This past Sunday we heard a sermon featuring the life of Joseph, the earthly (legal but not biological) father of Jesus. The speaker reminded us that “God fulfills his promises through the obedience of ordinary people like Joseph and you.” The speaker gave numerous examples from Joseph’s life but I would like to consider just one: how Joseph planned to divorce Mary after he discovered she was pregnant before they were married.
Here is the brief Scriptural description of this event:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matt. 1:18-19 ESV)
To understand this account well, we need to step back in time and understand what betrothal meant to Jews in their cultural context.
Betrothal was far more serious than our modern engagements are. It is tragic today when someone breaks an engagement, but it is not a crime. Hearts are broken, but laws are not. As an ESV footnote says, “betrothed” meant “legally pledge to be married.” Commentator R. T. France describes betrothal like this:
Though the couple were not yet living together, it was a binding contract entered into before witnesses which could be terminated only by death (which would leave a woman a “widow”) or by divorce as if for a full marriage…; sexual infidelity during the engagement would be a basis for such divorce. About a year after the engagement… the woman (then normally about thirteen or fourteen) would leave her father’s house and go live with the husband in a public ceremony [a wedding].
The language of Matthew 1:19 reflects the legal seriousness of Jewish betrothal, calling Joseph Mary’s “husband” and saying he planned to “divorce” her—terms we would never use today of an engaged couple.
The seriousness of violating a betrothal is also seen in the Law of Moses, which prescribes the same punishment—death—for sexual unfaithfulness whether it happened during betrothal or after the wedding ceremony:
“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.
“If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deut. 22:22-24)
Notice that the betrothed woman is called a “wife,” just as Matthew calls Joseph Mary’s “husband.”
The law of Moses also included a test for a husband who, on his wedding day, suspected his bride had been unfaithful prior to their wedding (Deut. 22:13-21). Discovering such unfaithfulness was so important to Jews that they scheduled their wedding dates around this concern. Theodore Mackin, S. J. explains:
It was the custom, when the bride was neither a widow nor a divorced woman, for the marriage to take place on the fourth day of the week, so that if the husband found her not a virgin, he could accuse her before the court, which held session only on the fifth day.
Commentator William F. Luck sums up Jewish law well: “In short, betrothal unfaithfulness is, according to the Old Testament, a kind of adultery.”
(Bunny trail: These realities are one reason why modern debates about the “betrothal view” of Jesus’ exception clause are often misguided. Ancient Jews would not have understood our insistence on distinguishing between adultery during betrothal versus adultery after a wedding.)
Back to poor Joseph, who discovered that his dear “wife” Mary was already “with child.” How could she have committed such a terrible betrayal? And what on earth was he to do now?
Well, Joseph was “just,” we are told (Matt. 1:19). Or, as the NIV puts it, he “was faithful to the law.” According to the original intent of that law, Mary should now be stoned. According to first century Jewish practice, after Roman law had abolished Jewish death penalties, “divorce was the normal course.” The normal course, then would have been for Joseph to make a public spectacle of Mary, to “put her to shame” by putting her on trial for adultery.
But we are told Joseph was not only “just” but also “unwilling to put her to shame.” In other words, though he was just, his justice was tempered with mercy. Therefore, he “resolved to divorce her quietly.”
The story, as I’ve told it so far, is fairly well known, though I’ve added important historical details. But what I’m about to share includes something I never thought about until after church this past Sunday, as I discussed the sermon with the speaker.
As best we know, there were several kinds of divorce available in Jewish courts in Jesus’ day. On the one hand, there were divorces that required specific due cause. In limited cases, a wife was probably able to force her husband to grant a divorce on the grounds that he was not providing for her (Ex. 21:11). More commonly, a husband could charge his wife with adultery. Such divorces required public proof of wrong-doing, leading to shameful humiliation for the one convicted.
But another kind of divorce was also available and widely used—the any-cause divorce based on a distorted reading of Deuteronomy 24:1. This is the divorce Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31): “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” In such a divorce case, a man did not need to prove his wife did anything wrong. The only requirement was that he follow the proper procedures for giving her a divorce certificate, rather than just abandoning her. There was little a wife could do to prevent such a divorce, but at least it resulted in less public humiliation for her.
Jesus directly addressed both kinds of divorces in his debate with the Pharisees in Matthew 19, referencing both in his summary proclamation: “I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). On the one hand, Jesus strongly condemned the any-cause divorce, calling such divorce (normally followed by remarriage) “adultery.” But he gave an exception, recognizing that divorce (normally followed by remarriage) based on due cause, on the grounds of “sexual immorality,” is not adultery.
Back to Joseph. Mary had obviously committed adultery. As David Instone-Brewer says, “It was considered very suspect when a man refused to divorce his unfaithful wife, which is why Joseph is described as righteous for wanting to divorce Mary, who appeared to be unfaithful.” There was no escaping it: according to Jewish expectations and the law of Moses, Joseph had to divorce Mary.
But which kind of divorce should Joseph pursue?
The obvious answer, and the one that fit his sense of justice, was to charge Mary with adultery. The evidence (Mary’s womb) was obvious and growing day by day, so winning his divorce would not be difficult.
But Joseph was also merciful, so he chose the option that would be easier on Mary. He chose, it appears, to take her before an any-cause divorce court, where he could “divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19) without proving her guilty and shaming her publicly. This sort of divorce “required no public trial, no evidence brought by witnesses, and very little fuss.”
In other words–and here’s the observation that was new to me this year–Joseph chose the kind of divorce that his own Son, years later, would call “adultery.” Rather than choose the kind of divorce that would leave him looking like the innocent victim he understood himself to be, he chose the kind of divorce that would leave him appearing guilty according the One who held to a higher standard of justice than the flawed reasoning of the Jewish teachers of the law.
Joseph decided that, rather than prove Mary guilty and himself innocent, he was willing to be accused of callous disregard of his betrothal contract if only he could reduce the public shaming of Mary, his unfaithful “wife.” He would obey the law, but he would obey it in a way that avoided causing unnecessary suffering to others.
Joseph is a wonderful example for us today. No, I’m not saying that a simple cut-and-paste imitation of his actions is always in order, but I believe that his love of both justice and mercy should serve as a guiding light for how we think about betrayal and divorce.
I suspect Joseph’s heart of justice and mercy also helped him accept God’s explanation of what had actually happened to Mary:
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21).
It is through the obedience of ordinary just and merciful people like Joseph (and you) that God fulfills his promises. May we, too, make way for the coming of the Messiah by how we live our lives, including as we respond to unfaithfulness, perceived or real, in our marriages.
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 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 50.
 If a man violated an unbetrothed woman, on the other hand, he was not executed but only had to pay a bride price and honor her with a proper marriage (assuming her father wanted that to happen). Also, if a betrothed woman was violated in a deserted area where her cries for help could not be heard, she was declared innocent.
 Theodore Mackin, S.J., Divorce and Remarriage, Marriage in the Catholic Church, Vol. 2 (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 62.
This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage. I began my walk through Matthew 19 with this question central: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? Starting in this post, I’m broadening my focus from that “could” question to begin answering a “should” question: Did Jesus believe divorce is always wrong? Here are my posts so far:
Summary of this post: I begin asking why God permitted divorce under the law of Moses. Jesus said it was “because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8)—an expression referring to unresponsive stubbornness, expressed both in rebellion toward God and disregard toward humans. As Israel repeatedly showed hardness of heart, God gave them more laws, including ones about divorce. These laws were both a concession to human weakness and a protection for those with hard-hearted spouses. A parallel example of a divine concession is human kingship in Israel. This, too, was contrary to God’s perfect will, yet he permitted it and ultimately used it for his glory and for human flourishing.
Introduction to the Next Several Posts
In my last post I asked whether Jesus’ statement “Moses allowed you to divorce” offers any clues about whether marriage is indissoluble (Matt. 19:8 ESV). After surveying all the passages in the law of Moses that deal explicitly with human divorce, I concluded that none of them give any indication that divorce did not truly end a marriage. Taken together, they strongly indicate that the law of Moses pictured divorce as fully dissolving a marriage—just as surely as if it had been ended by death.
In the next several posts I want to step beyond the question of whether a marriage can be dissolved and consider why God permitted divorce under the law of Moses. Jesus said Moses allowed divorce “because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). What is hardness of heart? How is it related to the giving of the law? Whose hearts were hard? Does everyone who seeks divorce today have a hard heart?
And what did Jesus mean by the clause that was really his main point—“but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8)? What wasn’t so, and when? And was Jesus completely overturning the Mosaic divorce allowance with this clause?
Here, again, is Jesus’ complete statement: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8).
There are many exegetical chestnuts in this sentence and cracking them isn’t easy. Writing these next several posts has proved harder than I expected, but I’ll do my best to zero in on what Jesus meant to say.
What Is Hardness of Heart?
Hardness of heart is mentioned often in Scripture and, as the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says, “there is no one technical word or phrase for hardening in Scripture; rather a variety of words and phrases are used to describe the same phenomenon.” A variety of images are found behind these terms, including dryness, petrification, or covering something with stone or even a foreskin. The basic idea of hardness of heart, at least in the sense used here by Jesus, seems to be stubbornness and rebellion—a refusal to be sensitive, trusting, and responsive.
A person’s heart can be hard toward either God or fellow humans. Which did Jesus mean here? France represents many commentators when he says “this familiar biblical term refers not so much to people’s attitudes to one another (cruelty, neglect, or the like) as to their attitude to God, whose purpose and instructions they have set aside.” Others, such as Roberts, conclude that “hardness of heart” was Jesus’ way of referring to men who “had a callous disregard for their marriage covenants and were divorcing their wives for no good reason.”
It seems to me that this is a false dichotomy. I think most commentators, if nudged, would agree that hardness of heart will inevitably be expressed toward both God and humans. Even Pharoah, the classic biblical example of hardness of heart, was hardhearted not only toward God (“Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” Ex. 5:2) but also toward Moses and Aaron (“he would not listen to them,” Ex. 7:13, etc.) and toward the whole nation of Israel, whom he wanted to retain as slaves (Ex. 14:4-8; cf. 5:4-18). Thus, Jones is probably right when he suggests the “core issue” of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day included both vertical and horizontal dimensions: “their disrespect for women that was fueled by their stubborn hearts.”
The specific compound word that Jesus used for “hardness of heart” (σκληροκαρδία) is found only two places in the Greek OT (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4). In both, hardness of heart toward God seems to be the dominant concern, yet the context clarifies that honoring God means having soft hearts toward humans as well. For example, here is the reason given in Deuteronomy for avoiding hardness of heart:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deut. 10:17-19; cf. Deut. 15:7; Jer. 5:23-29)
Both passages also warn that hardness of heart will bring severe judgment from God. In fact, in Jeremiah, the ultimate result of Israel’s hardness is that God divorces her, sending her into exile (Jer. 3:1, 8). Perhaps, then, there was a subtle irony in Jesus’ mention of hard hearts: “If you hardhearted Pharisees keep on wrongfully divorcing your wives, God will rightfully divorce you!”
What Does Hardness of Heart Have to Do with the Giving of Law?
Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (Matt. 19:8). Why would hardness of heart result in God giving laws that allowed divorce?
Collins offers one explanation:
Perhaps the answer is to be found in a Jewish tradition which suggested that the Law had been destroyed after Israel’s alliance with the golden calf and that, in its stead, a more permissive version of the Law was promulgated as a concession to the people’s hardheartedness. Within this perspective, the ‘concession’ of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 would have belonged to the less demanding version of the Law given to Israel.
There are several puzzling hints in the OT of a similar possibility—that God may have originally offered Israel a brief law but then added laws in response to their sins. For example, in Jeremiah 7:22 God says, “In the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” An even more cryptic comment is found in Ezekiel 20:25, in a passage recounting God’s dealings with unfaithful Israel in the wilderness: “Moreover, I gave them statues that were not good and rules by which they could not have life.” Mackin ties this statement to Jesus’ comment about hard hearts:
Jesus’ religious logic here, though so familiar to the Jews of his own time and earlier, is strange to the Western religious mind… [Israel] had again and again been faithless to the Lord’s commands. One of the consequences of this faithlessness was that he had given them “laws that were not good”—not so much as a punishment as to bring them to realize that he is still their Lord. This is Ezekiel’s thought in his book of prophecy (20:25)… This faithlessness was at its worst when Moses, on coming down from Sinai with the tablets of the law, found the people adoring the golden calf. Jesus’ implication here is that the accepted practice of getting rid of unwanted wives is a continuation of this same spirit of faithlessness, and because of it the people were given “a law that was not good.” Their hardness of heart drew upon them Moses’ command to dismiss their wives. Were they not thus stubborn they would have received neither command nor permission.
Sailhamer cites NT evidence supporting this view of the giving of the law:
Paul says in Galatians 3:19 that God gave Israel the law “because of transgressions”… Why the plural? If we look at the various sets of laws edited into the Pentateuch, we can see that there were several “transgressions.” Throughout the narratives of Exodus 19–Deuteronomy there are numerous examples of Israel’s failure to follow God’s will… After each episode of disobedience we see that God gave Israel a new and more complete set of laws. As Israel continued to transgress the laws given to them, God continued to give them more. God did not give up on his people. When they sinned, he added laws to keep them from sinning further.
While some details of these proposals are certainly questionable, the general approach seems reasonable to me. France provides a good summary:
The Deuteronomic legislation [Deut. 24:1-4] is a response to human failure, an attempt to bring order to an already unideal situation caused by human “hardness of heart.” …Even after his people had rejected his design for marriage, God gave them laws to enable them to make the best of a bad job.
Why Did God Allow Divorce?
What did God want to accomplish by giving laws that allowed divorce? How did he expect these laws might help his people “make the best of a bad job”? Where these laws merely God’s way of turning a blind eye at sin, or did he want to accomplish some good? Keener emphasizes the former, but suggests both:
The rabbis, like other ancient legal scholars, recognized “concession” as an established legal category—something that was not quite right to begin with, but had to be allowed because people would not be able to do what was fully right. Jesus is saying that God permitted divorce as a concession to human weakness… His point is that Moses put up with their divorcing because the best he could get out of hard-hearted people was legal protection for the one divorced against her will. But if they had been compassionate and open to his ways, God could have held them to his original and ideal standard all along: they were not to initiate divorce.
Luck emphasizes the positive good God aimed to accomplish by allowing divorce:
The phrase “because of your hardness of heart” is [sometimes wrongly] interpreted as saying something like: “Well, God knows that divorce will take place, so He made a concession to you, allowing you to do what you wanted.”
…What then? For whom is the concession? For the wives whom these hard-hearted men have been divorcing since before the days of Moses… Knowing that they will be treacherous and turn their backs on their covenant partner, God has provided a law that will minimize the abuse. He will wink temporarily at hard hearted husbands putting away innocent wives so that these wives will be saved from their husbands, who would perhaps physically abuse them if forced to keep them. So the permission to divorce has nothing to do with condescending to wicked men, but everything to do with preserving innocent women.
Divorce laws were indeed a “concession to human weakness” (Keener), but Luck is right to warn that we should not imagine God was giving a thumbs up to any-cause divorce. Rather, the fact that laws recognizing divorce were needed should have been a rebuke to Israel.
Luck is right to focus on hard-hearted husbands and innocent wives. I plan to discuss this dynamic more in my next post.
Israel’s Kingship—A Similar Divine Concession
A parallel example to Israel’s divorce laws can be seen in the question of whether Israel was to have a human king. When God brought Israel to Sinai, he declared his kingship over them: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). When Israel asked for a king in the days of Samuel, he rebuked them, saying that their desire for a king was actually a rejection of God’s kingship and a desire to imitate the pagan nations around them. Yet Samuel also recognized that “the Lord has set a king over you” (1 Sam. 12:12-13).
Was Samuel contradicting himself? No, for God had already predicted this scenario in the law of Moses:
“When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose.” (Deut. 17:14-15) 
Notice that the permission to have a king is presented as a concession—a concession with a built-in rebuke of Israel’s desire to be “like all the nations” around them. Some similar mixture of divine concession and rebuke seems to have been at work in the divorce allowance given through Moses.
Despite this biblical picture of kingship being contrary to God’s primary and original will for his people, and despite how Israel’s kings often led the nation into sin, as Scripture unfolds we see that God used human kingship for his glory and for human flourishing. In fact, it was through Israel’s line of kings that he sent his own Messiah-King, his Son.
Could God accomplish something similar through the tragedy of human divorce? Could he sometimes permit and use even this for his glory and for human flourishing?
Those questions take us beyond the scope of this post. In my next post I plan to take a closer look at Jesus’ audience. Whose hearts, according to Jesus, were hard? What does that suggest about how we should apply his words today? Does everyone who seeks divorce have a hard heart?
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 Craig A. Blaising, “Hardening, Hardness of Heart,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 494. For example, Stuart notes that three different terms for hardness are used in Exodus alone to describe Pharoah’s hardness of heart, and “all three.. essentially function synonymously,” so that “their meaning in modern English is simply ‘be/make stubborn’” (Douglas Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary [Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2006], 147).
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 719-20.
 Barbara Roberts, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Maschil Press, 2008), 82-83.
 Jerry Jones, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Seen Through the Character of God and the Mind of Jesus (Joplin, MI: College Press, 2016), 76.
 However, the related verb for “harden” (σκληρύνω) and noun for “heart” (καρδίας) are frequently paired elsewhere. This cautions us against confidently assuming Jesus was alluding specifically to any single OT text. Further, in both passages the term σκληροκαρδία in the Greek OT translates a Hebrew expression that actually says “foreskin” rather than “hardness.” This reinforces the fact that a wide variety of terms were used to express essentially the same concept of hardness.
 Raymond F. Collins, Divorce in the New Testament, Good News Studies, Vol. 38 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 96.
 Theodore Mackin, S.J., Divorce and Remarriage, Marriage in the Catholic Church, Vol. 2 (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 50.
 John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 561, cf. 42, 415, 556.
 Here are some examples: While the Deuteronomy 24 divorce permission came after Israel’s unfaithfulness with the golden calf, the first law commanding divorce preceded it, hard on the heels of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 21:10-11); Jeremiah and Ezekiel may be using prophetic hyperbole in their presentation of Israel’s history; Ezekiel’s comment is understood by some to refer not to God’s law but to God “giving over” Israel to the laws of pagan nations; Paul’s comment may mean something else, such as that the law was given to clarify the nature of sin as “transgression” (cf. Rom. 4:15; 7:7-8); and the authors cited here do not fully agree on why God gave additional laws to Israel.
This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I’m examining Jesus’ words beginning with this question: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? Here are my posts so far:
Summary of this post: I ask whether Jesus’ statement that “Moses allowed” divorce provides any clues about whether marriage is indissoluble. After showing that Jesus was not pitting Moses against God, I survey what God’s law said about divorce. Some laws narrowly commanded divorce; others narrowly forbade it. Multiple laws assumed divorce and that divorce dissolves a marriage. The famous Deuteronomy 24 passage prohibited a man from remarrying his former wife who had meanwhile been married to another. This passage is joined by others that likewise grouped divorce and death as equally and truly ending marriage.
Introduction: Was Marriage Indissoluble Under the Law of Moses?
Jesus wrapped up his summary of God’s creation design for marriage in Matthew 19:3-6 with a strong command: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
The Pharisees were not satisfied with this response. They countered with a question, alluding again to Deuteronomy 24:1: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matt. 19:7). Doesn’t this mention of a “certificate of divorce” imply that it is “lawful” (Matt. 19:3) to divorce a wife?
Jesus’ rebuttal focused again on God’s creation design for marriage: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). In other words, yes, it may have been “lawful” under the law of Moses to divorce, but that same law, in its record of the creation, shows that divorce was not part of God’s original and unchanging design. In short, the should of marriage permanence remains clear, despite the certificates of divorce allowed under Moses.
But does Moses’ allowance of divorce indicate anything about whether a marriage could be dissolved by anything other than death? Do the practices of divorce and remarriage under the law of Moses suggest that divorce was always only a legal fiction? Or do they suggest that marriages really could be dissolved, despite God’s creation intent?
As I address these questions in this post, I will focus on the first main clause in Jesus’ sentence: “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” From the perspective of what was uppermost in Jesus’ mind, the other two clauses are even more important (“Because of your hardness of heart… but from the beginning it was not so”). I plan to address those clauses directly in a future post or two. First, however, I want to consider what we can learn from Jesus’ acknowledgement that Moses allowed divorce.
So, what does the law of Moses say about divorce? And do its laws about divorce give any indication as to whether marriage is indissoluble or not? Let’s survey some of the most important evidence for clues.
The Law of Moses: Two Possible Misunderstandings
Two likely misunderstandings must be cleared up right away. First, Jesus is not pitting Moses against God. Jesus is not saying “God forbade divorce but Moses dishonored God by allowing it anyway.” Jesus is never recorded as speaking negatively of Moses. He believed the law of Moses came from God himself; in fact, in this very conversation with the Pharisees Jesus has already attributed an editorial comment from Moses (“Therefore, what God has joined…”) to God (“he who created them”).
The suggestion that Jesus’ words “Moses allowed” are describing “a merely human deviation from the divine purpose” is “a very modern inference,” as commentator R. T. France noted. Rather, “the laws given by Moses were understood to be the laws of God; ‘Moses’ means the Pentateuch, the God-given body of law which is Israel’s highest authority.” Thus, whatever commands we find in Moses’ law must be seen as coming from God himself.
Second, we should note that the law cited by the Pharisees, which is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, is really a law about remarriage, not divorce. This law is essentially a long “if” followed by a short “then” command. A summary version could read, “If a man divorces his wife, she remarries, and her second marriage comes to an end, then the man may not take her back as his wife again.” Thus, Dean Taylor rightly wrote of this passage, “Moses did not institute divorce, he merely regulated against a type of remarriage.” That said, it remains true, as Jesus acknowledged, that this law of Moses did “allow” divorce.
Laws Requiring Divorce
What is less well known is that in some cases the law of Moses actually required divorce. For example, in Exodus 21:11 a master-husband was instructed to give his Hebrew slave-wife her food, clothing, and marital rights, without diminishing them if he took another woman. If he withheld these rights, the law commanded that “she shall go out for nothing” (Ex. 21:11; cf. Ex. 21:26). Similarly, Deuteronomy 21:14 commanded that if a man “no longer delight in” his wife whom he had taken as a captive in war, he must “let her go where she wants” without selling her or treating her as a slave.
Both these passages contain linguistic links to the famous divorce and remarriage passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, links suggesting that these passages are talking about full divorce, complete with the right to remarry. They also appear to be talking about real marriage, despite the wife being originally secured by either slavery (temporary indentured servitude of a fellow Hebrew) or captivity (of a foreign enemy). If either of these seems least likely to qualify as real marriage, it would be the captive wife. Yet the Deuteronomy passage says explicitly, “you may… be her husband, and she shall be your wife” (Deut. 21:13). Further, that passage occurs right before a paragraph that demands that unloved “wives” be given equal rights as loved ones, a command that parallels the one in Exodus 21:11.
If a wife taken as a slave or captive had a right to secure a divorce if her husband would not provide for or “delight in” her, then surely a wife gained by more normal means had equal rights or better. Thus, Jews in Jesus’ day applied this passage to all marriages. They “recognized that the obligations of Exodus 21:10-11 could form the basis of a claim for divorce,” and “rabbinic literature preserves detailed discussions concerning the exact limits for gaining a divorce on the grounds” in that passage.
It is worth noting that some of the authors who have been influential for conservative Anabaptists on the topic of divorce (Coblentz, Webb, Wenham, etc.) do not even mention Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14. Several make statements that are clearly false in light of these passages. For example, Cornes wrote the following in his summary of the OT law:
Any individual law which specifically legislates about divorce only limits its availability. The law must therefore be seen as restraining divorce rather than enabling it.
Wenham and Heth likewise exclaimed, “There is, in fact, no legislation respecting grounds for divorce in Old Testament law!”
Kuruvilla, drawing on Cornes, made a similar claim, even extending it to include the entire OT:
Throughout the Old Testament, there is no “enabling legislation” for divorce. Instead, Old Testament laws merely restrict a practice that was already ongoing… Nowhere in the Old Testament are any statements given that “enable” divorce or remarriage.
Contrary to these claims, Exodus and Deuteronomy both clearly command that if a husband refused to care for his (slave or captive) wife, he must grant her the freedom of a divorce. Would God, through Moses, have commanded that wives of abusive husbands be freed to remarry if he thought that their first marriages remained undissolved?
Laws Prohibiting Divorce
Other laws provided for women by protecting them from wrongful divorce. For example, what if a husband took a wife, decided he didn’t like her after having sex with her for the first time, and then tried to get rid of her by falsely accussing her of not being a virgin? Such a man was to be whipped and fined, and “he may not divorce her all his days.” He had to provide for her for life, without exception, for he had “brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel” and put her in danger of wrongful capital punishment (Deut. 22:19). Similarly, the rule for a man who raped an unbetrothed virgin was that he had to marry her and “may not divorce her all his days” (Deut. 22:29).
As far as I can discover, author Rubel Shelly is right in saying that these are “the only two specific situations named in which a man could not divorce his wife” under the law of Moses. And presumably, if a wife in these two situations was later uncared for, she could go to court to sue for either provision or her own right of divorce under the precedent of Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14.
How widely was divorce practiced in OT Israel? Given the pattern of Israel’s other sins, Instone-Brewer is probably right in saying “we must assume that divorce was as prevalent in Israel then as in other ancient Near Eastern societies.” What is clear is that divorce was widely “allowed” under the law of Moses and sometimes even commanded. Was God allowing something that was a legal fiction, or was he allowing (and sometimes commanding) something that was real, even though it fell short of his original design for marriage?
A Law Prohibiting Remarriage
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 supports this picture of easily-available divorce. I’ve already summarized the basic point of the passage, and I’ll reinforce that summary now by emphasizing that the Jews in Jesus’ day entirely missed the point of the passage when they mined it in search of valid grounds for divorce. The passage does not provide grounds for divorce but restrictions against a certain kind of remarriage.
Let me quote the passage in full and then we’ll look for clues about marriage permanence.
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 sends 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. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deut. 24:1-4)
Some things about this passage remain highly debated among commentators. What is “some indecency”? How, exactly, was the wife “defiled”? Why was it wrong for her former husband to take her again as his wife after she had been defiled? What relevance, if any, does this remarriage prohibition have for us today?
I won’t try to answer those questions now. I will point instead to some clear facts that may be clues about whether marriage is indissoluble. In this passage:
A woman who is remarried is called “another man’s wife”—that is, she is now the “wife” of “another man” besides her former husband (v. 2).
Her prior husband is called her “former husband” (v. 4), indicating he is no longer her husband.
A certificate of divorce is expected for ending a second marriage just as surely as a first marriage, suggesting the second marriage was considered just as real as the first (v. 3).
Divorce and death are presented in parallel as equally ending a marriage (v. 3).
A woman’s former husband (including her first one) has less right (none!) to claim her as wife than any other man does (v. 4); there is no assumption a first husband has special rights based on a persisting marital union.
Let me get technical for one paragraph. It is worth noting that the Hebrew word (ri’šôn) translated “former” in the phrase “former husband” does not always mean “first” (e.g., Num. 21:26; Ps. 79:8; Is. 42:9). Thus, this law restricts a second husband from remarrying a former wife after she has married a third as surely as it restricts a first husband from remarrying. Therefore, it is not right to say that a first husband is singled out by this law even negatively, by receiving a special prohibition not given to subsequent husbands. (The CSB, NET, NIV, NLT, and multiple other translations are misleading in this regard; KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, and others more cautiously read “former.”)
In short, while it is not clear whether the divorces in this passage were legitimate, everything about the passage suggests that divorce was seen as truly ending a marriage—just as truly as by death. Further, remarriage was seen as “putting a seal” on divorce, making any former marriage permanently dissolved.
Laws Grouping the Divorced and the Widowed
Tellingly, several other passages in the law of Moses group divorce and death in a similar way. For example, both widowhood and divorce gave a priest’s daughter equal right to return to her father’s house and eat his priestly food, which she was forbidden to eat while she was married to a layman (Lev. 22:12-13). Similarly, if a married woman made a vow, her husband had a right to make her vow void when he first heard of it. But this law came with an exception: “Any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her” (Num. 30:9). As far as both these laws were concerned, a divorcing husband and a dead husband had equal authority over their former wives—none.
The marriage restrictions for a high priest also group divorce and widowhood together:
A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people (Lev. 21:14).
The restriction against marrying a widow was a matter of ritualistic cleanliness, not a timeless moral requirement (1 Cor. 7:39). It functioned like other restrictions in this passage, such as the one forbidding the high priest from making himself unclean by caring for the dead bodies of close relatives (Lev. 21:11). Similarly, the NT strongly implies that there is nothing immoral about marrying someone who was formerly sexually immoral (“a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute”) but who is now “sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Given this context, it appears that the law against priests marrying divorced women (cf. Lev. 21:7) was also a ritualistic restriction, not a moral one. Commentator Wenham suggests this restriction was designed to protect a priest’s reputation and also to ensure his wife’s children were really his own, thus protecting the priestly line.
In fact, divorced and widowed persons were so tightly grouped in Jewish thought that the Hebrew and Greek words translated widow in the Bible were sometimes used to refer to a divorced woman. This broader conception of widowhood in the Hebrew language is found in 2 Samuel 20:3. After David returned to Jerusalem following his defeat of Absalom, he took his ten concubines whom Absalom had defiled and “put them in custody… but did not have relations with them. So they were locked up until the day of their death, living as widows” (NASB).
Similarly, the Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher Philo—during whose lifetime Jesus lived and died—counted a divorced woman as having been widowed in his interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4:
If a woman after parting from her husband for any cause whatever marries another and then again becomes a widow [χηρεύσῃ], whether this second husband is alive or dead, she must not return to her first husband.
Philo’s interpretation affirms our observation that divorced and widowed women were treated very similarly under the law of Moses, both classed as being unmarried.
Conclusion: Marriage Was Dissoluble Under the Law of Moses
As far as I know, these are all the passages in the law of Moses that deal explicitly with human divorce. None of these passages give any indication that divorce did not truly end a marriage. Taken together, they strongly indicate that divorce was seen as fully dissolving a marriage. There is no indication that a man who divorced his wife had any special right to take her back again, and he was expressly forbidden from doing so if she had meanwhile been married to someone else.
Yes, every mention of divorce in the law of Moses is in tension with God’s creation design recorded in the first book of Moses. If every Israelite had lived up to God’s design, no marriage would ever have ended in divorce.
However, it is also true that if every human had lived up to God’s design, no marriages would have been dissolved by death, either. (This includes marriages ended by death as punishment for adultery, a topic I hope to address later.) Tragically, both death and divorce are part of human experience post-Eden, and both are pictured in the law of Moses—God’slaw—as truly ending marriage.
Was this picture merely an illusory concession to human practices? What did Jesus mean when he said these divorce allowances were given because of “hardness of heart”? And what about his statement that “from the beginning it was not so”? I plan to turn to these questions in my next posts.
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 It is a sobering truth that merely living up to a law granted as a concession to human weakness does not ensure one is truly pleasing God.
 Even though some of Jesus’ teachings hinted that the law of Moses would come to an end (Matt. 11:13; Mark 7:19; Luke 16:16), he urged people to obey even the details of the law (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42) and warned they would be judged by Moses (John 5:45-46; cf. Luke 16:29-31). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ teaching about divorce comes immediately after his statement that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Luke 16:17).
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 719.
 The KJV, unfortunately, obscures the flow of thought, but the NKJV, ESV, and most other modern translations make the if-then structure of Moses’ command clear. The moral logic and current relevance of Moses’ prohibition of a husband remarrying his former wife, however, remain highly debated. Since Jesus didn’t address these questions, I won’t address them in this post, either.
 The Hebrew word translated “let her go” in Deuteronomy 21:14 (šālaḥ) appears again in Deuteronomy 24:1, which describes a husband who divorces his wife and “sends her” out of his house. Likewise, the word translated “shall go out” in Exodus 21:11 (yāṣā’) appears in Deuteronomy 24:1 (24:2 in some translations) in the phrase “she departs out of his house.” This woman then “goes and becomes another man’s wife” (Deut. 24:2). This shared language implies that in all three passages the woman who is sent away is free to remarry, even though two of the passages never explicitly say so.
 David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 102.
 Authors who discussed divorce in the OT without mentioning either Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14 include John Coblentz (What the Bible Says about Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage), Finny Kuruvilla (“Until Death Do Us Part”), J. Carl Laney (The Divorce Myth), Joseph A. Webb (Till Death Do Us Part?), Gordon J. Wenham and William E. Heth (Jesus and Divorce) and G. J. Wenham (Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting). Andrew Cornes (Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice) discussed only the Deuteronomy passage (p. 137-38). Despite acknowledging it discusses divorce, he surprisingly asserted that it actually discourages divorce. The authors of Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View (Wingerd, Elliff, Chrisman, and Burchett) addressed both texts in an appendix (pp. 143-46), but only to explain why they “did not consider” them “relevant to our discussion.” I do not find their reasons compelling.
 Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 176-77.
 William E. Heth and Gordan J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce, updated ed. (Carlisle, England: Paternoster Press, 2002), 107.
 Finny Kuruvilla, “Until Death Do Us Part: Is Remarriage Biblically Sanctioned After Divorce?” (essay), (Anchor Cross Publishing, July 13, 2014), 4-5, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/570e3c2f8259b563851efcf8/t/5911288c4402435d4e08c196/1494296716383/essay_remarriage.pdf. The most obvious passage contradicting Kuruvilla’s broader claim is Ezra 10, where Israel divorced their foreign wives in an act of repentance. Nothing in the passage suggests that these marriages were not real, despite being contrary to God’s law. Nor is there any indication that any subsequent marriages would be legal fictions permitted by God even though the first marriages were not truly dissolved. Rather, the passage is best understood as a case where two shoulds conflicted with each other—the should of marital permanence and the should of marrying only within Israel. Both of these could be broken, and in this case Nehemiah ruled that the latter should took precedent over the former. In the language of the passage, to have “broken faith” with God by marrying foreign women was worse than to subsequently break faith with these women by divorcing them, for the latter was required as part of renewing Israel’s “covenant with… God” (Ezra 10:2-3, 10-11).
 Her father, however, had legal right to refuse to give his daughter to him in marriage (Ex. 22:17).
 Rubel Shelly, Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2007), 50.
 David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 23.
 This conclusion is reinforced by how Ezekiel repeats these commands in his vision of a renewed priesthood: “They shall not marry a widow or a divorced woman, but only virgins of the offspring of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest” (Ez. 44:22). The final “loophole” in this verse shows that it was not intrinsically wrong for a priest to marry a widow.
 Gordan J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the OT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 291-92.
 The Lexham Bible Dictionary provides this definition for both the Hebrew word (אַלְמָנָה, almanah) and the Greek word (χήρα, chēra): “A woman whose husband has died, or who has been parted in some way from her husband” (M. J. Morris, “Widow,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016].
 Other passages in the law of Moses contain information about marriage that have indirect significance to the question of marriage permanence (such as texts implying the legality of polygamy). There are also narrative portions of the books of Moses that are relevant. These include not only Genesis 1 and 2 and other passages reinforcing marriage faithfulness, but also stories such as the account where God encouraged Abraham to heed Sarah’s desire and “cast out” Hagar (Gen. 21:8-14), his slave whom he had taken “as a wife” (Gen. 16:3). Finally, God predicts his own divorce of Israel (“I will forsake them”), for he knows they will “whore after… foreign gods… and break my covenant that I have made with them” (Deut. 31:16-18).
 If the passages I have discussed in this post are overwhelmingly focused on protecting wives, the Mosaic laws about adultery focus on protecting husbands from unfaithful wives. If it was evident a wife had committed adultery, both she and her adulterous partner were to be put to death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).