Divorce and the “OT” versus the “New”

Divorce Decree

Supposedly, God only temporarily tolerated divorce, but then ended that tolerance after Jesus came. I do believe that it is possible for norms to change as humanity matures in Christ, but I don’t think the typical (i.e. John Murray’s) argument holds up.  The argument derives from Deuteronomy 24.1-4:

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.

The argument is that this law does not grant a right to divorce, but puts controls on a pre-existing practice. “When a man does x he is limited in what he can do next” is not the same as saying “A man may do x.”

OK, the grammar makes such an interpretation possible, but I still think the position is lacking.

First of all, lots of things were already followed and yet are still part of God’s law and included in the Mosaic legislation. The Sabbath was observed, circumcision was practiced, and some form of the Law of the Levirate was acknowledged as binding. We ought to consider that divorce was practiced in that same tradition.

Secondly, Deuteronomy 22.19 and 22.29 specify circumstances where a man can lose his right to divorce a wife. So if God had to tolerate divorce because the Israelites wouldn’t give it up, then how was he able to control them enough to prohibit divorce in some cases?

Third, we know the Law is a transcript of God’s character. The theory is that the actuall permission to divorce was not part of that Law. But how then does God himself follow this law?

Thus says the Lord:
“Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce,
with which I sent her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
to whom I have sold you?
Behold, for your iniquities you were sold,
and for your transgressions your mother was sent away (Isaiah 50.1).

If a man divorces his wife
and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife,
will he return to her?
Would not that land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers;
and would you return to me?
declares the Lord (Jeremiah 3.1).

So, how can something God actually does, and in so doing, appeals to the very law in question, not be a true part of the Law? This is no mere concession. And further, Isaiah and Jeremiah show that the sort of thing that is in view in the Law is actual adultery. Jesus was not adding anything to the Law or inventing anything new when he stated the “except for immorality” qualification (Matthew 19.9).

So what about the statement in Matthew 19.8?

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

“Hardness of heart” began when Adam and Eve sinned. “Hardness of heart” is involved in all marital infidelity. Before they sinned, there was no provision for divorce because no one was going to be unfaithful.

Finally, one of the planks in the argument for the “concessive” view is that, normally, an unfaithful spouse was always executed. Thus, the divorce provisions have to be for some lesser reason. I won’t take up space here arguing the point, but I don’t think that is true. The death penalty was an option, but not mandatory for such cases. An injured spouse could extend mercy to the guilty but end the marriage.

Finally, I’ve been using quotation marks for “OT” and “NT,” because neither one exists.

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