Friday, August 29, 2008

Indecency and Divorce: Deuteronomy 24:1-4

(This is part 3 of a series studying the biblical teachings of divorce and remarriage. The key question I intend to deal with is whether divorced men should be allowed to serve as pastors, elders or deacons. Before we deal with that issue, we must look at all the biblical evidence.)

Old Testament Teachings on Divorce

Women did not have high standing in ancient Semitic cultures. They were treated as property, regarded as servile – put on earth to provide pleasure and comfort for men. The thrust of the law was to prohibit men from treating women cruelly or arbitrarily.


Genesis 2 reveals God’s perfect purpose for marriage – one man, one woman, one lifetime. When a man and woman marry, the two become one in God’s eyes. Divorce is a violent separation of what God has joined together. Divorce was not part of God’s original plan. In Malachi, God expresses his displeasure with Israelites who divorce their wives for pagan women. The Ezra passage tells us that there are circumstances in which divorce is permissible, even commanded by God.


Now, we turn our attention to the key Old Testament passage on divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This passage is the only clear Old Testament instruction on divorce, and it is foundational to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4

While this passage is the clearest Old Testament divorce teaching, its primary subject is not divorce, but remarriage. It is a prohibition against capricious divorce and remarriage. In the culture to which this command was given, men had an almost unlimited right to divorce their wives. Women, of course, had no such right. This passage prohibits a man from remarrying a woman he has divorced who has married another man after the divorce.

Grounds for Divorce

There are several key teachings in this passage that have application to our current discussion. First of all, this passage establishes something that generally did not exist in that culture – the necessity of a proper grounds for divorce. Divorce could not be done capriciously, but the husband had to find “some indecency” in his wife.


The meaning of the word “indecency” is not easy to establish in this context. The word normally means “to expose the genitals” and is usually translated “nakedness.” In Genesis 9:22, Ham found his drunken father and “saw the nakedness of his father.” There was shame attached to exposing the genitals. That meaning is clear in almost every use of the word.


But here, the meaning is almost certainly figurative – a unique use of the word. It doesn’t seem likely that divorce was only permitted if a women exposed herself in public. The natural deduction would be that divorce would only be granted on the ground of immorality, as Jesus later taught. However, there is a problem with that deduction. There was a penalty in place for sexual immorality, whether premarital or extramarital – death. Deuteronomy 22:20-22 had just established that clearly. So, it seems unlikely that sexual immorality is in view here.


So, what does “some indecency” mean? First, it is a limit on capricious divorce. A man could not divorce his wife because she gained a few pounds or because someone new came along. A man needed to find some moral flaw in his wife’s character that brought shame to him and his family. Unfortunately, there is nothing more specific here. Did it refer to a rebellious spirit, a sinful heart, a mean disposition? We do not know.


Fortunately, Jesus spelled out the grounds for divorce more clearly in the New Testament. But there are two key deductions that I would draw here. First, divorce may only be sought for serious moral reasons. It can never be done lightly or frivolously. The Shammai and Hillel rabbinic schools argued over the meaning of this phrase. The Shammai school took a very narrow view and the Hillel school a very broad view. Those in the Hillel school maintained that a man could divorce his wife for burning his food. If there was anything he did not like about his wife, that qualified as “something indecent.” But it is clear here that a man was required to find serious moral fault in his wife before he could divorce her.


Second, this passage in God’s laws establish that there are grounds upon which a divorce is biblically acceptable. Whatever “some indecency” means, it establishes that there are divinely acceptable reasons to end a marriage. Jesus said that this law was given permissively, because of human hardheartedness. Divorce may not have been a part of God’s original ideal, but in a sinful world, He makes allowances. The sinful behavior of human beings can make divorce an acceptable if not desirable option.

Process of Divorce

Prior to this law, men would just send their wives away and publicly declare themselves divorced. The law mandated a “certificate of divorce” be given to the woman. The purpose of this seems to be two-fold. First, it formalizes the process and may make a man think twice about it if he is acting out of uncontrolled emotion. Also, it gives the woman a document which establishes that she has been freed from her marriage commitment and responsibilities and is free to remarry.


The Mishnah gives us the wording of this certificate that was used among the Hebrews. “Let this be from me your write of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that you may marry whatsoever man you will.”


This establishes an important fact. A divorce done under proper grounds and in a proper fashion is the ending of the marriage relationship. The person properly divorced is free to and expected to remarry. Divorce is the severing of the marriage relationship and frees the person to remarry.

Summary of Old Testament Teachings

The Old Testament makes several points very clear. First, God’s ideal was a marriage that united two people as one “as long as they both should live.” It is still God’s desire today that marriages be permanent and give joy and fulfillment to both parties. Second, human sin has sometimes made the divine ideal impossible. In view of man’s sinfulness, God gave certain reasonable instances in which divorce was an acceptable alternative to a broken marriage. Third, God severely limited the rights of men to capriciously or arbitrarily seek divorce. They needed a legitimate grounds for divorce if it was to be acceptable. Finally, it is clear that remarriage is part and parcel with divorce – it is assumed that those who divorce will remarry. Divorce did not free someone just to live single, but to seek another spouse.


The Old Testament teachings lay the foundation on which Jesus’ teachings and those of the Apostle Paul are built. The New Testament expands and clarifies these teachings, but does not negate them. .

1 comment:

More Christ Like said...

Les McFall has an interested way to deal with the exception clause in Matthew 19:9. He has written a 43 page paper that reviews the changes in the Greek made by Erasmus that effect the way Matthew 19:9 has been translated. I reviewed McFall's paper at Except For Fornication Clause of Matthew 19:9. I would love to hear some feedback on this position.