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On the Biblical Terms for "Divorce"

Old Testament Words

kàritu‚t: to dismiss. The technical term for divorce or divorcement is kàritu‚t. The root of this word is bàti‚t, the word for “covenant,” which means to “cut off.” The idea of the root is that a covenant was an agreement solemnized by the cutting up of an animal, just as God had cut up the animals and passed between them in the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:18). Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament575 notes that the idea of covenant is not magical or mystical but intentional. Subjects of a covenant (i.e., the ones making the covenant) walk between the cut animals, saying by the action that they intend the same destruction of themselves, if they break the covenant, that they have done to the animals. In marriage, the reciprocity of the vows implies that the partners each will the same self-destruction if they break the terms.

Thus, the word for divorcement speaks of the “cutting off of the offending party. It is as if they have received the self-appointed penalty for breaking their vows. The divorced person is “as if dead” to the former spouse. These ideas reveal how appropriate it was for divorce to become a righteous (though second-best) substitute for the death penalty.

This makes it clear that divorcement was meant to apply only to times when the partner had broken the covenant terms. In those cases, the divorce would function like an execution. The concept behind the term also shows how wrong it would be to cut off the partner who had not broken those terms. In that case, the divorce would be like murdering the innocent. The term kàritu‚t, then, was meant to convey moral stigma against the divorced person. But that stigma was to be in the context of moral offense. Insofar as divorce could occur to an innocent party, it would be necessary to qualify this stigma.

shillu‚hi‚m: “to send away.” This is the term used of expelling someone in Genesis 3:23; 12:20 It is used of divorce in Deuteronomy 22:19,29; and Isaiah 50:1. It seems to convey the idea of an official act, often an act of punishment for breaking (at least implied) covenant. A form of it is used twice in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There the term may show some contrast between the breaking of covenant and the real reason the man is putting his wife away: uncleanness. Uncleanness is not proper grounds for sending away, but the woman has been sent away nonetheless. Certainly this term means to identify the party sent away as having moral guilt. How tragic if there is none.576

yasaá: “to go out,” used in a technical sense of “emancipation.” The Bible uses this term when speaking of Israel’s freedom from Egypt and the freedom of the indentured servant from slavery (cf. Exod. 21:2). This freedom ensured the right of emancipated persons to be free to make their own decisions by contrast with the limits of their freedom set by their previous condition of slavery. When freed, they were allowed to make new contracts at will. The significance of this term to our study is that the one-flesh partner of Exodus 21:11 is said to be emancipated from her master (husband) if he mistreats her. The text notes that the contract is off, and the slave’s part of the bargain (the return of the “slave/bride price” in the case of default) is not an encumbrance upon her. Her father is then free to contract her with another master/husband if he wishes and is able. She is no more tied to her former master than Israel was to Egypt after the Exodus. (And, though in one sense Israel was previously tied to God, the events following the Exodus reveal that emancipated Israel—feminine—is called to make a choice between God and her old master, Egypt.)577

New Testament Words

The New Testament uses several terms for “divorce.” Their primary meanings and distinctions are listed:

àpolúo: “to let loose from, let go free” (apo, “from,” luo, “to loose”).578 Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker (BAGD) distinguish the meaning of “set free, release, pardon” from that of “let go, send away, dismiss” (including “divorce”).579 I believe that this distinction is too sharp. The “send away” of apoluo would seem to involve the “set free, release” of the partner from all vows of the covenant. Implicit in this action is the idea that remarriage is permitted for either party. This is the primary word used in the Gospels for the action of divorce.

chorizo: “to put asunder, separate.”580 BAGD notes that this term speaks of dividing. It is used in the papyri marriage contracts.581 It is my contention that this word is used connotatively in the biblical divorce legislation as an offense-term, whereas apoluo is denotatively (and sometimes connotatively) morally neutral.

aphistemi: “to cause to withdraw.”582 BAGD notes that this word is used of a legal sense of divorce by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:11 ff.583 It often appears in the biblical text to speak of canceling a debt (forgiving it) or of simple leaving. In the divorce instruction of Paul it is used three times (1 Cor. 7:1, 12, 13), always with a connotation of moral offense, that is, of withdrawing without moral right. The difference between the use of aphistemi and chorizo (in 1 Cor. 7:10-15) amounts to the difference between legal (and perhaps physical) departure, for which Paul uses the former term, and moral severance, for which he uses the latter. Both, however, convey the idea of moral infraction. Schlier, in Kittel,584 notes that aphistemi is related to the concept of apostasy and emphasizes the alienation of persons from the fellowship of each other. This relationship obviously shows the offense-term connotation of the word.

apostasion: “a standing of” (apo, “from,” stasis “standing”).585 BAGD notes that the word is used of a certificate of divorce, conveying the sense of relinquishment of property rights or claims.586 It is related to the term apostasis, which speaks of abandonment. Of course, we have noted on several occasions in the book that the certificate of divorce or even divorce as an act implies a refusal to continue to provide for the former partner. This is the technical term for a writ of divorcement (from the verb aphistemi above). The noun form does not retain the offense-term connotation of the verb in the divorce legislation.


575 TWOT, s.v. “Karat.

576 TWOT ,s.v. “Shillûhîm.”

577   Ibid, s.v. “Yasa.”

578   W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Westwood, NJ.: Fleming H. Revell, 1940), s.v. “divorce” (hereafter “Vine”).

579   BAGD, s.v. “apoluo.”

580   Vine, s.v. apoluo.

581 BAGD, s.v. “Chorizo.

582   Vine, s.v.chorizo.

583 BAGD, s.v. “aphstemi.

584   Kittel, vol. 1, p. 512, “Aphilagthos.

585   Vine, s.v. “Aphilagthos.

586 BAGD, s.v. apostasion

Related Topics: Terms & Definitions, Divorce