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Divorce: What Does the Bible Actually Say?

Answers | Justin Martz | 13 mins

In Genesis 2, we see that the intent of marriage was for a lifetime commitment between a man and a woman, to grow together to become one and represent God in the world. Although this was the intent and still is the goal, sin, selfishness, and hard-heartedness disrupted this plan. The reality of divorce is nothing new. Divorce has been a part of human history and continues to impact the lives of people today, and it has likely impacted your life in some way. This leads to many questions about divorce and remarriage, and can also lead to guilt, shame, and confusion. Throughout Scripture, there are many references to divorce and remarriage, but we may not understand them correctly, and usually not in context. The purpose of this article is to lay out a solid Scriptural understanding of divorce, and give the reader a helpful framework for it. 

A few important things: 

  • First, no matter what people say about divorce, no one likes divorce. No one gets married thinking they will get divorced. God wants people to stay married, grow together as one, and have a mutually loving partnership. Unfortunately, due to sin, selfishness, and just plain bad decision making, many people find themselves struggling in their marriages and experiencing divorce. 

  • Second, no one is perfect. I know, it’s a shocker, especially if you are newly dating or newly married and in a “honeymoon” phase. Humans are generally selfish, disappointing, and prone to make bad choices. However, we are meant to grow together and to love each other selflessly. It is possible, but it is not easy. 

  • Third, God does desire you to work through difficulties in marriage and to forgive your spouse. There can be restoration and renewed love even in marriages that have gone bad or where bad decisions have been made. It is important to leverage help, counseling, guidance, etc. when appropriate. A renewed and restored relationship can lead to a great life and can be a powerful testimony. 

  • Fourth, if there is abuse, get out and get help. It’s important that you leave the situation and bring it to light. God does not want you to be in an abusive relationship or environment. We have means to help at Sun Valley and are here to support you.  

What does the Old Testament say about divorce? 

In the Old Testament, there are some key passages concerning divorce. These passages must be understood both in their literary contexts as well as their cultural/historical context. For instance, the ancient Near East was a tough place and time to live, especially for women. According to the Code of Hammurabi and other ancient codes, a husband could abandon his wife (and kids if they had them), without any support or resources, for any length of time, just to come back and reclaim them at a later date. This not only caused serious problems for survival, but even if they would get remarried during that time, the risk was that the husband could still return and take the family back… no questions asked!

However, in Israel, it was much better. Not only were people treated equally, but if a man left his wife, he had to give her a certificate of divorce, which allowed her the freedom to remarry without the fear that the first husband could return and reclaim. Their certificates of divorce specifically read, “You are now free to marry any man you choose.” Now, the ability to get a certificate doesn’t mean that divorce was the right thing to do, but it did protect a woman who was the victim of a husband who had broken their marriage vows or had even died in battle.

In Genesis 2:24, after the account of the creation of humanity, it says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This is the intent of marriage; for two unique people to grow together as one through life. However, sin entered the world, and now, along with contention, humans are self-centered and prone to choose what is bad. This led to hardness of heart and God allowing for a certificate of divorce for Israelite women to protect them from abuse and/or neglect (Matthew 19:8).

Deuteronomy 24:1 tells us, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house….”

Here, “indecency” is equal to sexual immorality, which is most often understood as adultery. Breaking your wedding vow of faithfulness is a reason for divorce. We also see here that Israelite women get a certificate of divorce. This was a huge deal for women at the time and worked as a protection against abuse, neglect, and abandonment. 

Exodus 21:10-11 states, “…If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money….”

This is an example of case law. Although this law was about a man marrying his slave, the rabbis reasoned that if a slave wife had the right to divorce her husband, then certainly a free wife would. This then allowed for divorce for neglecting food, clothing, or conjugal love.

In the Hebrew Bible, we can see an elevation of women higher than the surrounding nations, a protection against abuse and neglect, and four grounds for divorce; committing adultery, and neglecting to provide food, clothing, or conjugal rights (by either spouse). Abuse is covered by these case laws since both physical and emotional abuse are extreme forms of neglect. It is important to point out that the only one who could enact a divorce according to Old Testament law codes was the victim. And it was the woman who had a certificate of divorce, to grant her freedom to remarry and thus sustain her life and that of her children. 

God Hates Divorce

It is true that God hates divorce. This is because He knows that breaking your covenant promises leads to pain, hurt, and darkness; the opposite of what God wants for His people. Marriage is a covenant, a contract, where two parties agree on certain terms. In God’s case, this is what happened at Mt. Sinai with Israel. God made a covenant with Israel. They would be His people and He would be their God. But there were certain conditions that had to be kept, just like in a marriage. Therefore, the picture of the relationship between God and Israel was one of marriage. Due to the infidelity and broken covenant of Israel, God knows how much pain results in a broken relationship.

“But you say, "Why does he not?" Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.”
- Malachi 2:14

Hosea paints the picture of God and His covenant people as a husband continuously trying to bring back his adulterous wife. And in both Jeremiah (2:1, 20-26; 3:1-8, 10-14; 4:3-4) and Ezekiel (23:30-33) this picture is used of God and Israel. God hates divorce, because He is well aware of the devastation that is created when one breaks their marriage covenant. 

What does the New Testament say about divorce? 

Matthew 19:3-9 says, “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" Here, context is critical. Jesus is being asked to step into the debate between the camps of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Before Jesus’ time, both Jewish men and women could divorce partners who broke their marriage obligations based on the Old Testament laws. However, by Jesus’ day, some rabbis had come up with a groundless divorce that was for men only. This was called an “any cause” divorce. Rabbi Hillel held and taught this popular view. He stated that in Deuteronomy 24:1 there were two reasons for divorce: Sexual immorality and “a thing” - in other words – for any reason. On the other hand, Rabbi Shammai challenged this interpretation and wanted to hold onto the historic understanding of Deut. 24:1 and said it was just sexual immortality or adultery. Jesus is not making a universal statement about divorce; He is answering their debate about Deut. 24:1. In other words, Deut. 24:1 is only talking about sexual immorality. He is not dealing with the other reasons for divorce (neglect of food, clothing or conjugal love Ex. 21:10-11).

In 1 Corinthians 7:1-17, Paul answers a question about sex, marriage, and abandonment. Under Roman law they had similar, male dominated laws and divorces that could happen for any reason, including abandonment. Here, Paul is addressing this type of situation. He states that believers should not be the cause of the divorce or partake in groundless divorce or divorce by separation. But if one is a victim of an abandonment that has already occurred, then they are free to remarry. Paul is not contradicting the statements of Jesus that we have in the Gospels, he is addressing a different aspect of divorce and remarriage, while still upholding the Old Testament grounds for legal divorce and advocating for the victim.

Jesus and Paul both uphold not only the Old Testament marriage and divorce laws, but also emphasize the intent of marriage. So, we see in the New Testament, an elevation of women higher than the surrounding culture, a protection against abuse, neglect, infidelity and abandonment, and a correction of a misunderstood, misogynistic practice for divorce.

The bottom line:

  • The intent of marriage was for male and female to be united and to grow together as one, for life while representing God in the world. 

  • However, sin entered the world and due to sin, selfishness and hardness of heart, God allowed for protections of victims through divorce, leveraging certificates of divorce. 

  • Marriage is a covenant or contract, and breaking marriage vows lead to divorce. Scripturally these include infidelity, abandonment, and the neglect of food, clothing, and conjugal love. 

  • Both OT and NT passages protect the victims and elevate the rights of women, giving them a better situation than their contemporary cultures. 

  • God does hate divorce, but he also hates abuse and neglect. 

  • If you are struggling in your marriage or in need of help, we are here to help. Please reach out today. 


Written By

Justin Martz

Husband and father. “The Professor” and teacher of Sun Valley University, and in my DMIN program. Love to read, listen to podcasts, and watch movies. I am also an associate at Rayhons Financial Solutions.

Published on Nov 15, 2022