When are we free to remarry?

Some of the worst pain a person can endure is going through a divorce. This is why our Heavenly Father hates divorce and wants to protect every single marriage (Mal 2:16). He does this by giving us guiding rules to protect husband and wife from divorce. But human nature sometimes hinders a happy marriage and according to modern statistics, more and more marriages end in divorce. God Himself divorced Israel (Jer 3:8) and many people end up as divorced even if they didn’t choose or deserve it. Marriage was designed by God as a safe place where love flourishes. Jesus spoke tenderly to the women at the well who went through five divorces – not judging or calling her an adulteress (John 4:16-18). So what can we do when we become part of the divorce statistics? Are we free to seek happiness in another marriage or does God only allow one chance to get it right?

Now some may quote scriptures like Matt 19:3-9, Mark 10:1-12 & Luke 16:18 claiming that God doesn’t allow remarriage or if you do remarry that you commit adultery. Is this Jesus’ intention to limit us to one try only or is His heart to protect the woman and man? Lets have a look at the scripture He is referring to in Deut 24:1-4. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) says this about divorce1:

This expression, found in De 24:1,3; Isa 50:1; Jer 3:8 is the translation of the Hebrew ‘cepher kerithuth‘. The two words, literally rendered, signify a document or book of cutting off, i.e. a certificate of divorce given by a husband to a wife, so as to afford her the opportunity or privilege of marrying another man.

The purpose of the certificate of divorce was to favour the wife and allow her the ability to get remarried. The law was always in favour of reuniting the husband & wife before marrying someone else. Note that the passage says that if her second marriage fails, she is not allowed to marry her first husband again. In this passage we also find the legal, biblical way to get divorced:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce [sepher kerithuth], puts it in her hand, and sends her out [shalach] of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” Deut 24:1-4

Notice that the Torah doesn’t forbid the women from taking a second husband but instead forbids remarrying the first.

Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces[Apoluo] his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’[Apostasion] But I say to you that whoever divorces[Apoluo] his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced[Apoluo] commits adultery.” Matt 5:31-32

“The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce[Apoluo] his wife for just any reason?” And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate. ”They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce[Apostasion], and to put her away[Apoluo]? ”He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce[Apoluo] your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces[Apoluo] his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced[Apoluo] commits adultery.” Matt 19:3-9

The answer in understanding Jesus’ response lies in the legal aspect of the matter of divorce. There are two distinct Greek words used here when addressing divorce – the first is: “Apoluo” and it means to ‘send away, dismiss, release, let go, depart, get rid off‘ and corresponds with the Hebrew word: “shalach” mentioned in Deut 24:1 also translated as: “send away“. The second is: “Apostasion” which in turn refers to a ‘bill of divorce‘ given to validate the divorce – it corresponds with the Hebrew phrase: “sepher kerithuth” also used in Deut 24:1 which is translated as ‘certificate of divorce‘.

But the question remains: ‘why would the woman be considered an adulteress if the husband divorces her and she did nothing wrong? ‘ It seems to be very unfair treatment of someone who is a victim of an unjust divorce. Remember that the Pharisees taught that a man can divorce his wife for any reason – if she burned the food, if she gained weight or even if she said something he doesn’t like. So was Jesus disagreeing with the Torah? Or was He addressing a different issue altogether?

In Jewish culture if the husband is refusing to issue a certificate of divorce [sepher kerithuth], the woman cannot marry again and is referred to as: “Agunah” which means ‘anchored or chained‘. It also refers to women who are ‘chained‘ to their marriages. For example if a man has undergone a long journey or if he went off to war and doesn’t return and is presumed dead, the woman is stuck and cannot remarry because she doesn’t know if her husband will return or not. By law the husband must give the wife a certificate of divorce to finalise the divorce and without this certificate of divorce, no new marriage will be recognized. An ‘Agunah‘ is forbidden to marry another regardless the circumstances and whatever child she has, will be considered illegitimate.

What Jesus was teaching is that the man cannot just send away [shalah/apoluo] the woman without giving her a certificate of divorce [sepher kerithuth/apostasion]. That would cause her to be an adulteress if she wanted to remarry. In Jewish culture only the man had the right to secure the divorce – the woman might leave her husband but she could not legally divorce him. This was what the Pharisees were doing and wanting Jesus to condone. Now the passage in Luke 16:18 seems a bit clearer as it only refers to ‘sending away‘ and not to giving a ‘certificate of divorce‘:

“Everyone putting away[Apoluo] his wife and marrying another commits adultery. And everyone marrying her who is put away[Apoluo] from her husband commits adultery.”

  1. Ref The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) Divorcement, Bill of: see https://www.internationalstandardbible.com/D/divorce-in-the-old-testament.html