So When Does the Bible Allow for Divorce?
So When Does the Bible Allow for Divorce?
Much of my work centers on getting people to realize the utter importance of their covenants. I feel strongly that promises should be kept. Our marriage covenants are among the most pivotal commitments we make. As such, we should do everything within our power to ensure that we remain true to our covenants.
That being said...
What about divorce? Divorce is obviously mentioned throughout the Bible. God Himself even experienced a divorce. So while we strive to live according to our "'til death do I part" vows, are there other Biblical reasons (aside from death) for a marriage to end? Is it possible to terminate a marriage covenant without sinning in the process?
This statement will be somewhat controversial, but... I believe so.
In looking at this matter, we need to consider a few things, which are separate matters but intertwined:
Marriage Is a Product of Belief
First and foremost, this needs to be understood. Aside from vows, marriage licenses, or any other formalities, a marriage is intrinsically a status shared between a man and a woman. The simplest form of a Biblical marriage may be exemplified by the story of Isaac and Rebecca. In short, their marriage was simply the product of a man and a woman sharing the understanding that they were married to one another and then having sex. The same for Adam and Eve. Even in the absence of formal vows, legal signatures, rings, or the exchange of livestock, a couple is married if they share the belief that they are married to one another.
That's not to say that every couple that has sex is automatically "married." The Bible talks about pre-marital sex (commonly referred to as "fornication") and extra-marital sex (adultery, concubines, etc.) — and any sex outside of marriage does not inherently transform into marriage. Both parties must have the belief in their individual identities as being married. This form of faith is similar to how we experience our faith in the Lord.
When we talk about divorce, most people focus solely on the status being married versus the status of being divorced. While this status is important, there is another issue also at play, which is the covenant of marriage.
Vows Form a Binding Covenant
I'm going to assume that everyone reading this either did or will make vows during their marriage ceremonies. While the marriage itself is inherently a status, the vows that are exchanged are a list of additional promises that are added to make it a covenant. Our vows are often aspirational statements. We don't always keep them, but even if we fail, we should continue to try and rely on the forgiveness and mercy of our spouses.
Because our vows outline the terms of our marriage covenants, they vary between couples. For instance, one person may vow to "forsake all others," which rules out adultery, concubines, "sister wives" (polygamy), etc. Another couple may vow to "honor" or even "obey" one another. Whatever vows are made, husbands and wives should make every effort to uphold their promises at all points within their marriages.
Willfully breaking a vow doesn't necessarily change the marital status, but it does make one a liar. As good, honest people, we should not lie. Our marriage vows (as with all promises) should be considered to be an unshakably binding covenant.
Marriage isn't eternal. It's for this lifetime and ends at death. Death is the ultimate termination of the marriage status, because you can't be married alone. Death also terminates the covenant, because you can't share a promise with someone who no longer exists and most marriage vows literally say that they're "'til death." So, when a husband or wife dies, their spouse is free from the binds of their marital status and their vowed covenant.
So When (if Ever) Should People Get Divorced?
Now that we've covered some of the basics, let's get back to the original question: When does the Bible allow for divorce?
In the Old Testament, the Bible doesn't provide a lot of information regarding divorce, aside from referencing some entities as being divorced. The Torah, while outlining Israel's legal structure, says surprisingly little about how, when, and for what reason(s) a divorce may be granted. In Deuteronomy, there is a single verse wherein God instructs about the divorce process:
In this lone verse, we see that the cause of divorce is the wife's "indecency." In the original Hebrew, this word actually means nakedness and is generally a euphemism for sexual impropriety (e.g. Leviticus 18:6: "None of you shall approach any blood relative of his to uncover nakedness; I am Yahweh"). Thus, Deuteronomy 24:1 is about a man who divorces his wife because he discovers some sort of sexual sin, such as incest, extra-marital sexual activity (stripping or mutual masterbation, for instance), fornication, etc.
In reading this passage, it's important to note that this is not presented as a specific criteria for divorce. The divorce example itself is not written in an exclusive if-then format, as is often the case with other sins and punishments. This verse does not say, "If a man finds some indecency in his wife, then he must/may divorce her." Nor does it say, "For a man to divorce his wife, he must find some indecency in her." This verse simply talks about a man who has divorced his wife for a specific reason (i.e. "indecency"), and it then goes on to detail whether or not they are permitted to reconcile and remarry one another. As such, this verse addresses a cultural norm of the time (divorce), but doesn't necessarily interject any changes to the Israelites' existing understanding.
To better understand the cultural norms of the time, it's important to look at the laws and customs that existed in the Ancient Near East. Foremost, of course, is the Code of Hammurabi, a series of Mesopotamian laws that were written hundreds of years prior to the Exodus and permeated most Ancient Near East cultures, including that of Ur, the ancestral homeland of Abraham and the Israelites. Much of the Mosaic Law serves to modify existing laws within the Code of Hammurabi (the Torah's "eye for an eye" law, which originated in a less egalitarian way in the Code of Hammurabi, is an easy example). Within the Code of Hammurabi, we find the following laws regarding divorce:
In short, the Code of Hammurabi, the likely basis of the Israelites' default legal system prior to the Torah, allowed divorce for the cause of abandonment, unkindness, and just a general desire to leave. The instruction in Deuteronomy 24 jives perfectly with these customs, and merely provides additional guidance regarding remarriage.
Another area to examine is the norms of Ancient Egypt. Prior to receiving the Torah, the Israelites spent 400 years living among the Egyptians. Ancient Egyptian law (likely another source of influence for the Israelites), provided a criteria for divorce that was very similar to the Code of Hammurabi:
Other regional law codes in existence at the time of the pre-Canaan Hebrews, including Hittite law, generally follow the same course: Divorce is permitted essentially at-will by either party. Since the Mosaic Law provides no instruction that specifically counters those cultural norms, it seems logical that the Israelites held a similar view regarding divorce: Changing one's marital status can be done by either party at-will.
But, as mentioned above, marital status is not the only factor at play in our marriages. We also made covenants through the vows that we exchanged during our weddings. And, according to the Torah, vows matter:
There's the rub...
While our marital status may have been able to change at will, we remain bound to the vows we made when we entered into our marriage covenants. (Granted, if you married without making vows and also haven't made any promises of fidelity or lifelong marital endurance since then, then you're Biblically free to change your marital status at will, but I've never met anyone with a truly promise-less marriage.) Because we promised "'til death do we part," we're Biblically obligated to remain married to our spouses "'til death." We're also obligated to keep all of the terms of our marriage vows, whatever they may have been. If the only "out" we put in our marriage vows was "death," we do not have any other options.
Since "death" is our stated moment of separation, it's deserving of some thought. Obviously, it includes literal, physical death, but I believe there is also another important consideration: According to Scripture, some sins merit capital punishment. Because we're removed from the nationwide legal system of the Torah, we generally don't see this played out in modern society (aside from some instances of heinous murder). But the Torah lists a number of capital offenses, including:
- Murder (Ex. 21:12-14)
- Idolatry (Ex. 22:20)
- False Prophecy (Deut. 17:2-7)
- Rape (Deut. 22:13-21)
- Adultery (Lev. 20:10)
- Incest (Lev. 20:11-12)
- Bestiality (Ex. 22:19)
- Kidnapping (Ex. 21:16)
- Necromancy (Lev. 20:27)
- Negligent homicide (Ex. 21:28-32)
In the New Testament, the Apostle John addresses the gravity of the Torah's capital offenses — even for believers after the resurrection:
In the Ten Commandments, the Torah also overtly forbids adultery:
The punishment for adultery, however, wasn't divorce. Adultery was a capital offense:
It was never Yahweh's intent for a person to remain married to someone who knowingly committed a capital offense. According to the Torah, the sin should have resulted in a widow(er) — not a divorcé nor a perpetually entrapped spouse. However, since we are in a society that generally prohibits capital punishment, we should strive to embrace the end result and principle of Yahweh's instruction — even when the specific methodology is prevented. Yahweh's plan, as outlined in the Torah, was for the spouses of such offenders to be free from their marital obligations. Even though they may not have yet experienced physical "death," such offenders have absolutely met Scripture's criteria for "death." Therefore, their spouses have fulfilled their marital vows to the furthest extent possible in our society and are released from their obligation of their vows.
Additionally, Scriptural instruction yields in favor of innocent life. In the Bible, there are examples of Godly people skirting or even violating commandments and customs in favor of preserving innocent life. As in the case of David eating the Priests' bread in the Tabernacle or a lie told to prevent a murder, desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. For this reason, I believe that endangerment can also be grounds for divorce. One needn't wait to be murdered to save oneself from a would-be murderer. Remaining in a dangerous situation can make one complicit in a crime — even if the crime is one's own suicide by negligent homicide.
So... Let's go back to the original question: When does the Bible allow for divorce and the termination of our marriage vows? As I see it, there are two Scriptural options:
- Death (either literal or a sin unto death)
Below, I'll try to address a few common misconceptions regarding divorce, but if you were only here for the main feature, feel free to move on to other articles or order that book you've been meaning to read.
Common Scriptural questions Regarding Divorce
Did Christ Ban Divorce?
This is a common verse quoted by the Any-Divorce-Is-A-Sin crowd. They argue that "What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder" effectively bans couples from divorcing. I disagree, somewhat...
While it is true that no one should attempt to destroy a valid covenant made before God, this verse has no bearing on a covenant that's been terminated through God's instruction regarding capital punishment. Should a capital offense ("death") occur, the very terms of the covenant have been satisfied. Furthermore, the capital punishment is mandated by God Himself, so it's not "man putting asunder what God hath joined together" — it's God ending the covenant.
Is It a Sin to Marry After Divorce?
These verses can be somewhat confusing in many English translations, especially when compared to the verse cited about Moses, which seems to provide tremendous leeway for divorce. The confusion comes from the Greek word for "put away," which is sometimes indiscriminately translated as "divorce." But it literally just means "send away" or "separated." It has no bearing on whether or not someone is legally and Scripturally divorced through the "writing of divorcement," which were essentially just ancient divorce papers.
If you understand that "put away" just means "separated," the passage makes a lot more sense and is reconcilable with the Torah's direction. What the Messiah is actually saying is simple: If a man is separated from his wife but goes off and marries someone else, he has committed adultery. And, if someone marries a woman who is separated from her husband, that's also adultery.
This is exactly the same way that our American legal system works. A couple can be separated without being legally divorced. If a person who is separated (and by definition, not divorced) marries someone else, they've committed bigamy, which is a form of adultery. Why? Because they're still legally married.
In this passage, Yeshua (Jesus) does provide a little vengeance for a spouse who may be the victim of a fornicating spouse. He says that an innocent person can separate from his guilty spouse and marry someone else without being guilty of adultery. This would punish the guilty spouse by putting them in a state of marital limbo: The guilty party couldn't marry anyone else because they're still technically married, despite being separated from their spouse. This provides justice, mercy, and freedom for the innocent spouse, while punishing the guilty spouse for their sin.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is addressing a similar situation to what Yeshua addressed in the Gospels. He's talking about husbands and wives who are either "put away" (sent away) or choose to leave. Nowhere in this passage does Paul reference the legal divorce that would come through the "writing of divorcement" (Hebrew: get; Greek: apostasion). It's also worth noting that the text states possession between the husband/man and wife/woman, which implies that they're not actually legally divorced.
As you can see, the Gospels and the writings of Paul are in perfect harmony with the Old Testament's instructions. Both Christ and Paul are simply explaining how the Torah's concepts of marriage, adultery, and separation play out in first century marriages. They didn't contradict the Old Testament and they also didn't add to it. They simply maintained that a separated person should not marry someone else and that a husband and wife should not choose to separate from one another.