God created marriage. His ideal intent was for marriage to be a permanent, life-time partnership between one man and one woman. Jesus reminded the Pharisees of this, saying, “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” (Matthew 19:4-6 cf. Genesis 1:27; 2:24).
God allowed divorce under the law of Moses. It taught, “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, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house…” (Deuteronomy 24:1-ff). Why did God allow this? Jesus said, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). Divorce was never God’s ideal. It was only allowed because of hardness of hearts. Kerry Duke points out “The Old Testament does not indicate when divorce began… The law of Moses did not institute divorce, it merely permitted and regulated an already existing practice” (Duke, The Remarriage of a Divorced Couple, p. 13).
What was the permitted reason for divorce? “Some uncleanness” (ervah dabhar). What does this mean? Some Jews, in Jesus’ day, thought that “some uncleanness” was any reason that the wife did not find favor in the husband’s sight. Other Jews, in Jesus’ day, thought that “some uncleanness” was some issue of sexual morality. Forms of the original term are applied to unlawful sexual activity (Leviticus 18:6-ff; 20:18-19), shameful exposure of the body (Genesis 9:22; Exodus 20:26; Isaiah 20:4; 47:3; Lamentations 1:8; Ezekiel 16:8, 37). However, the word is also used of non-sexual uncleanness, such as human refuse (Deuteronomy 23:12-14). The “uncleanness” may refer to a lack of moral purity (cf. Jeremiah 3:8). However, there seems to be no linguistic reason or contextual reason to limit it to adultery. Some have argued that it could not refer specifically to adultery, since adultery was punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). However, others question whether it was always required (Jeremiah 3:8; Matthew 1:19).
Divorce was not to be taken lightly. It is important to understand that The Law of Moses permitted divorce, but it did not demand it (cf. Matthew 19:7-8). Moreover, The issuing of a certificate of divorce would slow the process. Ivie Powell commented, “The preparation of the legal instrument, by the very nature of the case, would require time. During this period of time the husband had opportunity to reconsider his actions” (ed. Jim Laws, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage, The Spiritual Sword Lectureship 1992, p. 314). Finally, If a man did divorce his wife for “some uncleanness” and she married another, then, the two could never again be remarried to each other (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). This is true even if the new husband divorced her. This is true even if her new husband died.
The Old Testament place other limitations on divorce and remarriage. One who defiles a woman with pre-marital fornication, and then marries her, could not later divorce her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 cf. Exodus 22:16-17). If a man slanders his wife, falsely accusing her of pre-marital sexual impurity, and such is demonstrated to be false, he may not later divorce her (Deuteronomy 22:13-19). A priest could not marry a divorced woman (Leviticus 21:7, 14; Ezekiel 44:22).
God hated divorce in the Old Testament (Malachi 2:16). The manner in which some were divorcing and remarrying rendered their worship of God in vain (Malachi 2:11, 13-14, 16 cf. 1 Peter 3:7).
However, not all divorce was against His will. When God’s people inter-married with those whom they had no authority to marry, they were instructed to put them away (Ezra 9:1-2; 10:1-3, 10-12).