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(KJV) Deutoronomy 24:1

1 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. 2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife.

But Christ says in Matthew no man should divorce his wife except for fornication

(KJV) Matthew 19:7

7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? 8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

Did Moses compromise by permitting what was clearly against God's will?

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    The two sources that you quote, Deuteronomy 24:1 and Matthew 19:7 are from two different documents from different historical periods written in different languages and addressing different audiences, in different cultural contexts, which differ fundamentally in theological perspective. It is clear that Deuteronomy 24:1 is God's commandment in the context of Deuteronomy, not some compromise that Moses is making up. In fact God's commandment here is a positive commandment to divorce a wife in whom you find something unseemly, not some dispensation allowing divorce out of necessity. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Jul 19 '17 at 14:28
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Deuteronomy 24:1 states:

כִּי־יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה וּבְעָלָהּ וְהָיָה אִם־לֹא תִמְצָא־חֵן בְּעֵינָיו כִּי־מָצָא בָהּ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר וְכָתַב לָהּ סֵפֶר כְּרִיתֻת וְנָתַן בְּיָדָהּ וְשִׁלְּחָהּ מִבֵּיתוֹ׃

Literally translated, this means: "When a man takes a woman and becomes her husband and it will be if she does not find favor in his eyes because he found with her an thing of nakedness and he wrote for her a book of divorce and placed it in her hand and sent her from his home."

There is a dispute in the Mishna at the end of Tractate Gittin (9:10), whether divorce is restricted to certain grounds: Beit Shammai rules - based on the language in Deuteronomy 24:1 - that divorce is only permitted when the husband discovers that his wife has acted in a sexually improper manner with other men. Beit Hillel allows divorce for any wrongdoing he discovers. Rabbi Akiva permits divorce for any reason, even he just found someone prettier.

Perhaps Jesus was merely arguing (in strong terms) for the opinion of Beit Shammai (the minority opinion). Beit Shammai agrees that the divorce technically works when the bill of divorce is given to the woman regardless of the reason, but holds that it is forbidden to use divorce unless it is because the husband believes that his wife has been unfaithful in some way.

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The question is based on the KJV translation. While that translation has an honorable history, it is wise to read other modern and more accurate translations before drawing final conclusions about possible contradictions in the Bible.

The NIV translates Deuteronomy 24.1-4 as follows:

If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.

Based on this translation, the text in fact does not permit divorce. It regulates the scope of it. The idea is that in a society where divorce is prevalent, certain protections need to be in place for the good of society. The protection here is for the woman, who had no property rights in marriage and was therefore at the mercy of her husband. So Moses says that if a divorce takes place, the husband must give a certificate of divorce. In other words, she is entitled to a legal document showing her status that allows her if necessary to remarry. Then he say that if this happens again, the first husband is not allowed to remarry her. To allow this (and the fact of this regulation suggests it was actually occurring at that point in Israel's history) would be to allow men to play ping pong with a woman. She is not to be defiled in that way. In modern language, the rule here is an attempt to protect the woman against domestic abuse.

Note that this is an instance of case law. We have one short rule about divorce in the time of Moses. We don't have a full and detailed statement of legal principles about Jewish marriage at that time. (For example, we know nothing about how children were treated in such cases.) So we need to be cautious about how much we read into this single text.

When we reach the New Testament and Jesus, he is answering a slightly different question. He has been asked if it is permissible to divorce for "any reason" (Matthew 19.3). This is related to Deuteronomy 24 above, because we know from other sources that in Jesus' time there was debate over the scope of "something indecent" in verse 1. Jesus chooses to agree with the more conservative interpreters. He points to the creation story in Genesis 2. That is the first principle. Marriage is for life: one man, one woman. The Pharisees then ask him about Moses and Deuteronomy 24. Jesus continues to uphold the ideal. In effect he says that Moses was dealing with the messiness of human nature. People should commit to their spouses for life, but human sin and weakness meant that was unrealistic. Nevertheless, says Jesus, that was not God's plan "from the beginning." It's not what God wanted, and ideally it's not what we should accept.

A modern application of all this would be to say that the church should uphold the principle of life long marriage, while recognising that in a broken world this is not always achievable. So there will be cases where divorce is a reasonable option. If so, it should be applied in a way that protects the interests of all parties.

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  • Your argument rests on the translation of a single letter, the vav following "finds something indecent about her", which can mean either "and" or "then", but when used in a sequence as in this verse means "then" as in KJV. Compare the same sequential vav structure in Deuteronomy 8:10 "When you have eaten and are satisfied, [then] praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you" (NIV) where the NIV avoids translating the vav directly but implies the "then" meaning. The KJV translates consistently and correctly in both verses. The contradiction with the NT is irreconcilable. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Jul 19 '17 at 15:55
  • I'm not basing any arguments on single letters. I'm looking at the overall flow of both texts in context. I don't see any contradiction. Jesus himself explains how he relates his views to those of Moses, and I've tried to do justice to that in my comments. – Peter Kirkpatrick Jul 21 '17 at 2:17
  • You state, "Based on this translation", but the NIV is as best misleading if not outright deceptive. Look at the MT text. The sentence structure is the same as Deuteronomy 8:10 and Numbers 32:29 - a list of conditions conjoined with vavs' and then a final predicate vav. The intent of Deuteronomy 24.1 is clearly that you ''must'' divorce a woman in whom you find "some unclean thing". – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Jul 21 '17 at 6:34
  • No translation is infallible, but to label the NIV misleading and deceptive is unhelpful. What's clear to you is not clear to others. To me the real question is where the final regulation kicks in. If we are limited to Deuteronomy 24.1, then I see your argument. But of course those numbers are not original. The NIV reads the vavs of verses 1-3 as a list of conditional statements, so that the final regulation is actually the ban against remarriage in v4. This interpretation may be right or wrong, but I think it's unfair to label it deceptive. – Peter Kirkpatrick Jul 21 '17 at 10:55
  • The misleading part of reading verses 1-4 as one predicate is that it looks as though if first husband sent away his wife without a bill of divorce or with a bill of divorce but without finding any unclean thing, then he would be permitted to take her back when the second husband dies or divorces her. This might make for a smoother English reading but it begs the question of why have all of these conditions if the point is only verse 4. This interpretation goes against the cumulative legalistic writing style often used in the OT. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Jul 21 '17 at 16:11
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No, Moses did not compromise in allowing divorce. Divorce was allowable by the law. Jesus did not dispute the fact that the law allowed divorce. The Pharisees on two occasions asked him as to whether divorce was lawful. If you notice, Jesus never answered that question. The reason he didn't answer was because it wasn't a worthy question to answer.

The Pharisees were asking the question because they had heard Jesus teaching on the Sermon on the Mount and perceived that Jesus was saying divorce was not allowable by the Law of Moses. The Pharisees were trying to prove that they did not sin since they were following the law.

Jesus did not answer their question because it was obvious that the law allowed divorce. However, just because Moses allowed divorce does not mean that the Pharisees were without sin. According to Jesus, the original law of God was, one man, one woman forever. However, because of the hardness of the hearts of men and to protect the woman, God allowed divorce.

Thereby we see that there was mercy even in the Law of Moses. The Pharisees could not hide behind the Law thinking that they were without sin in their divorces since the law allowed divorce. Jesus took that argument away by going back to the original intention of God.

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Jesus is reiterating here what he had already delivered during the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 6:31-32

It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

The ordinance Moses gave regarding divorce was not against the will of God as it pertained to the time the Law was given.

Throughout the New Testament, Christ makes it clear that he his delivering a new teaching regarding the Law - a teaching that required more from His disciples than the original Law as it was delivered to Moses. This is clear from the prefaces that Jesus gave during the Sermon on the Mount: You have heard that it was said ... But I say unto you ... (e.g. Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, ...)

With this understanding, there is no contradiction between what Moses taught in the context of the Old Covenant, and what Jesus taught in the context of the New.

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Actually, what the Law permitted was for a man to divorce his wife for exhibiting shameful behavior, NOT for some mere domestic displeasure. Er-vaw' is translated as indecency in the NAS but, the basic meaning of the word is nakedness. Its use here then refers to that which was indecent or shameful. Uncleanness was not subject to interpretation. Putting away one’s wife had to be for some reason which the Law recognized as uncleanness. This would seem to be related to a particular type of behavior that was considered indecent or shameful behavior not those things which produced ceremonial uncleanness for which the Law provided a cleansing process.

It must be understood that the man was not required to put away such a wife, merely permitted to do so. This law was intended to regulate how it was to be done if he chose to do so. Divorce was granted for behavior that was shameful, lewd, or indecent. It was behavior that clearly placed the woman as the offender in the case. As Jamieson points out, this was behavior that was less than adultery (which was punishable by death, not divorce) but was severe enough to permit the man to divorce her.

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A mistake commonly made (in my experience) is to read in the English Bible "fornication," then to apply its modern meaning used to the Greek "porneia," which has to do with the sexual aberrations considered typical of prostitutes. The modern use of "fornication" is "sexual intercourse before marriage." But the Biblical term "porneia" is much broader, encompassing all immoral sexual behavior, which is why modern versions render this meaning as "sexual immorality." As the law of Moses contained both religious and civil laws, and divorcing was already practiced, Moses regulated rather than prohibited divorce. To prohibit divorce in the civil laws would have resulted in men murdering unwanted wives, or, as was already done, casting her out of his house. A "get," a formal "thou art now divorced" document was required so that the rejected woman would not be accused of "playing the whore" (see Judges 19:2), that is, being unfaithful to her husband. If she had committed adultery, her husband could have put her (and her partner) to death, but perhaps this was not commonly done? The Church, or Christendom, until the Protestant revolution forbade divorce. Only if a putative marriage was invalid ab initio was a marriage, so called, dissolved, by annulment when the partners were disqualified from legitimately marrying. A few sects allowed divorce, or called it annulment, but these were on the fringes of Christendom, including some gnostic sects. Under the Israelite, or Jewish, economy women could not divorce their husbands. Property cannot free itself from its owner. Women were purchased from their fathers or the heads of their households. The sages had a "work-around" by which a woman could petition the judges to compel her husband to divorce her. If they agreed that her cause was just, the husband would be compelled to issue her a "get," a divorce document.

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