Legal dissolution of the marital union. Hence the severance of the marriage bond between a husband and a wife. Various original-language terms for “divorce” literally mean “send away” (De 22:19, ftn), “release” or “loose off” (Mt 1:19, Int; 19:3, ftn), “drive out; cast out” (Le 22:13, ftn), and “cut off.”
When Jehovah united Adam and Eve in wedlock, he made no provision for divorce. Jesus Christ made this clear when answering the Pharisees’ question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on every sort of ground?” Christ showed that God purposed for man to leave his father and his mother and stick to his wife, the two becoming one flesh. Then Jesus added: “So that they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has yoked together let no man put apart.” (Mt 19:3-6; compare Ge 2:22-24.) The Pharisees next asked: “Why, then, did Moses prescribe giving a certificate of dismissal and divorcing her?” In reply, Christ said: “Moses, out of regard for your hardheartedness, made the concession to you of divorcing your wives, but such has not been the case from the beginning.”
Though divorce was allowed among the Israelites on various grounds as a concession, Jehovah God regulated it in his Law given to Israel through Moses. Deuteronomy 24:1 reads: “In case a man takes a woman and does make her his possession as a wife, it must also occur that if she should find no favor in his eyes because he has found something indecent on her part, he must also write out a certificate of divorce for her and put it in her hand and dismiss her from his house.” Just what “something indecent” (literally, “the nakedness of a thing”) was is not specifically stated. That it was not adultery is indicated by the fact that God’s law given to Israel decreed that those guilty of adultery be put to death, not merely be divorced. (De 22:22-24) Doubtless, originally the ‘indecency’ that would have given a Hebrew husband some basis for divorcing his wife involved serious matters, perhaps the wife’s showing gross disrespect for the husband or bringing shame on the household. Since the Law specified that “you must love your fellow as yourself,” it is not reasonable to assume that petty faults could be used with impunity as excuses for divorcing a wife.
In the days of Malachi many Jewish husbands were dealing treacherously with their wives, divorcing them on all kinds of grounds, ridding themselves of the wives of their youth, possibly in order to marry younger, pagan women. Instead of upholding God’s law, the priests allowed this, and Jehovah was greatly displeased. (Mal 2:10-16) That Jewish men were using many grounds for divorce when Jesus Christ was on earth is indicated by the question the Pharisees put to Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on every sort of ground?”
Among the Israelites a man customarily paid a dowry for the woman who became his wife, and she was considered his possession. While enjoying many blessings and privileges, hers was the subordinate role in the marital union. Her position is further shown by Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which pointed out that the husband might divorce his wife but said nothing about the wife’s divorcing her husband. Being considered his property, she could not divorce him. In secular history, the first recorded instance of a woman in Israel trying to divorce her husband was when King Herod’s sister Salome sent her husband, the governor of Idumea, a bill of divorce dissolving their marriage. (Jewish Antiquities, XV, 259 [vii, 10]) That such divorce action by women had begun to crop up when Jesus was on earth or that he foresaw its development may be indicated by Christ’s words: “If ever a woman, after divorcing her husband, marries another, she commits adultery.”
Certificate of Divorce. It should not be concluded from the later abuses that the original Mosaic divorce concession made it easy for an Israelite husband to divorce his wife. In order to do so, he had to take formal steps. It was necessary to write a document, to “write out a certificate of divorce for her.” The divorcing husband had to “put it in her hand and dismiss her from his house.” (De 24:1) While the Scriptures do not provide additional details on this procedure, this legal step apparently involved consultation with duly authorized men, who might first endeavor to effect a reconciliation. The time involved in preparing the certificate and legally implementing the divorce would afford the divorcing husband opportunity to reconsider his decision. There would have to be a basis for the divorce, and when the regulation was properly applied, this would logically serve as a deterrent to rash action in obtaining divorces. Then, too, the wife’s rights and interests were thus protected. The Scriptures do not disclose the contents of the “certificate of divorce.”
Remarriage of Divorced Mates. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 also stipulated that the divorced woman “must go out of his house and go and become another man’s,” meaning that she was eligible for remarriage. It was also stated: “If the latter man has come to hate her and has written out a certificate of divorce for her and put it in her hand and dismissed her from his house, or in case the latter man who took her as his wife should die, the first owner of her who dismissed her will not be allowed to take her back again to become his wife after she has been defiled; for that is something detestable before Jehovah, and you must not lead the land that Jehovah your God is giving you as an inheritance into sin.” The former husband was barred from taking the divorced wife back, perhaps in order to prevent the possibility of any scheming between him and this remarried wife to force her divorce from her second husband or to cause his death, thereby allowing for remarriage with her previous husband. If her former marriage mate took her back, it would be an unclean thing in God’s eyes; the first husband would make himself look foolish because he had dismissed her as a woman in whom he had found “something indecent” and then, after she had been lawfully joined to another man and used as his wife, he took her back once again.
Doubtless the very fact that the original husband could not remarry his divorced wife after she became another man’s, even if that man divorced her or died, made the husband contemplating divorce action think seriously before acting to end the marriage. (Jer 3:1) However, nothing was said that would prohibit him from remarrying his divorced wife if she had not remarried after the legal severance of their marriage tie.
Sending Away Pagan Wives. Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they were told to form no marriage alliances with its pagan inhabitants. (De 7:3, 4) Nonetheless, in the days of Ezra, the Jews had taken foreign wives, and in prayer to God, Ezra acknowledged their guiltiness in this matter. In response to his urging and in acknowledgment of their error, the men of Israel who had taken foreign wives sent them away “along with sons.”
However, Christians, coming from all different nations (Mt 28:19), were not to divorce mates who were not worshipers of Jehovah, nor was it even desirable for them to separate from such marriage partners, as Paul’s inspired counsel shows. (1Co 7:10-28) Yet, when it came to contracting a new marriage, Christians were counseled to marry “only in the Lord.”
Joseph’s Contemplated Divorce. While Mary was promised in marriage to Joseph, but before they were united, she was found to be pregnant by holy spirit, and the account states: “However, Joseph her husband, because he was righteous and did not want to make her a public spectacle, intended to divorce her secretly.” (Mt 1:18, 19) Since engagement was such a binding arrangement among the Jews at that time, the word “divorce” is properly used here.
If an engaged girl submitted to having relations with another man, she was stoned to death the same as an adulteress. (De 22:22-29) In cases that might result in stoning an individual to death, two witnesses were required in order to establish the person’s guilt. (De 17:6, 7) Obviously, Joseph had no witnesses against Mary. Mary was pregnant, but Joseph did not understand the matter thoroughly until Jehovah’s angel gave him the explanation. (Mt 1:20, 21) Whether the ‘secret divorce’ he contemplated would have included the giving of a certificate of divorce or not is not stated; but it is likely that Joseph was going to act in accord with the principles set out at Deuteronomy 24:1-4, possibly giving her the divorce in front of just two witnesses so the matter would be settled legally without bringing undue shame on her. While Matthew does not give every detail regarding the procedure Joseph intended to follow, he does indicate that Joseph wanted to deal mercifully with Mary. Joseph is not considered an unrighteous man for this, but rather, it was “because he was righteous and did not want to make her a public spectacle” that he “intended to divorce her secretly.”
Circumstances Barring Divorce in Israel. According to God’s law given to Israel, there were conditions in which divorce was impossible. It might occur that a man took a wife, had relations with her, and then came to hate her. He might falsely state that she was not a virgin when he married her, thus improperly charging her with notorious deeds and bringing a bad name upon her. When the girl’s parents produced evidence that their daughter had been a virgin at the time of her marriage, the men of the city would have to discipline the false accuser. They would fine him a hundred silver shekels ($220), giving these to the girl’s father, and she would continue to be the man’s wife, it being stated: “He will not be allowed to divorce her all his days.” (De 22:13-19) Also, if it was discovered that a man seized a virgin who was not engaged and had relations with her, it was stipulated: “The man who lay down with her must also give the girl’s father fifty silver shekels [$110], and she will become his wife due to the fact that he humiliated her. He will not be allowed to divorce her all his days.”
What is the only Scriptural basis for divorce among Christians?
Jesus Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount, stated: “Moreover it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ However, I say to you that everyone divorcing his wife, except on account of fornication, makes her a subject for adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5:31, 32) Also, after telling the Pharisees that the Mosaic concession of divorcing their wives was not the arrangement that had prevailed “from the beginning,” Jesus said: “I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication, and marries another commits adultery.” (Mt 19:8, 9) Today, generally, distinction is made between “fornicators” and “adulterers.” According to modern usage, those guilty of fornication are unmarried persons who willingly have sexual relations with someone of the opposite sex. Adulterers are married persons who willingly have sexual relations with a member of the opposite sex who is not their legal marriage mate. As shown in the article FORNICATION, however, the term “fornication” is a rendering of the Greek word por·neiʹa and includes all forms of illicit sexual relations outside of Scriptural marriage. Hence, Jesus’ words at Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 mean that the only divorce ground that actually severs the marriage bond is por·neiʹa on the part of one’s marriage mate. The follower of Christ may avail himself of that divorce provision if that is his desire, and such a divorce would free him to marry an eligible Christian.
Sexually immoral acts committed by a married person with someone of the same sex (homosexuality) are filthy and disgusting. Unrepentant persons of this type will not inherit God’s Kingdom. And, of course, bestiality is Scripturally condemned. (Le 18:22, 23; Ro 1:24-27; 1Co 6:9, 10) These grossly filthy acts come under the broad designation por·neiʹa. It is also noteworthy that, under the Mosaic Law, homosexuality and bestiality carried the death penalty, freeing the innocent mate for remarriage.
Jesus Christ pointed out that “everyone that keeps on looking at a woman so as to have a passion for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt 5:28) But Jesus did not say that what was in the heart, but not carried into action, furnished a basis for divorce. Christ’s words show that the heart should be kept clean and one should not entertain improper thoughts and desires.
The Jews’ rabbinic law laid emphasis on the married person’s duty to perform the marital act and allowed a husband to divorce his wife if she was unable to produce children. However, the Scriptures do not give Christians the right to divorce their mates for such a reason. Barrenness for many years did not cause Abraham to divorce Sarah, Isaac to divorce Rebekah, Jacob to divorce Rachel, or the priest Zechariah to divorce Elizabeth.
Nothing is said in the Scriptures that would permit a Christian to divorce a marriage partner because that one was physically unable to perform the marital act, or had gone insane or contracted an incurable or loathsome disease. The love that Christians are to show would call, not for divorce, but for merciful treatment of such a mate. (Eph 5:28-31) Nor does the Bible grant Christians the right to divorce their marriage mates because of difference in religion; it shows instead that by remaining with an unbelieving mate the Christian may win that individual over to the true faith.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that “everyone divorcing his wife, except on account of fornication, makes her a subject for adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5:32) By this, Christ showed that if a husband divorces his wife for reasons other than her “fornication” (por·neiʹa), he exposes her to adultery in the future. That is so because the unadulterous wife is not properly disunited from her husband by such a divorce and is not free to marry another man and have sexual relations with another husband. When Christ said that whoever “marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” he was referring to a woman divorced on grounds other than “on account of fornication” (por·neiʹa). Such a woman, though divorced legally, would not be divorced Scripturally.
Mark, like Matthew (Mt 19:3-9), recorded Jesus’ statements to the Pharisees regarding divorce and quoted Christ as saying: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if ever a woman, after divorcing her husband, marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mr 10:11, 12) A similar statement is made at Luke 16:18, which reads: “Everyone that divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he that marries a woman divorced from a husband commits adultery.” Taken alone, these verses seem to forbid all divorce by Christ’s followers, or at least to indicate that a divorced individual would not be entitled to remarry except after the death of the divorced marriage partner. However, Jesus’ words as recorded by Mark and Luke must be understood in the light of the more complete statement recorded by Matthew. He includes the phrase “except on the ground of fornication” (Mt 19:9; see also Mt 5:32), showing that what Mark and Luke wrote in quoting Jesus on divorce applies if the ground for procuring the divorce is anything other than “fornication” (por·neiʹa) committed by the unfaithful marriage partner.
A person is not Scripturally obligated to divorce an adulterous though repentant marriage partner, however. The Christian husband or wife may extend mercy in such a case, even as Hosea seems to have taken back his adulterous wife Gomer and as Jehovah extended mercy to repentant Israel that had been guilty of spiritual adultery.
God’s original standard restored. It is clear that Jesus Christ’s statement pointed to a return to the high standard for marriage originally set by Jehovah God, and it showed that those who would become Jesus’ disciples would have to adhere to that high standard. Though the concessions provided by the Mosaic Law were still in effect, those who would be true disciples of Jesus, doing the will of his Father and ‘doing’ or putting into effect the sayings of Jesus (Mt 7:21-29), would no longer avail themselves of such concessions to exercise “hardheartedness” toward their marriage mates. (Mt 19:8) As genuine disciples, they would not violate the original divine principles governing marriage by divorcing their mates on any grounds other than the one Jesus specified, namely “fornication” (por·neiʹa).
A single person who commits fornication with a prostitute makes himself “one body” with that person. Similarly, the adulterer makes himself “one body,” not with his legal wife, but with the immoral person with whom he has sexual relations. The adulterer thus sins not only against his own personal flesh but also against his legal wife who until then has been “one flesh” with him. (1Co 6:16-18) For that reason adultery provides a true basis for breaking the marital bond in accord with divine principles, and where such ground exists, a divorce obtained brings about the formal and final dissolution of the legal marriage union, freeing the innocent partner to remarry with honor.
The kingdom of Judah was overthrown and Jerusalem was destroyed in 607 B.C.E., the inhabitants of the land being taken into Babylonian exile. Years earlier Jehovah had said prophetically to Jews who would then be in exile: “Where, then, is the divorce certificate of the mother of you people, whom I sent away?” (Isa 50:1) Their “mother,” or national organization, had been put away with just cause, not because Jehovah broke his covenant and started divorce proceedings, but because of her wrongdoing against the Law covenant. But a remnant of Israelites repented and prayed for a renewal of Jehovah’s husbandly relationship with them in their homeland. Jehovah, for his own name’s sake, restored his people to their homeland as promised, in 537 B.C.E., at the end of the 70-year desolation.