We are going to take a look at a controversial passage from Deuteronomy 24.

To properly understand this verse we have to consider a few things:

  1. Context
  2. Audience
  3. Original language
  4. Culture
  5. The Law vs God’s grace, mercy, and compassion

Before we start we have to remember that the purpose of the law was to NOT ONLY govern man but to show us the absolute perfection of God, God’s absolute commitment to His law, and man’s absolute need for a Savior because of his imperfection.

Okay, here we go!  Deuteronomy 24:1-4

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.

Context  The chapters prior to this has to do with the treatment of fellow human beings in various relationships, marriage, adultery, purity pertaining to the temple, uncleanness  – physical and spiritual, and vows. It is addressed to OT Jews (Hebrews), it is the very first mention of divorce being permitted, and Jesus specifically gives Moses credit for that in Mark 10.

The controversy surrounding this verse has to do with divorce, remarriage, and remarriage to a previous spouse. Many say that this restricts a Christian from remarrying a prior spouse who has been married to another person after them and since divorced, BUT I believe this verse pertains to ONE very specific situation. Let me show you why:

The word “indecency”, or uncleanness in vs 1 is the Hebrew word, “ʻervâh”. This is an OT word that translates as nakedness, shame, or uncleanness. If we look to see HOW it is used in the OT, it is FREQUENTLY used in Leviticus to mean incest and to describe forbidden relationships. Incest in the Bible. 

The language in Duet 24 in the Hebrew alludes to a very serious family secret that is too shameful to deal with talk about publicly, something too shameful for a husband to live with, and something that can’t be dealt with as adultery would be (public death). Notice only the women is implicated, this could be because a husband is trying to protect another member of his family. I had previously thought this passage pertained to adultery, but in studying I realized that Deut 22 already dealt with adultery and its penalty was death, not divorce. I also learned that the Hebrew words for adultery and incest were different in this era. It is possible that this passage alluded to a wife that had succumbed to the seduction of or lust for another family member (or some type of gross sexual misconduct the husband wished to hide because it brought the family shame, something that was a huge deal in this culture). In this context because of the surrounding circumstances and language, it was most likely between two people of consenting age. Sadly, things like this were NOT uncommon during this time in history and were even practiced among the surrounding cultures. This law was likely given as a “blanket” law to deal with other types of sexual immorality outside of adultery in cases where a husband was unwilling to forgive or a wife unwilling to repent – hardness of heart.

Notice this verse does not give express permission for remarriage to another man, it only states IF. This is a woman accepting the divorce, and choosing not to pursue reconciliation with her husband. It indicates she may have been too ashamed and saw remarriage as her only way of surviving. The language further supports this. The terminology used for the women’s first and second husband and her relationships with them is interestingly very different. The language used to refer to her first husband indicates an honored covenant relationship throughout the passage. While the passage also DOES NOT condemn her for remarrying, the second husband/marriage is not referred to in the same way as the first. I think this emphasizes God’s intent behind a marriage covenant.

On a side note, the word “ervah” used for “indecency” actually mirrors the Greek word “porneia” which is used in Matt 5 and Matt 19 – the word that we often translate as adultery, fornication, or sexual immorality. It’s actually not the same word used for adultery (moichaō) in the same passages. Considering Jesus is teaching on THIS law in Deut 24 when he is confronted about divorce, I think it is more likely that He is referring to this SAME type of circumstance found in Duet 24.

Matt 5:32  – And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for adultery/sexual immorality (porneia), and shall marry another, commits adultery (moichaō): and whoso marries her which is put away doth commit adultery(moichaō).

Porneia – Illicit sexual intercourse, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc. OR sexual intercourse with close relatives; Lev. 18 OR sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman; Mk. 10:11, 12 OR metaph. the worship of idols of the defilement of idolatry, as incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols.

Remember, 1400 years had passed since this law was given. Jesus was an expert at both knowing and keeping the law perfectly. In Matt 5 it was clear the true meaning of the law had been lost. In addition to that, the Pharisees were experts at twisting the law to suit their own agenda. I believe these NT passages were actually Jesus teaching the true intent behind this law in Duet 24. His audience was after all the Jews and the penalty for adultery in this time was still death, not divorce. Remember, the Pharisees had picked up stones to kill the women caught in adultery. But Jesus showed mercy, not by excusing her sin, but through forgiveness.

Now understanding this, let’s take a look at the next part of the verse:

…and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord.

To best understand this prohibition, I am going to pull from a commentary– Read the full commentary for a more thorough understanding):

“So why is husband #1 not permitted to take her back? Surely, reconciliation is at the heart of God’s design for his people! Particularly in marriage! And, according to the conditions set forth, she would be freed in the second divorce should her second husband die.

This type of legislation, Westbrook explains (1986:389), is governed by the legal principle of ‘estoppel’. That is, a person is prohibited from benefitting twice from the same set of circumstances, once by declaring the facts true, the next time by declaring them false.

Husband #1 is prohibited from taking his wife back for two reasons. First, it is because he claimed her defilement as the grounds for divorce. He received his wife’s dowry and acquired her wealth as indemnity. The law prohibits him, once having claimed that her moral failure made it impossible for him to share bed and board with her, from remarrying his former wife, now that she has again become well-to-do. He cannot have it both ways. Either the moral lapse was sufficiently severe to warrant a “justified” divorce or it was a fake. If it was not so severe, why divorce her in the first place?

The divorce constitutes a considered action of separation, which action, once chosen, cannot be reversed. The divorced party may choose to be reconciled, and would then need to take the initiative in restoration. Divorce is not an action which serves a warning function. It is intentional and is regarded as final. Only the divorced person may initiate restoration of the marriage (cf. Jer. 3; Hosea 2,3).

This woman has been twice violated (defiled)—by sexual immorality and by the divorce which caused her to remarry, thus violating her earlier covenant. She contributed to both events, yet the husband of the covenant of her youth is primarily accountable for both acts of defilement and consequently is not permitted to benefit a second time from his wife’s renewed security (wealth) or her person (emotional, social and sexual fulfillment). For the ba‘al to initiate remarriage would be an abomination (to‘ebah) before Yahweh. The term reflects an ethical norm deeply rooted in a people’s psyche and tradition.”

My conclusion – This passage was specific to the Hebrew/Jewish culture of the time and made provision for one specific, VERY difficult circumstance. THIS law is no more relevant to us as NT believers than is putting someone to death for adultery. Pertaining to the OT laws like this I will share with you what Sheila messaged me to help you understand how they relate to us:

“The other night I asked God about the law. What was it created for? I felt He said what you said (in the second paragraph). In addition to that, that it’s a blueprint of Who He is and what He is all about – His dislikes, His nature, and His character. Jesus came to help bridge the places that we can’t possibly cross. We can’t be clean enough, sinless. It’s so deep and beautiful. It’s like if we were asked to create a law according to our morals and beliefs, but no one could live up to our standards – we would be alone. So we would have to provide a way to get close to us and still not lose ourselves and beliefs – a way to keep the law intact.”

That is what Jesus did for us; He fulfilled the law for us.

What we must remember – Jesus said that EVEN in a circumstance like this, divorce was not God’s original intent. He said it was given BY MOSES because of the hardness of their hearts- inability to forgive, and in some very difficult, rare circumstances it may have also meant inability for healthy/safe family relationships to be completely restored because of the gravity of the sin. However, it becomes clear that God’s DESIRE for marriage has always been repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. Christ says –“What God has joined together, let no man separate.” What once may have defiled us is now under the blood of Christ.

Marriage was made to be a picture of what the gospel would look like, now it is a reflection of what Christ has done for us in taking us to be His bride.

Danielle Stewart



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(~Marriage Revealed Ministries Inc. is committed to helping bring healing and restoration to couples who are struggling in their marriage. We do this through the revelation of Who God is and His heart and design for marriage which never intends abuse in any form. If you suspect abuse in your relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit them online at thehotline.org~