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Divorce And Remarriage - What The Bible Really Says

Divorce is a reality of the human condition. Unfortunately much misunderstanding exists about the teachings of the Scriptures on this subject. Many people through the years have suffered reproach, excommunication, and even abuse at the hands of well-meaning clergy, family and friends because they chose to divorce. But is there biblical justification for condemning all divorce?

Some would answer yes. they assert that the Bible teaches the marital bond is not to be broken, literally "until a person's blood hits the ground", under any circumstances. Others, still within the Christian community, take a much more liberal approach. Which viewpoint is right? What parts do tradition and custom play? Let's examine what the Bible actually says, and does not say:

Under certain circumstances, the Mosaic Law allowed divorce.

When the book of Deuteronomy was written (ca. 1400 BC), the people of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land. Moses, the author of Deuteronomy, gave them many detailed instructions for their new life in the land of Palestine. Several of these touch on the question of divorce.

In Deut. 21:10-14, Moses wrote that a man could divorce a wife who had been taken as the spoils of war, if he chose to do so. The grounds? Only that he no longer "took delight" in her. No specifics are given, and no court is needed to adjudicate.

If a man falsely slandered his wife with regard to her virginity prior to marriage, he should be fined, and could not divorce her (Deut. 22:13-21). Here the prohibition of divorce becomes a punishment, and presumes that based on other conditions divorce may have been allowed; otherwise there would be no need to prohibit divorce in this unusual case.

In certain cases of rape, not all, Moses commanded the attacker should pay a fine, and then he was to marry the victim without possibility of divorce, once again as a punishment. How could God require this? We must remember that the social context in centuries past was much different than in our Post-Modern era. In one biblical example, David's daughter Tamar, who had been raped by her half-brother Amnon, exlaimed that his second sin of sending her away (rather than marrying her) brought greater shame to her, than the first offense, the rape itself (II Samuel 13:1-20). In the present discussion, the point to underscore is that Moses prohibited divorce in this instance, which would imply that under other circumstances divorce may have been acceptable.

In a fourth passage, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Moses dealt with yet another specific situation, in which a man sends away (divorces) his wife, and then she marries again. If her second husband either dies or divorces her, she is not free to remarry her first husband.

This passage yields several remarkable observations.

Once again, the grounds allowed are pretty vague--only that "if it should happen that he no longer takes delight in her." This seems to be a realistic acceptance of the fact that not all marriages will be happy. The statement about "finding some unclean thing in her" does not help, since that unclean thing is not specified (the same word is used in a close context--see Deut. 23:12-14). In typical oriental fashion, Moses begins this passage by setting up a scenario with minimal emphasis on the conditions, because the point he is driving at comes at the conclusion of the passage: "Don't make the land unclean by remarrying your first husband, after having been married to someone else" (v. 4).

Also, Moses does not condemn either of the men for divorcing the woman, or the woman for remarrying the second time. He merely instructs what may not be done following the second divorce. In addition, the consequences for the woman after the second divorce remain the same, whether her second husband had died or divorced her.

The Hebrew word for divorce in all four of these passages is shalach, literally to let go, send away, or dismiss. By introducing the concept of writing a "certificate of divorce" in Deut. 24:1-4, Moses adds legal ramifications to divorce. These legal aspects actually helped protect the social status of the woman who had been "sent away", and freed her to marry again. The Pharisees who approached Jesus with a test question about divorce (see below) refer to this certificate.

None of these four passages can be made into a prohibition of all divorce. By choosing only a few specific scenarios in which to lay down ground rules regulating divorce, Moses left open the possibility that there may be other situations in which a divorce would be allowed. These passages do not attempt to answer every question about divorce and remarriage.

No other Old Testament texts, including the Levitical code of over 600 laws, add any further specific instructions about divorce. However, several related passages do shed more light on the subject.

The Wisdom Literature of the Bible indicates that sometimes divorce is preferable to a bad marriage.

Proverbs falls under the classification of Wisdom Literature in the Hebrew canon. The ancient Semitic practice of treating a topic in parallel expressions had become highly refined by the time this book was written (about 1000 BC). An idea could be presented in two similar ways (parallel), by use of opposite thoughts (contrast), or two ideas could be built upon one another. In addition, an observation about wisdom could be made by stating, "This is better than that..."

Proverbs 15:17 says, "Better a meal of vegetables where there is love, than a fattened calf with hatred." In Proverbs 17:1 we are told, "Better a dry crust with peace and quiet, than a house full of feasting, with strife." Likewise, "Better to live on a corner of the roof, (similar to a studio apartment today), than share a house with a quarrelsome wife" (21:9). In an even stronger statement, the writer warns it is "better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife" (21:19).

One proverb is written in the form of a command: "Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man (or woman), and do not associate with one easily angered, or you will learn his ways (become like that person) and get yourself ensnared" (22:24-25).

Is the writer actually saying, in some cases, it is better to get a divorce than remain in a bad marriage? Clearly.

The Bible says that God "divorced" Israel for her idolatry.

Sometimes biblical writers ascribed anthropomorphisms (man-like characteristics) to God. In Isaiah 50:1 and Jeremiah 3:6-10, both prophets describe the relationship between the nation of Israel and God as broken, by saying that God "divorced" Israel. Each time God "sent away" Israel because of her affinity for other gods. God takes on the human-like quality of a husband who is displeased with His "wife" (Israel) and divorces her.

Nowhere in the Bible does God acquire the human-like attributes of lying, stealing, or premeditated murder, because there is no evil in Him. But He does allow the analogy of one who divorces to be descriptive of Himself. Is all divorce in and of itself evil? How could it be, if God "divorced" Israel?

On at least one occasion in the history of Israel, God approved mass divorce.

In post-exilic Jerusalem in the sixth century BC, Ezra agonized over some of the people of Israel who had married into the idolatrous population from the surrounding area (Ezra chapters 9-10). The leaders among the people confessed their sin of marrying foreign wives, and with Ezra's blessing at least 114 men divorced their wives and sent them and their children away. The organized effort took three months to complete.

In this situation, to preserve the national and spiritual identity of Israel, "bad" marriages ended in divorce, with God's approval.

Passages that supposedly forbid all divorce do not.

1. Malachi 2:16 "I hate divorce, " says the Lord God of Israel..."

This text is often grossly misquoted.

In the first place, people use improper logic when they assert that since God hates divorce, and God hates evil, that therefore divorce is evil. To draw such a conclusion is like saying, "If it rains, I'll take my umbrella; I brought my umbrella, therefore it will rain."

Secondly, to say that God "hates" something is another anthropomorphism. What exactly does He hate about divorce? A literal rendering of this passage tells us clearly: "For the Lord God of Israel says 'I hate divorce...that is, I really hate the misuse of divorce as a cover for abuse, assault, and violence by men against women."

The specific meaning of the word "hate" must be considered. The Hebrew word translated "hate", shan, means to hold an aversion toward someone or something. Malachi uses this very word to describe God's aversion for Esau earlier in the book (Mal. 1:3). Even though He "hated" Esau (by comparison with His love for Jacob), God gave Esau certain blessings and did not seek to destroy him. In the same way, God has an aversion for divorce, yet accepts the reality of it.

How were Israelite men mistreating their wives? By not allowing them to bear an heir (2:13-15), and yet expecting to be able to bring offerings to God and receive blessings from Him.

Many people misconstrue this text to mean that God is vehemently opposed to all divorce. This text does not say that. How could God condone breaking up families under the leadership of Ezra (a near contemporary of Malachi), but condemn all divorce here?

2. Mt. 5:31-32 "...anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery." See also Mt. 19:3-12, Mk. 10:2-12.

At the risk of being accused of discounting Jesus' clear teaching, we must carefully consider the context of these statements. Here in Matthew chapters five through seven the Sermon on the Mount message raises the bar for all standards of morality and human interaction, but in a very specific limited context.

The Sermon on the Mount, and in fact much of Matthew's Gospel, prepares the reader for life in the Kingdom of God.

But we're not living in the Kingdom of God. The time of Christ's unassaulted rule upon earth is yet future. How do we know?

For example, in former days, premeditated murder brought capital punishment (Numbers 35:18-21). But in the Sermon on the Mount, anger without a cause against a brother becomes morally equivalent to murder (Mt. 5:21-22). No human judge could condemn a man to death on the evidence of inward anger towards his brother, but Christ could. Only He bears such authority.

Similarly, Jesus said that "if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away" (Matthew 5:29). Do we reasonably expect this to be done literally today? Of course not. But even though no one else knows my thoughts or what I see in my mind's eye, God knows.

Following the discussion of divorce, Jesus talked about vows, both in Matthew 5:33-37 and in Matthew 19:1-12. This displays the close connection Jesus had with HisJewish heritage, living in Palestine in the first century. From at least the time of the captivity in Babylon (586 BC) the Jewish people kept their traditions alive in written and oral collections known as the Mishnah and the Talmud. In the Talmud, the discussion of marriage and divorce falls under a section dealing with "women's issues", and is always followed by a discourse on vows of all types.

And what did Jesus have to say about vows? Don't make any (Matthew 5:33-37). That would include marriage vows.

And if it is to be that divorce is not allowed at all, (the apparent intent of Jesus' words in Matthew 19:8-9), then it is better not to get married at all. At least, that was the exclamation of the disciples, and Jesus agreed with their assessment! (Matthew 19:8-12).

We must remember that animal sacrifices were still being offered in the Temple when Jesus was on earth; a priesthood left over from Old Testament days still represented the people before God. The period of time known as the Church Age, or the Age of Grace, in which believers in Christ formed a living Body, had not yet been revealed.

Barely 40 years after Jesus gave us the Sermon on the Mount, Jerusalem was leveled by the Romans, the Priesthood was disbanded for good, the Temple was raided and dismantled stone by stone, and the people of Israel were scattered all over the world.

His intent in the Sermon on the Mount was not to answer all questions about marriage divorce for all time. When He asserted that it would be better no to marry at all, He did not mean for all people in all time. The fact that He allowed divorce upon the exception of adultery, means that, to Jesus, not all divorce was wrong.

3. I Corinthians chapter 7

Even a casual perusal of this text reveals that the Apostle Paul allows divorce in certain situations, for example if an unbelieving spouse deserts (v. 15).

Once again, the circumstances of the context bear upon a proper understanding of this chapter. The context will also help explain several apparent contradictions within Paul's writings about marriage and divorce.

The Context of the Chapter

Here Paul is not attempting to give a well-rounded full treatment of the subject of divorce, as he does the doctrine of salvation in Romans, for example. The passage begins with Paul telling the Corinthians that he is about to address several specific questions they evidently passed on to him (v. 1). We are not told what those questions were.

Paul reveals that his instructions are tempered by the times, which he calls "the present crisis" (v. 26). The only allusion to the nature of such a crisis may be found in verse 29, "...the time is short", so much so that even those who have wives should be conducting themselves as though they were not even married (v. 29b).

The crisis Paul most likely had in mind was the "day of the Lord", mentioned many times in the Old Testament as a horrific time of judgment and deprivation, known as the end times, and which doctrine was prevalent among believers in his day.

The doctrine known as the imminent return of Christ was still being revealed (progressive revelation) during the writing of most of the New Testament books. It was not fully understood until some time after the entire New Testament was completed about 30 years later. This fact colors Paul's instructions in I Corinthians 7 as well. Perhaps he sensed, or even knew about, the coming destruction of Israel in 70 AD and the hardships it entailed.

Apparent Contradictions in I Cor. 7

1. On the one hand, Paul says that it is better not to be married at all (v. 1, 7-8, 11, 26, 38, 40). On the other hand we are told that it is preferable to get married rather than burn with passion (v. 9), a man does not sin if he allows his daughter to get married (v. 3), and that a widow may remarry (v. 39). In a later letter, Paul counsels younger widows to go ahead and get married and go on having children (Titus 5:14).

2. Also, Paul's commands regarding an unbelieving spouse contradict the clear teachings of the Old Testament in another sense. In Ezra (see above) the Israelites were to divorce their idolatrous wives, because of the danger of them causing the Israelites to fall. But Paul states that a believing spouse may have a positive influence upon their unbelieving partner (vs. 12-16), so if they are willing to stay, let them stay. This does not negate Old Testament law and practice, nor is it intended to answer all possible questions about desertion and divorce.

3. Paul commands a wife not to leave her husband (I Cor. 7:10). Yet the very next verse begins "But if she does..." Paul accepts the fact that no one can command people to stay together who are not able to, or who do not want to remain together.

In this situation, the woman must not have obtained an actual divorce, since Paul adds, "let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband" (v. 11).

We must remember that to "send away", or to "leave" in Bible times was not always the same as divorce in our modern cultural context.

Paul does not instruct whether or not she may remarry, if she did in fact divorce him. One passage in a similar context in the Talmud asks the rhetorical question, "Since this person has already remarried, what are we to do?"

If it is better to marry than to burn with passion (v. 9), and if widows may remarry (v. 39), then it is reasonable to assume that Paul allowed remarriage for people who found themselves divorced.

Basic Underlying Principles of the Chapter

1. No one can make people stay together (v. 11 "if she leaves...").

2. To remain married is preferable, even to an unbeliever, if possible (v. 12-13).

3. However, marriage is never intended to be simply the bondage of a commitment (v. 15b).

4. God has called us to peace (v. 15c). Therefore, if no peace is present in the home, divorce may be preferable.

5. Since the end times are imminent, to stay single is preferable, but to marry is not a sin. This principle applies to those who find themselves divorced as well; remarriage after divorce is not forbidden in this chapter.

What the Bible Does Not Say, Speaks Volumes

1. Divorce is actually not mentioned very many times in the Bible, in fewer than about a dozen passages. By comparison idolatry is strictly prohibited, being mentioned over 200 times. Injunctions against lying and murder occur over 50 and 30 times, respectively.

2. The four passages in Deuteronomy that do touch on the subject of divorce (see above), do not forbid all divorce.

3. The phrase "'til death do you part" is not in the Bible.

4. The prohibition of divorce is not one of the Ten Commandments.

5. No one is ever told he will be consigned to hell because he is divorced, or because he has divorced and remarried.

6. The Bible never says that categorically, under any and all circumstances, "You shall not divorce." When the subject is discussed, conditions of one kind or another are always given.

7. The main body of the Mosaic Law does not prohibit divorce.

8. When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he sought to divorce her. Matthew calls him a "righteous man" and nothing is said about his intention to divorce her as though it were wrong or evil (Mt. 1:18-19).

9. The New Testament never instructs Christians to shun those who have been divorced.

10. The Bible nowhere commands priests or ministers to perform marriages. In ancient Roman times, two people were considered to be married when they began conducting themselves as though they were, whether there was a ceremony of any kind or not (similar to our common-law marriage). In ancient Israel, families conducted marriages, and not in the Temple or even in a synoagogue. In fact, a Jewish marriage was never consummated unless a kethubah, or pre-nuptial agreement, was signed by both families, giving legal protection to the woman in the event of a hasty divorce.

12. The Bible does not treat extreme cases as examples. For instance, what should happen if a husband beats his wife to within an inch of her life repeatedly, physically abuses the children, and threatens to kill them? (Sadly, it happens.) Is she bound to honor her marriage vows and stay until death? Perhaps the reason the Bible does not say, is because the answer is so obvious.

13. The Bible does not address marriages that fall into the "gray" area. In other words, one or the other partner may be verbally abusive and constantly contentious, controlling or manipulative in an unhealthy way, or even absent from the marital responsibilities altogether. Since no specific instruction may be found in the Bible about these situations, God expects us to use our best judgment, as we have seen in the book of Proverbs above.

It is true that silence on an issue cannot be used to prove a point. However, it does seem reasonable, with all the varied instructions about so many areas of life, that if all divorce were to be forbidden by God, and all remarriage after divorce forbidden, at least one of the writers or speakers who dealt with the subject, would have made a clear statement to that effect.

Biblical Characters who Divorced

Abraham divorced one of his wives (Hagar), and yet God called him His friend (Isa. 41:8, James 2:23).

David dismissed his wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul, and banished her to a childless isolation, a fate worse than divorce in that culture (II Sam. 6:12-23). Yet David's name appears in the "Hall of People of Faith" in Hebrews chapter 11.

Joseph sought to divorce Mary, and would have, until God revealed to him His plans for Mary to bear Jesus.

Jesus' human ancestry came through the lineage of both David and Abraham.


There is no blanket prohibition of all divorce in the Bible. There is no all-encompassing prohibition of all remarriage after divorce. Old Testament teaching allowed for divorce under certain circumstances. Wisdom literature in the Bible indicates that certain principles ("This is better than that") weigh heavily toward divorce in certain relationships. It is said of God that He "divorced" Israel, and no metaphor or anthropomorphism concerning an evil deed is ever used about God. On at least one occasion, it was God's will that Israelite men divorce their wives. Jesus did not annul what Moses said, nor did he revise Old Testament teachings to make them more strict. Paul allowed for divorce under certain conditions, and nowhere prevented all remarriage after divorce. At least two revered biblical characters, Abraham and David, divorced, and yet both were included in the ancestry of Christ.

God accepts the reality of our human condition as it is, much better than we do ourselves. While it is true that divorce is often difficult for those involved, a proper knowledge of Biblical teaching will yield acceptance, understanding, and compassion by family and friends.

By Dan Rembold - B.Mu. and M.A. in Music, Th.M.  

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