We have traditionally been taught that the marriage covenant is unbreakable with the exceptions of adultery and abandonment; therefore divorce for any other cause must be characterized as a sin. So it is instructive to examine the only actual divorce in the Bible. Found in the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, most people are shocked to learn that it was the Lord God Himself who divorced His bride, Israel. We read:
“The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to Me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. “Why do you contend with me?”” Jeremiah 3:6-9 (English Standard Version)
It is a tragic account, where the chosen of God had abandoned their love relationship with God to follow after other lovers.
“Aha!” the legalists might say. God divorced Israel precisely as a result of her adultery. Well, yes and no. If the reader believes that every Israelite had physically committed adultery, then such a claim is wholly unrealistic. But if the reader can agree that the nation’s faithless heart had turned to idols, materialism, pride and selfish pursuits while neglecting their allegiance to the God who saved, protected and provided for them, then that would be more accurate. Furthermore, it was Jesus who declared, “You have heard that it said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28
Our Lord made it clear that adultery is a sin of the heart even if it is never physically acted out. So it was that in Jeremiah’s day God’s people had emotionally and spiritually turned their back on the One who had delivered and blessed them. God sent His chosen bride a powerful message by recognizing the lawful dictates established in the Mosaic law to identify the truth about the condition of the relationship and act righteously in accordance with His people’s moral failure.
Let’s expound on this.
It is in Deuteronomy 24 that Moses put forth God’s law when it came to the process associated with the severance of a marriage:
“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, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife…” Deuteronomy 24:1-2 (English Standard Version)
(There is further direction regarding the lawful process should the woman be released from her subsequent husband, but for our purposes, we will stop there.)
The three elements of biblical divorce include:
1) Legitimate cause:
“…and it happens that she [the man’s wife] finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her…” (emphasis added)
This was understood to reference an offense of a serious and unacceptable nature. The specifics remain undefined, which underscores that divorce was a matter of personal moral conscience. (Some Jewish teachers taught – and continue to teach – that divorce was and is acceptable for “any cause at all,” but such a teaching seems in clear defiance of the heart of God for marriage.)
2) The provision of a writ of divorce:
“…and he writes her a certificate of divorce…” The writ specifically noted that, possessing the writ, a woman was thenceforth deemed “free to any man.”
3) Permanent separation:
“…and sends her out from his house…” Physical separation finalized the severance.
Upon the completion of these actions, both were free to marry. In fact, Deuteronomy 24 presumes that the woman will marry again.
But let’s take a minute to absorb the depth of grief of Israel’s Father-God, whose bride had abandoned her first love, her sovereign husband.
“The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, thus says the Lord, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of His harvest. All who ate of it [Israel] incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the Lord.”” Jeremiah 2:1-2
God blessed and protected His chosen ones. But even as God poured out the fullness of His blessing on His people, they turned away, believing that they could anticipate His continued blessing even as they wandered off toward immoral, superficial and godless pursuits.
“Thus says the Lord: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from Me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through, where no man dwells?’ And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things. But when you came in, you defiled My land and made My heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who handle the law did not know Me; the shepherds transgressed against Me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.” Jeremiah 2:5-8
This was not a minor offense, nor a singular one. The hearts of the people had grievously rejected the covenant God had established between Himself and His people, wherein He had said, “I shall be your God, and you shall be My people.” (Exodus 6:7)
Jesus similarly clarified that it is in the heart that betrayal occurs. The adulterous heart that brings corruption into the relationship, neglects its partner, and violates its oaths is guilty. The notion that a partner is assured of continued blessing where there is treachery is a mockery and a lie; for the covenant has been broken.
And while we see God’s grace still extended, repentance was an absolute if the relationship was to be restored.
“Go and proclaim these words toward the north and say, ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord; ‘I will not look upon you in anger. For I am gracious,’ declares the Lord; ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the Lord your God and have scattered your favors to the strangers under every green tree, and you have not obeyed My voice,’ declares the Lord.” Jeremiah 3:12-13
We see that the Lord offered His grace and forgiveness – if His people would repent and return to Him.
But God pronounces His severe judgments against a stiff-necked people who refused to receive His petitions, a people who thwarted the blessings God longed to bestow upon them but could not because of their hardness of heart.
So is every broken relationship doomed? Of course not. Every relationship can be healed but only if both parties are willing, not just one. Furthermore, healing can only come if the offenses are confessed, repentance is genuine and trust is restored. Those determinations must be made by the ones in the relationship and respected when one or the other fails to provide more than lip-service.
It is also important to note that, using the literal translations of these terms in Scripture, the word “divorce” as a noun does not exist, so there is no such thing as “getting a divorce” nor does the word “divorced” occur as an adjective, such as “a divorced man or woman.” Neither is there any reference to remarriage or a remarried individual. Biblically, in terms of marital status, an individual of marriage-worthy age could only be unmarried, married, free to marry or “put away,” which describes the woman who had been sent away without a writ, keeping her legally bound to her husband. In the Jewish culture, a put-away woman is known as “agunah,” which means “anchored” or “chained woman.”
What is meant by “put away?” In biblical times, men had grown accustomed to sending away their wives either without cause and/or without a writ – in direct violation of the precepts of the Mosaic law. Without a writ, a “put-away” woman was usually deprived of the return of her dowry in addition to mandatory financial support for a predetermined period of time, obligations which would have been specified in the “ketubah,” the marriage contract.
For this reason, the interpretation of Malachi 2 wherein the prophet presumably asserts that God hates divorce is patently incorrect. The prophet actually says that God hates the act of “putting away” a spouse for it was a self-serving act and a cruel offense against wives who were left abandoned and materially unprotected, whereas their husbands were taking other wives in their place and committing polygamy in the process. The Scripture never says that God hates divorce.
But what of the covenant? Is such a covenant unbreakable? The truth is that no covenant is unbreakable. Throughout the Bible, covenants are made, kept and broken. It takes all parties of the covenant to keep it, and only one to break it. Here we see that the nations of Israel and Judah were responsible for breaking their covenant with God.
“They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors who refused to hear My words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers.” Jeremiah 11:10
Divorce in the New Testament
Similarly it is the act of “putting away” that Jesus condemned, for the put-away woman and the man who married a put-away woman both committed adultery, for she was still another man’s wife. When you see the word “divorce” in the New Testament, replace the word with the term “put away” or find a literal translation to see a profoundly different truth.
For example, in Matthew 19, we read, “Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”” (New American Standard – emphasis added)
The literal translation reads, “And the Pharisees came near to him, tempting him, and saying to him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?’”(Young’s Literal Translation)
Suddenly, the meaning is distinctly altered. It must be presumed that long-ago Bible interpreters did not know how to best translate “putting away,” and the closest English understanding correlated the term to the act of divorce; however, as you can see, the act and outcomes were not at all the same.
If God does not sin (and He cannot), then He purposefully took a righteous stand and sent a powerful message when He severed the bond with His wayward bride. So it must similarly be recognized that those in ungodly marriages may have legitimate cause to end their marriages when the covenant is broken by one party or the other or both. This does not make divorce a trivial act at all, but rather a sober matter of conscience before God. Yet even He acknowledges that the dissolution of a marriage may represent an appropriate, biblical response to a willfully broken covenant.
For more insights on this subject, please consider my book, “God Is My Witness: Making a Case for Biblical Divorce.”
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