Posted by: Heather | December 25, 2012

Paul Addresses the Agunah in Corinthians (Divorce Part 3)

We’re in part 3! As we saw in part 2 of the divorce series, there is no such thing in the Bible as a divorce that does not allow a person to remarry. However, a person can be legally married and yet “put away” from his or her spouse. It is the plight of the agunah, the chained or bound spouse—not a nice image, and if it brings to mind suffering, it should. It’s horrible. The agunah is separated from his or her respective wife or husband but not divorced.

Why couldn’t some people get a divorce?

The short answer is that until recently, about a thousand years ago, only men could initiate divorces. But sometimes men disappear. It could be legitimate, as in the case of the soldier killed but never found. If there was no evidence of the husband’s death, the wife was “bound to the law of her husband” (you might recognize the phrase from Romans) since it would be possible that he was alive.

Then there are the less legitimate situations. You can also imagine a man abandoning a woman or a woman abandoning a man. If the man cannot be found or simply will not grant a divorce, the woman is bound: she is an agunah because she is still legally married. She has no get. This is especially wretched since no one is providing for her, and she cannot remarry without it being considered adultery, which means any children she has would be considered illegitimate too.

Putting Away Is Not Divorce

When you hear phrases like “put away” and “depart,” you are not reading synonyms for divorce, you’re reading synonyms for marriages that have been abandoned and are legally binding. Translators have missed the distinction between legal divorce and putting away most likely because they never heard of an agunah, and how could they have if they were not within a Jewish culture? It’s a Jewish problem.

When divorce is in view, the King James renders it divorcement. Very little is said about divorcement, actually, in the New Testament while a lot is said about this phenomenon of “putting away,” which makes sense considering that the questions involving legal divorce were settled (for the most part).

The Apostle Paul’s Compassion on the Agunah

It turns out that Paul addresses the agunah’s situation in 1 Cor 7. It’s worth looking at in some detail:

And unto the married I command, [yet] not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from [her] husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to [her] husband: and let not the husband put away [his] wife. (KJV, I Cor. 7:10-11)

 Paul’s telling us that the Lord himself gave us a command not to depart from our husbands and wives. We have a record of that happening, but you’ll have to wait until part 4 until we can go there.  The point is God says, don’t do it.  Don’t depart! But if you do, you are still bound/chained to that person because you are still legally married, so you are making yourself a wretched agunah: you cannot marry someone else, so be celibate or be reconciled! Those are your 2 choices. Essentially, he’s saying if we women walk away from a marriage instead of divorcing, we are doing the wrong thing, so we deserve to be bound/chained, and so shall we be. There’s no special get-out-of-marriage-free card just because you’re a believer.

To the men, he says simply, do not depart! Don’t abandon your wives, men!

Continuing in Corinthians, we read this:

But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. (KJV, I Cor. 1:12-14)

Paul is speaking on his own authority now, not the Lord’s, because Jesus never talked about what to do if a believer and unbeliever are married and the believer wants to leave. Paul says, no, you can’t abandon your spouses because they are unbelievers. Then he says,

But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such [cases]: but God hath called us to peace.  (KJV, 1 Cor. 7:15 )

Jesus also never talked about what to do if an unbeliever leaves a believing spouse. Then what? Are you stuck in the agunah state indefinitely? Paul says, thankfully, no, the believer is not bound, not an agunah. In other words, you can get special permission to obtain a legal divorce even if you can’t get permission from that unbelieving spouse who abandoned you!

Here’s the breakdown: if you, believer, depart from a believing or unbelieving spouse, you are an agunah. If you, believer, stay and the unbeliever departs, you can get special permission to get a legal divorce. And do you know what a legal divorce grants you, according to the torah? Yes, yes, you do if you’ve been following along:  it grants you the ability to remarry without being guilty of committing adultery!

To the Agunot

Guess what, agunah, abandoned one, God is on your side! He fights for you, and he fights against that husband or wife who abandons you without granting you a divorce-remarriage certificate. You were wronged. It’s just another kind of abuse. Hear what the Lord has to say about it in Malachi:

the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet [is] she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for [one] covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously. (KJV, Mal. 2:14-16)

In other words, abandoners, beware! Watch out! The Lord is not happy about this abuse taking place.

There is nothing about divorce in that passage from Malachi; the putting away refers to abandonment, and God hates it. He hates it so much, he’s not going to regard their offerings and sacrifices. One wonders if this isn’t the passage that prompts Peter to admonish husbands to deal wisely with their wives and honor them “that [their] prayers be not hindered” (I Peter 3:7). For more about God’s attitude toward divorce, see part 1 of the series.

Now, you can take my word for it, or you can take Jesus’ own word for it because in part 4, it will be time to look at that scripture where the Lord gave commands concerning not “putting away” spouses. It lines right up with what Malachi says God says; in fact, it looks an awful lot like Jesus essentially paraphrased the Malachi passage. More on that next time.

To be continued…

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  1. […] I’m bringing to this passage elsewhere in the series: the preface, part 1, part 2 and part 3. In sum, this is what those posts attempt to […]


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