In short, the Old Testament taught that marriage was intended to be a permanent, covenantal relationship between a man, who was to protect and provide for his wife, and a woman, who was to remain monogamous to her husband. Marriages between legitimate partners were insured by God, before Whom such were contracted.204 The Law called for the execution of a woman who broke her marital vow, and when the practice of that punishment was discontinued, divorce became an accepted substitute, an act of discipline. When the man failed to live up to his side of the bargain, either by depriving his wife within marriage, by aggressive abuse in marriage, or by dissolution of the marriage, the Law provided for her protection by permitting divorce. The Law required the actively or passively abusive husband to release the wife, if she sued via the courts, though the husband technically did the filing for divorce. The innocent woman who had been divorced was permitted to remarry. The man in those cases (the “guilty” party) was permitted to marry, since polygamy was permissible, but the Scripture had especially strong condemnation (“adultery”) for a man who divorced solely for the purpose of devoting himself to another woman. Thus, divorce could either be a discipline or an act of treachery; the grounds in the case determined which it was. Remarriage was presumed to be a right for the guilty husband, as well as innocent parties, though the guilty party was clearly identified as an offender (in the prophetic literature). Guilty males, we presume, showed the fruit of repentance by remarrying the severed partner (along with the new spouse). Guilty wives, however, were not morally free to remarry.205 The fruit of their repentance was to put away their subsequent partners and return to their rightful spouse.206 Thus, a re-establishment of the broken marriage may be presumed to be the proper way to rectify the sin of divorce. But if an innocent partner married again in the intervening time, that subsequent union—even of a wife—would be morally permissible.
These, then, are the general teachings of the Old Testament regarding the issue of marriage/divorce/remarriage. They form the context for the New Testament teachings. Let us turn now to the teaching of Christ and his followers to see if they changed the Old Testament teaching. We should not expect that they will. Why would God change the rules of marriage half way down the historical pike? Nonetheless, expectation is one thing. Fact is another. If Christ does change them we must be willing to admit that He did.
204 Marriages between illegitimate partners, e.g., close kin or interfaith marriages, were also “witnessed by God,” but with no sense of divine insurance. This distinction helps one untie the semantic knot tied by such as Heth and Wenham when they say that “all marriages are witnessed by God” (emphasis added, Jesus, p. 112, et passim). Biblically speaking, they are equivocating on the term witnessed. And this equivocation leads them to draw confusing conclusions elsewhere (cf. Jesus, p. 163).
205 This might be qualified by the presumption that such people would be free to remarry if rejected by their former spouse, if the former spouse had died, or if he was for some other reason unavailable for marriage.
206 Heth/Wenham draw the conclusion from Lev. 18 and Deut 24 that “legal divorce does not dissolve the marital union and the relationships established through that marriage.” They believe that behind such legislation is the presumption that “some kind of relationship still exists between the original couple” (Jesus, p. 112). I agree with their latter statement, but not their first. Just because some relation still exists does not mean that the first marriage has not been sufficiently dissolved for a moral second marriage to be contracted. The very fact that valid second marriages are not forbidden by the text is testimony to this fact. God does not ethically stutter. The only proscriptions on remarriage in the Old Testament relate to the inhibition of further or continued evil. First, the woman is prohibited from returning to her degrading first mate (Deut 24:1-4), and, second, an unrepentant adulteress is forbidden from continuing her adultery by practicing a second marriage (implied by the prophetic materials such as Jer. 3:1 ff.). But none of these moral and social elements of relationship to the former spouse imply a continuing marital bond of the sort inferred by Heth/Wenham. In fact, Deut 24, far from evincing such a bond (so Heth/Wenham), absolutely denies one exists. For if such a continuing bond existed, the legislation could not possibly have morally denied a bonded husband the right to recover his own wife. Heth/Wenham must clearly seek a different definition of the “relationship” than they assume.