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What the Bible says about....

Divorce & remarriage in
Deuteronomy 24:1-2 & Malachi 2:16a

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Passage from Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):

Deuteronomy 24:1-2: This book recapped much of the history of the ancient Hebrews that was covered in the first four books of the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Deuteronomy 24 contains the first reference to divorce in the Bible. The King James Version translates these verses as:

1. When A man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath 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. (Emphasis ours).

The phrase "bill of divorcement" is a translation of the Hebrew word "keriythuwth" It was a document that formally terminated the marriage bond. The word appears in only two other locations in the Hebrew Scriptures. In both passages it refers to God giving the ancient Hebrews, the Children of Israel, a bill of divorcement:

bullet Isaiah 50:1: "Thus saith the LORD, Where is the bill of your mother's divorcement, whom I have put away?..."

bullet Jeremiah 3:8: "And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce..."

To "send her out" is a translation into English of the Hebrew word "shalach." It means that the husband has abandoned her by either passively letting her leave, or actively by casting her out. If the wife were ejected permanently from the house without receiving a bill of divorcement, she would remain married to her husband. Of course, he could remarry by taking an additional wife. Family styles among the ancient Hebrews were very flexible. Solomon had 700 wives of royal birth, along with hundreds of concubines.

It is important to realize that before these bills of divorcement were instituted, a man who was displeased with his wife would simply toss her out of the house. This placed her stranded in an untenable position:

bullet She could not go back to her husband, because he did not want her.

bullet She could not seek another man to take her in because she was still married to her original husband. To live with another man could get both of them executed for committing adultery.

bullet She could not exist on her own, because there really were only two roles for a woman at the time: to be owned as a piece of property by her father, or to be owned by her husband. She may have not have had access to a social safety network to help her survive.

The bill of divorcement at least released her bond to her original husband. It changed her status to a single woman, and allowed her to marry another man. Still, as The New Commentary on the Whole Bible states: "The abandonment of one's wife in the ancient Near East usually meant that she and her children would suffer poverty and oppression. In order to survive they were often forced into slavery."

It is also important to realize that divorce involved two steps. As implied in this passage it may have usually been done in the following order:

bullet The husband would issue a bill of divorcement to his wife. This terminated the marriage.

bullet The former wife, now a single woman, would leave the house.

At this point, she would be in a precarious position unless she married another man.

These procedures are very similar to modern day separations and legal divorces.

Ancient times Modern times
Shalach: The husband sends her out or lets her leave: Since the husband essentially held all of the power in the family, the decision to separate would be his to make. Leaving, by itself, does not terminate the marriage.
Since women and men have close to the same rights and status in law and custom, the decision to separate may be by one spouse or may be mutual. Contrary to common opinion, separation -- not the divorce -- is often the most gut-wrenching stage of a marital breakdown. Both spouses remain married to each other.

Keriythuwth, the "bill of divorcement:" This terminates the marriage. Both the former husband and wife were then regarded as single. Both would free to remarry and would have been expected to do so.
Legal divorce:
One spouse may sue the other for a legal divorce if adultery or cruelty or occasionally other grounds are present. Both spouses may elect to remain separated for an interval of time and then seek a no-fault divorce on the basis of marriage breakdown. Only then are they considered to be single and legally eligible to remarry.

Status: Both spouses would remain married if the woman leaves. They would only be considered single after a bill of divorcement was issued.
Both spouses are considered married while they are separated. They would only be considered single after a court issues a  divorce decree.

Timing: Probably, the husband would issue the bill of divorcement before she physically left the home.
In most cases, the couple would have been separated for some time before they qualify for a legal divorce.

Authority: Since the husband held essentially all the power in the relationship, the issuance of the bill was his decision. The Temple or other authorities were not involved. Authority: The government, through the courts, issues the divorce. One or both spouses may decide that they want to divorce. But they can only be divorced if they meet one of the criteria established by the government.

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Passage from Malachi in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):

Malachi 2:16a: This is the last book in the Hebrew Scriptures, immediately followed by the Apocrypha or the New Testament, depending on the specific Bible translation used.

Here we see how differences in English translations of the Bible can generate contradictory meanings of the passage.

At least three versions of the Bible translate "shalach" literally -- as a sending away. It appears in almost 1,000 other locations in the Hebrew Scriptures with this meaning:

bullet The King James Version: "For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts."

bullet The 21st Century King James Version did not change the King James Version.

bullet Young's Literal Translation of the Bible: "For I hate sending away, said Jehovah, God And he who hath covered violence with his clothing, said Jehovah of Hosts."

At least two versions of the Bible translate "shalack" as applying to both the issuance of a bill of divorcement and a sending away:

bullet The Amplified Bible: "For the Lord, the god of Israel, says: I hate divorce and marital separation and him who covers his garment [his wife] with violence."

bullet The Revised English Bible: "If a man divorces or puts away his wife, says the Lord God of Israel, he overwhelms her with cruelty, says the Lord of Hosts."

Most other translations render the Hebrew word "shalach" as divorce -- apparently in error.

bullet James Moffatt Translation: "For I detest divorce and cruelty to a wife, the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel declares."

bullet Living Bible: "For the Lord, the God of Israel, says he hates divorce and cruel men."

bullet Modern Language: "For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel, and the one who covers his clothing with cruelty, says the Lord of Hosts."

bullet The New International Version: "I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment" says the Lord Almighty."

bullet The New Living Translation: " 'For I hate divorce!' says the Lord, the God of Israel. 'It is as cruel as putting on a victim's bloodstained coat,' says the Lord Almighty."

bullet Revised Standard Bible: "For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel, and covering one's garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts.

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Before a "keriythuwth" (a "bill of divorcement") became possible, the practice was for husbands to eject their wives from the matrimonial home. This would have been a vicious act, leaving her still married and probably destitute. He alone was free to marry another spouse.

After the keriythuwth was introduced, the husband could institute a divorce, leaving his ex-wife and himself single. Both were free to marry others.

The passage in Malachi is critical to the understanding of divorce in the centuries before the rise of Christianity.

Some interpretations:

bullet A literal interpretation of Malachi 2:16 is that God hates husbands "putting away" or ejecting their wife from the family home, without giving her a bill of divorcement. As the verse states, this would be an act of real cruelty to the wife. Being still married, she was not free to remarry. Yet being away from the matrimonial home, she had no way to support herself. Verse 14 seems to confirm this. In the King James Version it states: "...Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast deal treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant." That is, God witnessed the original marriage. She remains his wife and companion, until he issued a bill of divorcement. The rest of the chapter discusses the practice of Jewish men getting rid of their wives in order to marry foreign women -- brides from other lands who followed other religions.

bullet Malachi really intended to write that God hates bills of divorcement. That is, he should have written in the original Hebrew, "keriythuwth" instead of "shalach" in verse 16. He either made a mistake, or some later copyist changed the wording.

bullet Malachi really intended to write that God hates both marital separation and divorce. That is, he should have written both "keriythuwth" and "shalach" in this passage.

One often hears the phrase "God hates divorce" -- extracted directly from Malachi -- in sermons. But whether it is an accurate reflection of Malachi's original writing is in doubt.

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References used:

  1. J.D. Douglas, ed., "Old Testament Volume: New Commentary on the Whole Bible," Tyndale House, (1997). Page 1368.

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 Home page > Christianity > History, practices > Practices > Divorce > here

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Copyright © 2005 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-SEP-11
Latest update: 2011-MAY-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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