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Deuteronomy 24:1-5

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, 2and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3and 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, 4then 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.

I'm trying to understand the phrase "after she has been defiled". Note that the text (הֻטַּמָּאָה) is very strongly denoting ritual defilement. However, this has always been extremely perplexing to me, why is the woman described as being ritually defiled after her divorce from her second husband. Nowhere in the entire OT do we find that a woman who lays with a man becomes ritually defiled, and especially here that the second marriage seems to be legal, there seems to be no reason why the first husband shouldn't be allowed to take her back, yet the text prohibits his actions with the perplexing rationale: since she has been ritually defiled??

What should we make out of this text:

  1. Why is the woman described as ritually defiled. And should this perhaps be understood in a different sense?
  2. how did the biblical authors themselves view the matter of a man taking back his divorcee, did they see it as a moral problem, or was it a kind of taboo/religious prohibition as the text strongly suggests?
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Updated to include passages in Jer and Matthew

(rather than just citations)

Source of Defilement

From the point of view of the first husband, the woman slept with another man after she married him, so there is defilement in this sense. Note "defiled" is a euphemism for calling the woman a prostitute. (Lev 21.7, 21.14).

Suppose this law was not in place -- you could have wife swapping parties where you divorced someone, they slept with someone else, and then you remarried them. You could even sell your wife for a night. I know, I know, the Israelites would never use a legalistic interpretation of the law to go against its spirit, but in theory something like that might be possible by unscrupulous actors.

Note that she could remarry him if she didn't sleep with someone else. Thus contra other commentaries, it is pure wishful thinking to suggest that somehow the husband is responsible for the defilement, since the key event that prevents remarriage is someone else marrying her (e.g. having sex with her) not the divorce itself.

But once she does sleep with someone else, the original marriage has now been violated, and she is viewed as defiled in the first marriage with her husband, of which that echo remains despite the certificate of divorce being given.

Hidden meanings

So what I think is going on in the background is what Jesus spoke of as marriage being something permanent in God's eyes that man can't disrupt. This is critical for the marriage of the bride (the church) of which earthly marriage is a type. So that certificate of divorce was given as an allowance to deal with human frailty:

He said to them, “Moses, with reference to your hardness of heart, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not like this. Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the basis of sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” Matt. 19.8

So in Deut there is a foreshadowing that the woman who receives the certificate of divorce is not being really divorced in the complete sense. If the divorce really ended the marriage completely and returned her to a state of singlehood, then she would be free to marry anyone she wants. That this isn't the case tells us that certificate of divorce doesn't fully abolish the previous marriage -- something of it remains that no human action can change. Jesus tells us that divorce was an allowance of Moses to not put too heavy a burden on the Isrealites rather than something that describes how God views marriage (which is eternal).

There is also the prophetic interpretation, see Jer 3.1.

A saying: ‘Look, if a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him and she becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her again?’ Will not that land be greatly defiled? And you have prostituted yourself with many lovers, would you now return to me?” declares Yahweh.

This defilement now applies to Israel who left YHWH and married others and now wants to go back to YHWH. She is called a prostitute, despite the certificate of divorce. Note that it is not the fault of YHWH, but of the woman. So this should serve as a warning about the seriousness of our union with God and his displeasure at any kind of partner swapping, certificate of divorce or no:

“For I hate divorce,” says Yahweh, the God of Israel, “and he who covers his clothing with violence,” says Yahweh of hosts. “You must be attentive to your spirit and you must not be unfaithful.” Mal. 2.16

Here again, the word "unfaithful" is used in the context of divorce, again a foreshadowing of Jesus' declaration that those who divorce and remarry are comitting adultery.

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  • Thanks Robert for your thoughtful response. However, the parallel between Lev. and Deut. is tentative at best. In the former the word חללה is used, in the latter we have the word הֻטַּמָּאָה. The חללה denotes defilement, whereas הֻטַּמָּאָה denotes ritual impurity, though their meaning is similar they are not entirely the same. It's also absurd that a woman who was legally divorced and married another man should be considered defiled in the prostituitive sense to her previous husband. I can see your wife swapping scenario playing out, but it's hard to read that into the text. In any case +1. – Bach Jan 29 at 15:14
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    @Bach Read Jeremiah 3.1, where this passage in Deut. is directly cited. The woman is not called a prostitue because of linguistic similarity with Lev., but because she slept with someone other than her husband, and the certificate of divorce is more of an indulgence (permission to sin) rather than changing the state of marriage in God's eyes, e.g. Mal. 2.16 and Matt. 19.8. I will update the answer with the full passage in Jer. – Robert Jan 29 at 17:25
  • Thanks Robert, you made a convincing case. – Bach Jan 29 at 20:19
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This passage is interesting because it shows how the idiom of Levitical defilement worked.

The woman twice married is not "defiled" for everyone, only the first husband who is still alive; that is, the law effectively prevented two people from getting married twice; or put another way, if a couple divorced, they could not remarry. The Levitical code simply expressed this, as the woman being defiled - but only for the first husband. She was still free to marry a third man if she chose to.

Ellicott expresses it this way:

Deuteronomy 24:4. Her former husband may not take her again — This is the punishment of his levity and injustice in putting her away without sufficient cause, which, by this offer, he now acknowledgeth. Defiled — Not absolutely, as if her second marriage were a sin, but with respect to her first husband, to whom she is as a defiled or unclean woman; that is, forbidden; for things forbidden are accounted and called unclean, (Jdg 13:7,) because they may no more be touched or used than an unclean thing. Thou shalt not cause the land to sin — Thou shalt not suffer such lightness to be practised, lest the people be polluted, and the land defiled and accursed by that means.

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  • I don't see any parallel between Judges and Deut. In Judges it is indeed used in the literal sense: Samson was not to eat anything ritually impure, whereas here we are supposed to believe that the woman is not impure in the literal sense, but in the sense of being forbidden to her first husband? This is a stretch and I'm not ready to accept that yet without convincing evidence. I believe there is something else at play here. – Bach Aug 30 '20 at 14:19

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