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Divorce

General

Divorce in Scripture and in current practice usually means the legal procedure that follows the breakdown of a marriage: what ends it legally. Under the law of Moses when a wife was put away by her husband, the husband had to give her a letter of divorce so that she could become the wife of another man (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Without the letter of divorce she would be legally an adulteress if she practically became the husband of another man. The penalty under the Mosaic law for adultery was death (Leviticus 20:10; John 8:4/5), though in the Bible there are no examples of the death penalty actually being carried out. In the present day in the Western world divorce is a legal procedure by which a marriage is set aside following its practical breakdown. A marriage can in practice have broken down without any actual legal divorce being obtained. In such cases a couple will still be legally married though actually separated. The opposite may in some cases be true: the parties may have been legally divorced but still be living together.

Scripture teaches that the marriage tie should be permanent: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). Note the words "cleave to his wife" in other words "stick with her". Christ confirms this statement saying: "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:6). If man does make a separation it implies, either that God has not joined them together in the first place, or if he has, that man thinks he knows better than God.


The Mosaic Law

Under the law the common people were allowed 'putting away' followed by remarriage (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). However it is to be noticed that there had to be grounds for putting away - the husband had to have found something unseemly (AV : uncleanness; RSV : indecency) in his wife (verse 1). Further, it was only the man that could put away. There is no suggestion that the wife could put away her husband. The statement of our Lord that putting away could only be on the ground of fornication (Matthew 5:31-32) would suggest that this was what he would have regarded as the meaning of 'unseemly'. It is also to be noticed that a wife who was put away and who remarried could not subsequently return to her first husband. The divorce was thus more final and binding than the original marriage ! Further, the fact that the passage gives as an example a case where the second marriage also failed, shows that if a wife is unfit for one husband she could well fall out of favour also with the second. Note that in the case of the second husband the language is stronger as he is said to hate her.

It should also be noticed that a priest was not allowed to marry a divorced woman (Leviticus 21:7). The regulations regarding the priesthood were in this way more stringent than those for the common people. The point is that the nearer people are to God (actually or positionally) the higher the standard. Take, for instance, the matter of eating creatures that died of themselves. This was not permitted to Israelites but was allowed to foreigners (Deuteronomy 14:21). This is important because Christ himself, while maintaining the law (Matthew 5:17-20), often went further and condemned not only wrong acts, but also wrong words and the thinking that lay behind them (Matthew 5:21-48). We are a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5) and therefore what is required of us is

more than that required of common Israelites. We have like the priests of old the anointing oil of God upon us (Leviticus 8:30). In our case not physical oil but the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:21/22).

It may also be noted that a man who had humbled an unmarried woman by lying with her and who subsequently married her was not allowed ever to put her away (Deuteronomy 22:28/29). See also the case outlined in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 where again it is said in verse 19 of the man that "he may not put her away all his days". These examples show that under the law of Moses the putting away of a wife could not be legally done in all cases.

Regarding the priests, they were not only not allowed to marry a divorced woman, but also a dishonoured one or a whore (Leviticus 21:7). As to the high priest, he could not even marry a widow, but had to take as wife (note not wives) a virgin. He was not, so to speak, allowed to have used goods. He was to maintain what was ideal in the flesh (Leviticus 21:13-15). In the New Testament there is no prohibition against marrying a widow. In fact, it is in certain cases encouraged (1 Timothy 5:11-15) and as regards a dishonoured woman (probably one who had been raped) nothing is said, nor as to a whore, but the latter would not have been in the assembly and therefore available to be married to a Christian in any case. The New Testament is concerned with what is moral and there is no such taint where a widow is concerned.


God and Israel

Although God hates putting away (Malachi 2:15/16), there are times when it is necessary. God himself had to put Israel away (Jeremiah 3:8). Her conduct was so bad that he had to do it. Effectively by her conduct she had put herself away (Isaiah 50:1). This may be a comfort to anyone who has been through the trauma of divorce where the fault or main fault was with the other party.


Grounds for Divorce

Christ only specifies one ground, and that is fornication (Matthew 5:31/32). This includes adultery. If it did not it would mean that the lesser offence of improper sexual relations outside marriage would be ground for divorce but not the greater offence


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