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Moses' eighth speech, Part 1, Law of divorce

May 02, 2013

Ferrar Fenton entitles this speech, “Laws of Marriage and Domestic Life.” It starts with the regulations on divorce and remarriage. Deuteronomy 24:1 says,

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…

The NASB (above) words this in such a way as to avoid telling us that Moses directly allowed divorced and remarriage. The translators were trying in their own way to reconcile Jesus’ statements in the New Testament that appear to contradict Moses. The KJV reads, “then let him write her a bill of divorcement.” Ferrar Fenton agrees, saying, “let him write her a letter of divorce.”

In the centuries leading up to the time of Christ, the Hebrew scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek agreed with the KJV and with Fenton. The Septuagint reads,

1 And if any one should take a wife, and should dwell with her, then it shall come to pass if she should not have found favour before him, because he has found some unbecoming thing in her, that he shall write for her a bill of divorcement, and give it into her hands, and he shall send her away out of his house.

Regardless of how translators might nitpick in their wording, it is clear that Moses did not forbid divorce but gave guidelines on how it was to be done. Moses’ purpose was to correct a serious injustice that could potentially fall upon a woman who was divorced. In those days the common practice was to follow the ancient law of Hammurabi (i.e., Nimrod). A woman could be divorced with a verbal statement, “I repudiate her,” which was stated three times.

This is mentioned on page 120 of the book, The Laws of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi, by Stanley A. Cook, where the author quotes paragraph 141 of the Hammurabi Code:

“… and if her husband formally divorces her with the words ‘I repudiate her’ (e-si-ib-sa), she goes her own way and receives no uzubu.”

The problem with a verbal divorce is that the woman was sent out of the house with no written proof of her divorce. And so, if she were to remarry, her former husband might become jealous or vindictive and accuse her of adultery. And so God, through Moses, demanded that she be given a written bill of divorce. She could not be sent out of the house until that written bill of divorce had been placed into her hand.

The law in Deuteronomy 24:1 does not attempt to define the lawful causes by which divorce is permitted according to the mind of God. It says only, “because he has found some indecency in her.” Where the law of God is silent, we must depend fully on the leading of the Spirit. Moses was wise enough to stay away from marriage counseling in this speech, for if he had opened up that issue, he might have established what men would interpret later as requirements for divorce.

The law of victims rights applies in this case. If either a husband or wife violate the marriage contract, the injured party has a right to divorce. But the victim also has the right to forgive. The right to forgive goes beyond the law into the area of grace, a theme that is clarified in the New Testament. Of course, nowhere in Scripture does God condone divorce over trivial causes, even if those causes may seem important to those who are spiritually or emotionally immature.

God’s marriage to Israel shows us the divine example of patience and forgiveness. Israel was God’s unfaithful wife for many centuries. Her adultery began within weeks of the marriage ceremony at Mount Horeb when she worshipped the golden calf (Exodus 32). It continued during the time of the Judges and culminated in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Hosea in particular was called to marry a harlot in order to portray the unhappy marriage between God and Israel. He says in Hosea 2:2, “she is not my wife, and I am not her husband.” Jeremiah 3:8 tells us more directly,

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.

Hence we see that God divorced his wife in the lawful manner, giving her a writ of divorce before sending her out of His house into the land of Assyria. God was married for 726 years from the marriage at Mount Horeb until the fall of Samaria. That shows a lot of patience. Nonetheless, if divorce had been banned as a sin, then God would not have been able to divorce Israel without committing a sin.

We must conclude, then, that divorce may be necessary, for many people over the centuries have found themselves in circumstances similar to what God has endured.

If we dig deeper into this law permitting divorce, we may catch a glimpse of some greater understanding of the bigger picture as God sees it. God’s marriage to Israel was the Old Covenant that was made at Mount Horeb in Exodus 19. In that marriage contract, each party made promises, or vows. God vowed to bless and provide for Israel; Israel vowed to obey God’s laws. Thus, it was a conditional covenant.

Because Israel was unable to fulfill her vow, that covenant was broken and eventually came to an end. A new covenant was thus needed, one that would endure. And so Jeremiah tells us in 31:31-33,

31 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

This new covenant, then, was unlike the old covenant, in that the new one is based upon the promise of God, rather than the obedience of men. It depends upon the ability of God to do as He has promised, rather than upon the ability of men to fulfill their vows to God. It is a good thing to make a decision to follow Jesus, but if our salvation is based upon that decision—and our ability to carry out that decision—then we are yet in an Old Covenant marriage with God. In such a marriage, every time a believer sins, he will think that he has “fallen from grace” and must be saved again and again and again.

Many believers never come to the place of rest and assurance of salvation in a New Covenant marriage relationship. They are plagued by guilt all their lives, as they try to fulfill their vows, only to fail from time to time. The more they understand themselves and the limitations of their own human nature, the more guilty they feel. The more sincere they are, the more unhappy they are, and they cry out with the apostle Paul in Romans 7,

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?

The answer is found in the terms of the New Covenant and its promise of deliverance, not by our ability, but by God’s ability to fulfill His vow.

The Old Covenant was designed to fail from the beginning. The New Covenant was designed to succeed. When God married Israel under Moses, that marriage had to fail in order to make way for another marriage, a better one, a marriage based only upon the promise (vow) of God Himself. For this reason, God’s marriage with Israel was destined to end in divorce, for only then could the New Covenant be established.

And so, when Moses permitted divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1, it was only because such provision was necessary as long as imperfect people were getting married. If men and women were perfect, divorce would be unthinkable. And so, as God works His nature into us through the New Covenant, the possibility of divorce should become more and more remote.

The Pharisees once questioned Jesus about the lawful causes for divorce. We read Jesus’ answer in Matthew 19:4-6,

4 And He answered and said, “Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 Consequently, they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

Here Jesus combines Genesis 1:27 with Genesis 2:24, showing that the “man” in Genesis 1 is the same as in Genesis 2. The only difference is that in Genesis 1 God gives us the overall order of creation, whereas Genesis 2 was a more detailed account of man’s creation. (The book of Genesis is a series of eleven manuscripts or tablets, even as Deuteronomy is a series of eleven speeches.)

When Adam and Eve were first created, their marriage was patterned after the New Covenant. After they sinned, however, God knew that disagreements among married couples would arise, and so He instituted authority, telling Eve in Genesis 3:16, “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

There was no such authority prior to sin, for authority was unnecessary when the two were in agreement. When each possessed the mind of Christ and knew the will of God, each was obedient to God by nature. Husband and wife served each other equally. Each provided the other with a double witness by which they would know the will of God for their lives. But sin created the need for authority, law, and penalties for sin. Imperfect people have imperfect marriages, and when they cannot agree, someone, right or wrong, has to make the authoritative decision to break the stalemate.

Yet from the beginning, such problems did not exist. There was no need for divorce in the beginning, nor did it even enter their minds. Jesus appealed to this pattern in Matthew 19, stressing the unity and agreement between husband and wife. In essence, He was admonishing us to live according to a New Covenant marriage, one in which there is perfect unity (i.e., “one flesh”), rather than living according to the imperfect Old Covenant pattern where obedience to authority was required.

The Pharisees did not understand the difference between the two covenants, and so they responded:

7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate and divorce her?” 8 He 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.”

The purpose of ALL LAW is to restrain sin, “because of your hardness of heart.” If it were not for this, there would be no need for ANY JUDGMENT of the law, including divorce. It was only because of sin and hardness of heart that divorce was permitted, for divorced was meant to be a judgment for sin, not a convenience or indulgence for sin.

Once we understand how things changed after Adam and Eve sinned, we can understand Jesus’ words. If both husband and wife live according to the will of God, they will find that Moses’ provision for divorce is irrelevant. In the end, when all is restored, all laws will be treated as relics of the past. We will see them as having been necessary on account of sin, but once the character and mind of Christ has been fully infused into our hearts, we will no longer violate those laws. We will be in full unity with Him, and so He will no longer need to exercise authority over us, telling us what to do and correcting our beliefs. We will fulfill the law by nature, not by compulsory obedience.

Such is the nature of the New Covenant. Obedience is replaced by agreement.

Meanwhile, however, we still live in an imperfect world. Men still sin, and for this reason the law is still needed to keep order, to teach us the character of Christ, and to reveal God’s promise. The law tells us what exactly He intends to write on our hearts in order to conform us to the image of God that He intended from the beginning.

We see then why Moses allowed divorce. Jesus did not put away this law, but He told us to go beyond Old Covenant marriage into perfect unity, where divorce is unnecessary and irrelevant.


This is the first part of a series titled "Moses' Eighth Speech." To view all parts, click the link below.

Moses' Eighth Speech


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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