Marriage and Divorce, pt. 2

November 12, 2020

by Barry Fike

    (this is the second part of the discussion on Marriage and Divorce)  

    This bill of divorcement was called, in the Old Testament, safair-kree-toot which is called, in the New Testament, a get.  In Mishnah tractate Gettein (relative to divorce) there is set forth the stipulations by which a man can divorce his wife or a woman may divorce her husband.  Most people are not aware that in Jesus’ day that a woman could legally divorce her husband, though the legal reasons are few.      

          What were some of the reasons that a man could put away his wife?  “...a woman who transgresses Jewish law” could be put away without receiving the alimony granted unto her under her Tubah.[1]  “...going into public with uncovered head (this is an issue that Paul deals with later), spinning in the streets or conversing with all sorts of men; a woman who curses her husband’s children in his presence, a loud-voiced woman, which means one who talks in her house and her neighbors can hear what she says...If one married a woman and waited with her ten years without her bearing a child, he is not permitted to remain exempt (from the duty of procreation)” so he would have to take another wife.  He didn’t necessarily have to put her away, but he had to take another.

          A man has to discharge certain obligations toward his wife, and she, presumably, had the moral right to leave him if he refused to do so (Cf. Ex. 21:10-11).[2]        

          A woman could divorce her husband if he: (1) collected dog manure; (2) was a tanner; (3) had a padunculated tumor of the nasal membranes that would cause him to snore excessively; (4) had a skin disease; or (5) failed in his conjugal responsibilities that were stipulated by law. 

          All of these things must be seen in their proper historical setting so one will know how to correctly interpret the Biblical text.

          Because of the historical situation at that particular time, the men were just putting away their wives for no acceptable reason.  All the husband had to do was give them a bill of divorce; say “I divorce thee” three times in front of witnesses and the wife was put away. She had no place to go being turned loose on society.   There was no social security system and without family she was alone and on her own.  


Anyone who dismissed his wife, except for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery- When we translate the word, fornication, we’ve understood it to mean unchastity, adultery, sexual looseness, having sexual relations with another man’s wife, etc.  But that’s an incorrect assumption because that’s not what it meant in the days of Jesus in a Jewish context.   

          Remember that this single word (indecency) was a source of a great debate between the two great schools of rabbinic thought in the days of Jesus being that of Hillel and Shammai.  Shammai said that the indecency was a gross immorality of a sexual nature.  Hillel said that it could be a gross immorality or anything else that made it difficult for this man to live under the same roof with this woman. 

          The word ‘indecency’ is a harsh term.  It is translated in the Septuagint ‘aischron’.  By the time that you come to the times of Jesus we find a wide range of meanings.  It can mean something that offends you or a person who does something so wrong that it is wrong even to talk about it.  Whatever the present meaning of the word was the original was a very harsh term.  What this woman is found guilty of is not some minor indiscretion.  To show how harsh a term it is, the same term is found in Deut. 23:12-14 in discussing latrine rules.  

          Moses is not primarily preoccupied with what constitutes a legitimate divorce.  He is not saying, “If you find something indecent in this woman then you are permitted to get a divorce.”  The Hebrew language states that, ‘When you have done this...and when you have done this...and when you have done this...if you give her a bill of divorce, this is what follows.’ 

          In such a discussion one must remember that women were at the mercy of the system in the ancient world.  Moses is trying, in Deut. 24, to give women some protection from a man who would flippantly divorce her.  That’s why he does not say, “If you find this problem in her then you can divorce her.”  What he is saying is, “When you marry a woman, if you find something indecent in her, and if you give her a bill of divorce; she goes out; marries another man; then the second man divorces her, or dies, you can’t have her back.”  He’s telling the men to think twice before letting the woman go.  He did not want them coming to him later and saying, “I wrote out the divorce decree in a fit of anger and I’ve changed my mind.”  It doesn’t matter how gross the indecency is that caused you to write out the bill of divorce, if she leaves you and marries another man you can’t have her back.   This passage was never meant to authorize a divorce but to give some protection to the woman who might otherwise be the victim of a husband who would flippantly dismiss her.         


“...Whoever dismisses (repudiates and divorces) his wife and marries

another, commits adultery against her.”  (Mark. 10:11-Amplified Bible)


          Fornication is sexual involvement between unmarried people.  How is it that a married person could commit fornication?  The fact is they can’t.  He’s referring to something that those in Gentile circles have no knowledge of.  It’s called the ket-tu-bah (the bill of espousement).

          In ancient times the marriage was arranged between the husband, or the bridegroom and the father of the bride.  The bridegroom paid a price for her.  After the bridegroom and the bride’s father had agreed upon the purchase price, it was paid and they wrote out a legal document called a ket-tu-bah.  In it is stated three times that this woman is a virgin.  

          In Matthew 5 Jesus is saying that after the marriage has been consummated, if it turned out that the woman was not a virgin, as the ket-tu-bah had stated, then the marriage contract was null and void.  He had just cause to put away his wife because a legal document had been falsified.  Being a legal document such would be recognized in a court of law and being null and void, there would be no problem dissolving the marriage.  Notice: this has nothing to do with adultery the way that we view it today.  Jesus does not say that adultery is just grounds for a man to seek a divorce or to issue his wife a bill of divorcement or vice-versa.


Causes her to commit adultery-   “He causes her to commit adultery (by contracting a subsequent marriage) (Matt 5:32; Bauer, Arndt, Gringrich Hebrew-English Lexicon, p. 528).  The “adultery” is caused because in the eyes of God they are not divorced.   She had been put away for no legal reason, thus she would still be considered to be married.  The onus, again, is on the husband who might unjustly puts his wife away.[3]

          With the exception given in Deut. 24, which Jesus explains as a violation of the marriage contract, there should be no other reason upon which a couple needs to get a divorce.  However, with the school of Hillel, being more liberal than Shammai, men apparently found to their liking the more liberal tone.  As a result marriage could be entered into with little forethought; quickly tossed aside if they mandated even the slightest inconvenience.  Thus, when the occasion arose, and the discussion is on how does one in the kingdom of God treat another, how much more personal could it get than the marriage relationship?


          Here Jesus talks about the man’s responsibility for his wife's spiritual condition.  What he causes her to do is his responsibility. 


          Does this passage have any practical application insofar as our society and our culture is concerned today?  The answer is NO!  To take this controversy out of context and to impose spiritual bondage on individuals in the congregation of God is to render them a grave disservice.  Actually when this passage is studied from its historical and cultural perspective it is liberating.  This does not mean the license for people to do whatever they want, which is the danger anytime that liberty is referred to, it is the right to do what you ought. 

              [1] Cohen, 168.

              [2] Encyclopedia Judaic, vol. 6. 124.

              [3] Roy Blizzard. "Mishnah and the Words of Jesus." Yavo Digest. Yavo Digest, n.d. Web. Vol. 8, No. 3. 7.