Bibliotheca Sacra 149 (Jan. 1992): 3-15
[Copyright © 1992 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
digitally prepared for use at
and the Issue of Divorce
J. Carl Laney
Professor of Biblical Literature
Western Conservative Baptist Seminary,
Divorce and remarriage have become regarded by many evan-
gelicals as viable solutions to intolerable marriages. Most of those
who seek a biblical basis for this opinion interpret Deuteronomy
24:1-4 as providing grounds for divorce and the right of remarriage in
cases of adultery or sexual sin.1 Is there adequate textual evidence
for this interpretation? Did Moses affirm the right of divorce for
sexual sin? Is the remarriage of a divorced person without moral con-
sequence? What application may Christians make of the legal pre-
cepts found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4?
The Background and Context
Not long after the Fall, God's standard of one man married to
one woman was violated (Gen. 2:24; ). By the time of Moses, di-
vorce had become a custom even among Israelites (Deut. 24:1-4). And
so the issue was addressed by Moses. The importance of this
Deuteronomy passage in Jewish thinking is seen in the fact that it
served as the background for the Pharisees' comments on divorce
when they questioned Jesus (Matt. 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-10).
The Book of Deuteronomy gives a restatement of the Mosaic
Covenant for the benefit of the second generation of Israelites in the
wilderness. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is part of a larger section that ex-
1 For examples note John Williams, For Every Cause? (Exeter: Paternoster, 1981),
Stanley A. Ellisen, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, 2d ed. (
Zondervan, 1980), 64; Spiros
about Divorce? (
Publishers, 1984), 47.
4 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1992
pands and applies the basic stipulations of the covenant (5:6-21). As
observed by Kaufman,2 the Decalogue seems to provide the basis for
the instruction given in Deuteronomy 12-26. Kaufman suggests the
following structure and arrangement:
Commandment Deuteronomy Description
1-2 12:1-31 Worship
3 13:1-14:27 Name of God
6 19:1-22:8 Homicide
7 22:9-23:19 Adultery
8 -24:7 Theft
9 24:8-25:4 False charges
10 25:5-16 Coveting
Highlighting the significance of this structure, Kaiser comments
that "the entire second discourse of Moses (Deut. 5-26) is a single lit-
erary unit that convincingly demonstrates that the moral law in-
forms the statutes, judgments. . . and commands of God."3 Following
this analysis, the text at hand would serve to illuminate and expand
the prohibition against theft, in this case, the wrongful and illegal
taking of a spouse.4
It is crucial to note that this passage does not institute or allow
for divorce with approval. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 merely treats di-
vorce as a practice already existing and known.5 Grammatically the
passage is an example of biblical case law in which certain condi-
tions are stated for which a particular command applies. The prota-
sis in verses 1-3 specifies the conditions that must apply before the
command in the apodosis in verse 4 is followed. In other words 24:1-4
describes a simple "if. . . then" situation.
The legislation specified in 24:1-4 actually deals with a partic-
ular case of remarriage. Grammatically the intent of this law is not
2 Stephen A. Kaufman, "The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law," MAARA V 1
3 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (
4 Kaufman demonstrates how Deuteronomy 24:1-4 fits well with the laws prohibit-
ing the taking of one's fill from another's crop (-25), the separation of newlyweds
(24:5), and taking in pledge the upper millstone (24:6), a prohibition latent with sex-
ual imagery ("The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law," 140).
5 Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 305.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the Issue of Divorce 5
to give legal sanction to divorce or to regulate the divorce procedure.
The intent of the passage is to prohibit the remarriage of a man to
his divorced wife in cases of an intervening marriage by the wife.
Unfortunately the structure of the passage has not always been
reflected in the English translations. The King James Version, for ex-
ample, places the apodosis at the end of verse 1 ("then let him write
her a bill of divorcement"). The implication of this translation is
that the Law requires that a husband divorce his offending wife.
This translation, also found in the American Standard Version (1901)
and the English Revised Version, has contributed to the confusion
seen in the divorce-remarriage controversy.6
The Circumstances of Divorce (24:1-3)
The first three verses of Deuteronomy 24 describe the situation
of a woman who is twice divorced by different men or once divorced
and then widowed. It should be carefully noted that divorce is nei-
ther commanded nor commended. The circumstances leading to di-
vorce are simply described as a part of the case under consideration.
The verses do not indicate that divorce is necessarily sanctioned un-
der such circumstances. As Hurley observes, “Verse 1 does not focus on
the grounds for the divorce as such, but rather discusses the first di-
vorce only to set the stage for the following discussion."7
In this particular case the wife lost favor with her husband be-
cause of "some indecency" in her (literally, "nakedness of a thing" or
"a naked matter"). The precise meaning of the phrase rbADA tvar;f, is
uncertain. Consequently it became the subject of heated rabbinic de-
bates on divorce. The Septuagint's translation, a@sxemon pra?gma
("some unbecoming thing"), is equally obscure.
The phrase may refer to some physical deficiency--such as the
inability to bear children. This may be suggested by a possible par-
allel between Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and an old Assyrian marriage con-
tract.8 The expression appears only once elsewhere in the Hebrew
Scriptures, where it serves as a euphemism for excrement (Deut.
, Heb. 15). This suggests that the "indecency" in Deuteronomy
24:1 may refer to some shameful or repulsive act. Isaksson takes it to
refer to the wife's indecent exposure.9 In the first century conserva-
6 The New King James Version gives a proper rendering of the text
7 James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (
van, 1981), 99.
8 James B. Pritchard,
ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3d
ton University Press, 1969), 543.
9 Abel Isaksson, Marriage
and Ministry in the New
Gleerup, 1965), 26-27.
6 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1992
tive Rabbi Shammai interpreted the phrase as referring to marital
unchastity, while Rabbi Hillel interpreted it more broadly to refer
to anything unpleasant (Gittin ).
It seems unlikely that rbADA tvar;f, could refer to adultery, since this
was punishable by death (Deut. -24; Lev. ), not divorce.
Deuteronomy 24:1 cannot refer to adultery.10 He concludes that it
refer to "some indecency or impropriety of behavior" short of
licit sexual intercourse.11 Whatever the precise meaning of rbADA tvar;f,
the grammar makes clear that Moses was describing a case, not pre-
scribing a course of action for dealing with an offensive wife.
The passage describes the actions of a husband in dealing with
his offending wife. According to custom the husband wrote out a cer-
tificate of divorce and delivered it to the wife. The essential words
of this document became fixed in Jewish tradition and are recorded in
the Mishnah, "Behold, you are free to marry any man" (Gittin 9:3).
The passage then states that the wife left her husband's home and
became another man's wife. Sometime after the second marriage,
the woman was again divorced or widowed (Deut. 24:2-3).
The Issue of Case Law
Many expositors have concluded that since Deuteronomy 24:1-3
does not prohibit divorce and remarriage, both are approved by God.
This conclusion is inconsistent with the context of the passage (v. 4)
and with the nature of biblical case law.
The covenant entered into by God and Israel at Mount Sinai con-
tains the obligations imposed on and accepted by the Israelite peo-
ple. These covenant stipulations take two basic forms: apodictic and
casuistic. Apodictic (derived from the Greek a]po<, "from," and dei<k-
numi, "to show") laws are stated in imperative terms such as "you
shall not. . . ." Casuistic (derived from the Latin casus, "case") laws
are stated in the form of cases. If certain circumstances occur, a cer-
tain law must then apply. The protasis-apodosis sequence ("if. . . ,
then. . .") is the most frequent indicator of biblical casuistic law.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is such an example.
Deuteronomy 12-26 contains the detailed stipulations of the
covenant. This section elaborates the basic demands of Deuteronomy
5-11 by providing examples and applications in the religious life
(12:1-16:17), political life (16:18-20:20), and social life (chaps. 21-
26) of the nation. Apart from the case under consideration, Deuteron-
10 John Murray, Divorce (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1961), 10-12.
11 Ibid., p. 12.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the Issue of Divorce 7
omy 12-26 contains 31 examples of case law. In 19 of these examples
the protasis contains a situation that is either immoral or has some
negative connotation.12 The other 12 present situations that appear
Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is an example of case law in which the
protasis contains a situation that is immoral or has negative conno-
tations. A woman who seizes the genitals of a male opponent to help
her husband in a struggle shall have her hand cut off. No one would
dare suggest that the case being described is presented with ap-
proval. Many other similar examples could be cited.
What is the implication for the study of Deuteronomy 24:1-4?
Just as legislation on harlotry (23:18) in no way authorizes harlotry,
so a law on divorce and remarriage is not authorization for them.
The presentation of the case does not constitute divine approval of
the actions, described. The context (including the apodosis) must be
considered in order to discern whether the situation is merely being
described or whether the actions described have divine sanction.
Too often interpreters have discussed 24:1-4 as if God sanctions
divorce and remarriage. The characteristic grammar of biblical case
law argues against this. In fact the text itself is far from approving
the second marriage, as is evident from verse 4.
The Prohibition against Remarriage (24:4)
The main point of this example of biblical case law appears in
the apodosis (the "then" clause) of verse 4. Here it is clear that the
law relates not to the matter of divorce as such, but to a particular
case of remarriage. Moses declared that a man may not remarry his
former wife if she has in the meantime been married to another man.
Even though her second husband should divorce her or die, she must
not return to her first husband. The prohibition is supported by an
explanation, a reason, and a command. As Kaiser correctly notes,
this is "the only regulative statement in this passage."14
The prohibition against remarriage is elaborated and explained
by "since she has been defiled." The word rw,xE is used as a conjunction
12 See Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 13:6-11; 13:12-18; 15:12-15; 17:1-5; 19:11-13;
19:16-19; 21:1-7; -14; -17; -21; -23; -21; ; -27;
22:28-29; 24:7; 25:7-10; 25:11-12.
13 See Deuteronomy 14:24-25; 15:7-8; 15:16-18; 17:8-9; 18:6-8; 23:10-13;
23:21-23; 23:24-25; 24:5; 24:19-22; 25:1-3; 25:5-6.
14 Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 200.
8 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1992
with yreHExa and could be translated, "after that." The obvious question
is, "After what?" The answer must be found in verses 1-3, which de-
scribe the divorce and remarriage of the woman. It is unlikely that
divorce itself would be regarded as defiling, since it violates no
command and involves no sexual act. Apparently the second mar-
riage--with its physical union--is viewed as bringing defilement.
The word "defiled" (xmeFA) is a Hothpa' el, the less common re-
flexive passive conjugation, and means "to be made unclean." This
stem generally communicates a passive idea ("was defiled"), but can
tend toward a reflexive idea ("she defiled herself"), depending on
the context. Since it is unclear here who bears the responsibility for
the defilement, one could simply translate "she has been defiled."
The Hebrew word xmeFA is used of sexual uncleanness (moral viola-
tion), religious uncleanness (bloodshed or idolatry), and ceremonial
uncleanness (eating unclean foods, touching a dead body). In Leviti-
cus 18:20 and Numbers 5:13-14 it is used of the defilement of adultery.
The implication is that a woman's remarriage after divorce is simi-
lar to adultery in that she cohabits with another man.15 Keil and
The second marriage of a woman who had been divorced is designated
by Moses a defilement of the woman, primarily no doubt with refer-
ence to the fact that the emissio seminis in sexual intercourse ren-
dered unclean, though not merely in the sense of such a defilement as
was removed in the evening by simple washing, but a moral defile-
ment, i.e., blemishing, desecration of the sexual communion which was
sanctified by marriage.16
The use of xmeFA in Deuteronomy 24:4 suggests that remarriage follow-
ing divorce is placed on a par with adultery. The Mosaic perspective
is consistent with Jesus' teaching in Mark 10:11-12, where divorce
and remarriage by either husband or wife is regarded as adulterous.
To remarry one's original husband after an intervening marriage
is declared "an abomination before Yahweh." The word "abomina-
tion" (hbAfeOT) is used of things detestable in either the moral or gen-
eral sense. Youngblood states that the word includes that which is
"aesthetically and morally repulsive."17 The term is used to de-
scribe false gods (Deut. 32:16), ritually unclean animals (Deut. 14:3),
homosexual relations (Lev. 18:22), and occultic activities (Deut. 18:9-
15 Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, 305.
16 C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols. (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), vol. 1: The Pentateuch, 418.
17 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, S.v. "hbAreOT," by Ronald F. Young-
blood (1980), 2:976-77.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the Issue of Divorce 9
14). The term is used in Leviticus 18:26-30 with reference to numerous
previously mentioned aberrations including incest, adultery, child
sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality.
The reason ("for that is an abomination") is followed by the
command, "You shall not bring sin on the land which Yahweh your
God gives you as an inheritance." To commit the act prohibited in
this example of case law amounts to bringing the guilt of sin on Is-
rael's land. These words bring to mind the warning God gave the Is-
raelites in Leviticus 18:24-25 regarding the wicked ways of Canaan:
"Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the
nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For
the land has become defiled, therefore I have visited its punishment
upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants."
As the land was "defiled" by the sexual abominations of the
Canaanites, so there was danger of similar defilement by the remar-
riage of a divorced woman to her husband in the case of an interven-
ing marriage. The prohibition was designed to prevent the defile-
ment of the land that God was giving His people as an inheritance.
The Purpose of the Legislation
What did God intend to accomplish by this law? What was its
purpose in Israelite society?
TO ENSURE THE PROPER LEGAL PROCEDURE
Based on the faulty translation of the King James Version, some
have argued that the purpose of this legislation was to ensure that
proper legal procedure was used in the termination of marriage.
Atkinson comments, "This would make public the termination of the
first marriage, and so promote a sense of social responsibility, and
also--and perhaps more importantly--give the divorced woman
rights in law, by protecting her against the capital charge of adul-
tery if she remarried."18 The major oversight by those suggesting
this interpretation is the failure to recognize that the procedure de-
scribed in verses 1-3 is merely descriptive, not prescriptive.
TO DISCOURAGE DIVORCE
Murray, among others, has argued that the legislation was de-
signed to discourage divorce.19 As Adams comments, "The whole
point of the four verses in question is to forestall hasty action by
making it impossible to rectify the situation when divorce and re-
18 Atkinson, To Have and to Hold, 104.
19 Murray, Divorce, 3-16.
10 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1992
marriage to another takes place (cf. 1 Cor. 7:11)."20 Since there was a
good possibility of not being able to remarry his former wife, the
husband would be less likely to put his wife away hastily. But one
wonders whether this legislation would deter an angry husband.
Craigie follows this viewpoint, but with a slightly different
perspective. He suggests that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 applied certain
restrictions on divorce to prevent it from becoming "too easy." If
abused, divorce and remarriage "would become a 'legal' form of com-
While this view has merit, it has been pointed out by Thompson
that the major deterrent to divorce in the biblical period was finan-
cial. Usually the husband forfeited the dowry when divorcing his
wife and sometimes had to make divorce payments as well.22
TO PROTECT THE SECOND MARRIAGE
In a lecture delivered at the University of Oxford on remarriage
in Jewish Law, Yaron suggested that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was de-
signed to protect the second marriage.23
When the divorcee has married another man, we have before us the
possibility of tension within the "triangle" which has come into being.
The first husband may wish to get back his wife, having repented of
dismissing her, the wife may draw comparisons between her two hus-
bands unfavourable to the second one, and may indulge in overtures
disruptive of the second marriage. Or, nothing of the kind may have
actually happened, but the second husband may go through agonies of
jealousy and apprehension, making life a hell for the wife also. All
these possibilities are avoided once the reunion is prevented.24
The explanation seems at first convincing. But the view fails to ex-
plain why the rule would apply after the death of the second hus-
band when the second marriage would no longer be in jeopardy.25
TO PREVENT A TYPE OF INCEST
Wenham has noted that the reasons the husband should not
take back his former wife--defilement, abomination, and pollution
20 Jay E. Adams, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ:
Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), 62; J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth (Minneapolis:
Bethany House, 1981),32.
21 Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, 305.
22 J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974),244.
23 R. Varon, "The Restoration of Marriage," Journal of Jewish Studies 17 (1966): 1-11.
24 Ibid., 8.
25 C. M. Carmichael, The Laws of Deuteronomy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press, 1974), 205.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the Issue of Divorce 11
of the land--occur repeatedly in connection with the sexual offenses
listed in Leviticus 18 and 20.26
As background for his viewpoint, Wenham argues that marriage
establishes a close and lasting "one flesh" (Gen. 2:24) relationship
that does not terminate with divorce. From a biblical perspective,
marital intercourse makes a man and wife as closely related as par-
ents and children. If a man may not marry his sister-in-law because
she has in effect become his sister (Lev. 18:16; 20:21), may he re-
marry his former wife?
According to Wenham, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 uses the logic of
incest laws to prohibit the restoration of the first marriage. If a di-
vorced couple should come together again after an intervening mar-
riage, it would be as bad as a man marrying his sister. To reconstitute
the first marriage would be a "type of incest," which is explicitly
prohibited in Leviticus 18:6-18.27 Wenham's view has support from
the greater context of levitical law and has been favorably re-
viewed.28 This view is an intriguing explanation for the prohibition
against remarriage to one's original partner following divorce.
The major difficulty with this view is that it seems to reach be-
yond what is clear to the reader. One wonders how many Israelites
would have seen the connection between the "one flesh" of the mar-
riage union and the incest laws of Leviticus 18:6-18. Wenham uses
the phrase, "type of incest." Is remarriage to one's spouse after an in-
tervening marriage actually incest or not? Yet while Wenham's
view seems obscure to the 20th-century interpreter, it may not have
been so to those of Moses' day, whose lives centered around the cere-
monial requirements of the Law.
TO PROTECT A STIGMATIZED WOMAN
Luck suggests that the passage under consideration "intends to
protect a stigmatized woman from further abuse by her offending
first husband."29 According to Luck, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 deals not
with an offending wife but with a sinning husband.
The text is trying to convey that the first husband is responsible to
come to his senses before the second marriage occurs. That he does
not, underlines the offensiveness of the first husband's character. The
man was so hard-hearted that he cast the woman from himself. Then,
he was so unrepentant that he allowed her to be sexually coupled to an-
other man. Thus, in a sense, the second marriage did defile the
26 Gordon J. Wenham, "The Restoration of Marriage Reconsidered," Journal of Jewish
Studies 30 (1979): 36-40.
27 Ibid., 40.
28 See Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 202-3.
29 William F. Luck, Divorce and Remarriage: Recovering the Biblical View (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 64.
12 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1992
woman, but the fact stands not really against her character but against
the character of her treacherous first husband.30
Luck certainly offers a creative approach to an old problem. Yet his
view introduces speculation and hypothesis. Though Luck regards
the first husband as "hard-hearted" and "unrepentant," the passage
does not offer any comment as to the husband's character.
In this appeal to Jeremiah 3:1 to support his view,31 Luck seems to
have missed the point of the prophet. Jeremiah was simply saying
that Judah wanted to have it both ways--clinging to harlot lovers
and renewing her "marriage" with Yahweh. The question raised by
the prophet is, "What right had Judah, frightened by the conse-
quences of her evil deeds, to take the initiative in seeking to return to
Yahweh?"32 Jeremiah was making a limited application of Deut-
eronomy 24:1-4. Judah had not married a particular lover, but, like
Gomer, had been unfaithful. Clearly God had not issued a divorce
document (cf. Isa. 50:1). Therefore the renewal of His covenant (i.e.,
"marriage") relationship with Judah would not actually constitute a
violation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
TO DETER GREEDY PROFIT BY THE FIRST HUSBAND
Westbrook suggests that the key to understanding the purpose of
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 "lies in the property aspect of marriage--more
exactly, in the financial consequences of its dissolution."33 West-
brook points out that a legal distinction between two kinds of divorce
was recognized in various ancient Near Eastern law codes.
In cases where the wife was guilty of socially recognized mis-
conduct the husband was justified in divorcing her without any fi-
nancial consequences to himself. This principle applies to the first
husband's divorce mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which was for
"some indecency." In all other cases of marital dissolution the wife
was entitled to a financial settlement. At the very least, her dowry
would be restored. According to Westbrook, this principle applies to
the second husband's divorce mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:3. Here
no guilt on the wife's part is stated or implied; yet the husband
"turns against her" or literally "hates her."34
According to Westbrook, the first husband in Deuteronomy 24:1-4
30 Ibid., 63.
32 J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 191.
33 Raymond Westbrook, "The Prohibition on Restoration of Marriage in Deut. 24:1-
4," in Studies in the Bible: 1986, ed. S. Japhet, Scripta Hierosolymitana 31 (Jeru-
salem: Magnes, 1986), 393.
34 Ibid., 401-2.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the Issue of Divorce 13
divorced his wife on the grounds of her "indecency" and thus escaped
the normal financial consequences. He paid her no divorce money
and probably kept her dowry. Yet she was able to find another hus-
band who provided for her an inheritance (by his death) or a divorce
settlement. And now that she was a wealthy widow or divorcee,
Westbrook suggests, the first husband would forget his original objec-
tions and seek to remarry her. The effect would be that the first hus-
band profited twice-first by rejecting his wife and then by remarry-
ing her. It is this unjust enrichment that the law in Deuteronomy
24:1-4 seeks to prevent.35
Westbrook's solution fits nicely with Kaufman's analysis of the
structure of Deuteronomic law in that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 falls
within the section (23:20-24:7) that expands the eighth command-
ment, "You shall not steal" (5:19). And yet the view is based on con-
siderable hypothesis and speculation. His view does not deal ade-
quately with the key terms "abomination" and "sin on the land."
And the view implies that the first divorce and remarriage is pre-
sented with approval. This is contrary to a proper understanding of
the clause, "since she has been defiled" (24:4).
A SYNTHETIC APPROACH
In light of the many diverse opinions as to the purpose of the
prohibition of remarriage in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, it is wise to avoid
dogmatism in reaching a conclusion. It may well be that the text was
intended to accomplish at least two things. First, this restriction
seems to guard against divorce becoming a legalized form of adul-
tery. Second, the prohibition against remarrying the same woman
would also serve as a moderating influence on divorce. Wenham's
analysis contributes to this synthetic view by way of clarification.
The laws against incest may serve to explain why the prohibition in
Deuteronomy 24:4 was necessary, that is, to avoid bringing the guilt
of sin on the land.
Several concluding observations based on this study may help in
considering the issues in the divorce-remarriage controversy. First,
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 did not institute divorce. The passage simply
acknowledges divorce as taking place, and not necessarily with di-
vine approval. Second, though divorce is "permitted" in 24:1-4 in
the sense that it is not specifically prohibited by law, divorce was
not looked on with favor by the Hebrew Scriptures. The lot of a di-
35 Ibid., 404.
14 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1992
vorcee was not pleasant (Isa. 54:6). Though she was free to remarry
she could not marry a priest (Lev. 21:7). This suggests that there was
"something of a stigma (social or moral) attached to her as a divorced
woman. Third, the clause, "since she has been defiled" (Deut. 24:4),
indicates that some measure of moral defilement was associated
with a divorced woman if she remarried. Fourth, 24:1-4 clearly
prohibited the remarriage of a divorced woman to her first husband
if since the divorce she had been married to another man.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was brought to the attention of Jesus by some
religious leaders who sought to "test" Him on the subject of divorce
and remarriage (Matt. 19:1-12). Most of the first-century Jewish
teachers believed that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 authorized divorce
They differed only with regard to the legitimate grounds for divorce
In talking with the Pharisees, Jesus directed their attention to
God's original design for marriage as set forth in Genesis 2:24. Jesus
affirmed that man should not separate what God has joined (Matt.
19:6). When Jesus' opponents cited Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which they
interpreted as legal authorization for divorce, Jesus did not say
Moses commanded divorce. Instead Jesus said Moses permitted it be-
cause of the "hardness" of the Israelite hearts. Hurley remarks,
"Thus, whereas the Pharisees had taken Moses' concession of divorce
as God's design, Jesus took it as a regulatory measure to deal with the
result of sin."36 Derrett further observes that where Jewish interpre-
tation went wrong was in "the failure to perceive that the one flesh
persists after divorce."37 Therefore remarriage after divorce brings
moral defilement not unlike that of adultery (Matt. 19:9).38
36 Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective, 101.
37 J. D. M. Derrett, Law in the
New Testament (
38 The interpretation of the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is an issue of
great debate among evangelicals and is outside the scope of this article. There are
four major views as to the meaning of the exception. The patristic (early church fa-
thers) view interprets the exception to allow for divorce for sexual sin, but that the
grammar and syntax forbid remarriage. The Erasmian (Reformed or traditional
Protestant) view interprets the exception to allow for both divorce and remarriage in
cases of adultery or sexual sin. The betrothal (engagement) view understands the ex-
ception to refer to a breach of the marriage contract before the union is consummated,
and that both divorce and remarriage are forbidden. The consanguinity (unlawful
marriage) view interprets the exception to refer to the laws of Leviticus 18:6-18 pro-
hibiting incestuous marriage. According to this view, divorce is allowed in cases of
incestuous marriage, but remarriage is forbidden. Wenham's arguments on the purpose
of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 seem to favor the fourth view.
For discussion of the meaning of the Greek term pornei<a used in Matthew's excep-
tion clause, see Joseph A. Fitzmyer, "The Matthean Divorce Texts and Some New
Palestinian Evidence," Theological Studies 37 (1976): 197-226; Joseph Jensen, "Does
Porneia Mean Fornication?" Novum Testamentum 20 (1978): 161-84; Laney, The Di-
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the Issue of Divorce 15
Some have questioned the present application of this text to
Christians who have been divorced and remarried. Are believers
prohibited by Deuteronomy 24:1-4 from remarrying their original
spouse in cases where there has been an intervening marriage? One
could argue that the concern for "sin on the land" would limit the
of the text to the Jewish people in the
der the Old Covenant. Yet the issue of the wife being "defiled" and
concern to avoid "an abomination before the Lord" would argue
against a temporal or limited application. Since there is nothing in
the New Testament that modifies or abrogates this clear command,
there seems to be no biblical basis for doing away with its present
application. According to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, a man may not re-
marry his divorced wife if she has in the meantime been married to
vorce Myth, 66-78; Ben Witherington, "Matthew and 19:9-Exception or Excep-
tional Situation?" New Testament Studies 31 (1985): 571-76; J. Carl Laney, “No Di-
vorce and No Remarriage," in Divorce and Remarriage, ed. H. Wayne House (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990), 33-37.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Please report any errors to