In the Hebrew Bible the right of divorce is presupposed. However, like many other customs associated with family life (see Marriage; Weddings), exactly how it was done and under what circumstances is obscure. It seems likely that Israel's practice with regard to divorce was broadly similar to that of its neighbors; certainly the laws on sexual offenses were very similar, so we can use other ancient Near Eastern laws to fill in the background to the biblical statements.

Although divorce was legitimate, it was evidently disapproved of. Genesis 2.24, the formula used at weddings (“I am [your] husband … forever”), and the elaborateness of the wedding ceremony itself all convey the hope that marriage would be for life. Malachi 2.16 probably reflects widespread popular antipathy to divorce. In practice divorce must have been quite rare, for it was not only socially reprehensible but expensive. If a man (normally only the husband could initiate divorce proceedings; see Women) wanted to divorce his wife for anything short of major sexual misconduct, he had to repay the dowry. This was the bride's wedding present from her father, usually larger even than the “marriage present” given by the groom's family. The dowry was given jointly to the bride and groom, but as long as the marriage remained intact, he had the use of it. However, on divorce he had to give the dowry in full to his wife and often make other large payments as well. This must have made divorce a rarity.

Laws explicitly dealing with divorce are rare. In two cases, perhaps cases in which the man has shown himself hotheaded, divorce is permanently prohibited (Deut. 22.19, 29). Some laws limit the right of a divorcée to remarry. The rules of Leviticus 18.6–18 covering the choice of marriage partners could affect divorcées as much as widow(er)s and the unmarried. But the most interesting law of all is Deuteronomy 24.1–4.

The purpose of this law is stated in v. 4, which prohibits a divorcée who has remarried from ever going back to her first husband should her second husband die or divorce her. Why this should be forbidden is obscure. Perhaps such a return would make the second marriage look like adultery. Or perhaps because the first marriage made the couple as closely related as brother and sister (they had become one flesh), a second marriage would appear incestuous; similar principles underlie some rules in Leviticus 18.

This law also sheds light on the practice of divorce. It was initiated by the husband for whatever reasons he saw fit: “she finds no favor in his eyes” (Deut. 24.1; NRSV: “she does not please him”). “Some indecency” (NRSV: “something objectionable”) is presumably something less than proven adultery, for which the death penalty was available. The husband had to give his wife a written statement of her divorce and put it in her hand. This protected her from an accusation of adultery should she later remarry, for the key phrase in a bill of divorce was “You are free to marry any man.” Freedom to remarry is the essence of divorce, as opposed to separation.

By the first century CE this Deuteronomic law was the center of debate among the Pharisees. Some (the Hillelites) said it warranted divorce for any reason, for example, bad cooking. Others (the Shammaites) held that it allowed divorce only for serious sexual misconduct. According to Matthew 19 and Mark 10 Jesus was asked to comment on this controversy: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10.2).

Jesus' reply dismisses the Mosaic divorce law as a concession to human sinfulness (Mark 10.3–5); the ideal expressed in Genesis (32.24) is that “the two shall become one flesh” and thus “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (vv. 8–9). In other words, divorce is wrong, whatever the Law does to regulate it. According to Mark, Jesus opposed divorce more vigorously than any of the Pharisees. This is reemphasized in Mark 10.11: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (cf. Luke 16.18), a revolutionary statement that puts wives on an equal basis within marriage.

Matthew's account of Jesus' teaching on divorce is geared more closely to the Jewish scene and more pointedly addresses the male chauvinism that blamed women for adultery and divorce. A man may commit adultery in the heart by looking lustfully at a woman, but by divorcing an innocent wife a man causes her to commit adultery (Matt. 5.28–32). But Matthew also includes an exception clause that apparently modifies Jesus' total rejection of divorce in Mark: “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt. 19.9; cf. 5.32). This has generated much discussion: what constitutes “unchastity,” and does divorce after it allow one to remarry? The early church (up to 500 CE) took “unchastity” to mean serious sexual sin, typically adultery, but said that this did not allow the innocent party to remarry. Many Protestants, following Erasmus (1519), have taken “unchastity” to mean adultery, but suppose that remarriage is allowed. Many modern scholars take “unchastity” to mean marriage within the forbidden degrees of Leviticus 18, or premarital unchastity. This view sees the exception clause as specifying grounds for annulling a marriage. In this case remarriage would be allowed.

All views have their difficulties. Hardest to accept is that of Erasmus, since it makes Jesus' view little different from that of the Pharisees with whom he has just disagreed. It also fails to explain the disciples' astonishment at Jesus' harsh new teaching (v. 10) and the subsequent discussion of eunuchs, that is, single people who do not marry.

Paul quotes a word of Jesus opposing divorce and insisting on singleness for those who do separate (1 Cor. 7.10–11; cf. Rom. 7.1–3). In the case of a marriage between a Christian and an unbeliever, Paul says the Christian may grant his or her partner a divorce, if the latter demands it (1 Cor. 7.15). But he does not say that the Christian may then remarry.

Gordon J. Wenham