Love and Divorce, Part 2

Although the Sichos HaRan, zt”l, writes that, in general, one should not divorce his wife unless compelled to by the halachah, there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Some people—even those with experience working with couples—believe that every rift in a marriage can be healed. According to that view, if a couple did not make their marriage work it must have been that one or both were unwilling to work hard enough to build their relationship. Although this is true in the vast majority of cases, there are times when the best option does seem to be divorce.

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But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”Malachi 2:14-16 (ESV)

So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”Matthew 19:6 (ESV)

In yesterday’s morning meditation, I asked “is it ever acceptable to get a divorce?” According to a strict New Testament interpretation, there is only one acceptable reason:

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” –Matthew 19:9 (ESV)

That seems pretty plain. Unless sexual immorality is involved, there is no Biblical grounds for divorce. That tends to be translated as one spouse “cheating” on another. So does that mean a man can beat his wife and children, abuse drugs and alcohol, refuse to work and support his family, or emotionally terrorize his family, all for the purpose of supporting his own emotional desires? Common sense would say “no”, but what about the Bible?

Actually, read Matthew 19:9 again. It doesn’t say you can’t divorce for other reasons, it just says that you can’t remarry. The footnotes for this verse state “some manuscripts add and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery; other manuscripts except for sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

That still seems a little harsh. If a woman divorces a man who is physically abusive to her and the children but where no sexual immorality is involved, she is right to divorce him but can never be remarried?

Let’s take a wider view of the issue of divorce:

“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, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 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, 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. –Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (ESV)

In Matthew 19, Jesus was talking about how Moses permitted divorce but it was not God’s intention to permit it for reasons of hard heartedness. In Malachi 2, the prophet says that God hates divorce, but seems to lay the responsibility for the matter at the feet of the faithless husband. Neither of these verses seem to forbid divorce out of hand or specify only the issue of sexual immorality, but rather, they state that God seems to hate divorces that are seemingly frivolous or merely for the purpose of finding “greener pastures”. Maybe I’m reading more into the scriptures than is really there, but I don’t think I can accept that God would force a person to remain in a marriage that was completely intolerable due to emotional and/or physical abuse by the other party. In the above-referenced section of Deuteronomy, the matter of sin seems to come up when you divorce a woman, she remarries another man, divorces him, and then remarries her original husband. I see this as being tied to sending her away. Once done, it cannot be undone if she subsequently “becomes one flesh” with another man.

I’ve been participating in a discussion related to this topic in a private forum. One of the members, who is well educated in Torah and the Apostolic Scriptures said this:

It depends upon what you call “Grounds.” If “grounds” requires a proof text, then perhaps not. But when you are in real ministry, with real people, things get interesting. When a woman is married to a man who beats her, or a man who pulled a gun on her during sex, is that still a marriage? Are there not behaviors that are so out of bounds that they void the marriage? And is it “Righteous” to tell such a woman, “Look Norma dear (not a real name), you married him in the sight of God, and you must remain in the marriage to please the Lord.” That kind of stuff doesn’t work for me, proof text or no proof text. In other words, when does a marriage stop being a marriage, and when it has stopped being a marriage and cannot or will not be reversed, is there virtue in keeping up appearances, and evil in naming the marriage a dead?

I don’t know if there’s a direct proof text about not being able to leave an abusive or toxic marriage, but then again, there’s no proof text that directly says you must stay, either. Perhaps the “clue” is in the a scripture I quoted yesterday:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. –Ephesians 5:25-30(ESV)

I also said this:

Husbands, if you are supposed to be loving your wife like Christ loves the church, consider for a minute just what the love of Jesus Christ means. The number one way we know that Jesus loves us is because he voluntarily surrendered his life for the sake of our eternal relationship with God. Not only that, but it was completely unfair in that he did not deserve to die at all. Add to that the fact that it was a long, lingering, painful, and shameful death. If you Christian husbands love your wives in the same way, I suppose you should be putting up with a lot from her, even the stuff you don’t deserve.

If a husband’s love for his wife is supposed to closely mirror the love of the Master for the community of faith, then perhaps we can infer a few things. Was the Master abusive or toxic toward the church? Did he put his needs or wants ahead of others? Did he physically, emotionally, or spiritually harm those who followed him? I don’t believe so. The only thing you could say is that he put his foot down, on occasion, to demand moral and right behavior from his followers, but he never, ever hurt them and he was never ever selfish. In fact, he was obedient, “even unto death” for the sake of those who professed him as Lord then and everyone who has done so since.

I suppose that may not be satisfying for some people reading this blog post, especially if you are a very literal person (I tend to be, at times), but in this matter, if I’m going to make a mistake, I’d prefer to err on the side of compassion. I don’t think divorce is justified because you want a younger, prettier wife, or because your husband never ended up making a million dollars a year, but there are times, beyond sexual misconduct, when it is justified to leave your spouse and end your marital relationship. If marriage is sanctified by God, how holy is a union where the man beats his wife and puts his children in the hospital because he can’t control his temper? How holy is a marriage where the wife habitually abuses drugs and leaves her young children alone when her husband is working, so she can get loaded or sleep off her high?

I’m probably not going to hear any complements about this particular “morning meditation”, but my conscious won’t let me write anything else. Like the Chofetz Chaim, I believe there are times when the only way to bring peace to a couple “is to allow them to divorce and go their separate ways!”

12 thoughts on “Love and Divorce, Part 2”

  1. There is so much to consider here. the Hebrew for “some indecency” in Deut. 24 is ערבת דבר -ervat davar. If this term is understood as marital unfaithfulness, then why wasn’t it covered in the laws pertaining to adultry?

    Another passage to consider is 1 Cor. 7:15. Paul teaches that abandonment by an unbelieving spouse constitutes grounds for divorce and remarriage. V. 12 shows that this is an extention of what yeshua taught “I say, not the Lord.” but i think that we can conclude that Paul considered this extention as consistent with what Yeshua taught, even if Yeshua Himself did not explisity say it. Paul would have never contradict his Master. It shows that Paul understood yeshua’s interpretation of ערבת דבר to include more than overt saxual sins.

  2. Dan, how far do you think “some indecency” goes? Is it exclusive to sexual acts, or can it include a broader range of “indecency” as my blog post suggests?

  3. There are many things to consider.

    We cannot disregard Paul’s instructions. so it seems that Yeshua may have comsidered “fornication” (porneia, in the Greek) to include sins that cause the marriage to be damaged beyond repair, like physical abuse, or abandonment. But, we also have to understand that in those cases divorce is not required. like you mentioned, forgiveness and reconciliation are always a better course to follow.

  4. Just to throw a monkey wrench into the machine Dan, what about forgiveness but not reconciliation? Let’s say a woman is terribly battered by her husband on a habitual basis. In order to protect her life, she must leave him and they divorce. It is possible for her to eventually forgive him, but she probably will not reconcile with him, at least to the degree where they could be together again. He may never stop being dangerous to her. There are many men who are in prison who will always be harmful to women or just other human beings.

  5. These questions are all answered by recent scholarship into 1st C marriage certificates. See “The Four Biblical Cause of Divorce”.

    Deut. 24’s ערבת דבר (a cause of nakedness/sexual immorality) is indeed referring to sexual immorality only (in the most common case – adultery), but this was not the only scripture allowing divorce. Exodus 21.10-11 allowed divorce (even for the humblest of wives) for the neglect of food, clothing and sex – these three requirement were written into the majority of 1st Century marriage certificates (literally “food, clothing and bed”).

    Jesus was not asked about the lawfulness of divorce in Matt. 19 (how can a law made by God be unlawful?), but about “divorce for any cause”. Lawyers had separated דבר from ערבת to liberalize the divorce laws. God (and Moses) allowed divorce for adultery (Deut. 24) and neglect/ abuse (Exodus 21) but God didn’t allow divorce for the burning of the odd supper.

    Kind Regards,

  6. Thanks, Jack. This is the second time someone has posted a link to “” I’m usually not a big fan of videos since I can read faster than a person can speak, but I’ll have to find the time to check that one out.

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