Deuteronomy 24.1-4 — Reasonable First Principles about Divorce

This is really (and surprisingly, considering how much divorce there was) the only text in the whole Old Testament dealing with the question of divorce. It’s not the only place divorce is mentioned, but it’s about the only place we have some teaching to grab on to. So let’s dig in, and let’s try to be both honest and accurate about it.

First of all, it’s pretty clear that this is a very specific case and not meant to give us all that we want to know about divorce. As a matter of fact, the only sort of “rule” here is in verse 4; verses 1-3 are just the set up.

It’s also clear that (1) divorce was allowed, (2) remarriage was allowed, (3) and that certain legalities were supposed to be involved. The formalities, legalities, and restrictions were meant to prevent divorce and remarriage from being lightly or rashly exercised. Those are reasonable principles to gather at this early point in the discussion.

The verses don’t say divorce is mandatory, nor even encouraged. It’s not a right. They are not trying to sanction it, or forbid it. But we can say that we can tell divorce was permitted, or at least tolerated, without penalty.

I also see that divorce was only for good cause, that the case had to be brought before legal entities, and that the husband and wife were both to be protected from manipulation or abuse through the proceedings. Fair?

What do you think so far?

Verse 1. He becomes “displeased” with her. Here we see that there must be grounds, and a legal document (certificate, in this case) is drawn up specifying the particulars. So there must be particulars, and not just, “Uh, ‘cause I feel like it. It’s not workin’ out.” Actually, he’s displeased because of “something indecent.” They had a word for adultery, and this isn’t it, so it most likely doesn’t refer to that. It’s obviously not something trivial, but must refer to something really objectionable that in their culture was just over the line. It’s probably something that was a gross violation of the essence of the marriage contract, and that an important principle to understand too. Whatever it is, it’s a serious accusation. It’s hard to know what that might have been because the phrase is so weird and general: “the nakedness of a thing.” But again, we can tell that the case under discussion is a specific one, and that it doesn’t try to deal with divorce in general. Actually, it’s more about remarriage after divorce than it is about divorce. But all in good time.

“A certificate of divorce.” Marriage was established by a formal legal covenant, and a formal legal document was required to dissolve it. It shows that divorce was not to be taken lightly, was regulated by the courts, and that the certificate also gave legal permission for the woman to remarry. It may have also assured the return of the dowry, which could have been important to either her subsequent survival in society, her reputation, or her ability to remarry. In any case, we can observe the protections in place to make sure she was being treated fairly.

Already we’ve learned that divorce was practiced. It wasn’t required; it wasn’t a right, and it probably wasn’t encouraged. But it happened, and God allowed it. It was never supposed to be done hastily or flippantly; there was expected to be good cause. It had to be obtained from legal sources and be a matter of public record. It released the woman from further obligations to her former husband, and she was awarded financial restitution and awards to allow her to continue to function in her society. It protected her reputation and status. Remarriage was permitted afterwards. And finally, that marriages can become irreconcilably dissolved.

Verse 2. Remarriage seems to have been acceptable and expected.

Verse 3. The problem seems to be that the second husband doesn’t have just cause. We’ve already learned that there has to be just cause, justice in the proceedings, and fair economic compensation. It also seems that God did recognize divorce when it took place in Israel’s courts, as His representatives of justice (just as government officials are representatives of his sovereignty).

Verse 4. Even though divorce stems from sin, divorce itself is not sin. Several times God threatened to divorce Israel (Isa. 50.1) In Malachi 2.16 we read that God hates divorce, but we never read that he hates the divorced person.

The prohibition of this verse (the only “law” here) seems to be aimed at the sanctity of marriage. Instead of refusing to allow divorce, it makes sure the divorce will stick, hopefully putting more restraint on frivolous divorce. Whatever is going on, v. 4 makes clear that the woman in this case is the victim and not the guilty party. This law is designed to protect her.

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