In Part 1 we set the stage by saying their are two pivotal issues that the reader needs to understand in regard to the interaction between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day. Let’s look at the second:
The common interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4:
This passage is crucial because it forms the background of Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees on divorce and remarriage.
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then 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 of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. Deut. 24:1-4
The religious leaders in the day of Jesus most commonly interpreted the man finding “some indecency” in his new bride as something shameful that may or may not relate to sexuality. The vague term had come to be interpreted to range from sexual infidelity in a past to burning a meal today. Due to this, the religious leaders had not only been divorced themselves but they also had been teaching this same standard for, perhaps, generations. Therefore, if we find the proper interpretation for Deuteronomy 24:1-4, we will also find the thrust of Jesus’ correction of the religious leaders as well as determining how God views divorce.
In seeking to discover what the passage meant in the time of Moses we need to answer five questions:
1) What is the major thrust of the legislation?
2) Why was this legislation needed?
3) What has defiled the woman (v. 4)?
4) Why is it an abomination for her to remarry her first husband (v. 4) under the circumstances outlined in verses 1–4?
5) What does ”something indecent” mean and how does all of the above affect the teaching of Jesus and the point that He is making?
What is the major thrust of the legislation?
Evidently, by the time of Jesus (as evidenced in the Pharisees’ question—Matt 19:3) Deuteronomy 24 was understood as a basis for finding a reason to divorce one’s wife. However, the thrust of the law is in verse 4, and it is not to offer a reason for divorce. Nor is it to legitimize divorce. Verses 1 and 3 assume divorce is being practiced, but neither says divorce is morally acceptable. Moses’ legislation regulates divorce, but doing so does not even tacitly endorse divorce as morally acceptable. It is most proper to read verses 1–4a as one continuous sentence. Verses 1–3 contain a series of “if” clauses, which, if all true, lead to the conclusion in verse 4 (the “take-away” of the legislation). This suggests that this law is meant to cover a very specific case; it is not a general rule covering all possible instances of divorce and remarriage. So why was this legislation given at all?
Why was this legislation needed?
The legislation was needed for two reasons. First, the initial purpose was to protect the rights of a divorced woman. In Jewish society women were considered men’s property to be dispensed with as men chose. Moreover, marrying or having sexual relations with a woman already married was adultery, and adultery was punishable by death. Second, if a woman was cast out of her husband’s house but not divorced, no other man would dare touch her. If he could not remarry, in that society she had little chance to support herself except by prostitution. However, if she was duly divorced, she was free to remarry. But how would a prospective husband know if a woman was really divorced and free to remarry? Moses demanded the divorcing husband to give her a certificate of divorce, so that everyone would know she was free to remarry. So, the legislation was meant in part to protect a woman from a husband who would merely throw her out without making it clear that she was divorced and so free to remarry.
What has defiled the woman?
Moses describes a set of circumstances in verses 1–3, and verse 4 says the woman in question has been defiled. By what? By something in the sequence of events described in verses 1–3, (i.e., by being divorced for “some indecency”, remarried, and then divorced by the second husband or if he dies). Why would that defile her? Jesus explains why when he sets forth the rules that govern divorcing someone on flimsy, non-sexual grounds. In Matthew 5 (apart from the exception clause), Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife makes her an adulteress. In Matthew 19 (minus the exception clause), he says whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery. This is the exact same dynamic that is happening for the exact same reason that the woman in Deuteronomy 24 has been defiled. When someone divorces a spouse for any cause at all (i.e., broadly defining “some indecency” to mean almost anything) rather than for some sexual immorality, in God’s eyes they are still married. Consequently, if either mate remarries (and men and women in that society were quite likely to do so), then the sexual relationship with the new spouse is adultery, since the marital bond with the first mate is not severed. This is precisely the substance of Jesus’ general rule in Matt 5:32 and 19:9 (minus the exception clause) and in Mark 10:11–12 about divorce and remarriage. The woman of Deuteronomy 24 is defiled because she married a second husband after being divorced on inadequate grounds. Suffice it to say that Moses considers here only the case of a woman divorced on improper grounds, and then defiled by a second marriage (v.4).
The force of the text is that the woman is made an adulteress and she is in this condition due to ignorance of what she is being subject to becoming an adulteress unintentionally. Could she marry a second husband without defilement? The answer is no because it was clear she is still, in God’s eyes, married. The situation of the woman could be described as a lesser degree of adultery (due to ignorance) given that the Mosaic Law had clearly prescribed that intentional adulterers, homosexuals, etc. should be stoned to death!
How could Deut., 24:1–4 imply that remarriage was allowable for someone who is to be executed for sexual misconduct?! The woman had been forced into that situation by the actions of her first husband and, therefore, it would be improper to execute her. Under Mosaic Law sins committed unintentionally were treated with greater leniency than sins done with premeditation (see Leviticus 4:2, 22, 27, 5:15,18, etc.). Nevertheless, for her to be remarried to her former spouse would now be clearly a volitional act of adultery.
Why is it an abomination for her to remarry her first husband?
It is an abomination for the woman to remarry her first husband because she is an adulterer. Regardless of the culpability of the first husband, the wife is expressly forbidden to remarry the first husband given the fact he sent her away and thus forced her into adultery and nothing has changed. This commandment would protect the woman from becoming an object to be passed around. Also, it insulated the tribal dynamic that Israel was comprised of from obvious antagonism and bitterness that an act like this would inspire. Can you imagine the inter-tribal conflict that passing around a woman between men would produce? This is not to mention how this would affect allegiance between offspring. Furthermore, notice that Matt 5:32 comes in the midst of a discussion on the proper meaning of the OT law, and Matt 5:32 is immediately preceded by Jesus’ teaching on the law and adultery. Given the implications and the context of Jesus’ teaching, the motivation for her to not remarry her first husband is the propagation of adultery. Anyone who would knowingly promote adultery would be “an abomination before the Lord.” This is the key condemnation that Jesus is laying at the feet of the religious leadership in Mark 10.
What does “something indecent” mean and how does its affect the teaching of Jesus?
Could “some indecency” (ESV) (Heb. ’erwat dābār) refer to adultery? If it does, Moses apparently contradicts himself, for in Deut 22:22 he explicitly says adulterers are to be stoned to death. Why, then, in 24:1–2 talk about a woman being divorced for adultery (if “some indecency” refers to adultery) and then marrying a second husband? Remarriage would not be an issue for the dead!
Also, “some indecency” does not refer to some other sexual offense such as homosexuality, bestiality, or even incest. The Holiness Code (of Leviticus 18) lists offenses that defile and the Lord calls them abominable acts, and the key point that is often overlooked (especially in the case of incest) is that God says whoever does these abominations will be cut off from among his people (Lev 18:26–29, esp. v. 29). That is, the penalty for these offenses is death. Therefore, “some indecency” cannot refer to any of these sins, since each was punishable by death, not divorce.
What, then, does “some indecency” mean? This, of course, was the question on the minds of the Pharisees when they raised the question of Matt 19:3. In Jesus’ day, Rabbi Shammai had interpreted the phrase narrowly to refer to some sexual impurity (usually adultery). However, there is simply no sufficient evidence for this teaching. Rabbi Hillel understood this term to broadly to refer to anything a husband found disagreeable about his wife (even burning a meal, e.g.). The phrase probably referred to a variety of items a husband might find objectionable such as barrenness.
However, while Rabbi Hillel and those who adhered to this teaching were on the right track in their understanding of ”some indecency”, they were wrong in thinking Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatsoever. It is here that their real perversion of the meaning of Deut 24:1–4 becomes clear. The followers of Rabbi Hillel (and those prior to Hillel who subscribed to this school of thought) understood Moses as granting permission or even commanding divorce on grounds of ”some indecency.” However, Moses is merely description a situation where someone was divorced for “some indecency.” The only explicit command in the passage comes in verse 4 (“may not take her again to be his wife”), not in verses 1–3. The Pharisees turned Moses’ description into a prescription and perverted the true intent of the passage.
Therefore, Jesus is making very explicit what Moses had made implicit in Deut. 24. The reply of Jesus to the Pharisees is shocking! Jesus rejects the Pharisees’ conceptual framework given by Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shamma. Christ reminds them that the point of Old Testament teaching is not to find grounds for divorce but to recognize that God’s desire is permanence in marriage. This was something they had no only personally violated but had been teaching the children of God to do, to violate God’s intent and thereby producing adulterers through THEIR teaching. The Pharisee’s are condemned for advocating and promoting divorce on the basis of the faulty view of Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
Essentially, Jesus is saying that they are guilty of sponsoring adultery, and thus have created a generation(s) of people who are an abomination to God. The force of the teaching of Jesus cannot be underestimated. Jesus is communicating that marriage was always intended by God to be permanent and that the religious leaders, through their teaching based on a faulty interpretation of Deut. 24, had actually been promoting adultery among the chosen people of God. In short, those who should have been leading the people in the obedience to God were actually teaching His people to sin against God! There is no doubt that the message of Jesus was a shocking and sweeping condemnation of the Pharisees that sealed their determination to kill Jesus at any cost.