We’ve all heard the oft-quoted figure: 50%.
50% of marriages end in divorce, they say.
Some studies show it’s actually over 70% [a].
That number is a bit fuzzy, to be sure, but nevertheless, we all know how high it is. In some countries it’s even higher (looking at you, Belgium) [a].
But for believers, should we not find this number at virtually zero? If marriage is a religious institution, should not the number of broken marriages be less among religious people? I’ll digress from that point.
In this article, we’ll examine divorce from an historically Biblical point of view, as well as from a cultural point of view. I will unequivocally and unapologetically state, right now, that the best resource for this topic (if you want an exhaustive study) is the book “Divorce and Remarriage in the Church” by Dr. David Instone-Brewer (the link here to the book, should you want it). His work lays the foundation for much of what I’ll be showing in this article, and indeed, this may serve simply as a summary of much of his findings.
To begin, a couple statements. Firstly, I apologize for the title. I’d like to say we can all safely assume divorce is “Biblical” simply because The Creator Himself divorced Israel (see Jer. 3). But all things on the matter being what they are, I’ll try to avoid taking such understandings for granted. But I do consider Jeremiah 3 to be the starting place. For those new to the topic, here is the relevant portion:
6Then YHWH said to me in the days of Josiah the king, “Have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there. 7“I thought, ‘After she has done all these things she will return to Me’; but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. 8“And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. 9“Because of the lightness of her harlotry, she polluted the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. 10“Yet in spite of all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to Me with all her heart, but rather in deception,” declares YHWH. (Jer. 3:6-10)
See, Israel played the harlot, meaning the nation continually committed adultery against Elohim (God). This is a spiritual matter, referring to Israel’s constant pursuit of false gods and idolatry. But the point of the matter is, Elohim gave Israel a spiritual certificate (writ) of divorce for Israel’s spiritual adultery. So to put it in simple and perhaps modern times: God Himself got a divorce. Now there are all other sorts of questions here about this particular instance, but we’ll address those another time.
But the lingering question in the mind of most believers today is not simply about divorce, but more about remarriage. There is a common belief that floats around about remarriage for a believer whose ex-spouse still lives. The claim is that marrying someone else, while your ex-spouse is still alive, is adultery. Only if the former spouse has died, they say, is one free to remarry. This is largely based on an interpretation of Yeshua’s words in Matthew 5 and 19, as well as Paul’s in 1 Cor. 7. But we’ll get to those.
Secondly, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will inform the reader now that I (J. A. Brown) am, myself, divorced. If you consider this too personal or too biased to continue to read the article, I wouldn’t fault you. However, I do hope and pray that you would take the time to consider what I’ve written here. Further and more importantly, that you take the time to understand the Scriptural and cultural context surrounding the issue of Scriptural divorce and remarriage. I present not merely my opinion – which is largely irrelevant to the reader – but rather facts and historical evidence and above all else, the Scriptures themselves. As I always say, don’t take my word for it; look it up for yourself. This is, again, why I highly recommend Dr. Instone-Brewer’s book. Not because he himself is a prophet or anything, but because his book is well-cited and contains references to many of the things we’ll be looking at here.
As another side note of housekeeping, I will refrain from quoting from the LEV for this article. I stress to people all the time that I seek to remain neutral and unbiased in how I have chosen to translate things, especially with the work we did in the LEV. That said, it would be easy to accuse me of using a doctored Bible version to push a doctored doctrine (see what I did there?). I refuse to be written off as biased and uneducated for such a silly reason. For that reason and that reason alone, I will be quoting from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) unless otherwise noted.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s begin to break down the structure here. The points below are how I intend to address this topic.
The Gospel Gotcha
By far, the most common divorce discussion that the Church (and even the Torah Keeper) has ever had about divorce, stems from the Gospels, especially Matthew 5. Here are the verses from the NASB (Messiah’s name substituted for those that would otherwise be too uncomfortable):
31“It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; 32but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt. 5:31-32)
3Some Pharisees came to Yeshua, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 4And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 5and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH’? 6“So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 7They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?” 8He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matt. 19:3-9)
***Quick note: Matthew 19 here actually gives WAY more information and context than people realize. But we’ll circle back around to that. ***
2Some Pharisees came up to Yeshua, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. 3And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses permitted a man TO WRITE A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY.” 5But Yeshua said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6“But from the beginning of creation, God MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE. 7“FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER, 8AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9“What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
10In the house the disciples began questioning Him about this again. 11And He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; 12and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.” (Mark 10:2-12)
So with all of this, given the most common interpretation, the evidence seems rather stacked against remarriage, doesn’t it? Clearly with words like “who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery” and “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery with her.” Further, we get the “except for the reason of unchastity” clause.
But is that really what this all means? To get at the answer, we must first set the historical stage, and see who all the actors are. The most complete and pressing information here obviously comes from Matthew 19. Both Matthew 19 and Mark 10 (both recording the same event in slightly different words) are describing “some of the Pharisees” coming to Yeshua to challenge Him (as they always do). While Mark describes the general interaction as, ”They came to Him to question (lit. interrogate) Him about whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife,” Matthew provides the additional crucial details. In Matthew’s account, not only are they questioning Yeshua about divorce, BUT, they ask Him about a VERY specific TYPE of divorce. Namely, the “any cause” divorce.
Don’t see that? I’ll demonstrate.
Matthew 19:3 - 3Some Pharisees came to Yeshua, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”
See, that bolded phrase is vitally important to understand in its original cultural context. So let’s take a stroll through history for a moment.
Around the time of Yeshua’s birth the two leading Rabbis were Hillel and Shammai. These two operated houses or “schools” of thought, teaching, and interpretation. The Mishnah and Gemara (aka the Talmud) inform us of MANY different disagreements between the two men, usually because Hillel was seen as gracious and liberal, and Shammai was seen as strict and harsh. Hillel was the one who would often “loose” commands in his teachings (that is, he would lighten the burden), while Shammai would “bind” them (or make things more strict, or difficult).
One of the many disagreements these two men had was over the proper interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. We’ll get to it more in-depth later when we stop to take a logical look, at the “divorce” text of it, but for starters, we’ll see it here:
1“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that 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 from his house… (Deut. 24:1)
See, that phrase “…has found some indecency in her…” is what the Hillel-Shammai debate centered on. In order to understand what that meant to the people to whom Yeshua was speaking, we need to consider how they already understood that verse. So here’s the text from the Mishnah (from Gittin 9.10), which holds the actual words that Hillel and Shammai used:
Beit Shammai say, "No man shall divorce his wife, unless he found in her unchaste behavior, as it is stated [in Deuteronomy 24:1], 'Because he found in her 'ervat davar' [unchaste behavior].'" Beit Hillel say, "Even if she spoiled his food, because it is said, ervat davar". Rabbi Akivah says, "Even if he found another [woman] prettier than her, as it is stated [ibid.] 'If it happen that she does not find favor in his eyes.'"
Let me explain that really quickly. Ervat davar is the Hebrew phrase translated as “some indecency” in the NASB. Ervat is a word implying nakedness, hence “indecent.” Note that Shammai took that to mean “unchaste behavior.” That is, a matter of sexual immorality. Hillel took it to mean “anything he consider indecent / unbecoming”, and uses the example of “even if she spoiled his food.” Later, Rabbi Akivah noted (as he sided with Hillel), that a man could divorce his wife even if he found another woman prettier, as his current wife being no longer as pretty in his eyes meant he was displeased with her.
In short, their disagreement hinges on whether divorce is granted (per Deut. 24:1) on the grounds of “a thing” or on the grounds of “an indecency.” More on that below.
So that’s the cultural context of the time. That’s what was in the mind of every Jew hearing Yeshua speak on the matter, and especially of the Pharisees who came to question Him.
The Midrashic book, Sifrei Devarim also records the conversation, and adds additional info. To paraphrase, it boils down the argument to just what I mentioned above: Shammai said the only reason for divorce granted (in Deut. 24) was an indecency. This could mean she had committed adultery, but what is more likely is that he meant if she had lied to her husband about her virginity. That is, if she were not a virgin when marrying her husband even though he was under the impression that she was. He could divorce her for this. Meanwhile, Hillel took the word to mean not simply indecency or a matter of sexual immorality, but any thing with which he was displeased. Again, their argument centering on the proper interpretation of two Hebrew words in the text. (Kind of reminds of arguments even still today among the Torah Keeping community).
From Dr. Instone-Brewer:
We will go further into the other “grounds” for divorce in a bit. For now, we’ll wrap up this section. Again, note that Yeshua in the Gospels is not addressing the topic of divorce and remarriage wholesale. Rather, He is addressing the SPECIFIC type of divorce that the Pharisees were questioning Him about, namely, Hillel’s “Any Cause” divorce. That is why they came to Him and asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” (in the NASB quoted above, it is translated as “any reason at all”). That is, their question was more like: is the “Any Cause” divorce actually legal?
In this particular debate, Yeshua sided with Beit Shammai, in saying that Deuteronomy 24:1 does not support the “any cause” divorce. He notes this agreement by responding with the same sort of language used by Shammai (only for unchastity). Remember that if the question was simply “is it lawful to divorce” we can assume these Pharisees (very intelligent and learned men) were absolute morons. Divorce was outlined in the Torah (especially in Deut. 24). And further, Jewish law already allowed divorce for a number of reasons. Clearly, at least for some reason or another, divorce WAS lawful, because the Law said so! So then, the question must have been more than just about divorce in general. And again, once we include the cultural and historical context, we find that it was.
So to be clear: Yeshua was addressing their question, and the context of the time tells us that it was centered on Deuteronomy 24. He was not addressing divorce as a whole. We see this further still by the Pharisees’ further question, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Again, the point being this: the discussion here was not about the legality of divorce (which was never in question), but about the legality of the “Any Cause” divorce. This would be akin to asking “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for irreconcilable differences?” This doesn’t ask if divorce is lawful, or if the other grounds for divorce are lawful. What about abuse, neglect, infidelity, etc.? Those are not covered by the question about irreconcilable differences.
Yeshua’s comments about a divorced woman remarrying being considered adultery meant only that if a woman was put away without just cause, then her divorce was not valid, and therefore was still legally married. In terms of the “Any Cause” divorce, Yeshua did not let it stand; He told them it wasn’t valid. This is not a broad statement about a woman remarrying after a divorce (which Deut. 24 even indicates she can), but rather, a specific case that she cannot remarry if she was improperly divorced. Put another way, if she was sent out and legally “separated” but not legally “divorced” then her remarrying was adultery.
So we looked at the Gospels’ context regarding divorce, and we find that it doesn’t address the matter in its entirety. I would personally say this is for the same reason that we don’t see Yeshua addressing homosexuality: everyone already knew the legal status of it. We also don’t see Yeshua addressing eating unclean meats. Why? Because you don’t have to question the things everyone already understands. Divorce was always a part of life in Judea; it was common. Again, so common that even Yeshua’s earthly parents nearly divorced.
But what grounds WERE accepted for divorce? If we already said that a divorce couldn’t be “groundless” or for “any cause” then what WERE the valid reasons?
The reasons for divorce were because of a breaking of marital vows. Breach of contract, if you will. We find those noted in Exodus 21.
7“If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do. 8“If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her. 9“If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. 10“If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. 11“If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money. (Ex. 21:7-11)
Here we find the other 3 rules. Namely: food, clothing, and conjugal rights. See, these are rights that belong to a wife that would be stipulated in the ketubah (ie. the marriage contract). A woman would be promised food (sustenance), clothing (material provision), and conjugal rights (her husband could not indefinitely deny to have sex with her). The latter likely because a woman was entitled to children, and as we see over and over again, it was a very big deal. Sarah and Abraham; Rachel and Leah’s competition; even Judah’s sons with Tamar: all of it very clearly indicative of the WIFE’s rights and desires for children. But I digress.
Now I will admit the context here in Exodus 21 is not talking about wives in general, but a specific case. Namely, a woman that was married and then her husband takes another wife. (We could get even further specific and say it’s about a woman who was taken as a slave first). The common interpretation of this is found in many marriage and divorce documents from the Near East and among the Dead Sea Scrolls and Masada texts, dating back to even before Yeshua’s time. What is commonly misunderstood, is that these are the grounds for which a wife also may divorce her husband. If he refused to take care of her (that is, neglect or abuse), she could sue him on the grounds that he did not provide for her according to the ketubah (marriage contract).
On the note of refraining from sexual relations, we have the following also found in Mishnah Eduyot 4:10:
If one vows [to abstain from] his wife in sexual intercourse, Beit Shammai says: [After] two weeks [of abstinence his wife may sue him for divorce]. And Beit Hillel says: [After just] one week.
See, it was commonly accepted that a woman could sue for divorce, not just a man. Another quote from Dr. Instone-Brewer highlights the process of application of Ex. 21 as it was used in ancient Israel.
Exodus 21:10-11 is case law, so we have to ignore the details about slavery and polygamy and look for the principles that apply to all marriages that involve neglect. The rabbis found the following principles in this text, and I think they were right. They reasoned that if a slave wife had the right to divorce a husband who neglected to supply food, clothing and conjugal love, then a free wife would certainly also have this right. And they argued that if one of two wives had this right, so did an only wife. Furthermore, if a wife had these rights, then a husband was also entitled to divorce a wife who neglected him. The biblical principle that is established, therefore, is the right of someone to divorce their partner if they neglect their vow to provide food, clothing or conjugal love. (Instone-Brewer 36)
Here I will, once again, recommend Dr. Instone-Brewer’s book, as he cites specific examples of marriage contracts (ketuvot), divorce decrees, and other documents that we have archaeologically unearthed.
So to summarize: divorce is allowable when the marriage vow (contract) is broken. It can be initiated by the husband or the wife. This includes neglect, abuse, and adultery. Now these are not the only discussions that took place in rabbinic literature. And I’m sure many of my readers will not put much stock in rabbinic literature. But whether you consider it authoritative or not is not the question. Only to establish what the culture and context of the matter can tell us. Remember that Scripture did not unfold and was not written in a vacuum. Yeshua’s ministry took place in Judea in the time that Pharisaic Judaism was at the height of its power and influence. We would do well to understand the background of issues and arguments that were taking place.
On the points previously discussed, we note that Yeshua did not forbid remarriage. And of course He didn’t, because the Torah itself doesn’t. We need go no further than Deut. 24 to examine the topic, which states that after a woman receives her get (bill of divorce), “and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife…” (Deut. 24:2). That is, the Torah outlines a living husband divorcing his wife; she is legally allowed to go and become the wife of another man. We know from Ex. 21 (as well as cultural expectations) that a marriage requires consummation. That is, following the wedding, the couple would engage in sexual relations. So that is already assumed when a woman “goes and becomes another man’s wife.” Not only assumed, but in many Ancient Near Eastern cultures, required. In many cases, the marriage was not considered fully legitimized until after consummation. So here we know that a divorced woman marrying someone else, she would be having relations with her new husband. Even while her former (now ex) husband lived.
Further, we know it was common practice for a woman to remarry after divorce, because of the following verses:
15The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.” 16He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” 17The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Yeshua said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” (Jn.4:15-18)
If divorce did not permit remarriage, why was only the most recent man “not” her husband? Yeshua could have pointed out that of the 6 men she had been with, only the first was her husband; all subsequent being illegitimate. But He didn’t say that. He only mentioned the most recent relationship being not even her husband, likely an indication that they were cohabiting but not married.
This brings me to a point I would like to address. Let’s derail divorce and remarriage for a moment, and talk about marriage more broadly. It has been said before, and indeed I have even heard it recently, that sex before marriage is what makes someone married “in God’s eyes.” The claim is, that a couple having sex is married with or without a formal contract (ketubah, or in modern terms, a marriage certificate). See, I take issue with this. I do not believe the Secular State Government has any say-so or power or authority to dictate…well…anything, in terms of what Elohim defines as marriage. If a couple is married in the eyes of God, they are married whether the Secular Government recognizes that or not. But the inverse of that is also the case: just because the State recognizes someone as “married” does not mean that our Heavenly Father does. (Considering gay marriage here.)
However, I also believe Scripture is clear that marriage is NOT solely based on having sex. The above referenced verses in John demonstrate this. The implication being that the woman was living with (and we’re all adults here; we know what that entails) a man that was not her husband. That is, simply having sex did not make them married.
Further, we see Deut. 22, specifically verses 28-29:
28“If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, 29then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days.
Now I already address what this means in context in the article Picking & Choosing. Check it out if you want my explanation of it. To put it simply, no, there is no legal requirement for a woman to marry her rapist. A rapist is put to death. But in these two verses, we find that a couple having consensual relations, who are not married, MUST get married. Well then clearly, it means that the act itself doesn’t MAKE them married, if the very consequence is that they must then GET married. Logically, getting a traffic ticket for not having a license, does not automatically grant me a driver’s license, yes?
So that’s my derailment for a moment. Again, if you want a little more on Deut. 22:28-29 (along with a few other tricky issues), check out Picking & Choosing.
Now, back to remarriage. As Dr. Instone-Brewer points out, it was expected of divorcees to remarry. In fact, Roman Emperor Augustus even enacted a law in 18 B.C.E. that allowed a divorcee or widow(er) to be prosecuted under the law for not remarrying within a year and a half after the end of the prior relationship. Augustus’ motives were due to the low birth rate of Roman citizens (they didn’t want to be outnumbered by foreigners), as well as concern that young Roman men would divorce wives and then never remarry so as to live licentiously. Furthermore, the Jews believed that one had not fulfilled the command to “be fruitful and multiple” unless they had at least 2 children. So if someone was divorced and without children, they needed to remarry to fulfill this mitzvah.
We’ll move on from here to Paul’s teaching on the matter, as I know many of my readers will, by this point, already be wondering about his words, especially from 1 Cor. 7.
The Pauline Pretext
To begin, I’d like to highlight something that Dr. Instone-Brewer notes from 1 Cor. 7:39. That is, that Paul actually quotes the language of a divorce certificate, when he says, “She is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Master.” See, when a Jewish get (divorce certificate) was written, it often included the phrase, “You may marry any Jew you wish.” This served as a reminder to marry within the Faith and community.
Before making more points about Paul’s words on the matter, let’s go ahead and read the relevant passages from 1 Cor. 7. I’ll do this by breaking it down into bite-sized pieces.
1Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. (1 Cor. 7:1-2)
Note that Paul advises people to get married. Each man to have his own wife, each woman her own husband. There is no exclusion here for divorcees, which would be an opportune time for Paul to mention it, if he were going to. “Every woman should have her own husband…unless she’s divorced.” But we don’t see that here. Further, one of the primary reasons for this which he notes, is “because of immoralities.” Well I think we can all agree that a divorcee is just as susceptible to those immoralities as an unmarried man or woman. Perhaps even more so, since having been married, you’ve already partaken in marital activities.
3The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6But this I say by way of concession, not of command. (vss. 3-6)
Husbands and wives have equal responsibilities to one another. This is not a dominance hierarchy, this is a mutual relationship. See how he mentions in verse 5 that they should not “deprive one another” except by agreement for a time. As we saw earlier from Ex. 21, and the rabbinic commentary on it: a person may not deprive their spouse of sexual relations indefinitely. The reason is because both husband AND wife are entitled to marital relations (conjugal love). If a man withheld this from his wife, she could divorce him. So Paul reminds them not to withdraw from each other except for a given length of time, agreed upon, to devote themselves more directly to prayer.
7Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. 8But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (vss. 7-9)
I do not believe that Paul is advising all widows to not remarry here, or even all single people. Recall from his letter to Timothy in 1 Tim. 5 that he actually ENCOURAGES young widows to remarry. If we take this on the surface level, it would seem that he’s waffling on the issue. But see, what people oftentimes miss here, is again the cultural setting and context. As pointed out in the book I’ve been so heavily referencing, there was a famine in Corinth. It was hard enough for someone to provide for themselves, but taking on a wife and children meant providing for THEM as well. Paul’s advice is most likely (given his Jewish upbringing) not to abstain from remarrying, but to abstain for a time, until you could provide for your spouse. Marriage brings children, and all of that brings more responsibility.
Bearing in mind again, if you will, that a man marrying a woman is bound by law to provide her with food and clothing. In a famine, both are harder to come by.
10But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Master, that the wife should not leave her husband 11(but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. (vss. 10-11)
Here everyone likes to say that if you’re married and your spouse leaves you, you can’t remarry unless they die. Paul also says you shouldn’t divorce your wife. Both of these things are true. Again, given the Corinthian context at the time, women were leaving their husbands and going back home to their parents to seek better provision, among other things. And men were doing the same; sending away their wives so as to get out from under the legal requirement to provide for them. This is, again, not touching the entire issue of divorce, but rather, divorce as a means of escaping responsibility.
12But to the rest I say, not the Master, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. (vs. 12)
First of all, Paul is clear here that he’s giving his own advice, not the Word of Elohim. He advises people to live with the unbelieving spouse, as long as they consent to live with you (the believer). But this next one is a trip:
13And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away.
How’s that? I thought only men could initiate a divorce? No indeed. As we examined earlier, it was just as common for women to divorce men who failed in their obligations, as it was for men to divorce women. Paul again here advises women not to send away their husband just because they’re an unbeliever. This couples with the prior verse, implying again, as long as they AGREE to live together with you, then you shouldn’t divorce.
14For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. 15Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. 16For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? (vss. 14-16)
Here, I won’t be addressing the strange and somewhat confusing statement Paul makes in verse 14. But the key here is verse 15: if your unbelieving spouse leaves you, let them go.
As Dr. Instone-Brewer notes, “separation was equivalent to divorce in Roman law, so that when someone was abandoned by their partner or was asked to leave their partner’s house, they were being divorced. Paul was totally against this Roman groundless divorce-by-separation, just as Jesus was against the Jewish groundless divorce, and Paul told Christians who had separated from their partners that they should try to undo this divorce by attempting a reconciliation and remaining unmarried while they were doing so.” (vs. 11). (Instone-Brewer 112)`
Further, in the case of those whose spouse left them (as in, they didn’t get a say-so in the matter), Dr. Instone-Brewer states, “Some people interpret “not enslaved” [or, “not under bondage”] (verse 15) as meaning “no longer tied to your partner” (that is, you can live apart but cannot divorce), while others interpret it as “no longer tied to your marriage” (that is, you can divorce but not remarry). Both these interpretations would have sounded like nonsense to a first-century reader because Paul was speaking to people who were already divorced, so they had no choice in the matter. […] A first-century reader of Paul’s letter would have had no doubt about what “not enslaved” meant, because it would remind them about the words on their divorce certificate: “You are now free to remarry.”” (Instone-Brewer 113)
Lastly, verses 39 and 40. Paul is here contrasting (throughout the latter half of chapter 7, actually) a “virgin marriage” with a remarriage. See, a first marriage is implied by the woman noted as being a virgin. If not, it is implied she has previously been married. He also refers to widows, apart from divorcees. We’ve already seen him addressing divorcees in the earlier portions of chapter 7, now he turns his attention to widows. Verse 39 makes this distinction by referring to a woman who is still bound to her husband while he lives. This is clearly not the case for a woman that is divorced, as, again, even her divorce decree itself would note that she is “free to remarry.” I know this oftentimes seems like he’s explicitly stating no married woman can ever be free from her husband until he dies. But again, that cannot be the case given his earlier statement about the divorcee being “freed” from the spouse that left them. It also doesn’t jive with Deut. 24, knowing that Deut. 24 permits a woman who was divorced to marry someone else. And as we know, marriage implies consummation.
In short, Paul advised people who were the “left behind” or injured party, to accept this “freedom” (to remarry) as their unbelieving spouse left them. He did not, however, permit believers to utilize this Roman method of separation as a means of obtaining a divorce.
However, let’s take a step back and look at the logical side of things. Let’s say that both Yeshua and Paul had advised people not to remarry after divorce at all, for any reason, and if they did, they could not consummate the marriage (which means clearly, no children). This would put them in danger of 1) facing prosecution under Roman law, and 2) breaking the mitzvah to “be fruitful and multiply.”
In Summary – What Are We Left With?
To summarize all of this, we have the following:
But what we gather, from the Scriptural textual evidence; from archaeological evidence; and from cultural evidence, is that it did happen, and The Almighty permitted it.
Restoration and reconciliation is always the first step. But sometimes it doesn’t happen and isn’t possible. Especially when your spouse is not on the same Faith plane as you. Sometimes you’re the one left, you’re the one who is the injured party. As Paul said, you are not under bondage in such cases.
I implore everyone to consider the evidence presented here. To seek the answer from the Scriptures themselves, in context. Divorce is never to be taken lightly.
I pray this study has blessed you.
Be Berean. Shalom.
[b] Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Church. Madison: InterVarsity Press, 2009. Book.