The Four Causes of a Biblical Divorce

The four causes of a biblical divorce are neglect or abandonment of food, clothing, “love,” and adultery. Jesus made it clear God’s ideal is for a man and woman to marry and be together for life (Mat 19:4-6). Yet he also upheld his word in the Torah that when there is hardness of heart (Deut 24:1-2) and something breaks up a marriage, the end of the marriage can be recognized with a divorce which is sometimes the lesser of unpleasant options which Joseph opted to do with Mary (Matt 1:19).

The underlying passage for three of the causes of divorce that is typically overlooked but was actually universally accepted in the first century and Jesus would have accepted it (as he never sought to overturn it) is:

“And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. (Exod 21:9) “If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. (Exod 21:10) “And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money. (Exod 21:11) 

The gist is if a slave girl is given to man’s son as wife, then she is to be treated as a “daughter” – hence she has all rights of a free wife. If she is neglected/abandoned in the areas of food, clothing, and “marriage rights” then she can leave the marriage through divorce. The word “marriage rights” is very interesting – it means intercourse and not just sexual. The word in Hebrew ona עֹנָה – comes from the root עָנָה (‘ānâ) to answer, respond, testify, speak, shout.  (TWOT) –  the Greek LXX translates it as “homily.” In other words, it is a discourse, an intercourse, exchange of ideas, affection, love. 

So if food, clothing, and “love” are missing, then there are biblical grounds for divorce. The rabbis understood that if it was good enough for a slave girl, then it was good enough for the free woman. And if good enough for her, then it was good enough for the man. Hence, these three things became standard reasons for divorce.

When Jesus was asked if a man can divorce his wife for any reason – he was in fact answering a long-standing debate between the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai about 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 [ervat davar] in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, (Deut 24:1)

The school of Hillel interpreted Deut 24 as two issues in the verse: “unclean” (a sexual matter) and “thing.” Hence, if a woman burned dinner it was a “thing” and the man could divorce her “for any reason.” Jesus was answering that the school of Shammai had the interpretation correct that the verse was about sexual unfaithfulness and was not about “any reason.”

He also stated that if a woman was sent away without a divorce certificate then she was still legally married.

“And I say to you, whoever divorces [puts / sends away] his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matt 19:9)

απολυω means to release from, let go. It is clearly related to the Deut 24 act of sending away a wife. Yet sending away a wife without a divorce certificate would cause her to legally commit adultery. The divorce certificate was absolutely necessary in the equation – it was not enough to just send her away – it had to be accompanied by a certificate for it to be a biblically recognized divorce. Hence because she lacked the certificate of divorce, any man that married her was actually committing adultery with her and her former husband was causing her to commit adultery according to God’s law.

Paul, who was teaching Torah in Corinth (Acts 20:27), also weighed in on this matter. The Roman style divorce was such that the one who owned the house could simply send away (tell the spouse to leave) or a spouse could just leave and they were officially divorced under Roman law. Because Paul had been teaching the Torah, it is then clear that merely leaving does not fulfill the biblical requirement (ICor 7:10-11), but a divorce certificate must be created for the divorce to be biblical. God followed his own instructions when he put away his wife Israel for her repeated abandonment of the marriage and unfaithfulness. He issued her a certificate of divorce and sent her away (Jer 3:8).

David Instone Brewer’s book Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible explains these points in a very scholarly manner if you are looking for more info. Here is a summary article:

Here is a video he published which explains it nicely.