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Published Date: October 31, 1999

Published Date: October 31, 1999

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The Biblical Option of Divorce

When we tell a woman that the Lord hates divorce, why do we fail to add that the same verse declares God’s hatred of violence?

“I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering his wife with violence as well as with his garment,” says the Lord Almighty. “So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.” (Mal 2:16, NIV)

Why don’t we tell abused women that Proverbs 6:16-19 lists seven things that the Lord hates: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies, a person who stirs up dissension among people”? Why do we compel a woman to remain in a marriage characterized by these evils? All too often the preservation of marriage has been established as the highest good, even when human life is at stake. This is not what the Bible advocates.

The Marriage Covenant

Marriage was given to bind together a man and woman as one flesh in enduring union (Gen 2:24; Eph 5:31). Much in the Bible is said to safeguard the bonds of matrimony (Ex 20:14; Lev 20:10; Dt 5:18; 22:22) and to affirm the strength of permanent marriage (Pr 2:16-17; 5:15-20; 12:4; 18:22). Marriage involved a private covenant within the larger context of God’s covenant with Israel.

At Mount Sinai the people of Israel agreed to a covenant by which God would set them apart from all the nations of the earth. They were to demonstrate to the rest of humanity what it meant to serve the true and living God as his dedicated people. In return, God promised to bless them and to be their God.

As a stipulation of the covenant between God and Israel, the believing community promised not to give their daughters in marriage to those of alien faith nor to take for their sons those who did not worship the Lord (Ex 34:16). This was a promise not only to God but to the entire faith community. To embrace those who adored false gods was to vitiate a covenant intended to extend from one generation to another. Those within the covenant community were required to marry a believing spouse and to instruct their children in the ways of the Lord. This knowledge of the true and living God was integral to the cohesion and perpetuity of Israel. Faith was passed from one generation to the next.

With the giving of the law, however, provision was made for human sin through sacrifice. Divorce was given as a provision in case of untenable marriages (Dt 24:1). A formal written document gave termination and clarification to what might otherwise be a confused situation (cf. Jdg 15:1-3).

God’s covenant with Israel was likened to a marriage union betrayed by an idolatrous wife. At three points in Scripture, we are told that Yahweh has divorced his people (Is 50:1; 54:6-7; Jer 3:8). We need only think of the lost tribes to understand that this divorce was a permanent one, based on Israel’s infidelity (Jer 11:10).

A Last Resort

Also in the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi condemned the people for setting aside their believing wives to forge more advantageous matches with the daughters of local landowners (Mal 2:11-14). Forbidden intermarriage had brought acculturation with the heathen rather than a perseverance in God’s call to holiness (Ez 9:1-2; cf. Dt 7:3-4; Ex 34:15-16). These marriages were a violation of the covenant itself (Ez 9:10-15) and constituted a threat to the continuing faith of Israel. It was just such intermarriage and acculturation that had destroyed the identity of the ten northern tribes.

Ezra commanded unfaithful Israelites to divorce their Gentile mates if they wished to continue as part of the covenant community (Ez 9:10-10:11). Unlike Ruth and Rahab, who embraced the faith of Israel, these Gentile wives had rejected the patterns and culture of Judaic lifestyle. Malachi’s words about God’s hatred of covering one’s wife with violence may refer to spousal abuse within these marriages.

Husbands had invested so little in their home-life that many of their children could not understand the Hebrew language (Neh 13:23-25), denying them an understanding of the Scriptures and of God’s purposes for their lives, both individually and collectively. Even the priests and Levites had forgotten their sacred duty not only to conduct the worship of Israel’s God but also to train their children for holy office (Ez 10:18-44; Num 1:53; 3:5-4:49; 8:19; Neh 13:29).

If the men wanted to restore their relationship to the covenant community, they had to end the marriages that had ruptured their ties with the people and purposes of God. Thus, under the direction of Ezra, those who had broken faith committed themselves to a new covenant that required them to put away their heathen families and give their own sons and daughters in marriage only to those within the community of faith (Ez 10:1-14). Careful provision was made for the women and children who were returned to their own society (10:12-17), and the husbands were restored to a place among God’s people. Far from an optimal arrangement, this harsh step was the least undesirable solution, the “lesser of evils.”

As mentioned previously, one of the purposes of the covenant was the perpetuation of a godly seed (Mal 2:15). In considering divorce, the welfare of the children must be given a high priority. The purposes of the biblical covenants again and again involve the entire people and their progeny.

Divorce In The New Testament

We need to look carefully at what Jesus said about divorce. He was confronted by legalistic Pharisees who wished to embroil him in an ongoing argument (Mt 19:3-9; Mk 10:2-12) among rabbinic scholars of the day. The school of Shammai maintained that a woman could be divorced only for adultery, while the school of Hillel had derived a whole battery of reasons justifying putting away one’s wife: finding another woman who was more attractive, burning a man’s dinner, spinning in the street, untidy hair, even a dog-bite that did not heal. Their major objective was to find a pretext that enabled a man to send his wife away but retain her dowry. In this context, Jesus vehemently condemned the practice of divorce.

This system created patterns of adultery, divorce and remarriage that wreaked havoc in human souls. Divorce was done at a man’s discretion, and there were few options for a woman except to remarry or become a prostitute. This was not God’s purpose in the creation of male and female, given to one another to reflect the glory of God in lives of loving commitment.

Christ’s purpose was not to create a legalism that would lock people into life-threatening situations. Indeed, it was his repudiation of legalism that caused the Pharisees to hate him. We need to look beyond legalism to the purposes of God’s life-bringing law. As Jesus said, “Their teachings are but rules taught by men. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (Mk 7:7-8).

In the New Testament, there are two situations given in which divorce is allowed. The first, according to Jesus, is the case of porneia (Mt 5:32; 19:9). This word can mean any sort of inappropriate sexual attitude or action, including fornication, adultery, prostitution, or sexual abuse.

A second exception was given by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16. Paul addressed those who had come to Christ and found themselves married to an unbeliever. He declared that those who did divorce should not remarry another (v. 11), a clear indication that some divorces were taking place. Adherence to the requirements of Christian discipleship (patterns of worship, acts of charity, hospitality to strangers, and gifts to the poor) may well have aggravated an unsympathetic spouse. Paul instructs Christians neither to leave a marriage nor to compel the non-Christian spouse to remain (vv. 12-16). In this way the unbelieving partner is sanctified and the children are made holy (1 Cor 7:14). Here it is assumed that the children are being raised with an understanding of the Gospel and its claims on their lives.


The Ezra-Nehemiah episode required divorce in order to preserve the integrity of the covenant community. The 1 Corinthians 7 dictate attempted to bring a peaceful resolution to a troubled conflict involving matters of faith and practice. This passage is well worth considering, especially in situations where all the covenantal aspects of marriage have been lost, whether through infidelity desertion or abuse. Can meaningful marriages be built upon violence, bloodshed and wickedness? No, a marriage of abuse cannot be a marriage reflecting Christ’s love for the church. Paul comments, “a sister or brother is not bound [held captive] in such circumstances, for God has called you to peace” (1 Cor 7:15).

Consigning women or children to lives of terror and abuse is a violation of the biblical intent for marriage and the home. Divorce is never a desirable option, but is allowed as the least undesirable option in some cases. We cannot wholly condemn an action allowed by the Lord of heaven and earth in response to willful and persistent human sin.

All of us earnestly desire that troubled marriages should be healed, but if that fails, the option of divorce for the sake of peace should be prayerfully considered. Often, it is the contemplation of divorce that has a very curative effect on one or both partners in a marriage. But to declare, as many pastors do, that divorce is not an option, is to deprive believers of an avenue that the Bible holds open.