Tag Archives: Cornes Andrew

“Let Him” Or “If He”? Translating Divorce in Deuteronomy

I learned today that the King James Version has a misleading translation of an important OT passage about divorce. The translation is not only misleading, but misleading in a direction that will concern you if you are concerned about today’s easy divorce culture.

The poor translation is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, in a law addressing a sticky question about a particular kind of remarriage. Here is the relevant passage, as translated in the KJV, with a few key terms in BOLD ALL CAPS:

1 When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then LET HIM write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. 2 And when she is departed out of his house, she MAY go and be another man’s wife. 3 And IF the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; 4 Her former husband, which sent her away, MAY NOT take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord…” (KJV, emphasis added)

First, notice that the KJV divides this passage into three sentences. Second, notice that the first sentence reads as if it is a command all by itself: if a husband finds certain conditions in his wife, then “let him write her a bill of divorcement.” “Let him” could be understood as either a “must” or a “may,” but either way, the syntax turns the clause into a command. According to the KJV, it would, at minimum, be wrong to discourage a man in this situation from divorcing his wife. And depending on how you read “let him,” you might even be responsible to insist that he follows through with divorce.

The English Standard Version, in contrast, clarifies (1) that the passage is one single flow of thought, and (2) that there is only one command, which comes at the end:

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 s 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.” (ESV, emphasis added)

Both translations correctly convey that divorce was permitted. And both correctly convey the prohibition against remarrying a spouse whom you had formerly divorced, if they had been married to someone else meantime.

But you have to read a translation besides the KJV to realize that divorce was never commanded, or even directly affirmed, under the Law of Moses. (The NKJV gets it right, and even the NIV has a long run-on sentence to guide readers to the solitary command at the end.)

I learned of this translation problem from Andrew Cornes, since I am currently reading his helpful book Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice.  He says “the Authorized Translation [KJV] is seriously misleading here” (p. 131). [Edit: It appears we can thank Jerome in AD 383 for this translation error. See here.]

And when we clear up this mistranslation, what can we observe?  Cornes again:

Nowhere, in all the legal material, is there any law which directly makes provision for divorce. Nowhere in the first five books, or indeed the whole Old Testament, do we find anything approaching the formula: ‘If a woman does… then a man may send her away.’ Divorce law as such simply does not exist… This is not to say that no laws deal with divorce. But significantly all the laws which touch on this area (and there are not very many) are formulated either to restrict divorce or to restrict remarriage. (p. 130, bold added)

Divorce and remarriage are not easy topics to handle, whether as translators, Bible interpreters, or counselors. This brief post is certainly not intended to provide a final word on the topic, especially for those for whom divorce is no theoretical matter. I invite your prayers as I read this book, and hopefully others on the same topic, this year.

Do you have a response that will help us learn together? Share it in the comments below!

Save page