DIVORCE IN THE BIBLE

Ray Mossholder

 

 

I urge you to have your Bible open for this study and look at all verses listed, Old Testament and New.

Nothing written here is to be interpreted as a treatise blanketly endorsing divorce. Divorce is like a

shoot-out between Siamese twins.

A Christian husband or wife who has at some point in their relationship honestly loved the spouse

they have now divorced or are divorcing, will almost certainly carry an aching regret inside and a void

that was once filled by that person. Feelings of failure, feelings of guilt, feelings of wishing afterward

that things could have been different, feelings of disobeying God or God failing them, plus the

inevitable reaction of others, including family and close friends, many of whom are shocked, hurt, and

totally disapproving of the divorce, are constant obstacles those divorcing or are divorced most often

face.

Christians often condemn anyone who is divorcing because they err. not knowing the Scriptures (Mt.

22:29). Christians who are condemners lack empathy and often believe there should be none given to

any Christian who divorces. These condemners look at divorce as total disloyalty to God. No thought is

given credence when a divorcing spouse attempts to explain what was going on that brought about

their divorce. Only the couple and God can possibly know all the factors involved in bringing about the

final decision to divorce but nothing either of them says can possibly make any difference at all to the

condemner.

In the beginning, God meant for every first marriage to last a lifetime (Mt. 19:8). However, sin then entered

the world and this same God’s mercy endures forever. He who freely granted divorce in the Old Testament

“Because of the hardness of men’s hearts” (Mt. 19:8) is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Certainly Jesus Christ who knows even the deepest parts of each Christian’s spirit, soul and body,

“understands their weaknesses and sympathizes with them” (Heb. 4:15-16).

The Old Testament approach to divorce, once understood, is shocking to the average Christian today.

But to realize it continued throughout the time that Christ ministered on Earth and many many years

after that, is even more shocking. Jesus had come to fulfill the Law and until He gasped “It is finished”

as He expired on the cross (John 19:30), the Law remained in full affect. Grace replaced the Law when

the Holy Spirit came (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4), though the Law still had a great hold on the

early Church especially among the Messianic Jews. Tradition is always something extremely difficult

for any human to change.

All a man had to do to rid himself of his wife during the days of living under the Law was to write a bill

of divorcement (Dt. 24:1), a short note that could list any reason at all for the husband no longer

wanting to remain married to his present wife. He could write anything: “You are too loud.” “You

don’t cook my favorite things.” “You argue with me.” “I don’t like your mother,” then directly face his

wife and tell her, “I divorce you! I divorce you! I divorce you!”

Once a husband handed that note to his wife and told her three times, “I divorce you,” his wife had to

immediately leave their house and their marriage, and that husband and wife were considered by

everyone, including God, to be divorced (Dt. 24:2-4). A wife was left penniless, with no ability to take

anything with her at all. Her children, her dog, her clothes, etc., could not go with her. Forget in your

mind any court proceedings and any attempt at fairness from the divorce courts of today. There was

no such thing. Nothing was hers, all was his. The Old Testament said so and at least on that one point,

the government agreed.

While Jesus was on Earth. the Pharisees asked a question you may well be asking too: “Why then did

Moses ever grant divorce through using a bill of divorcement?” Jesus answered, “Because of your

hardness of heart.” (Mt. 19:7-8). God knew, in granting this barbaric practice, that many husbands

would kill their wives if there was no other way out of their marriage. A bill of divorcement was sadly

the lesser of two evils.

The “life sentence” of not being able to divorce was given only to men who falsely accused their wives

of sleeping with another man (Dt. 22:13-19), or men who raped single virgins (Dt. 22:28-29). From that

time until one of their deaths, the wife under those circumstances could completely withhold sex and

daily spit in his food, and he could do nothing at all about it.

Men being sentenced to never divorcing was God’s way of taking care of both the violated wife and

the violated wife’s father. Once a single girl or woman had had sexual intercourse, whether by rape or

not, she was considered “used” by all Jews and thought of as no longer desirable as a friend or life

partner unless they got married.

Male Jews woke every morning thanking God they weren’t a woman. A wife in their mind was

someone who took total care of the house, a husband’s needs, including physical; and the children’s

needs. They were only a tiny step higher than a domestic slave. A single female found it almost

impossible to get any other kind of job except domestic. Jewish women who did live alone unmarried

were rare and generally looked down upon. They were usually thought of as one who must be a

prostitute. The question would rise about her, “How else could she afford a home by herself?”

Females had absolutely no training in anything but household duties. They were believed by men to

be spiritually inept and unqualified by their gender to study the Torah. So, if a man was found to have

raped a female, he had to marry her and bring her into his home.

And God watched out for a raped female’s father. God fashioned His Law so that her father should

receive and never have to give back the dowry he had been given by a liar or a rapist. Usually a large

sum of money was involved in all dowrys. (See “Fiddler On The Roof.”)

God did not forbid remarriage as proven by Dt. 24:1-4. The Law stated that a woman who was given a

bill of divorcement by her husband could marry, but if she then divorced her second husband or he

died, she could not return and re-marry the first husband because she’d obviously had sex with her

second husband. (The word “defiled” is continually used in the Old Testament to describe either a

woman’s menstrual period or her sexual involvement.)

In Isaiah 50:1 God tells Israel why she is in captivity. It was their sins that were their undoing. It was

not, God says, that He divorced Israel and sent her away.

But by the time of Jeremiah, GOD DID DIVORCE FAITHLESS ISRAEL. In Jeremiah 3:8, Jeremiah says that

since Israel worshiped other gods as if to make love with them, God “divorced faithless Israel.” The

timeline is important here. Isaiah lived 740-680 B.C. Jeremiah lived 627-585 B.C. So in between the

time of Isaiah and the time of Jeremiah, God divorced. Think of that. GOD GOT A DIVORCE!

The thrill of being “the Bride of Christ” is immense for every Christian. Yet, if God had not divorced

faithless Israel He would have been a bigamist rather than the Groom to His new Bride. In every sense

of the word THE CHURCH IS THE SECOND MARRIAGE PARTNER OF GOD!

The final mention of divorce in the Old Testament is too often misunderstood. It is found in Mal. 2:10-

16. The issue is men who abandon the wives of their youth for pagan women who do not worship

God. God is speaking to the very same issue as He spoke when addressing the Jews in Jeremiah 3:8

and Nehemiah 13:23-27. Pagan women brought pagan gods into their husband’s homes (Mal. 2:11).

Even wise Solomon became debauched in his old age and turned away from God because of his pagan

wives (1 Kings 11:1-13).

Three things stand out in Malachi 2:10-16:

First, GOD HATES DIVORCE. There is no honest Christian who doesn’t hate it. The seriousness of

divorce and it’s direct consequences can’t be overstated. Divorce is a monument to failure. Divorce

divides families in a way that only death can equal. Many a family member or friend has lost their

faith in Christ in seeing the one they viewed as their Christian role model caught up in a divorce.

Anyone contemplating divorce must face the strong possibilities of such fallout. Yet too few

contemplating divorce expect it or know any way to prepare for it.

Once divorce begins, awful surprises often overwhelm both separated partners. As one godly

counselor told me, “You are now going to know who your real friends are and who they aren’t! And

that discovery will surprise and disappoint you.” That revelation in itself can be devastating. It was for

me.

Second, though God hates divorce, GOD DOES NOT HATE DIVORCEES. Nor does divorce make the

divorcee “a fifth class Christian.” Perhaps the hardest thing that a hurt and angry spouse needs to

realize if they think of themself as the victimof divorce, is that God isn’t angry with the Christian who

caused the divorce. Christians live forever forgiven by God because of what Christ did on the cross

(John 3:16; Acts 3:19; Rom. 8:1, 38-39; Gal. 2:20-21; Heb 8:12; 1 John 2:1.) The Alpha and Omega

knows from the beginning when any couple will end their marriage in divorce. Bitterness, feelings of guilt

and/or self-hatred can continue to plague the divorced person. Yet Christ died to rid every Christian from

just such feelings. Christ never tells any Christian to focus on self but on Him, the Redeemer. As long as a

Christian mentally nails themself to their own cross, Christ who died on the cross for them is unable to set

them free from what they’re doing to themself: Mt. 6:14-15; 18:30, 32-35; Mark 11:25-26, etc.)

Third, divorce is NOT the unforgiveable sin. The unforgivable sin only occurs when a person goes all

their life and dies without receiving Christ as their Savior (Mt. 12:31-32; Mark 3:22-30.) The point of these

passages in Matthew and Mark is that Jesus with His love and miracles was obviously God come to Earth

and the Pharisees who rejected Him were rejecting God.

Finally, though procreation is certainly not the only reason God has for marriage, He emphasizes how

important it is to “raise godly offspring.” Carried into New Testament times He is saying that marriage

is only to be between a Christian husband and a Christian wife. To those with the capability of having

children their charge from God is to raise children who both love God and joyfully serve Him (1 Cor.

7:14.)

THE NEW TESTAMENT AND DIVORCE

In His first mention of divorce in the New Testament, Jesus makes it clear that He is speaking about

this practice of husbands writing “a bill of divorcement” and throwing wives out of their homes. He

condemns the practice unless the wife has been sexually unfaithful before the marriage (Mt. 1:19),

during the marriage, or found to be near of kin (Lev. 18; Acts 15:29).

It should be understood that when Jesus says throwing a wife out…”makes her commit

adultery,” and “whoever marries her commits adultery,” (Mt. 5:32) He is in the midst of giving the

Sermon on the Mount and speaking in hyperbole (common in those days), speaking as one might do

with children when one wants to shock them into not doing something. He is not being literal. Proof

enough of this fact is that immediately before this statement He has said one should gouge out their

eye or cut off their right hand if it causes them to sin (Mt. 5:30). How many sightless, one handed

Christians would be on this planet today if such a verse was taken literally?!

A quick reading of Mt. 19:3-12 seems to find Jesus condemning divorce entirely unless adultery has

been involved. But we must never do a “quick reading” of any Scripture and believe that we know

what it says. There are points to ponder here that give, as usual, a remarkable answer from Jesus to

the Pharisees:

First, the Pharisees always came to Jesus for the purpose of trapping Him in a statement that would

either prove He was not the Christ (an impossible task!), or divide the Jewish people against Him. In

this passage they come knowing full well that there were two Jewish schools diametrically opposed to

each other on the subject of divorce. There was the rabbinical school of Shammai that taught a man

could not divorce his wife unless she was caught in adultery. And there was the rabbinical school of

Hillel that taught a man could divorce his wife for any reason, including burning the toast. The

Pharisees believed whichever way Jesus answered He would divide many Jews away from Himself by

answering.

Second, what Jesus answered has NOTHING to do with divorce as we know it today. Not to be

redundant, but divorce during the earthly days of Jesus’ ministry still meant what it meant throughout

the Old Testament – a wife receiving a bill of divorcement was forced to leave her marriage forever

with no money, no children, no clothing except for what she wore when leaving – nothing at all that

she had gained while married. Everything of value, with no exception, remained totally and legally

with the husband. Division of property, child’s rights, etc. were given absolutely no consideration

whatsoever. The wife became a penniless street person because her husband simply didn’t want her

anymore.

Jesus immediately, as always, disappointed the Pharisees with His answer. Rather than begin an

argument with them. He answered from Scripture. He quotes Gen. 1:27 and Gen. 2:23-24, reminding

everyone that the purpose of God in creation was that a husband and wife were to be “one flesh” with the

greatest possible fellowship with each other that would joyfully lead to regular times of intercourse (1 Cor.

7:3-5.) In other words, marriage was meant to be the deepest relationship

possible among humans – spirit, soul and body(Eph. 5:21-33). No other human ever had any right to

bring division between the married couple.

I’ve already mentioned what the Pharisees did next. They asked, “Why then did Moses ever grant

divorce through using a bill of divorcement?” Jesus answered, “Because of your hardness of

heart.” (Mt. 19:7-8). That bill was better than murder!

Jesus then nails the man who writes a bill of divorcement because he wants to marry another woman.

Such a man, Jesus says, is guilty of adultery (Mt. 19:9). It is Christ’s own disciples who are shocked

with this statement. They exclaim, “If the relationship with the man with his wife is like this, it is

better not to marry!” (Mt. 19:10) His answer to them all is “Not all men can accept this statement, but

only those to whom it has been given.” Jesus gave this teaching to His godly followers of that day. To

anyone else, it wouldn’t matter what Jesus said because THEY KNEW what God’s Law said. No such

hideous divorce procedures remain in any true form of Christianity today.

Importantly Mark 10:2-12 records the same occurrence as written in Mt 19:3-12. However it gives us

an answer only given to Christ’s disciples, not to the Pharisees. After the Pharisees left, Jesus told

them, “Whoever (writes a bill of divorcement) against his wife commits adultery, and whoever (walks

out on her husband) and marries another man commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12) This is an even

harsher teaching than the one found in Matthew 19. It makes a husband or wife starting a romantic

relationship with someone other than a married persons spouse while they are still married,

something God says only heathens do.

It is certainly no accident that the very next subject following this statement is children because it is

often children who suffer the most in any divorce. They lose the visual and emotional pattern God set

for marriage and instead see marriage trashed before their very eyes.

As soon as separation between their parents begins, a child or teenager loses precious time with their

own dad or mom in their formative years or even in their adult years, and far too often they lose their

mom or dad altogether. In America, one third of fathers abandon their children and never see them

again following divorce.

Meanwhile, children are often forced to try to accept a substitute for a dad or mom that almost never

seems to measure up to their own. And if the child or teenager is able to see both parents, they do it

by being treated like human ping-pong balls, bouncing back and forth from one parent’s home to the

other’s.

Often their new “parent” is hostile with anger because they didn’t want the child(ren) or teenager(s)

at all. They only wanted the mother or father of these kids. Competition is too often automatic

between the son or daughter and the substitute “boyfriend/ girlfriend/spouse, both wanting quality

time with the one they believe should give them first place if they really loved them. Thus no one gets

all the access they desire or need.

A husband or wife caught in the middle of this kind of emotional tug-o-war, runs the gamut of feelings

that include terrible guilt, anger, frustration, and a host of other negative feelings. That competition

between siblings and a rival “parent figure” causes them to be constantly in the way of each other.

None of this is what God at all designed for marriage or for family.

So, what of the terribly unhappy marriage that goes on and on and on in the name of Christianity?

Does constant fighting between parents, whether verbal or physical, please God or create a healthy

environment for children or teenagers? When 1 Cor. 2:3-5; Ephesians 5:21-33; I Tim. 3:4-5; 5:8; Titus 2:

2-8, I Peter 3:1-7 and other God-directions for a husband and wife are constantly violated by either

the husband or wife, or both, is it God’s command for such marriages to continue?

When a husband is continually angry against his wife or vice versa and one or both of them allows

their bitterness to further lash out verbally/and or physically against their offspring, does God offer no

protection or way of escape for him or her and their abused siblings? (1 Corinthians 10:13)

When a husband or wife lives strictly for themself and refuses to acknowledge the importance and

real needs of their spouse, living the exact opposite of Ephesians 5:24 or 25, is the neglected spouse to

simply suffer year after year through the bondage of a miserably unhappy marriage? What then

happens to the “life more abundantly” that Jesus came to bring every Christian? Is a trapped spouse

meant by God to simply grin and bear it?

When a husband or wife never tries to understand their spouses view of things, physical needs, or

honor them as their life partner (I Peter 3:1-7) and instead mocks any weakness they see in them, is

the maligned spouse to remain happily ever after?

When either spouse is regularly critical of and verbally demeaning to their husband or wife,

embarrassing them in front of family, friends and/or strangers, and this goes on and on, are they to

live in the bondage of (as Henry David Thoreau described it) “a life of quiet desperation?” Is divorce

any option at all?

When either a husband or wife commits adultery, is the spouse to simply smile and accept it in the

name of “Christian” love? Even though forgiveness from the violated mate is necessary for their own

peace of mind, only those with hard hearts would say yes.

Today God tells us “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no

authority except from God and those who exist are established by God” (Rom. 13:1). The laws,

especially in America and much of the western world, have attempted to remove as far as possible

any barbarianism in divorce. No longer is a divorced wife expected to leave her house and her

marriage to wander aimlessly without care or finance. The Law did allow remarriage as a possibility

for a misused husband or wife.

Obviously, we live in an imperfect world and even the best intentioned human judges can still find

themselves unable to help a husband or wife whose former spouse is in themself barbaric. But even in

the worse situations we are worlds apart from the hideous bill of divorcement.

How far apart are we from it? We are as far apart as the distance in time before the cross and after

the cross:

Before the cross: “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same

sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” (Hebrews 11:11)

After the cross: Jesus says, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first” (the Law)

“in order to establish the second” (grace, which means “absolutely undeserved favor or

kindness.”) “by this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once

and for all….For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy

Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying, ‘THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE THEM AFTER

THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD, I WILL PUT MY LAWS UPON THEIR HEART, AND ON THEIR MIND I WILL

WRITE THEM,’ He then says, ‘AND THEIR SINS AND THEIR LAWLESS DEEDS I WILL REMEMBER NO

MORE.'” (Heb. 10:9-10, 14-17.)