Four Biblical Reasons for Divorce

Four Biblical Reasons for Divorce: Hebrew Scroll
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The divorce rate these days has climbed to 50 percent or higher depending on what statics you believe; the chances of staying married are soon to have worse odds than those of winning the lottery. Yet, many whose roots are deep in the Bible and still follow the words transcribed there are some of the groups with the lowest rates of divorce. However, Jewish people, and Christians too, sometimes investigate and interpret the biblical text to find reasons by which they can justify leaving a spouse, remarriage, and other tenets of this sacred vow. Let’s look at four biblical reasons for divorce, and these four biblical reasons I am betting you didn’t know about before this post.

The words transcribed into Holy texts centuries ago, still finding precedence in this modern age when people can find any excuse to give up on a situation that requires a modicum of work, is worth exploring. Now, most will say, yeah, only fornication or adultery is a God-approved ground for divorce in the Bible. Some might be surprised at what the Old Testament had to say about this rule for divorce.

Additionally, there are other reasons the Bible has provided in both Old and New Testament scripture for having biblical approval to vacate a marriage, but these require a more in-depth interpretation of the scriptures as Divorce per se is not laid out that cleanly in text.

Adultery and the Old Testament

From the onset of the Genesis through to the last pages of the New Testament, there are a few mentions of leaving a marriage or abandonment ending a marriage, but let’s be honest interpretation abound on exact biblical divorce grounds.

Adultery, for instance, which should be the cleanest definition of all, wasn’t due to the fact that in biblical times we found reasons for what we could term today as adultery. In those times, recognized polygamy, concubinage and other clear stories of fornication appear in the Bible and appear to have been God-approved.

In Hebrew times, unfortunately, the woman was considered more property than an equal partner in her union, and thus a contract given or taken freely (in most cases, though there was an exception) was the basis of marriage. It is in this context that adultery can be defined and clear rules on this laid out:

  • If a man committed adultery with another man’s wife – he and that wife could be put to death according to Leviticus 20:10;
  • Women who committed adultery with a man who was not their husband (no concubinage, harems or the like for them) could be put to death according to Deuteronomy 22: 22-27;
  • There were also laws throughout the Old Testament referring to betrothed women who committed unclean acts – and they were put to death;

These are very specific in nature definitions for adultery, and notice precludes other acts on the man’s part, such as polygamy, sleeping with the help, or the like. Nowadays, death seems a stiff and unlawful fulfillment of these texts, but divorce can be granted on these grounds for both men and women.

The Scripture, though, even indicates that all efforts should be made to forgive and reconcile before divorce. Thus, adultery, as we expected, is one ground for biblical divorce, but what are the next from the four reasons for biblical divorce we did not know about.

Bad Cook Equals Divorce?

Women in the Hebrew nation were considered to have a subordinate position to men, and as such, the marriage contract was the husbands to execute and in the end, to break it, should it come to that. Husbands would pay a dowry to the family of his intended, and once the marriage was consummated, it became his right to dispose of an uncongenial wife who did not please him.

Though Deuteronomy 24:1-4 did lay out the steps of writing out a bill of divorce and how a man could execute the release of himself from said contract, the intricacies show this was not a step to be taken lightly. Exactly what offense a wife could commit that would “not please” her husband and make her eligible for being tossed from his home is not completely clear in the Bible texts, making some contend that even a bad cook who wasn’t able to nourish her husband could be disposed of without displeasing God on the man’s part.

It is of note that a wife could request a man divorce her, but she did not in those days hold the power to divorce her husband, as evidenced by the Bible word for divorce an ‘ishshah,’ or the sending away of a wife in Deuteronomy 22:19, 29. There is no masculine form of this word found anywhere in the Bible, which allows us to conclude that divorce was a man’s prerogative only in biblical times.

Now, Rabbis and others that interpret biblical texts contend that frivolous reasons such as bad cooking are not grounds for divorce, but rather this offense needed to be a serious moral flaw. There were two Jewish schools of thought that developed – called the Houses of Shammai and Hillel.

These rabbinic schools discussed the offenses that could constitute moral misbehavior. From these two, Hillel had a wider view of them. According to it, one bad dinner could be a legitimate reason. Again, interpretation of Scripture gives no absolute grounds, so today is still up for discussion on this topic.

Failure to Provide

Man Praying
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Divorce on the grounds of failing to provide for the well-being of a wife is laid out in the story of Abraham and his release of Hagar in Genesis 21:8-14. Abraham was caught in a bad spot with his wife Sarah and the child of his slave woman Hagar causing Sarah to insist he get rid of Hagar.

Sarah being the beloved spouse, put Hagar in a tenuous position. Obviously, though, Abraham was distressed by this, as he had promised to care for Hagar and was worried about her but also of what God would think of his actions. As the story progresses, we find that God himself allowed Abraham to send Hagar away, with his personal promise that she would be cared for and not suffer.

This breach of a vow or covenant shows that this failure to provide is untenable to keep a promise of this nature and only permissible where God allows it. Thus, should a husband fail to provide for a wife, it can be argued that this is grounds today for her seeking a divorce.

Again, it must be argued that failure to provide is a subjective thing and should be mediated with proper counselors and even religious leaders before a wife makes this claim and ends her marriage.

Similarly, a husband is required to provide appropriately and expect the same back from his spouse in fidelity to their vows. Ensuring both parties expectations on this should be discussed prior to marriage to ensure all are on the same page. One divorce option down, what additional biblical divorce reasons that we didn’t know about before are there?

Freedom from Forced Marriage

This isn’t relevant today per se but is still a precedent that should not be overlooked as it was set in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 21: 10 – 14 and has interesting ties to both the sixth commandment not to murder, and the taking of women as spoils of war when their husbands and sometimes extended family such as parents were killed in such exercises. Under some conditions, these women would be made wives of Israelites, and a marriage contracted on their behalf.

These conditions under which a marriage contract was forged raised some concerns about how the woman would be treated in said marriage. There were specific steps such as waiting until she had time to mourn, even dull her looks by shaving her head, etc. to ensure his intentions were pure and be willing to consider her a covenant partner in the marriage and not just a spoil of war that should be adhered to according to Scripture.

These details were clearly laid out in text. But should a man not take these steps and force said women into a marriage, not of her choosing, it could be grounds for a divorce. As always, there were serious repercussions for treating women in a tyrannical manner, and steps that God had put in place through his dictates to try and ensure this would not come to pass.

It is clear that while women were considered subordinate in God’s eyes throughout, they were still not to be treated with malice or ill will, especially in the marriage covenant.

Security Through Progeny

Women of old found security in their old age or widow state through their children who would care for them. If a woman had no children to carry her through these periods, she could find herself in a bad way, and thus Genesis tells the story of Tamar, the childless widow after the death of her first husband, who following the judicial law marries his brother.

This brother tries to impede her ability to have children and dies at God’s hand for his ill-deeds, and then Judah, the father-in-law, also tries to stop his final son from fulfilling his duty to Tamar. The fact that God interceded shows that using a woman in a sexual manner while impeding her ability to have children was worthy of death.

Menorah Statue
Menorah Statue. Image by Reijo Telaranta on Pixabay

The biblical texts conclude that man that either impedes or is unable to give a woman progeny in which to secure her future, must release her so she can find this with another man. Today, women work and have outside ventures that allow security separate from children, but this same precedent could have merit if a woman is denied after marriage children by a husband for his own purposes.

All these examples thus far from the Old Testament point to several biblical reasons for divorce, but what about the New Testament. There is a biblical reason for divorce in Corinthians, that you probably did not know about before.

Unbelieving Spouse Abandonment

To this point, all the grounds for divorce discussed have been found in the Old Testament, but if we meander into 1 Corinthians chapter 7, we can find Paul giving us a reason for divorce in the New Testament that has not come to light before. If an unbelieving spouse abandons a partner, this is grounds for divorce, he tells us.

This can happen when either both are married into a belief system and after a time one decides to leave that religious affiliation or, in the second instance, during the course of the marriage one finds Christ or a spiritual path that is no longer congruent with the beliefs of the other partner, and the unbelieving partner leaves the believer.

Whatever the grounds, this is the only exception found in the New Testament clearly laid out for a marriage being ended. Again, biblical in nature trying to ensure that a household is not subject to discrimination, or other injuries due to their belief in God.

God’s Response to Broken Marriages

Interestingly it must be noted that things like abuse are not mentioned directly as a reason for divorce, but rather this covenant of marriage is given guidelines throughout the Bible on how to maintain a marriage. Women remaining subordinate, honoring their spouse, having children together, not forcing marriage upon the unwitting, and trying to maintain similar faith lines are all good rules for maintaining a solid marriage.

These are also the grounds by which ending of a marriage in God’s eyes have been shown to be acceptable throughout texts. One thing of mention, though: many of the stories used to justify these outs to the covenant of marriage ended with someone dead in ancient times.

This should be a severe warning of how God views the marriage contract and was willing to Himself intercede on the part of a wronged party in days gone by. Everyone should read these texts before entering a marriage, but especially when considering ending one and consider what God’s reaction to your actions would have been if you lived hundreds of years ago.

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