Many things can be said, and have been, about divorce and remarriage. I want to make just a few additional observations, using as a platform the odd legislation found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
In order to set the context, I hold the common view among evangelicals that divorce and remarriage is not permitted unless the other party has been guilty of sexual uncleanness (Matt. 19:9) or the other party is an unbeliever who has deserted the believer (1 Cor. 7:15).
That said, here is the passage from Deuteronomy.
“When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him 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 giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance” (Deut. 24:1-4).
So I want to briefly state what I think this is talking about, and then go on to make a series of observations that I think should be relevant to those who hold to the “no remarriage possible” point of view.
The first husband here divorces his wife for cause (“some uncleanness in her”). This means that he could divorce her without a financial penalty. In the ancient world husbands could divorce their wives at will, but if it was without cause, the wife would receive a financial settlement and/or her own dowry. So this first divorce meant that the divorcing husband profited financially from how the whole thing went down. She goes out without a settlement.
So his ex-wife marries again, but finds herself free from that marriage, either by a certain kind of divorce or because the second husband dies. Because of how she comes to be free from this second marriage, she has benefited financially. She either has the inheritance because her second husband died, or she has a financial settlement because he divorced her for subjective reasons (“hate her”) and not for cause.
This law is very particular about why and how these divorces occur. The first one is for cause and the second one isn’t. Part of the reason we can tell the second one isn’t for cause is because it leaves the wife in an equivalent legal position to that of a widow.
Now I believe that this law is intended to prevent a husband from profiting off the same woman twice, and doing so by contradictory moves. He profits first by rejecting her, and then (after she has come into some money), he profits by accepting her.
Now having set this up, I wanted to point out a few curious things about all this. I don’t believe that this law can be lined up with an absolutist “no second marriage” position, for the following four reasons.
The background question behind all these reasons listed below is this. What is the difference between adultery proper, the kind a private detective could catch you in, and adultery in principle, the kind that God judges you for because it is tantamount in His sight to adultery. We all agree there is such a distinction if we don’t allow legal divorce on the grounds of fifteen seconds of lust for another woman.
I am arguing that when adultery occurs in and through marriage/divorce/remarriage, it is the kind of adultery that God judges, and that only God can sort out. This means that the adulterous second union (if it is adulterous) would have to be adultery in principle, the same way that unconsummated lust is adultery in principle (Matt. 5:28), and not adultery under any legal definition. Put another way, when it is judged as such, it is as a sin and not as a crime.
So here are the four reasons.
First, if the second marriage is adultery proper, then we would have to ask why the wife of the second man is called his wife, and ask further why a bill of divorce would be necessary for him to put her away. Wouldn’t there have to be some kind of qualification in the text, the way we do with scare quotes. If the second “husband” hates his “wife,” then he should give her a bill of “divorce.” But the text doesn’t do this. The woman is as much the wife of the second man as she is of the first.
Second, if the second marriage is adultery proper, then this would have to be because the first husband is still married to her “in God’s sight.” Now that is a troublesome phrase and it has caused a lot of trouble. For example, what is it when a divorced couple have sex with each other? If they are married in God’s sight, it should be okay. But if not, then why not? That said, we can still work with the phrase provisionally here.
The only way the second marriage could be adultery in any ongoing sense would be if the first marriage had continuing and ongoing validity. If the first marriage has continuing validity, then the second marriage is adulterous in an ongoing way. If the second marriage is adulterous, it is because the first marriage has a continuing claim. But then, actual contents of this law are inexplicable. When the second marriage ends (however it ends) if the law prohibits a reconciliation between the first husband and the wife, then this means that the first marriage does not have any continuing claim. What good is a claim that cannot be claimed? What reality does a claim have if no claim can be made on the basis of it?
Third, if the second marriage is adultery proper, then the first husband should simply be able to forgive her and take her back. David took Michal back after her marriage to Paltiel (2 Sam. 3:15), and it seems that in instances like this, the first marriage took precedence when there had been no lawful second marriage (for there had been no divorce).
Fourth, if the second marriage is adultery proper then the free statement — she may go and be another man’s wife — is curious. Jesus tells us that Moses permitted divorce because of hardness of heart, but it is interesting what happens to this woman in the context of Israel’s worship. This is a remarried woman in the commonwealth of Israel, and in none of the tabernacle restrictions (which are numerous and detailed) do we find any exclusion of women in this category.
All this, together with the other scriptural passages, leads me to conclude that adultery need not be present with all remarriages. But when it is — as the Lord’s teaching shows that it can be — it is adultery in the sight of God, and He will judge it.
There are other things that could be said about the issues that this passage raises, but that’ll do for the present.