Perversion of the marriage institution. Marriage was ordained by God as an intimate and complementing union between a man and a woman in which the two become one physically, in the whole of life, in its purpose to reflect the relationship of the Godhead, and to serve God. With the fall of humankind the divine purpose and function of marriage were damaged by sin, and the marriage relationship often destroyed.
Effect of the Fall on Marriage. The fall of humankind (Gen 3) caused human hearts to become hard toward God and toward each other. The relational aspect of God's image, reflected in marriage, became marred. Satan tempted Eve to rebel against male leadership (Gen 3:1-6, 17; contra. Eph 5:33; 1 Peter 3:1). Men tended to become dominant and harsh in their leadership (cf. Col 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7). Sin brought polygamy, concubinage, incest, adultery, rape, prostitution, and all kinds of immorality (cf. Lev 18, 20; Rom 1:26-32) that have damaged or destroyed the marriage relationship. Marriage covenants have been violated (cf. Mal 2:14).
Termination of the marriage relationship is caused by sin that entered the world after Genesis 2:21-24. Death itself, which terminates marriage (Rom 7:1-3), came by Adam's sin. Because of sin divorce arose, and Moses sought to regulate it (Deut 24:1-4; Matt 19:8). Divorce is not instituted or ordained by God; rather it is generated by sin and is contrary to God's ideal for marriage (cf. Mal 2:14).
Divorce in the Old Testament. Divorce is first mentioned in the Mosaic covenant (cf. Lev 21:14; Deut 22:13-19, 28-29), but it was already occurring in Israel. Under the Mosaic covenant divorce was regulated in situations in which it might become common. It was not permitted (1) when false accusations were made about a bride's virginity; and (2) when marriage occurred because a man had forcibly violated a woman sexually. A high priest was not to marry a divorcee. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 prohibited remarriage of a woman to her first husband after the death or divorce of her second husband. These texts present legal policy whereby quick and frequent divorce is restrained and discouraged. Divorce is not commended, commanded, or approved by God in these passages, but failure to forbid divorce, especially in Deuteronomy 24, de facto means that God's law tolerated divorce to the extent that no civil or ecclesiastical penalty was imposed.
The basis for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1 is "some indecency" (ervat dabar). The precise meaning of this phrase is uncertain. When the rest of the Old Testament and New Testament are examined, it appears that "some indecency" probably had sexual overtonessome lewd or immoral behavior including any sexual perversion, even adultery. The imagery of spiritual adultery, resulting in God's "divorcing" Israel (Isa 50:1; Jer 3:8), is based on a real referent. Divorce was socially permissible for adultery. Although adultery was punishable by death (Deut 22:22-24), it could still be included in the broad concept of ervat dabar. It is likewise possible that Jesus employed the general term porneia [πορνεία] (Matt 5:32; 19:9) to refer to ervat dabar in Deuteronomy 24:1. However this phrase is understood, the text implies that this continued "indecency" was so vile that divorce was preferred by the husband. To protect the wife, however, he must provide her a certificate of divorce.
This text also recognizes and allows, without condemnation, the remarriage of the wife. In that culture remarriage would be expected since it was difficult for a woman to survive in life unless she was married or remained single in her father's house. This does not necessarily mean that God approves of the remarriage in this text. The text prohibits remarriage to the first husband since the woman has already been defiled. Defilement is best understood contextually as the "indecency" of verse 1, not "defilement" of adultery because of marrying the second husband. Adultery would have been punishable by death of the woman and the second husband, if such had been the case. The second marriage is not condemned, nor is a third marriage forbidden.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4, therefore, is a concession made by God to the fallen condition of humankind. It does not approve of or encourage divorce or remarriage, although it allows for both, except for remarriage of a woman to her first husband. These Deuteronomic texts, therefore, regulate divorce.
In Ezra 9-10 intermarriage with foreigners is viewed as a defilement of the holy race and as unfaithfulness to God (9:2; 10:2, 10). Shecaniah proposed sending away these foreign wives and children (10:3). Ezra concurred (10:11), so the people "divorced" the foreign wives and their children. The problem centers around Israelites marrying unbelieving foreigners. The "putting away" was to be "according to the law, " but no specific command of this nature can be found in the Law. Although Deuteronomy 7:1-4 commands Israelites not to make covenants or to intermarry with the people in Canaan when they enter that land, this principle is not normative since the Old Testament permits marriage to believing foreigners (cf. Rahab, Ruth, and Christ's genealogy in Matt 1:5). The principle of not marrying unbelievers pervades the Scriptures and appears to be the major concern of Ezra 9-10. It was feared that the holy seed would be defiled.
The dissolving of the marriages is problematic. This is de facto divinely approved divorce in order to preserve the holy people. We have already observed that God did not ordain divorce, and Malachi 2:14 clearly states that God hates divorce. We can only conclude that divorce is permitted in some situations. This particular situation related to Israel at that time and appears not to be normative.
Malachi rebukes Israel for profaning the Mosaic covenant (Mal 2:10-16). One example is the breaking of the marriage covenant by divorcing ("breaking faith with") the wives "of their youth" (v. 14). God declares that he hates divorce! This is the most direct statement of God's feeling about divorce.
Therefore, although the Old Testament presents God's ideal for marriage as monogamous, permanent, and exclusive, the Old Testament likewise recognizes that divorce and remarriage are present because of sin and must be regulated.
Divorce in the New Testament. In Matthew 5 Jesus discusses the true intent of the Mosaic Law by emphasizing that righteousness issues from the heart, not from external compliance. Illustrating from the seventh commandment (vv. 27-32), Jesus argues that lust, as well as divorce, are the moral equivalents of adultery. Divorce is wrong because it produces adultery in the remarriage, except in the case of fornication (porneia [πορνεία]). The exception clause (v. 32) most naturally implies that adultery is not caused by divorce when the sexual sin of fornication (porneia [πορνεία]) has already been committed by one spouse. Rather, in this event divorce is permitted because of the fornication. The great question in Matthew 5:31 (and Matt 19:9) is the meaning of "fornication" (porneia [πορνεία]). Porneia [πορνεία] is a broad term for many kinds of sexual impropriety. The early usages referred to prostitution, fornication, and extramarital intercourse. Greek translations of the Old Testament use this term to translate zana [זנָה , זָנָה , זָנָה], "to prostitute." In later Judaism and New Testament times the word broadened to include adultery, incest, sodomy, unlawful marriage, sexual intercourse in general, and any sexual behavior that deviates from accepted social and religious norms. Usage in New Testament contexts does not change these options. The argument of Matthew 5 (and Matt. 19) does not provide sufficient data to limit the usage of porneia [πορνεία] in this context to one specific meaning. Porneia [πορνεία] is perhaps broad in its reference to illicit sexual intercourse in keeping with the breadth of the Hebrew phrase ervat dabar (cf. Deut 24:1). Some form of illegitimate extramarital sexual intercourse is conveyed by the term. Therefore adultery in a real sense has already transpired, and Jesus states that this is a permissible ground for divorce. Divorce, however, is not required. Some argue that porneia [πορνεία] cannot mean adultery since the Old Testament penalty for adultery was death, not divorce (cf. Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22-24). However, in New Testament times Jews were unable to impose the death penalty without Roman permission. Therefore, adultery severs the marriage relationship in the New Testament as did the adulterer's death in the Old Testament.
Therefore, Matthew 5:31-32 is stating that divorce is equivalent to adultery since the divorced person normally remarries. However, if illegitimate extramarital sexual intercourse is practiced by one spouse, adultery has already transpired, and this breaks the oneness of the marriage relationship. Divorce, therefore, is permissible, although never required.
In Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12 some Pharisees test Jesus by asking whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. Jesus reminds them of God's original ideal for marriage in Genesis 2:24: a male and a female were created to become a permanent "one flesh" union. Humankind should not separate (divorce) what God has joined together. Unsatisfied with his answer, the Pharisees raise the issue of the divorce statement in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus states that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 permitted divorce solely because of man's hard (sinful) heart, but this was not God's original plan for marriage (Matt 19:8). In Matthew 19:9 (cf. Mark 10:10-12) he reiterates the principle of Matthew 5:31-32: divorce generates adultery "except" in the case of fornication (porneia [πορνεία]) where adultery has already transpired. The husband (or the wife in Mark 10:11-12) who initiates divorce for any reason other than spouse porneia [πορνεία], and marries another, commits adultery. Luke 16:18 looks at the situation from both directions: the one initiating divorce and the one marrying a divorced person have each committed adultery. For some reason in Mark's argument of the same event as in Matthew (and Luke's separate argument), the exception clause is omitted. The reason for this is uncertain. However, one must accept the exception clause as genuine, valid, and original in Matthew.
Jesus' teaching confirms and elaborates the Old Testament concepts of marriage and divorce. God's ideal for marriage is a monogamous, permanent, and exclusive union. Because of humankind's sin divorce arose, and Moses permitted a certificate of divorce to regulate it. Divorce, however, is equivalent to adultery because it generates adultery. So the one initiating divorce and the one marrying a divorced person commit adultery. The only exception to this rule is when one of the marriage partners has committed fornication (porneia [πορνεία]), which itself is adultery. When this occurs, the other spouse may legitimately divorce the partner who has committed fornication. Such, however, is not required and should be a last alternative.
First Corinthians 7:1-16, 39 argues that married people should stay married. First, spouses should not leave/divorce (chorizo [ἀποχωρίζω]) their marriage partners (v. 10). This is the ideal (v. 39). If a spouse should leave/divorce a marriage partner, he or she has only two options: (1) remain unmarried or (2) be reconciled. Remarriage is not an option. Second, a believer should not divorce an unbelieving spouse (vv. 12-13). However, if the unbeliever leaves, the believing partner is not bound to the principle about maintaining the marriage. The marriage is thereby dissolved. Paul says nothing about the issue of remarriage.
Conclusion. God-ordained marriage is a monogamous, permanent, and exclusive union. The entrance of sin into the world brought divorce. God hates divorce because it is contrary to his ideal. Understanding the sinfulness of humankind, he graciously tolerates divorce while establishing regulations to curb it. Jesus upheld the ideal of permanent marriage, making clear that divorce is equivalent to adultery in breaking the oneness of marriage. Initiating divorce and/or marrying a divorced person produces adultery. The only exception to this principle, and, therefore, the only legitimate ground for divorce is illegitimate extramarital sexual intercourse on the part of a spouse. Divorce is permitted for this reason, but not demanded. Reconciliation should always be sought when fornication or separation has occurred. It is also permissible to dissolve a marriage if an unbelieving spouse departs/deserts the believer. Believers should, however, always love and accept divorced people and seek to encourage them in reconciliation and godly ways.
Ralph H. Alexander
See also Family Life and Relations; Marriage
Bibliography. D. J. Atkinson, To Have and to Hold; H. W. House, ed., Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views; W. F. Luck, Divorce and Remarriage: Recovering the Biblical View; J. Murray, Divorce; J. H. Olthhuis, I Pledge You My Troth.