Is Matthew 5:32 A Clarification Of Deuteronomy 24:1 ?

By Don Partain

Some contend that the guilty put-away fornicator can remarry and still be right with God. How do they arrive at this conclusion? They argue that in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 Jesus is simply explaining and clarifying Moses’ instruction in Deuteronomy 24:1. But is this the actual case?

In Matthew 5, at times Jesus contrasts his teaching with Jewish tradition that distorted and misapplied the Law  for example, in verses 38-42. “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” (Lev.24:20) meant that civil punishment was to fit the crime. But the Jews misapplied this to justify personal vengeance. So, Jesus clarified the Law on this issue  but did so especially to teach a principle of his imminent kingdom: namely, that his disciples must not return evil for evil, but instead overcome evil with good (Rom.12:17-21).

In the same way, in Matthew 5:31 32, Jesus is teaching a truth of his kingdom. However, here, instead of contrasting his teaching with Jewish tradition, he is contrasting it with the Law of Moses itself  specifically. “And it was said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of dismissal’; but I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except for the cause of fornication, makes her commit adultery” (Deut. 24:1). In the parallel passage (19:7-9), Jesus contrasts his teaching with what “Moses permitted” (again, not with Jewish tradition). Moses, because of the hardness of their hearts, had granted the Israelites a concession  husbands could divorce their wives for some cause short of fornication. But Jesus was reinstating God’s original purpose and allowed one to divorce and remarry only if the spouse was guilty of fornication. So, clearly, Jesus was not clarifying Moses and the Law in Matthew 5:32; 19:9. Rather, he was opposing and contrasting what the Law of Moses permitted with his own teaching, the teaching of the new covenant.

In fact, the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:9 provides further evidence that this was indeed the case: “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry” (v.10). In other words, what Jesus teaches here is much stricter than what they were used to under the Law of Moses.

So, what did the Law of Moses teach about divorce and remarriage in Deuteronomy 24:1-4? The teaching is in an “if . . . then” form. Verses 1-3 state the protasis or condition (the “if ” section), while verse 4 states the apodosis or conclusion (the “then” section). Viewing the passage in this way, we can readily see that Moses’ teaching is aimed at making a husband stop and think before deciding to put away his wife, because (as the conclusion states) once he has divorced her and she has become another man’s wife, he can never marry her again  even if the second husband dies. The “writing of divorcement” (or certificate of dismissal) was a legal document that formalized not only the wife’s release so that she might marry another man but also the first husband’s inability to ever marry her again. So, Moses’ teaching was especially directed towards protecting the wife, not towards giving the husband an easy out.

Moses permitted a husband to divorce his wife if she had lost “favor in his eyes because he (had) found some indecency (erwat dabar  “unclean thing”) in her.” What is this indecency (uncleanness, KJV)? The Hebrew word (basic form, ervah) is used elsewhere to refer either to human seminal emissions and excrement (Deut. 23:10-14) or to “nakedness” (exposure of the genitals; Exod. 20:26). Some have contended that nakedness refers to sexual intercourse, therefore to fornication in Deuteronomy 24:1. So, they argue that Jesus was only restating the Law of Moses in Matthew 5:32. However, nakedness, by itself, does not refer to sexual intercourse, but only to exposure of one’s private parts. They have confused “nakedness” with “uncovering nakedness,” which does indeed refer to fornication (Lev. 18:6f.; Ezek. 16:36). But Moses, in Deuteronomy 24:1, does not speak of uncovering nakedness  only of nakedness. Therefore, Moses was not speaking of fornication being the grounds for divorce.

It is further evident that uncleanness (or nakedness) was! not fornication since fornication was punishable by death. (Deut. 22:22), despite any exceptions to this rule (as in they case with David and Bathsheba). So, divorce, when a partner had been guilty of adultery (a form of fornication), was a moot point!

In fact, uncleanness does not even include suspicions of fornication. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 and Numbers 5:11-31 describe the procedures to be used when a husband suspected his wife had been unfaithful to him. In neither case does divorce result.

So, what did uncleanness mean? It referred to something the husband found to be indecent, immodest, shameful, or unseemly in his wife  yet, short of fornication. Thus, Matthew 5:32, which gives fornication as the only allow-able cause for divorce and remarriage, does not clarify Deuteronomy 24:1, but instead, contrasts with it.

“But,” some argue, “even under the Old Law when one divorced for the cause of uncleanness, adultery resulted when either partner remarried, since Deuteronomy 24:4 says the woman was “defiled.” They connect this with Numbers 5:13, where a wife guilty of adultery is described as “defiled.” However, take a closer look at Deuteronomy 24:4. In what situation is the women here “defiled”? Is it when she marries her second husband? No. She is not in an adulterous relationship in this second marriage. If such were the case, this would have been an “abomination before the Lord”  something that would have brought “sin on the land” and therefore something strictly forbidden by the Lord (see vs.4). But, again, these things are not said about the woman’s second marriage. So, in what situation would the woman be “defiled” and cause an abomination before the Lord? If she remarried her first husband. In other words, she is de-filed in relation to her first husband, so that, if she remarries him  regardless of the circumstances  she brings sin on the land.

Therefore, to divorce for the cause of uncleanness and then remarry was not committing adultery as some have contended. In fact, such a possibility should never have been entertained in the first place! Would our holy God, in the same breath even, both permit and condemn as adulterous certain marriages? To ask this is to answer it. Here in Montana, you can apply for permits to shoot cow elk in certain districts. Imagine the situation in which one has obtained such a permit and then successfully filled his tag. A game warden then approaches. “Nice shot! I’m sure you’ll get plenty of meat from this animal. However, even though you have a permit, I am going to have to arrest you for poaching! Please come with me.”

In the beginning, God’s revealed purpose for marriage was to join one man to one woman for life. But because of hardness of men’s hearts  and until the fulness of grace and truth should be revealed in Christ Jesus  God fitted Israelite men to divorce their wives if they were guilty of some form of indecency or shamefulness. Then when Jesus came to earth in the “fulness of time,” teaching the principles of his kingdom, he reinstated God’s original purpose, yet allowed one to divorce and remarry if his spouse had committed fornication.

Guardian of Truth XL: 3 p. 
February 1, 1996