Does Deuteronomy 24:1-4 say a person can marry their ex-spouse again?
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is about divorce and remarriage. The passage tells us that a man or woman cannot return to a former spouse and marry him or her if the former spouse had subsequently married another person. Here is the passage,
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 indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since 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 gives you as an inheritance. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (NASB)
First Husband Divorces His Wife
God gave the Israelites this instruction through the prophet Moses. In this passage, Moses gave the Israelites an illustration and then ended with a biblical principle. The illustration helps us understand the principle. Moses starts by painting the picture of a husband divorcing his wife for some reason. Moses does not clearly explain the reason for the divorce apparently because his purpose was not to provide a list of God-approved reasons for divorce. It is clear from Malachi 2:16 that God hates divorce. In Matthew 19:8 Jesus tells us that when God permits divorce, it is only because we have hard hearts. The only reason that Moses gives us for the divorce is that the husband found some “indecency.” The Hebrew word for indecency is עֶרְוָה or erwa. The general consensus of Bible translators is that the meaning of the word is unknown since they translate the words as “something wrong,” “something indecent,” “something offensive,” “something improper” and “some indecency.”
However, it should be noted that the word normally refers to nakedness or genitals. Out of the 54 times the word appears in the Old Testament, it occurs 32 times in Leviticus 18. Since Leviticus 18 is predominately about sexual sins, this would suggest that the indecency is related to some sexual issue. In Matthew 5:32 and 19:4-9, Jesus teaches us that divorce is permitted for porneia or various sexual sins. This would seem to suggest that the indecency was some form of sexual immorality.
Deuteronomy 22:20-22 eliminates that meaning of indecency.
But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. Deuteronomy 22:20-22 (NASB)
The first part of the passage is about premarital sex, and the last part of the passage is about adultery. In both situations the punishment of the guilty individuals was death. This eliminates sexual immorality as being the cause of the indecency. In the Jewish culture premarital sex was tantamount to marriage, which explains the charge of adultery. This passage helps us understand that the indecency cannot refer to some sexual sin. Instead, it refers to some unknown but serious offense.
Earl S. Kalland makes this comment about the word indecency.
Something less than adultery must be meant here, since the punishment for adultery is death ([Deuteronomy] 22:22-27; Lev. 20:10). Being guilty of “something indecent,” however, is more than trivial.
It is important to note that Moses’ purpose was not to give us a God-approved justification for divorce. His purpose was to give us an illustration to help us understand a biblical principle. Therefore, let us continue.
Second Husband Divorces Her or Dies
Next we are told that she decided to marry another man. Moses does not command her to remarry. The purpose of this illustration is not to teach that she should remarry or not marry. The illustration simply states that she marries another man. But her new husband either 1) becomes unhappy with her for some reason and legally divorces her or 2) dies. Either by being divorced or her husband’s death, she is legally able to marry from a secular perspective.
Can the Wife Marry Her Former Husband Again?
Moses has created a hypothetical situation and is ready to teach us a principle. Now he explains that her first husband cannot take her back. That is, he cannot remarry her. Why? The only reason given in Scripture that would prevent her from remarrying her ex-spouse is that the first divorce was not for reasons of immorality. We say the first divorce was not a biblical divorce since neither the husband or the ex-wife had the right to remarry. The study What is the meaning of the Greek word porneia in the Bible? explains the various forms of sexual activities that are immoral. Consequently, since the first divorce was not a biblical divorce, she committed adultery by marrying the second man. Remember that in Matthew 5:32 and 19:4-9, Jesus teaches that adultery occurs when a spouse divorces for any reason other than sexual immorality.
This is the correct interpretation since Moses says that “she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD.” The first divorce was acceptable, but she did not have the right to remarry anyone. Both the woman and her ex-spouse would have to remain unmarried. But since she remarried, she committed adultery and could not go back to the first spouse.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is an important passage since many couples have divorced and then wanted to remarry. The principle that is taught in this passage is that the first couple can remarry only if both individuals remained unmarried since the divorce. The reason is that Deuteronomy describes an unbiblical divorce. For more information about the various conditions for biblical divorce and remarriage, please visit the study “Biblical Divorce and Remarriage.”
1. Earl S. Kalland. Deuteronomy. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Zondervan Publishing. 1992. vol. 3. p. 145.
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