MDR in the Mission of God – The First Few Words
So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”
(Genesis 21:10-12 ESV)
The three passages we’ll discuss here are the earliest words on divorce in Torah. Genesis contains no MDR legislation at all — only this depiction of Abraham’s action when Sarah demanded that he “cast out” Hagar, the wife whom Sarah twice denounces as “this slave woman.” Already we can see how far from the ideal sin has carried mankind. Abraham takes into his own hands the matter of fulfilling the covenant promises of God — with disastrous results for his family and community. Sarah can no longer even say the name of the woman who was once her handmaiden. It is impossible to know whether Abraham knows the Genesis story — whether he’s been exposed to the ideal that the love of God points us towards. And certainly, God’s people are called to be actively, creatively, passionately involved in bringing forth the blessings of the kingdom into their world. Once again, Abraham seems to be most guilty of wilting under pressure and grasping for the closest and easiest option that comes to mind. Yet, God’s response to this troubled trio should give pause to those who believe God opposes all divorce at all times.
“You shall not commit adultery.”
(Exodus 20:14 ESV)
The second passage is deeply relevant to our discussion — it is the explicit prohibition to the Israelites of a behavior judged both immoral and criminal by practically all cultures of the Ancient Near East. Yet, too often we read our contemporary ideas about sexual fidelity and ethics into the ancient text, rather than letting it speak to us from its own setting — striving to hear it with ancient ears. In OT literature, “to commit adultery” is not primarily a sexual concept. Rather, it is to sin by breaking faith or violating one’s pledge to another. As marriage is our most common promise-relationship, it is only natural that the idea of adultery would become deeply related in our minds to sexual fidelity –particularly on the part of the woman. In most Ancient Near East (ANE) societies, it is impossible for a man to commit adultery — not so in Israel.
In Torah, to commit fornication is a behavior very different from adultery (compare Deut 22:22-24 with 28-29). Not that fornication is morally insignificant, or that premarital sex is deemed accept — rather, the punishment levied against them clearly implies that it is viewed as a less serious offense against the community and against YHWH. Glance at these two passages.
“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
(Deuteronomy 22:22-24 ESV)
“If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 ESV, cf. Ex 22:16-17)
Because of factors involving family bloodlines and inheritance, ancient families placed a premium on keeping the woman free of sexual contact with a third party. Regardless of the situation, the sin pertains more to the violation of the covenantal rights due to the woman’s husband. Unlike most other ANE societies, both the man and the woman in Israel have rights — so it is at least possible (at this point in our study) that other non-sexual behaviors such as abuse or neglect could also be regarded as adulterous. That points us towards the import of our final passage of this step of our study, but before I go there, I’d like to point out something interesting.
These passages mention divorce, even before the ‘popular’ divorce passage — which we will address at length in the next blog. This makes it pretty plain that divorce was not only known in cultures around the ancient Israelites, but it was practiced among them during the time of Moses. Every Israelite marriage was NOT “till death do us part” — death by natural causes or by capital punishment. If that were true, the whole passage in Deut 24 would be rendered meaningless. As it is, it is not meaningless but rather deeply redemptive, and Jesus affirms its import when he talks about MDR (but we’ll get there soon enough).
On a related note, the death penalty was as rarely applied in ancient times as we’d like it to be applied today. Note the precise condition demanded by Deut 22:22 — “if a man IS CAUGHT lying with the wife of another man…” and remember that acceptable eye-witness testimony required “two or three witnesses.” So two or three males had to catch the sinning couple and bring them both forth for accusation, in order for them to be executed (cf John 8). The assumption that many have made that divorce was generally forbidden under the Law of Moses is simply mistaken.
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.” (Exodus 21:7-11 ESV)
This final text is generally ignored in discussions of divorce and remarriage, for obvious reasons — it clearly undermines the “traditional” reading of Scripture. The legal basis for marriage was an agreement (contract) between two parties that included certain requirements and the penalties that would be imposed for failure to fulfill those requirements. Yet, only rarely would these stipulations be put in writing — for example, in cases where there was a very large dowry. The primary motivator in honoring the marriage contract seems to have been financial rather than romantic. The bride-price (which a groom would pay to his bride’s father prior to the engagement) typically represented several months’ wages — only a fool would intentionally squander money like that. The dowry, which a father would pay to his daughter (although it would be held in trust by the husband) would be considered her share of the family estate. It would allow the new couple to establish their home, and it would offer personal security to the bride. For if her husband died or divorced her, the dowry would remain hers — she would potentially have money to live on. In a case where she caused the divorce, though, she would in all likelihood lose the entire dowry. So both parties have serious financial reasons to strive to maintain their contractual obligations to one another.
Let’s draw some conclusions from this short survey.
1) It is only in the later Hebrew prophets that the emphasis in the word covenant moves away from a conditional agreement between YHWH and his people to the clear promise that God would keep his vows even if his people should prove faithless. In these earlier writings, when the term covenant appears in MDR passages, we should read it as contract language, understanding it to be a conditional agreement between two parties that could be broken — not a permanent eternal bond between two people. Skew too far that way and you’ll find yourself teaching the “familial salvation” and “sealed for all eternity” concepts beloved in Mormon doctrine. Further, does a “permanent and eternal bond between two people,” the traditional MDR position, make God a divorce-maker?
2) Since many of the stipulations that might be involved in a Hebrew marriage contract were unwritten, much like English constitutional law today, we should understand that certain basic rights and expectations are understood to apply to every marriage — regardless of whether each and every requirement is written specifically into the contract. This is where Exodus 22:10-11 becomes truly important to the discussion. If a slave woman could divorce her husband for not providing food, clothing, and conjugal considerations, is it right for us to imagine that free men and women would be held to a different standard? Our traditional thoughts on MDR aside, Torah is not an exhaustive legislation of every aspect of Israelite life. Many things — marriage ceremonies and divorce requirements not least among them — are contextual. YHWH allows some things to continue because He knows his people are too hard-hearted to live the with-God life without them. Women will still need to be rescued from heartless and/or thoughtless men. In our day, the only thing that has changed is that women have been empowered to be as heartless, thoughtless, and cruel as men.
3) Look back at the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar through the lens of Exodus 21:10-11. Imagine what it would take for Abraham to fulfill his marital obligations to both women, considering the hatred between them. Since he could no longer honor his husbandly obligation to Hagar, the principle enshrined in the Exodus passage shows us that God’s command to Abraham is consistent with his redemptive character.