“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!

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

  1. Very interesting! Keep us posted on the books you read about divorce…it’s not an easy subject to discuss with those who accept divorce as normal. God bless!

  2. Hi there,

    I have a few questions.

    How do you know this is a translation problem?

    What do you do with the numerous instances in the NT where, KJV or ESV, it is shown that divorce was indeed a commandment?

    Matthew 5:31 – Jesus quotes the law worded the same as the KJV words it in Deuteronomy. This is the case both in ESV and KJV of Matthew 5.

    Matthew 19:7-8 – Both KJV and ESV, the Pharisees call it a commandment. Jesus doesn’t disagree, as you might’ve according to this article.

    Mark 10:2-5 Jesus himself calls it a commandment in asking what the commandment was (ESV and KJV), and furthermore confirms it is a commandment (KJV, precept).

    I am not favoring divorce anymore than you but I don’t think the ESV has the correct translation here. I know no reason to question the KJV’s translation of Deuteronomy.

    1. Good questions, Daniel. I’ll attempt a response here, while aware that a fuller answer would be valuable.

      First, in order to show that this is a translation problem both you and I would need to know Hebrew. I don’t, I freely confess. So I’m relying here on those who do.

      I notice that a clear majority of translations agree that Deuteronomy 24:1 contains no command, only conditions for the command coming in verse 4. Highly literal translations such as NASB and Young’s Literal tend to agree. See the list of translations here: https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Deuteronomy%2024:1

      A couple notable exceptions among recent trusted translations are the NET and HCSB, both of which say “he may” in verse 1. Unfortunately, the NET does not include any discussion among their copious notes about why they chose this interpretation. Is it possible that the unavoidable historical influence of the KJV shaped their choice? And is it possible that the same is true of the HCSB? After all, both are translations produced by conservative evangelical (and at least one of them Baptist) groups which come from a long-standing tradition of using the KJV as the basis for their doctrine.

      Commentator Peter C. Craigie (NICOT) has this to say: “In precise terms, there is only one piece of legislation in this passage [24:1-4], that contained in v. 4a. The first three verses, which form the grammatical protasis, specify the exact conditions that must apply for the execution of the legislation in v. 4 (the apodosis)… The protasis contains incidental information about marriage and divorce, but does not specifically legislate on those matters. The verses do not institute divorce, but treat it as a practice already known.” (pp. 304-305).

      Daniel Block (NIVAC) comments thus: “Following longstanding rabbinic tradition and the question put to Jesus in Matthew 19: 7,1 some argue that Deuteronomy 24: 1b serves not just as a description of divorce procedures but as a ruling on the matter. But several factors raise doubts about this interpretation. (1) Based on ancient Near Eastern divorce laws, it should then have included financial stipulations to the divorce, particularly a statement of the husband’s obligations to repay the dowry or the conditions under which he would have been exempt. (2) Later use of a prior text is not determinative for the contextual meaning of the earlier text. In fact, Jesus disputed the Pharisees’ reading of the text. That Moses permitted divorce may simply mean that he left customary procedures in place; he was not making a (new) ruling on this matter. (3) Although the first husband receives more attention, our text presents the two men in the woman’s life as parallel cases (vv. 1b, 3). The repetition of the last three lines in verses 1b and 3 suggests the preceding actions are equivalent, which means that if we interpret the second series conditionally, the first is neither a command nor permission. (4) The structural parallels between 21: 10–14 and this text offer clues on how to interpret this text. Both texts contemplate situations in which a woman is vulnerable to abuse within a marital relationship, and both seek to protect the dignity of a woman who has been rejected by her husband. On this analogy, our text is not intended as a law on divorce but as a prohibition on remarriage, the primary concern being to protect wives from abuse by men, specifically a first husband. Moses does so by reiterating existing procedures for releasing wives from the bonds of marriage and insisting that when a husband divorces his wife, he relinquishes his authority over her. (pp. 556-57)

      He also adds this in a footnote: “McConville (Deuteronomy, 358) rightly observes that because New Testament discussions are influenced by contemporary perspectives [i.e., debates from the time of the New Testament], they cannot decide the grammar of this text.” (p. 565)

      So, without knowing Hebrew myself, it seems to me that there is a pretty strong case against the KJV translation of the Hebrew in this verse.

      So, what does the NT suggest about how Jesus understood this passage? Did he believe that it commanded divorce?

      Looking at Matthew 5:31 first, it is important to notice that “Jesus’ words… form more of a paraphrasing summary” than an actual quote. “‘Whoever divorces’ does not actually appear in the OT text,” and “‘wife’ and ‘her’ are the only words repeated verbatim from the LXX” (the Greek translation of the OT common in Jesus’ day). “Thus it is possible that we should call this an allusion rather than a quotation.” In fact, “it is not clear whether Jesus is deliberately turning Deuteronomy’s ‘if clause’ into a command to reflect the distorted use of the text by certain Jewish leaders in his day.” A similar thing might be said of Jesus’ later words in Matthew 5:43, where he says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy'”; the second clause here is found nowhere explicitly in the OT.

      If Jesus is indeed intending to accurately summarize a point drawn from Deuteronomy and not from the distortions of leaders of his day, then he is simply making explicit something that the Deuteronomy text assumes is proper: “Implicit in Deut. 24:1-4 is that issuing a certificate of divorce is the appropriate procedure for establishing a legal divorce.”

      (All quotes in the last two paragraphs are from Craig Blomberg, writing in the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by Carson and Beale–a highly recommended volume.)

      So does Matthew 5:31 indicate that Jesus thought Deuteronomy 24 commands divorce? I think the strongest positive answer we could reasonably claim is that Jesus may have understood the Deuteronomy passage to indicate that *if* divorce happens, it should be formalized with a certificate of divorce. There is no grammatical case for suggesting that Jesus is commanding anyone to divorce, or that he thought the OT passage did so.

      In Matthew 19:7-8, it is the Jewish leaders who call divorce a “command.” Jesus, in his response, says Moses “allowed.” So, again, Jesus is clearly not commanding divorce.

      Mark 10:2-5 is a little harder to synthesize with the other passages. After all, here it is Jesus who uses the word “command” and the Jewish leaders who use the word “allow”! But if we follow the logic of the dialogue, the apparent conflict can be resolved. Jesus asks, “What did Moses command…?” The leaders answer, “Moses allowed…” And Jesus responds, “…he wrote you this commandment.” In other words, the OT commandment under discussion allowed divorce, but did not command it. This matches Deuteronomy 24:1-4 perfectly. Here we find one single command spanning verses 1 through 4a. And this single command does not command divorce, but allows for it—without, it should be noted, ever directly affirming it.

      Thanks for pushing me to look at this more closely!

  3. Interesting note on the KJV mistranslation, Dwight. This particular passage has always troubled me, because it makes my understanding of “abomination” a little less settled. In my understanding of a second marriage, since it is not a legitimate marriage, the person who is remarried would be permitted to go back to their first spouse and re-affirm their marriage vows. This is a way forward, albeit I have never discovered anyone in that situation where the option presented itself as a possibility. However, according to this passage, that “re-marriage” to the first spouse would be an abomination. I still find that abomination less clear.

    1. I still need to wrestle more with how this OT passage should shape a Christian’s understanding and practice regarding divorce and remarriage. You raise important questions. I’m still at the stage of trying to ensure I understand the original OT intent, but I anticipate wrestling more directly with implications for today.

  4. There are things much worse than failed marriages. I think we need more people willing to stand for principles and protect children/women even if it costs a marriage. When preserving the marriage is the only value that matters, I think we have already lost God’s heart.

    Also, it depends if you believe this is a black and white issue that can be decided conclusively once for all or if it is a grey issue that must be proceeded with prayer in individual cases.

    1. Joyce, thanks for your response. Your words raise important questions, though I won’t attempt to answer them here. As I said above, this post isn’t in any way intended to be a final word on the questions of divorce and remarriage. What it is, is an attempt to help us begin by ensuring we are hearing the Scriptures correctly. The voices of women and children are certainly important! God’s voice is even more important. Let’s listen carefully to him, trusting he has our best at heart. God bless!

  5. Here is another angle to this D/R issue. (May be running ahead of your study on this issue.)

    Moderns use the excuse that in the case of adultery D/R is allowed because the OT allowed it. But I find nowhere in the OT law where D/R was allowed in the case of adultery. Know what it does say about that? Kill them! Don’t know how often it was done but when God spared David from his sin of rape it certainly was an issue of mercy at work.

    1. Sandra, I believe you are correct in your summary of the prescribed OT punishment for adultery. And you are also correct that God in his mercy did not always hold his people to this requirement.

      I’m running ahead of myself with my next comment, but I’ve noticed (from 1 Cor. 5) that the NT equivalent of the OT death penalty is sometimes excommunication from the church of Christ. This matches the NT passages which specify that no adulterer has an inheritance in the kingdom of God. By implication, then, such people should be excommunicated from the church. But again, God in his mercy makes exceptions for those who, like David, repent.

  6. A friend (Wayne Horst) just sent me this valuable info: “Dwight, it doesn’t appear that I am able to post comments any more on DGO. Just wanted to say that both the Tanakh and the Septuagint seem to follow the ESV et al on Deut. 24.”

    Two more things:
    (1) Is anyone else having trouble commenting today?

    (2) I tried to trace the reason for KJV’s translation choice here, and discovered that both the Tyndale and Geneva Bibles also translated 24:1 as a command. Digging deeper, I found that Luther’s 1534 translation did as well. So, I dug deeper, and looked at the Vulgate. Here it is:
    si acceperit homo uxorem et habuerit eam et non invenerit gratiam ante oculos eius propter aliquam foeditatem scribet libellum repudii et dabit in manu illius et dimittet eam de domo sua

    If a man take a wife, and have her, and she find not favour in his eyes, for some uncleanness: he shall write a bill of divorce, and shall give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

    So this mistranslation has a long history, at least as old as Jerome in AD 383!

    The underlying problem may well be the fact that Jerome was not an expert at the Hebrew language (see https://bbhchurchconnection.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/how-well-did-jerome-know-hebrew/). If he had followed the LXX (Greek Septuagint) on Deuteronomy 24, he would have avoided this mistranslation. But instead, for better or for worse, he forged a new path for translators in his day and translated the OT directly from Hebrew manuscripts.

    I’m sure there are morals in this story for all sorts of translators, Bible interpreters, and writers and teachers in general, but I’ll leave them for you to ponder.

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