Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, June 13th, 2024
the Week of Proper 5 / Ordinary 10
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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 24

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verses 1-5


“When a man taketh a wife, and marrieth her, then it shall be, if she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some unseemly thing in her, that he shall write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, who took her to be his wife; her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before Jehovah: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which Jehovah thy God giveth thee for an inheritance. “When a man taketh a new wife, he shall not go out in the host, neither shall he be charged with any business: he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer his wife whom he hath taken.”

The first paragraph here is that famous passage brought up by the Pharisees in the presence of Jesus Christ in Matthew 19:3. The view of those evil men was that Moses commanded to give a bill of divorcement (Matthew 19:7), but Christ corrected them, pointing out that Moses indeed permitted divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts, but that he, in no sense whatever commanded it. Some of the commentators today also need to be corrected. For example, Dummelow stated that, “The right of the husband to divorce his wife is here acknowledged.”(F1) This passage, of course, does no such thing. “This is not a law instituting or regulating divorce but a regulation concerning this ancient Semitic custom.”(F2) Cook has elaborated this correct view a little more fully, as follows:

“Moses neither instituted nor enjoined divorce. The exact spirit of this passage is found in our Lord’s words to the Pharisees: “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives (Matthew 19:8). Moses reported the original institution of marriage (Genesis 2:24), setting forth the perpetuity of the bond, and even the passage before us plainly indicates that divorce, while tolerated for the time, contravenes the order of nature and of God. The divorced woman who marries again is “defiled” (Deuteronomy 24:4), and is grouped in this particular with the adulteress. Our Lord, then, was speaking according to the spirit of this passage when he declared, “Whoso marrieth her that is put away committeth adultery” (Matthew 19:9).”(F3)

(For further comment on this question, see in Vol. 1 of our series on the N.T., under Matthew 19:1 ff.)

There are a number of very interesting things here. “Some unseemly thing in her” what can this mean? The Hebrew has, literally, “some matter of nakedness.”(F4) The Jews spawned two schools of authorities on this, those of Shammai thought it meant something disgraceful, such as adultery, and those of Hillel took the position that it meant any “unbecomingness,” actually meaning that, “for any reason,” a man could put away his wife.(F5) It is not hard to discover the position of the Pharisees (Matthew 19:3) who accepted Hillel’s position on this, believing that divorce was possible “for every cause.”

The first three verses here are all conditional, the one affirmation in the whole first paragraph being that the woman’s first husband may not take her back after her union with another man. Needless to say, there have been many disputes about what some of these clauses mean. Deuteronomy 24:2, for example, is cited by Dummelow as proof that a divorced woman had the right to remarry. “The bill of divorcement contained the sentence, “And thou art free to be married to another man.”(F6) Also, some have disputed that there are any exceptions at all, not even allowing what Jesus said, regarding “except for fornication” (Matthew 19:9).

Occasionally, some commentator affirms that Jesus’ exception `except for fornication” should not be allowed because the parallel passages in Mark and in Luke do not record it, but to us this appears little short of blasphemy. All of everything written in all of the gospels is true, dependable, authentic, and of full authority. It is NOT required that anything in any gospel be repeated by another in order for it to be acceptable. The same thing is true of all of the Bible, and thus Paul’s additional “exception” in 1 Corinthians 7:15 is just as much the Word of God as any other part of the Bible.

One insight into the passage should be stressed and that is the prevalence of writing. The time here is the mid-second millennium B.C. (around 1400 B.C.), and writing was generally known and in constant use in that society. Therefore, the notion that Moses would not have written all of the pertinent material contained in the Pentateuch borders on foolishness, especially in view of the specific commandment of God that he was to do so, as in Exodus 17:14.

Summarizing the instructions relating to marriage and divorce in these first four verses, these rules, it appears, were fashioned:

(1) in order to make divorce harder to get;

(2) requiring that a legal document be prepared in writing;

(3) thus probably involving the services of a scribe and perhaps also a magistrate;

(4) forbidding any return to the original marriage after another had been contracted; and

(5) indicating altogether God’s displeasure with the whole business of “putting away” wives.

If there should remain any doubt about how God actually views this sin, it is found in the following verse:

“And did not he (God) make one…? Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. FOR I HATE PUTTING AWAY, saith Jehovah the God of hosts.” (Malachi 2:15-16)

The instruction in Deuteronomy 24:5 regarding the man newly-married, exempting him from any kind of military service for a whole year is also mentioned again in Deuteronomy 20:7. Kline was correct in grouping this along with the previous four verses. As Klein pointed out that:

“Attached to the laws regarding marriage which are intended to prevent a frivolous severance of the marriage tie, Deuteronomy 24:5 is of a more positive character and adapted to fortify the marriage tie.”(F7)

There is an amazing echo of this sequence in the sacred teachings in Matthew 19, where, following the conversation about divorce, the apostles brought unto him little children that Christ should place his hands upon them and bless them (Matthew 19:13). It will be remembered that the apostles said, after that conversation, “…it is not expedient to marry.” By bringing this beautiful episode involving little children into focus at that very point, “It served as a comment on the discussion of divorce, and left a better impression with reference to married life.(F8)

“To cheer his wife” (Deuteronomy 24:5). This is variously translated: “Rejoice with his wife” (Douay Version), “Be happy with his wife” (RSV), “Para felicidad de su mujer” (Spanish Version), “Stay at home and bring happiness to his wife” (NIV), “Be happy with his wife” (Moffatt), “Cheer up his wife” (KJV and the Polyglot). Tyndale has this, literally, “Fhalbe fre at home one yere and reioyfe with his wife whiche he hath taken.”

Verses 6-15


“No man shall take the mill or the upper millstone to pledge; for he taketh a man’s life to pledge. “If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and he deal with him as a slave, or sell him; then that thief shall die: so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee. “Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that thou observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you: as I commanded them, so ye shall observe to do. Remember what Jehovah thy God did unto Miriam, by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt. “When thou dost lend thy neighbor any manner of loan, thou shalt not go into his house to fetch his pledge. Thou shalt stand without, and the man to whom thou dost lend shall bring forth the pledge without unto thee. And if he be a poor man, thou shalt not sleep with his pledge; thou shalt surely restore to him the pledge when the sun goeth down, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless thee: and it shall be righteousness unto thee before Jehovah thy God. “Thou shalt not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy sojourners that are in thy land within thy gates: in his day, thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it (for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it); lest he cry against thee unto Jehovah, and it be sin unto thee.”

In Deuteronomy 24:6, the KJV has “the nether or the upper millstone,” instead of “the mill or the upper millstone.” The KJV is preferable, because, by any definition, “the mill” would include both millstones. “The upper millstone was concave and fitted like a lid over the nether millstone which was convex. There was a small aperture through which the grain was poured, and also a handle by which the mill was turned.”(F9) This important device was necessary in the daily preparation of meals in the home, and therefore, lenders were not allowed to touch it as a pledge. Exodus 22:25-26 relates to the subject here.

The crime in view in Deuteronomy 24:7 is kidnapping, and there is hardly a civilized nation on earth, even today, that does not affix the death penalty for such crimes.

Deuteronomy 24:8 and Deuteronomy 24:9 are understood in two different ways. Alexander, and others think the passage is an admonition for people afflicted with leprosy, counseling them to be careful to comply with all the priestly regulations applicable to those thus afflicted.(F10) On the other hand, Keil and the commentators who usually follow him, are certain that this is an admonition to all the people to keep all of God’s laws commanded through the priests, in order to avoid the onset of the plague of leprosy.(F11) It seems to us that the example of Miriam (Numbers 12:9 f), to which Moses here appealed, would fit the view of Keil better than that of Alexander. It is not impossible, however, that both meanings are in the passage; for certainly neither view is incompatible with what is right and true. (For directions regarding lepers see Leviticus 13-14.)

In Deuteronomy 24:10-13, regarding the taking of pledges, it should be remembered that, “Although interest on loans to fellow-Israelites was forbidden (Deuteronomy 23:19-20), the taking of pledges was allowed; but even this was not to be procured in such a manner as not to compromise the dignity, much less the life, of the debtor.”(F12) In line with this thought is the prohibition of the lender going into a neighbor’s house to procure a pledge, also the rule that anything vital to the well being and comfort of the debtor was to be returned before sundown! The practical effect of all this was to limit or even forbid the taking of a pledge.

In Deuteronomy 24:14-15, the oppression or mistreatment of poor laborers is forbidden. Some employers were guilty of retaining the wages of day laborers beyond the time limit given here, and James pronounced a stern rebuke against such abusers of sacred law, saying, “Behold the hire of the laborers who mowed your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth out: and the cries of them that reaped have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth!” (James 5:4). See Leviticus 19:13.

Verses 16-18


“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin. Thou shalt not wrest the justice due to the sojourner, or to the fatherless, nor take the widow’s garment to pledge; but thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and Jehovah thy God redeemed thee thence: therefore I command thee to do this thing.”

Deuteronomy 24:16 is taken by some to mean that there is no such thing as corporate responsibility; but the example of the expiation that had to be made by the nearest city in the case of an unsolved murder (Deuteronomy 21) is more than enough to validate the principle of corporate responsibility. What is forbidden here is that Israel should follow the example of most ancient nations in those days, in which, “The family of a criminal was included in his punishment.”(F13) The Book of Esther details the punishment of Haman and his seven sons who were all hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai (Esther 9:25); yet Haman alone was the wicked enemy of the Jews. It was in contrast with such punishments that this law was promulgated.

The humanitarian aspect of Deuteronomy 24:17-18 is clear enough. There was special protection in all of God’s laws directed to benefit the strangers, the poor, the wayfarers, the widows, the fatherless, and others of the poor.

Verses 19-22


“When thou reapest thy harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: for it shall be for the sojourner, and for the widow; that Jehovah thy God may bless thee in all the work of thy hands. When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the sojourner, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it after thee: it shall be for the sojourner, for the fatherless, and for the widow. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing.”

The expression, “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow,” recurs like a litany throughout the Bible; and the responsibility for all able citizens to be concerned and to look out for those less fortunate than themselves is by no means “an optional” obligation. “Therefore I command thee to do this thing!”

The beautiful story of Ruth and Boaz (in the Book of Ruth) turns upon the fact of Ruth’s being a gleaner in Boaz’ field. See Leviticus 19:9 ff for related material. “Heathen peoples sometimes had regulations like these in order that some would be left for the gods, or the demons, but nothing like that is here, for Israel did not conceive of God as needing earthly food.”(F14) “The sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow,” like a recurring refrain, focuses attention upon why this is commanded. “All of the injunctions in these chapters are adapted to the preservation of brotherliness and love among the people of the Lord.”(F15)

We appreciate the words of Scott who wrote:

“A spirit that grasps the last penny is contrary to the will of Jehovah and unworthy of his great redemptive act. See similar legislation in Leviticus 19:9 f, where the “corners” are added, but the olives are omitted.”(F16)

People should never be overly diligent to squeeze the last penny of profit out of any venture. It is not merely contrary to what is commanded here, but there is an accompanying detrimental reaction that invariably occurs, as the Lord has revealed: “There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty” - Proverbs 11:24.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 24". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/deuteronomy-24.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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