More Righteous than God?

Psalm 82 Initiative
Feb 28, 2022

Before we look at what the Bible says about divorce, we should first notice that the wife is never described as the initiating party for such an action, but in certain situations a woman could induce the husband to give her a bill of divorcement. The law is written this way because the wife was in a socially weaker position and not in a position to send her husband away. Where the wife is “sent away,” he was required to provide her with this bill of divorcement, but there was no need or provision for the woman to do the same for the husband. The law was designed to protect the interests of the weaker party.

We also need to distinguish between the two words that we commonly call “divorce.” We see both of these in Deuteronomy 24, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house,” The Bill of Divorce, in this passage, is translating a word that means “cutting” as in severing the marriage relationship. But there is a second term in this passage, which is also sometimes translated as “divorce,” and it means to “send away.”

These verses tell us what happens when a man decides to get rid of his wife, and the legal protection for her is a requirement if he is going to send her away. However, what happens if he still wants the benefit he gets from keeping her around? He isn’t interested in the relationship, but he is content to keep her as a live-in slave that provides child care, housekeeping services, and can be used to service his sexual desires. This is actually the situation that we find in an abusive relationship.

Interestingly, God did provide guidance for exactly that type of situation. In Deuteronomy 21:10 we see that a victorious warrior might take a captive woman as a wife, but if he did so, she was not to be treated as a captive. If he “does not delight” in her, then he is to let her go free and she is not be sold. Then, in Exodus 21 we find instructions regarding the responsibility of a man who has purchased a slave as a wife. We see that she is not to be treated as other slaves, and we also see that if he doesn’t like her she can be redeemed so he can recover the price paid. If she was supposed to be a wife for his son, then she is to be treated as a daughter, but if she was to be his wife, then he has two choices: he keeps her and provides for her, or she is free to leave.

This passage further speaks to his obligations toward her. He cannot cease providing for them nor can he lessen his obligation just because he found a preferable situation, “He shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights.” It also speaks to the woman’s freedom to leave if she is neglected. Of the three obligations given, the first two are plain, he owes her food and shelter, but the last item should be understood in the sense of “affection due” that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.

There Paul writes, “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

As we have mentioned in previous writings, this passage demonstrates the equality and mutuality of the marriage relationship, but we want to focus in on the part of this passage that relates to “due benevolence.” The first observation we need to make is that this passage is speaking to the giver, not the taker. It relates to how a person should see their obligations and not how they should see what they are owed. The second observation is that this giving is to be an act of kindness and goodwill, as opposed to a cold indifference.

In contrast to the self gratification of porn, the sexual relationship in marriage is supposed to be an act of goodness and love for the other person. There is nothing in this concept that allows an abuser to excuse the objectification of the other in the sexual relationship. Wherever the sexual relationship is treated as something that I have a right to take, and wherever it is coerced or hurtful, it is wickedness of the worst kind. God didn’t even want the Hebrew men to treat their slaves that way. There is certainly no room for a Christian man to treat his wife in such a manner.

That brings us back to the obligations a Hebrew husband had toward a slave wife. He was responsible to provide for her food, shelter, and benevolence. Where the husband is failing to provide, the slave wife is free to leave. Does the free woman have less protection? Of course not! In fact, the early Jewish interpretation of the law did extend this protection to non-slaves by allowing the woman to sue for divorce in such a case.

Of course, there are two passages that are a favorite reply to this idea, and the first is Jesus’ response to a question of interpretation of the passage in Deuteronomy 24. Historical research has given us some insight into the interpretive debate that the Jews of Jesus’ time were having, and in Matthew 19 Jesus was asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?“ They appear to be asking for him to weigh in on that debate, which arose because some had taken the statement, “she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her,” as providing two reasons that a man could put away his wife (as opposed to one). In effect, they wanted to use the “no favor” part as an additional exception, resulting in what we might call a no-fault divorce.

That was not what God intended. Jesus based his answer on the way God designed marriage, as a permanent relationship between a man and woman. There shouldn’t be a situation where a man would put away his wife, but because of hard-hearted people, the provisions for divorce were made in the law. He then replies, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” Jesus says that a no-fault divorce is not honored by God, and He considers it adultery.

What about Jesus’ exception, “for sexual immorality?” Is this limited to marital unfaithfulness, or does it include more? It describes any sexual act that is outside of God’s design for marriage. Some try to interpret this to be exclusively related to having sex with someone other than your spouse, but there is another word that could have been used to specifically addresses adultery. However, even where technical adultery is in view, Jesus himself extends the principle much further, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)

Why is there so much focus on sex whenever we talk about divorce? It is because the sexual relationship is a focal point both of how the marriage should be and in how it can be perverted. This is one reason that abuse and porn use are nearly universally tied together. The entitlement of an abuser most often manifests itself in a twisting of the relationship away from responsibility and benevolent giving toward a self-centered act of taking. While outsiders will not see it, the victim will undoubtedly feel it, and wherever the sexual relationship has become a self-centered act, independent of God’s design, it should also be considered sexual immorality.

More significantly, Jesus’ exception clause should be interpreted broadly enough to include Paul’s exception that we find in 1 Corinthians 7:15, “But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.” What biblical principle would Paul base this statement on? We do not need to look beyond the Old Testament teachings we have already addressed. Abandonment is a reason for divorce for precisely the same reason that a slave-wife was allowed to leave a situation where her provision and care were neglected.

What we discover, when we look at an abusive relationship, is that the marriage covenant has been broken in many different ways, and the abuser wants to have a Scriptural justification for forcing the victim to remain in a relationship that is not merely neglectful but dangerously destructive. They have long abandoned the marriage and have chosen to try and maintain a slave relationship, and yet even a slave would be biblically free to leave if they have been neglected.

For those who would remind us that God hates divorce, we would agree and urge the hard hearted to repent and pray for mercy, but you cannot be more righteous than God, so you cannot righteously forbid that which God has allowed. The rejected or neglected spouse is free to leave, but where they choose to remain, that is a voluntary display of God’s mercy and grace. We cannot take this possibility and turn it into a command that forbids what God allows and uses Scripture to allow an abuser to enslave a victim.

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Michelle T
Jun 21, 2022
Thanks for doing this. A Pastor told me to go home and extend the olive branch to a man who could have killed me on three occasions. I did not leave my husband - he put me out. I was better off away from the abuse and his lifestyle but still felt like a failure.   The Lord showed me Ezra 10 and 2 Corinthians 6:14. He was not a believer but played the role for a short time. Eventually, he left the church after ruining my reputation as a Sunday school volunteer by telling vicious lies.   Today as a domestic violence advocate, I also understand that our children will likely repeat our patterns if we stay.   He has my children. They have fallen in unbelief. They do not recognize most abusive behaviors. One child is like him, and my son takes after me. It is heartbreaking. 
Jennifer S
Aug 9, 2022
I am so sorry your children have fallen victim to their abusive parent.  It must be so difficult.
Jennifer S
Aug 9, 2022
I was in an abusive marriage.  I struggled with what God would want me to do and wanted for myself to keep my family together (we have 3 children).  I realized God does not want abuse in my life but would be indifferent to it if I chose to stay.  My former spouse also used the Bible to try to enforce his abuse towards me and by often repeating to me “God ordained him as head of our family” and whatever he wanted to do to me, day to me or make my do, was his right by God.  In other words because I was a woman, I did not deserve the same respect or love as a man.  Truly gross.