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Holman Bible Dictionary

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The legal ending of a marriage. From early time provision was made for divorce among the Israelites (Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ). Persumably prior to this decree, a wife could be put out of the home at the pleasure of the husband. Now he was required to write out “a bill of divorce” and give it to his wife as proof that he was divorcing her. This gave some dignity and protection to the divorced woman.

Divorce was common enough among the Jews in New Testament times to cause division among the rabbis as to the valid basis for divorce. The passage in Deuteronomy did not give clear guidelines. “Because he hath found some uncleanness in her” (Deuteronomy 24:1 ) left room for interpretation. One group of rabbis insisted that divorce could be granted only if the wife was immoral. Another group argued that divorce could be secured by the husband if the wife displeased him in any way. Among the Jews, only the husband had the right to secure a divorce. The wife might leave her husband, but she could not divorce him. The situation was different in the Roman world. There the wife had equal rights with the husband in the matter of divorce.

The teachings of Jesus are the clearest to be found in the Bible concerning divorce. He refused to be drawn into the rabbinical controversy over the possible valid basis for divorce. When such an attempt was made (Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12 ), Jesus referred His questioners to the Old Testament law. They cited the permission granted in Deuteronomy 24:1 . Jesus pointed out that this was not God's original intent. Divorce was permitted only because of “the hardness of your heart” (Mark 10:5 ). Then Jesus went back to God's original intent which was permanent monogamy, one man and one woman together for life. He supported this by referring back to Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 . God intended marriage to be permanent.

On another occasion as Jesus taught about divorce (Matthew 5:31-32 ), He referred to the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1 as common knowledge among His hearers. He did not give His approval to the practice of divorce. Rather, He showed the consequences of divorce in the lives of people. If a man divorced his wife, he made her an adulteress unless the basis of the divorce was her own immorality. This statement has been understood in various ways. One idea is that Jesus was giving here a justifiable ground for divorce. If the wife violated her marriage vows, the husband had the right to divorce her. However, another suggestion is that Jesus was not making a law. Instead, he was saying that the husband would make the wife become an adulteress unless she had already become one by her own action. A divorced woman in Palestine of that day had few choices. To survive she could remarry or become a prostitute. In either case she was guilty of adultery. In a few instances, the divorced wife might have been able to return to live with her parents. Whichever interpretation of Jesus' statement is considered best, He indicated that God's intention was permanent marriage.

On only one occasion did Paul deal with the matter of divorce in his writings. The church at Corinth asked him questions concerning marriage. In his response to their questions, he had to give advice in matters relating to the marriage of a Christian with another Christian and that of a Christian with a nonbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:10-13 ). With regard to the marriage of two Christians, he cited the teaching of Jesus. The Christian man should not divorce his wife, and the Christian woman should not separate from her husband. In the matter of a Christian married to a nonbeliever, Paul did not have a specific teaching from Jesus. But he gave his advice under the guidance of God's Spirit (1 Corinthians 7:40 ). He stated that a Christian was not to take the initiative to divorce the nonbeliever. So long as the nonbeliever was willing to live in a proper marriage relationship, the Christian was to maintain that relationship.

Thus the intention of God from creation has been that man and woman live together in a permanent marriage relationship. Divorce was allowed in the Old Testament as a protection to the married partners and a means to salvage whatever good could be gained from a bad situation. But Jesus clearly taught that it was not the proper action for His people.

The Scripture does not give specific instructions as to what a divorced person should do. The nearest is Paul's advice that the woman who separates from her husband should remain single or else be reconciled with her husband (1 Corinthians 7:11 ). This advice was given in a context where Paul urged the single state for anyone who was not married.

Clayton Harrop

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Divorce'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​d/divorce.html. 1991.
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