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.” – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV
Divorce. It’s a controversial topic among Christians that not only destroys marriages but that can do serious damage to a wide range of relationships. The loss of long-term friendships can be an unfortunate byproduct of divorce. Children can be forced to take sides in a divorce, leaving them alienated and estranged from one of their own parents. Churches have found themselves divided over how to properly handle the divorces taking place among their congregations.
Divorce is divisive and destructive. And it was never intended as an option by God. The book of Genesis clearly reveals the will of God concerning marriage.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:24 ESV
There was to be a unity and permanency to marriage. The very fact that God created Eve from the rib of Adam conveys the intimacy and indissolubility of their union. In God’s eyes, the man and the woman were one, inseparable whole.
But sin eventually entered the scene and damaged everything God had made, including the marriage union. It would not be long before the sanctity of marriage would be destroyed by the selfishness and self-centeredness of sin-prone human hearts. Marriages would continue to take place but, far too often, they would be driven by lust, not love; and marked by an egocentric, what’s-in-it-for-me attitude that puts self-interest ahead of God’s will.
In this section of Deuteronomy, Moses finds himself having to deal with the topic of divorce yet again. Sadly, divorce had become a real-life issue among the Israelites. Their marriages were just as susceptible to brokenness and division as those of the pagan nations around them. The Jews were just as prone to falling in and out of love as anyone else. But Moses wanted them to remember that God had very strong feelings about marriage and divorce. The prophet Malachi would later articulate God’s view concerning divorce:
“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, 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.” – Malachi 2:16 ESV
And this is the very issue Moses deals with in this passage. Moses describes a case where a husband has “found some indecency” in his wife that has caused her to lose favor in his eyes. In essence, he has fallen out of love with her. Moses does not elaborate on the nature of the indecency committed by the wife, but the Hebrew word is `ervah, which can literally be translated as “nakedness.” The context seems to indicate that the wife has been found guilty of sexual sin, as in adultery. And, as a result, the husband has chosen to issue her a certificate of divorce.
This brings up an important question. Does this passage condone or sanction divorce in the case of unfaithfulness or adultery? Jesus addressed this very question in His Sermon on the Mount.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV
Jesus seems to support the idea that divorce is acceptable when sexual immorality is involved. But he also makes it clear that anyone who divorces his wife for any other reason will ultimately be held guilty of adultery – his own and that of his ex-wife. If they divorce for any reason other that sexual immorality and end up marrying other individuals, they will be committing adultery in God’s eyes.
Later on in His earthly ministry, Jesus would have to address this issue again. A group of Pharisees approached Him with a question regarding divorce. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3 ESV). This was a hot topic among the Jews and they were attempting to get Jesus to share His opinion on the matter. If He came down on the side of those advocating divorce, He would alienate the conservative hardliners. If He stood opposed to divorce under any circumstances, He would find Himself losing favor among the common people. So, Jesus answered them:
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Matthew 19:3-6 ESV
Jesus went back to the book of Genesis and the creation account. He reminded them what God had done to set apart a man and woman as one. And He clarified that no one had the right to separate what God had joined together.
This answer prompted the Pharisees to ask a second question. They sensed that they had Jesus in a predicament, because it appeared that He was contradicting the Mosaic Law. So, the crafted a question based on the words of Moses found in Deuteronomy 24:1: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7 ESV).
They had Him, or so they thought. According to their interpretation of the Mosaic Law, Moses had clearly given a get-out-of-jail-free card when it came to sexual immorality on the part of a spouse. But Jesus took the opportunity to explain the underlying motivation for Moses’ words.
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”– Matthew 19:7-9 ESV
Yes, Moses had provided sexual immorality as the single circumstance under which divorce could be sought. But it had never been God’s will. Sin had left mankind with permanent heart-damage and this had produced the need for this exemption clause concerning marriage. But none of this was what God had wanted.
Sin never produces anything of value. It is always damaging and destructive. And while Moses had provided a means by which a man could divorce his unfaithful wife, it was going to result in the potential for further sin. Take a look at the scenario that Moses paints. A man divorces his wife for marital unfaithfulness, then she goes and marries another man. That man ends up divorcing her as well. And Moses has to go out of his way to explain that the first husband is not free to remarry his wife. Why would he have to bring that up? Because of the wickedness of the human heart.
This whole convoluted scene illustrates just how twisted things can get when man does things his own way. Moses is having to paint every conceivable scenario that can come about as a result of divorce. He even describes that woman remarrying and her second husband dying. Even in that case, the first husband is not free to remarry his ex-wife.
You almost need a program to keep up with all the various permutations Moses paints. But why did he go into such great detail? Because he knew the hearts of his own people. He knew what Jesus knew: that their hearts were hard and they would find themselves following one sin with another one. So, he had to cover every conceivable scenario, providing the people of Israel with precise instructions designed to prevent further sin in the camp.
When all was said and done, this had less to do with divorce than it had to do with holiness. Moses had an ulterior motive behind these regulations regarding divorce and remarriage.
“…you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 24:4 ESV
It is a non-debatable fact that one sin tends to lead to another. While Moses had provided the Israelites with the certificate of divorce as a means of dealing with sexual immorality within the marriage union, it was going to produce further problems. The very fact that Moses describes the husband as willing to remarry his ex-wife reveals that he had not really fallen out of love with her. Her unfaithfulness had angered and hurt him, and caused him to seek a divorce from her. But as the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. Eventually, he would find himself missing his wife and tempted to remarry her when the opportunity presented itself. But Moses had to restrict his behavior. One sin could not be followed by another. Two wrongs do not make a right.
It would seem that God would prefer that the husband and wife not divorce, even in the case of unfaithfulness. Forgiveness and restoration would take precedence over divorce and the destruction of the marriage. But as Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.”
Hardened, sin-filled hearts rarely produce wise decisions. The heat of the moment can produce unhealthy outcomes that bring little more than regret and further heartache. God designed marriage to be permanent, not perfect. Two sin-prone people make a perfect marriage impossible. But when Christ is part of that marriage, and the Spirit of God indwells the two people who make up that marriage, unity and permanency is achievable – even in the face of unfaithfulness.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.