Divorce Court and Defilement? (Divorce Part 2)

Here’s part 2 of the divorce series (part 1 about the possibility of a holy divorce is here). Part 2 discusses arguments that I don’t agree with even though I think the arguments look good at first glance. They come from the same man, J. Carl Laney, who is a professor of Biblical literature, and they are the best counterarguments I’ve seen. If you have better counterarguments regarding specifically Deuteronomy 24:1-4, post or link to them. I am interested in learning about them.

In light of how I have answered Laney, I started thinking about how different the torah’s view of divorced people is from how people tend to view divorced people, and I was ashamed, so I ended there, though it was not originally planned to be part of this post.

Two Plausible Counterarguments and Why They Fail

In short, the first objection to there being any such thing as a godly divorce is that torah case law does not necessarily reflect God’s will regarding the situation being described. The second objection argues that divorce is not godly since the woman in Deut 24:1-4 is described as defiled after remarrying. Let’s look at these in turn.

 1. Is God Describing or Prescribing Divorce Laws? He Says Describing; I Say Both

First, Laney makes a compelling argument against Deut. 24:1-4 as evidence that divorces are biblically legal by suggesting that when we are reading example cases, we are getting descriptions, not endorsements; he cites the law about the woman who grabs the secrets of her husband’s attacker that says the woman’s hand is to be cut off, an example meant to prove that God is not endorsing grabbing the secrets but merely telling what to do if it happens. Interesting comparison, I admit, but it fails because there is a prescription after the description.

What is being prescribed is in fact endorsed in both cases, so while Laney sees case law as either prescriptive or descriptive, I see it as both. True, in neither case does God give a stamp of approval for the initial issue (finding indecency in one’s wife or the wife grabbing the secrets); however, Laney views divorce as the initial issue instead of the indecency. No, the divorce is the remedy, the judgment after the fact of indecency, the vague irreconcilable difference.

In both the case of the indecency-finder and the secret-grabber, God does endorse a specific course of action: give a writing of divorcement in the one situation, and cutting off the hand in the second. In other words—and this is where Laney’s insight does apply, I think–God does not say he approves of the conditions that bring about a law. In this case, that means we overstep if we reason from divorce law that God actually approves of a woman being indecent or a man uncovering some indecency in her. What God does endorse is the remedy for it, which is a legal divorce, a divorce that includes both leaving the house (no more cohabitation) and a written document, which is called a get.

2. Does Remarriage Defile a Woman or Something Else?

The other argument Laney makes against the idea of a godly divorce is based on the fact that the woman described in Deuteronomy 24, the woman who divorces, remarries, and divorces a second time (or is widowed) is forbidden to return to her first husband because she is “defiled.” Laney’s position is that God frowns upon remarriage because it defiles a woman.

Here, Laney extends the woman’s defilement from a specific condition, defilement with regards to her first husband, to defilement inherently in and of herself in general to all men from that time forward. This view fails to take into account the fact that she is not defiled from the perspective of other potential future husbands, for if she were, she would be off limits to all future husbands, not just her first husband. If that were the case, she would not be given a get, the document that allows her to remarry, which is another way of saying she would not have been granted a legally binding divorce. I alluded to the text of the divorce document, the get, in an earlier post. Now’s a good time to look at it. Let’s pick it up midstream, after the lengthy introduction specifying times, places, and names. As given on My Jewish Learning, the get reads from the husband’s point of view, and says this:

 I do release and send away and put aside thee… who have been my wife from time past hitherto; and hereby I do release thee and send away and put thee aside that thou mayest have permission and control over thyself to go to be married to any man whom thou desirest, and no man shall hinder thee in my name from this day and forever. And thou art permitted to be married to any man. This shall be from me to thee a bill of dismissal, a document of release, and a letter of freedom, according to the law of Moses and Israel.

Notice the emphasis on being permitted to remarry. The get, the divorce document is the ticket to remarrying without committing adultery. There is not such thing as a get that does not grant the woman the right to remarry.

This is significant because if Laney is correct, if the defilement were from remarrying the second time—and that second marriage (or some biological exchange within it) is what keeps the remarried-but-subsequently-unmarried woman from returning to her first husband—then she would not be allowed to marry any man a third time. But she is allowed. How do we know that? We know because she can be granted a get after a second marriage dissolves.

Another reason to reconsider the idea that the remarried woman is inherently defiled comes from the question the Sadducees pose to Jesus in Matthew 22:23-28 where they concoct a specious case of a woman who loses seven husbands, having been legitimately Levirate-married to each one in turn. Um, do I have to point out that we’re talking about seven men, which means the woman is involved in intimate exchanges with seven… different…. Well, you get the idea. These Sadducees (Michael Stern transliterates their name as Tz’dukim, as in Righteous Ones) are strict fundamentalists when it comes to the torah. They are not known for their permissive stances, and yet they are perfectly comfortable with the idea that this poor woman could be married seven times in a row. Not only that, check it out: though they don’t believe in a resurrection, they do assume for the sake of the argument that if there were a resurrection, this woman with seven husbands would be considered righteous and worthy of it!

No, remarriage in and of itself is not defiling. At a certain point, it might get kind of icky for us to think about multiple serial remarriages, but the point stands: a woman who is married, then remarried, then remarried, etc. is not defiled and defiling the land and causing it to be filled with sin–as long as she isn’t hoping back to previous husbands. They are off limits. She is defiled to them because of the intervening marriage(s).

How Do We View Divorced People… and How Should We View Them?

All right, I confess: I don’t think I understood much about God’s position on divorce from the time I was 20 or so and began being interested in God to the time I was, well, starting to write this. I have a lot to learn; I’m not writing the book on godly divorce, just a little blog series. I know I’ve been confused, and I know I’ve heard lots of opinions, most of them negative, so I think my reaction has been, in a word, discomfort. I’ve had a strong hunch for a few years now that things might not be as I had heard. Now that more pieces of the puzzle are coming together, I think apologies can be made:

  • I’m sorry if you who have been divorced have felt shunned by me or by your brothers and sisters.
  • I’m sorry that you who have suffered greatly in your marriages—even to the point losing your very lives—were counseled to stay in those marriages, which is directly contrary to the word of God (in passages I’ll look at later).
  • I’m sorry for those of you who have been divorced but then struggled with either remaining single or remarrying when you were told it would be sin to do so.
  • I’m sorry if you who have been divorced have ever felt inherently defiled by that divorce. It is not so.

In God’s view, you can enter a relationship in a way that does not defile you, and you can exit that relationship in a way that does not defile you. If you were legally married and legally divorced, you are walking in the ancient paths, the good ones, the highway of holiness.

For those of you who have successfully done it God’s way in a world of such confusion, good for you–how very godly of you.

And by the way, correct me if I’m wrong, those of you who know, but I don’t think a ketubah, the marriage contract, has “till death do us part” in it–something to look at another time, but not in this series. In part 3, I plan to get to the New Testament!


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