Key Scriptures from the Old Testament
Let’s begin by reading some of the Old Testament scriptures that shed light on the subject of divorce. The teaching of the New Testament is most important to us; but since some New Testament passages quote from the Old Testament, we will look at those Old Testament passages first.
The first of these passages is right at the beginning in the Book of Genesis, after woman was created and given to man. Genesis 2:24 says,
“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”
This is an interesting statement, since nobody had a father and mother at this point. Adam and Eve were both directly created by God, so the first part of the statement would not have applied to them. Since the words about “leaving father and mother” could not have been instructions to Adam and Eve, they must have been inserted by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of readers through the ages.
If you read Christian books and magazines about marriage, or hear people talk about it, you will likely hear terms such as “partnership,” “the marriage partnership,” or “marriage partner.” However, the Bible never refers to marriage as a partnership; rather, it refers to it as a single entity. The Bible says that in marriage, the two become “one flesh.”
A partnership always involves at least two people. You cannot have a partnership with just one person, “one flesh.” Traditionally, in a partnership, the partners always remain somewhat independent of each other; for example, tax laws have historically required business partners to report their income separately, and to pay taxes as individuals. The Genesis account describes marriage as “one flesh,” not as a joint venture between two partners.
A Certificate of Divorce
The passage above dealt with marriage and what it represents. Let’s move on to Deuteronomy 24:1–4, which deals with divorce.
“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 uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled. For this is an abomination before the Lord.”
What does this passage tell us about divorce in Old Testament times? Try to study these verses in sequence, without reflecting on what you remember from the New Testament. Let’s study these verses one phrase at a time.
“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 uncleanness in her and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house . . .”
There was a procedure that allowed for divorce in Old Testament times. Remember, we saw nothing in Genesis about divorce; all we read in Genesis was that a husband and wife are to become “one flesh.” Yet Deuteronomy makes allowance for divorce. What are the conditions under which a man may divorce his wife?
“When . . . it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her.”
Note that this verse did not permit a man to divorce his wife for any cause he wished—only if he found “some uncleanness in her” that caused her to find “no favor in his eyes.”
Let’s consider what parts of this statement could be considered ambiguous or confusing, leading to more than one possible interpretation. What about the word “uncleanness”? Does that mean adultery? Does that mean she committed immorality before he married her? Or does it mean something else? The text doesn’t explain it any further here, so we need to note this question and remember it for later. What does it mean to find “uncleanness in her?” Let’s see if other scriptures clarify what this “uncleanness” is referring to.
Another question we could ask is, “Did God make a provision for a wife to divorce her husband?” What does the passage say? It says, “When a man takes a wife and marries her . . . .” Nowhere in this passage does it say anything about a wife divorcing her husband.
According to the passage above, God allowed divorce only in a very narrow situation: if a man found uncleanness in his wife, he could divorce her. It says nothing about her divorcing him. We are prone to read into passages things that are not there, merely because we think they should be there. We need to guard against this tendency, or we can be guilty of adding things to the Bible.
Why would God make an allowance for divorce one-sided, available only to the man? As is often the case with God’s commands, He doesn’t explain it, but it may have to do with the headship order, in which the man is the head of the woman. To illustrate this idea, consider the President of the United States and the Secretary of State. Both are highly honorable, responsible positions. However, under the U.S. constitution, the president has the power to fire the Secretary of State, but the Secretary of State does not have the power to fire the President. The relationship between a husband and wife in the Old Testament seemed to be something like this.
Under Old Testament law, a wife who found herself living in an intolerable situation could flee, perhaps returning to her parents, but God gave her no right to divorce her husband.
Notice how no one is taken to court in the Old Testament divorce; the only formality is the requirement that the husband place a certificate of divorce in his wife’s hand before sending her away. This contrasts sharply with practices in the Western world today, where the wife often sends her husband away and keeps the house, making her, in effect, the head of the home.
At the end of verse 4, we read that the husband cannot take his ex-wife back after she has been married to another man. This rule applies whether the other man divorces her or dies. In this case, she is said to be defiled (a word which may be included in the “uncleanness” referred to earlier in the passage).
God Hates Divorce
In Malachi 2:14–16, we read,
“The Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away.”
This passage has a different twist. If we have been interpreting Deuteronomy 24:1–4 to mean that God approves of a man divorcing his wife, we need to rethink that interpretation in light of this verse, where God says He hates “putting away,” or divorce.
Deuteronomy 24:1–4 stated the procedure for divorce and limited the circumstances when it was allowed. From the wording of Malachi 2—“thou hast dealt treacherously”—we might deduce that the husbands of that time were divorcing their wives for reasons other than the “uncleanness” of Deuteronomy 24, perhaps just because they found someone they liked better.
Notice that Malachi, like Deuteronomy, says nothing about wives divorcing their husbands. According to the Old Testament, God allowed divorce in only one circumstance, and only by the husband. He never made any allowance for a wife to divorce her husband.
The Old Testament position is not politically correct or acceptable to modern society, even in most religious settings. However, the purpose of this article is not to make people happy or tickle their ears, but to faithfully present the Scriptures and the early church beliefs and practices on this matter. This article is provided as a resource, and is not intended to dictate what individuals or churches should do. It is the responsibility of each church and its elders to weigh the facts and choose positions that please God and honor His commandments.