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God's Laws on Sexual Sins--Part 5

Mar 14, 2009

Last time I wrote about divorce and remarriage, primarily focusing upon the Old Testament. But since Jesus appeared to contradict the law in Matthew 5, I need to follow through with a study of His words. The key passage is Matt. 5:31, 32,

" (31) It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement; (32) But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery; and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." (KJV)

As translated, it seems plain that to marry a divorced woman is adultery. Likewise, it appears (by this translation) that Jesus was directly contradicting the law in Deut. 24:1, which he quoted. Considering the fact that Jesus also said in this "Sermon on the Mount" that He had NOT put away the law (5:19, 20) and that any miracle worker who did so would be judged accordingly (7:22, 23), this passage seems out of place.

There is no doubt that it has caused great confusion over the years.

First of all, when God gave this law in Deut. 24, there were laws about divorce and remarriage in existence already. The law of Hammurabi (i.e., Nimrod) was the common law of the land in Canaan.  Paragraph 141 of this Law Code says,

". . . if her husband formally divorces her, with the words, 'I repudiate her,' she goes her own way and receives no uzubu. If the husband does not pronounce this formula, and takes another woman (zinnistu), she remains in his house as a maid-servant."

(quoted from Stanly A. Cook, The Laws of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi.)

This shows us that the common practice in those days was that a man could divorce his wife by merely STATING, "I repudiate you." With those words, he could send her out of the house--that is, put her away. The problem was that if he did this out of temporary anger or passion, and if he later regretted his repudiation, there was a danger that he might try to take her again as his wife. If, in the meanwhile, she had remarried, he could become very jealous and accuse both her and the new husband of adultery.

The fact that she had no written record of the divorce (since it was merely verbal), put both her and her new spouse in danger of execution. Hence, the Law of Hammurabi probably caused much injustice in the land. Certainly, a divorced wife might always be afraid to remarry, unless she had specific evidence of her lawful divorce from some other witnesses.

The Bible corrects this situation by mandating that a man give her a written bill of divorce before putting her away (sending her away). That way, she would not be afraid to remarry, and this is also why Deut. 24:2 says,

"And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife."

That was the whole point of the written bill of divorce. It ended the previous marriage and set her free to remarry.

The second point is that divorce and "putting away" were two separate things. The law mandated that she be divorced FIRST before he could send her away, i.e., "put her away." The law mandated that these two things always be done together. It was not lawful to put her away without proper divorce papers.

That was, in fact, the primary purpose of this law, as we see from its historical context. As time passed, the two tended to become merged in people's minds--but only because the law demanded that they go together. But they were always distinct actions. Thus, in Malachi 2:16, the prophet says, "For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that He hateth PUTTING AWAY." The word used here is NOT keriythooth, "divorce," but rather shalach, "to send away." These are the same words used in Deut. 24:1,

". . . let him write her a bill of divorcement (keriythoth) and give it in her hand, and send her out (shalachof his house."

I have no doubt that God hates divorce, but God Himself divorced the House of Israel, and I do not believe that God sinned against His own law in doing so. But the real force of Malachi's prophecy is that God hates it when husbands put away their wives without a bill of divorce. That is the sin which God hates, because, as Malachi says, it causes violence by dealing treacherously with the woman.

Jesus' comments on the law in Matt. 5:31 and 32 (quoted earlier) was His commentary on the law. He did not put away the law, nor did He say "oops, I made a mistake with Moses." Nor did God allow SIN as an accommodation due to the hardness of men's hearts. No, the law is "perfect" (Psalm 19:7), and Paul says that the law defines sin, as we have seen. God does not allow sin just because man is weak. The law is there to establish the standard of righteousness so that man sees himself as a sinner in need of grace.

The New Testament Greek maintains the distinction between "divorce" and "putting away." The word for divorce is apostasion. The word for "put away" is apoluo. So let us look again at what Jesus said in Matt. 5.

" (31) It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away [apoluo] his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement [apostasion]; (32) But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away [apoluohis wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery; and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced [apoluo, "put away"] committeth adultery."

Take note that the KJV translators mistranslated apoluo toward the end of verse 32 to make it look like marrying a divorced woman was adultery. The fact is, Jesus maintained the distinction between the writ of divorce and the act of sending away (out of the house). Since this is His commentary on Deut. 24:1, it is clear that He was telling us:

1. If a man sends his wife away without a writ of divorce, He causes her to commit adultery, because she may have little choice but to remarry in order to survive. But without a writ of divorce, she is still legally married to the first husband who sent her away without properly divorcing her.

2. Whoever marries a woman who has been sent out of the house without being properly divorced is also committing adultery.

3. The original husband who has CAUSED her to sin, is equally or even more liable in the sight of God for her sin than she is.

4. The only exception is "saving for the cause of fornication." Fornication, as I have already shown, is an unlawful sexual relationship. It is a relationship not recognized by God's law. Prostitution is not a God-ordained marriage. Homosexual marriages are not God-ordained marriages. Incestual relationships are not God-ordained. In all of these cases, the solution is NOT DIVORCE, but SEPARATION. Divorce ends a lawful marriage. If the "marriage" is not lawful to begin with, then the solution is PUTTING AWAY, or separation.

In summary, my view is based upon these premises:

1. Jesus did not put away the Law.
2. Separation is not the same as Divorce, but one is not to be done without the other.
3. Marriages that include vows by both husband and wife are conditional covenants. Conditional covenants require both parties to fulfill their Word. Violation by either may be grounds for divorce.

But there are still a few loose ends that we will tie together next time.

This is the fifth part of a series titled "God's Laws on Sexual Sins." To view all parts, click the link below.

God's Laws on Sexual Sins

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Category: God's Law

Dr. Stephen Jones

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