The Bible and Divorce
"It was said, `WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE'; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew 5:31-32
That's pretty harsh. If your wife has not committed adultery and you divorce her anyway, and then she remarries, she and whoever she marries is committing adultery by getting married, and you've done it ("makes her commit adultery"). If she has committed adultery, then she's done it to herself. But in either case, she and her new husband are committing adultery if they get married after a divorce. Is that what He's saying here? You may not interpret it that way, but a lot of people and churches do. Let's explore.
First, we need to see what the King James Version says:
It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. Matthew 5:31-32 (KJV)
Let's see what the new translation "God's Word" says:
"It has also been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice.' But I can guarantee that any man who divorces his wife for any reason other than unfaithfulness makes her look as though she has committed adultery. Whoever marries a woman divorced in this way makes himself look as though he has committed adultery. Matthew 5:31-32 (God's Word translation)
Those three translations are just different enough to be significant. You see, the words "put away" in the Greek don't mean "divorce." That's the key to understanding this verse. The Greek word for "divorce" is "Apostasion," but the Greek word for "put away" is "Apoluo." It essentially means "kick out" in this context. Indulge me with the following definitions:
Greek word "Apoluo" (Strong's 630)
- to set free
- to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer)
- a petitioner to whom liberty to depart is given by a decisive answer
- to bid depart, send away
- to let go free, release
- a captive i.e. to loose his bonds and bid him depart, to give him liberty to depart
- to acquit one accused of a crime and set him at liberty
- indulgently to grant a prisoner leave to depart
- to release a debtor, i.e. not to press one's claim against him, to remit his debt
- used of divorce, to dismiss from the house, to repudiate. The wife of a Greek or Roman may divorce her husband.
- to send one's self away, to depart
Greek word "Apostasion" (Strong's 647)
Here is an example of such an "Instrument of Divorcement."
On the fourth day of the week, on the eleventh day of the month Cisleu, in the year five thousand four hundred and fifty four, from the creation of the world; according to the computation which we follow here, in the city of Amsterdam, which is called Amstelredam; situated by the sea side, called Taya, and by the river Amstel; I Abraham, the son of Benjamin, surnamed Wolphius, the priest; and at this time dwelling in the city of Amsterdam, which is called Amstelredam, which is situated by the sea side, called Taya, and by the river Amstel; or if I have any other name, or surname, or my parents, or my place, or the place of my parents; by my own free will, without any compulsion, I put away, dismiss, and divorce thee, my wife Rebecca, the daughter of Jonas the Levite; who at this time abides in the city of Amsterdam, called Amstelredam, situated by the sea side, called Taya, and by the river Amstel; or if thou hast any other name, or surname, or thy parents, or thy place, or the place of thy parents, who wast heretofore my wife; but now I put thee away, dismiss, and divorce thee; so that thou art in thine own hands, and hast power over thyself, to go and marry any other man, whom thou pleasest: and let no man hinder thee in my name, from this day forward, and for ever; and lo! thou art free to any man. Let this be to thee, from me, a bill of divorce, an instrument of dismission, and a letter of forsaking, according to the law of Moses and Israel.'' From John Gill's Exposition of the Bible, Matthew 5:31".
The key seems to be this: If you "put away" or "send away" a woman without an "Instrument of Divorcement," you're essentially saying "She's guilty of adultery, and I'm sending her away because I don't want to stay married to a woman with no character." The kindness here if she really is guilty is that you're not having her stoned to death (Deut 22:20-24).
But if you really want to be kind, then you give her an "Instrument of Divorcement," which says "She's innocent of any wrongdoing. I'm the guilty party, and since she's innocent, I want her to be able to have a happy life with a new husband, even though I no longer want to be married to her."
Remember when Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant (Mat 1:19)? He knew he'd not been the one to make her pregnant, so the only assumption he could make was that she had committed adultery. He could have had her stoned to death under Moses' law. Since he couldn't be married to an unrighteous woman, he could not follow through with his own marriage of her. However, since he truly loved her and wanted to declare her "innocent," he was willing to quietly give her a bill of divorcement, or a "declaration of innocence," so she could marry someone else, possibly the man she committed adultery with, and live happily. It truly was a huge kindness on his part.
Oftentimes, it takes a lot more English words than our modern translations allow to fully explain the meaning behind the Greek. Let me take the liberty of re-writing the English translations thus (I am NOT re-writing God's Word, but explaining the Greek as I read it):
It has been said that whoever kicks his wife out of his house, let him give her a document legally declaring her innocence. But I say unto you that whoever kicks his wife out without that document declaring her innocence puts her in a position of committing adultery if she remarries, because she's legally still married to you. And not only that, whoever marries her after that is also committing adultery for the same reason. If she really has committed adultery, then you don't need to give her that document declaring her innocence. She's "made her own bed." If that's not the case, though, and you're just sending her away because you simply don't want to be married to her any more, then don't make it look like she's committed adultery on you. Give her the "instrument of innocence" to release her completely, give notice to the public that she's innocent of any crime, and let her remarry legally and with a clear conscience.
The reverse is also true regarding wives divorcing husbands.(Mark 10:12)
The way I read the Greek is that Jesus was answering the question about the legitimate cause of divorce, and how God wanted His people to deal with it. There was a controversy at the time between the schools of Hillell and Shammai: Hillell allowing it upon any frivolous cause; and Shammai, only on account of adultery. Jesus was saying that divorce, for any reason, is against God's purpose (Matt. 19:3-9;Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:10-17), but if you do divorce, give the "put away" spouse the opportunity to remarry by declaring their innocence in the matter. If they actually did commit adultery, then you're not required to declare them innocent, and an "instrument of divorcement" isn't necessary. The price they must pay for their infidelity is a life unmarried.Ok, one more comment about that, though. I'm definitely getting into deeper waters here, but I'd also like to remind the readers of the following: Jesus was addressing the Old Testament laws of Moses here. He wasn't risen yet.
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1
"Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, " Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool. Isaiah 1:18
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 2 Cor 5:17
Paul knew we still have the sin nature, and he gave us the recipe for dealing with it as children of the Risen Christ. Read Romans chapters 7 and 8 for the full essence of it.
I'm not condoning divorce (Mat 19:6), and I'm certainly not excusing adultery. Neither reflect the heart of God. What I'm saying here is that Jesus has given us a better way of dealing with it that doesn't include unforgiveness, condemnation, and a life alone. I believe our modern translations miss the point.
I pray that these thoughts will ring true.
God Bless, and as always, I welcome different perspectives.