down his teachings and give to them. When we understand the purpose of Mark’s gospel, we can see why he included certain details that were not mentioned by Matthew. The right or possibility of a woman to divorce her husband is one such detail. The Hebrews probably would have denied a woman the right to divorce her husband, but the Romans allowed it. Mark, then, applied the law equally.
We may consider Mark’s account, then, to be the teaching of Peter himself, who rendered a Supreme Court ruling to clarify the law of Deuteronomy 24:1. The ruling showed that the law applied equally to men and women, for both were bound to give a written bill of divorce before putting away a spouse.
We return now to the law of remarriage. After telling us in Deuteronomy 24:2 that a lawfully divorced woman may remarry, we read in verses 3 and 4 (NASB),
3 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 of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled [tawmay]; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God gives us as an inheritance.
An ex-husband is prohibited from remarrying his former wife if she has remarried another in the interim. The only reason Moses gives for the prohibition is, “since she has been defiled.” The term “defiled” is tawmay, which means “to become unclean.” What is it that has made her unclean? Obviously, it was her second marriage that made her unclean to her previous husband, preventing him from being both her first and her third husband.
Some argue that this shows that remarriage after divorce renders a woman unclean before God. That is not the case. The term is used to describe a forbidden relationship or union, such as touching an unclean thing. The term “it is unclean unto you” is used most often in the case of the food laws in Leviticus 11. But even unclean animals were pronounced “good” by the Creator in Genesis 1, for they all serve a good purpose in creation. “Unclean” animals are created for pollution control in the earth. Hence, they unclean to the people, but they were always good in the eyes of God.
The word tawmay, then, when used to describe a divorced wife in Deuteronomy 24:4, simply means that she is “unclean” to her ex-husband. In other words, he cannot touch her. Her marriage to a second husband renders her unclean to her first husband, but not to any subsequent husbands.
A similar concept is found in the use of the Hebrew word orlah, “uncircumcised.” The term was often equated with a man who was unclean—foreigners in particular. But the word was also used to describe fruit from a young tree. Leviticus 19:23 says,
23 And when you enter the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as forbidden [orlah, “uncircumcised”]. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it shall not be eaten.
Here the term “uncircumcised” is used to mean “forbidden.” Dr. Bullinger says it means “uncovenanted,” or separated, not in a covenant or union. The tree itself was good, and the fruit itself was good, but during the first three years it was forbidden by law to eat of it. In other words, the fruit was unclean to those who might eat it unlawfully, even though the fruit was not inherently unclean.
So also with a woman who might contemplate remarrying a former spouse. She is “defiled” or unclean in relation to her former spouse, but not inherently so on account of her second marriage.
These are the laws of divorce and remarriage.