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WHAT IS "SOME UNCLEANNESS" FOR DIVORCE Deuteronomy 24:1?
This bible study uses the Hebrew Unicode font "David" which comes with later versions of Windows and is printable.
There have been many debates for centuries over what this term "some uncleanness" (DEUTERONOMY 24:1 KJV) actually means. Various translations include "something indecent" (NIV), "something wrong" (NLT), "some uncleanness" (NKJV), "some indecency" (NLT), "some indecency" (NASB), "something objectionable" (ISV), "something offensive" (NET), "nakedness of anything" (YLT). As you can see nobody seems to be exact about it and all translations are general. This bible study is a scriptural analysis of the phrase 'some uncleanness' for divorce Deuteronomy 24:1. It is important to know, because if people divorce and remarry for the wrong reason then they could easily lose their salvation for committing adultery according to the words of Jesus (Matthew 5:32, 19:9; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18).
1 When a man has taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he has found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.
2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife.
3 And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and gives it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; or if the latter husband dies, which took her to be his wife;
4 Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and you shall not cause the land to sin, which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance.
Note 1: Reading these verses in the KJV, it seems almost as if once "some uncleanness" has been found in a wife,
then to give her a bill of divorcement, and to send her away, is almost a command. However, most modern scholars interpret these verses in such a way that the first
three verses make up a conditional clause, and the fourth verse is a consequential clause. In which case it would read more like this:
"When a man has taken a wife, and married her, and ... she finds no favour in his eyes, and he writes her a bill of divorce, ... and sends her out of his house, and if she ... goes and becomes another man's wife, and the latter husband hates her, and writes her a bill of divorce, or if the latter husband ... dies,
Then her former husband ... is not to take her again to be his wife ..."
Every underlined "and" in this passage is clearly indicated in the Hebrew. Some could say then, that Moses was not commanding divorce here, as Jesus also confirmed when he said to the Pharisees, "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives:" (Matthew 19:8). But rather he was laying down some regulations concerning divorces, which were taking place anyway, and that this was simply a legislation that prevented a man from taking back a wife that he had previously divorced, if she had since married someone else. But is this the true interpretation of this scripture, or not? Let us examine the passage for ourselves before we decide.
Note 2: Here we have a case where Moses permitted divorce for "some uncleanness", but what was it? Whatever it was, it seems to have been permanent, not one that could be cleansed by a ceremonial washing as some other uncleanness' were (Leviticus 11:25, 27, 31 etc.). Nor would it be one that occurred on a temporary basis, such as the uncleanness of a woman during menstruation (Leviticus 15:19-33), although if this was a permanent condition, such as the woman with the issue of blood (Matthew 9:20; Mark 5:25-26), we might consider an exception. Up until the time of Jesus, various Rabbis had interpreted this passage in such a way that some would allow divorce for almost anything, but there are some cases under the law which we may wish to exclude:
(1) Divorce was not the sentence for adultery, because that was punishable by death (See RP209 #2.1 Death for adultery). This was confirmed by the scribes and the Pharisees in Jesus' time, when they brought to him a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:2-5). They did not say that Moses commanded for her to be divorced, but said, "Moses in the law commanded us that such should be stoned:" (v5).
(2) Neither was divorce granted to a man who defiled his wife before marriage (See RP209 #2.21 Defiled before marriage),
(3) Nor was divorce the sentence for some of the forbidden relationships which were punishable by death (Leviticus 18:6-22; 20:11-14), and if Jesus meant, "the hardness of their hearts in putting away their wives" (Matthew 19:8; Mark 10:5), then this would be against it also.
(4) Nor was divorce the sentence for an unfaithful betrothed wife, because that was punishable by death if witnessed (See RP209 #2.13 Adultery with witnesses), or if discovered on the wedding night (See RP209 #2.16 Not a virgin). It must be remembered that the example of Joseph and Mary (See RP209 #2.14) was at a time when the Jews were under Roman domination, and so the death penalty could not be carried out by the Jews (John 18:31).
(5) Nor was divorce granted for any reason after a man had falsely accused his new wife of not being a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:19; See RP209 #2.16 Not a virgin). Compare:
|Deuteronomy 22||Deuteronomy 24|
|Taken a wife (v13)||Taken a wife (v1)|
|Go in to her (v13)||Married her (v1)|
|Hate her (v13)||She find no favor in his eyes (v1)|
|Found her not a maid (v14)||Found some uncleanness in her (v1)|
|Stone her with stones (v21)||Write her a bill of divorcement (v1)|
So we may conclude that "some uncleanness" refers to something other than these.
Note 3: The words translated "some uncleanness" (Hb. עֶרְוַת דָּבָר , Htr. ’ervat davar) occur together in only one other place in the bible (Deuteronomy 23:14), where they are translated, "unclean thing". The word "’ervat" is the construct form of "’erva", and is variously translated "nakedness" (48x), "unclean" (1x), "uncleanness" (1x), and "shame" (1x). The word "davar" occurs 1446 times, and is most often translated "word/s" (808x), "thing/s" (240x), "acts" (51x), "matter" (48x) etc. It occurs 242 times in the common expression, "the word of the LORD", and almost everywhere refers to spoken, commanded, or written words. It is translated "commandment/s" 20 times, including:
(Exodus 34:28) "the words of the covenant, the ten commandments."
(Deuteronomy 4:13) "ten commandments;"
(Deuteronomy 10:4) "the ten commandments,"
The most obvious literal translation of "’ervat davar" would be, "nakedness of a word", and an obvious meaning would be, "the nakedness (shame or dishonour) of one of God's words (commandments)". In the case of the "unclean thing" (Deuteronomy 23:14), it would refer to the "disobedience" to God's command to cover the excrement from their body (v13). This disobedience was said to be "in you" (v14) (Hb. בְךָ, Htr. beākh), which could also mean "by you". In the case of the wife about to be divorced for "some uncleanness in her" (Deuteronomy 24:1), it would mean that the husband had found "nakedness of a word in (or by/with) her": something about her that was contrary to what God had spoken or commanded. This could refer to any of the forbidden marriage relationships (Leviticus 18:6-18; 20:11-14; 20:19-21; Deuteronomy 7:1-3), some of which were not directly punishable by death, but would bring other devastating consequences because of God's judgement upon their disobedience (Leviticus 18:26-29; 20:19-21; Deuteronomy 7:4; Joshua 23:11-13; Malachi 2:11-12). There were times when the people gathered together to hear the words of the law read to them (Deuteronomy 31:11; Joshua 8:34-35; 2 Kings 23:2; 2 Chronicles 34:30; Nehemiah 8:8; 8:18; 9:3; 13:1), and at such times, when the people realised their errors, they would cleanse themselves. When the men of Israel knew that they had transgressed against God by marrying foreign wives (Ezra 10:2-3), they agreed to put them away, "according to the law" (v3). The only provision in the law for putting away such a wife is the one we are examining here (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), so this was one case where this provision was used. In the days of Nehemiah, they read in the law and discovered the very same thing again (Nehemiah 13:1-2; 13:23-29), after which, either the wives were put away, or the husbands cast out, because Nehemiah said, "Thus cleansed I them from all strangers," (Nehemiah 13:30). People who had forbidden sexual relationships were abhorred by God (Leviticus 20:23), so this was God's provision to allow repentance, which includes both turning from the sin (2 Chronicles 7:14; Proverbs 28:13; Isaiah 1:16-18; 55:7), and destroying all past association with it (Deuteronomy 9:21; Joshua 7:11-12; Isaiah 27:9; Acts 19:18-19).
Note 4: How does this interpretation stand up to the fact that Jesus said, that this provision was only made because of
the hardness of their hearts (Matthew 19:8; Mark 10:5)? If we understand it to mean the hardness of their hearts in putting away their wives,
then it wouldn't make sense, but if we understand it to mean the hardness of their hearts in marrying them in the first place, contrary
to the command of God, then it makes perfect sense.
This would also explain why the woman could go and marry another man (Deuteronomy 24:2), and why she might not be unclean to her second husband, as she was to the first. For example, she may have been a close relative to the first husband, but not to the second.
It would also explain why, if her second husband died, she could still not go back to the first husband (Deuteronomy 24:3); because she would still be unclean to him.
It would also mean that when Jesus said, "except it be for fornication" (Matthew 19:9), he was agreeing with what was written in the law. This would not be unusual, since he often pointed people to the commandments (Matthew 19:17; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20), and said, "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the law, until all is fulfilled." (Matthew 5:18).
Another clause that we need to examine is, "after that she is defiled:" (Hb. אַחֲרֵי אֲשֶׁר הֻטַּמָּאָה , Htr.’acharê ’asher huttammā’ā) (Deuteronomy 24:4). The word "’acharê" is the construct plural of the word "‘achar", which, as a substantive means "hinder part", but as a preposition means "after", or "behind", and is sometimes redundant. The word "’asher" is a particle of relation, and is variously translated "who", "which", "that", etc.. Together, the words "’acharê ’asher" form a conjunction which means "after that" (BDB p30; Deuteronomy 24:4; Joshua 23:1; 24:20), or simply "after" (Joshua 9:16) etc.. The word "huttammā’ā" is the passive form of the Hitpaʽēl stem of the verb "tāmē’", which is variously translated with the sense of "unclean" (74x), "defile/d" (69x), and "pollute/d" (14x). Whether it is translated in a future, present, or past tense, depends on the understanding of the meaning in the context where it is found, and in this particular case, whether we understand the defilement to be caused by the second marriage, or to be the "some uncleanness" which caused the first divorce. Sex outside of a lawful marriage does defile people (Genesis 34:5, 34:13, 34:27; Leviticus 18:20; Ezekiel 18:6, 18:11, 18:15; 33:26), and so does forbidden marriage relationships (Leviticus 18:24, 18:30; Nehemiah 13:28-29). Taking these things into consideration, let us list four obvious translations:
(1) "after that she is unclean."
(2) "after that she has become unclean."
(3) "after that she is defiled."
(4) "after that she has been defiled."
The most common understanding of this clause is that the second marriage defiles the woman, and thus prevents the first husband taking her back. The problem with this interpretation is that Moses then allowed marriages that defiled the woman, which Jesus would later refer to as adulterous (Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Luke 16:18), and approved of children being born from such relationships. This inconsistency should encourage us to look to another explanation, which is that the woman was unclean to her first husband because the relationship was contrary to a commandment of God, and that when it was discovered, putting her away was the right thing to do. We would then understand the abomination to be, taking her back, "after that she is (known to be) unclean." Let me point out that in coming to this conclusion, we have not used any obscure meanings of words in our translation, but only the very obvious, or most obvious meanings, so we cannot be accused of twisting scripture to suit our own end.
Note 5: Let us now sum up this study. Divorce seems to have been common in the days of Moses, not only for "some uncleanness" (Deuteronomy 24:1), but also if the husband hated his wife (Deuteronomy 24:3), or in the case of a captive, if he found "no delight in her" (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), or in the case of a purchased slave, if he was unwilling to provide for her (Exodus 21:7-11). In some of these cases the divorce would be because of the hardness of men's hearts in putting away their wives, but in the case of "nakedness of a word", when the marriage was found to be contrary to the direct command of God, Moses permitted divorce with a writing of divorcement given (Deuteronomy 24:1), because of the hardness of their hearts in marrying them in the first place. He allowed the remarriage of the woman (Deuteronomy 24:2), but forbade the first husband taking her back at a later date (Deuteronomy 24:4). To marry her contrary to the command of God in ignorance was bad enough, but to take her back, "after that she is known to be unclean", would be wilful rebellion against God, and would thus be an abomination (Deuteronomy 24:1). Therefore we can say that this permission was a mercy, which allowed repentance for a genuine mistake which might take a man to hell if not put right. Nothing was said about a writing of divorce in other places, but it evidently became commonplace as the understanding of the scripture became lost with time. If this interpretation is unacceptable to anyone, then speculation as to the exact meaning of ’ervat davar is profitless, because when Jesus said, "except it be for fornication," (Matthew 19:9), he effectively eliminated all other excuses for divorce altogether.
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