Jesus did NOT say “Hardness of heart is grounds for divorce”. Deuteronomy 24 has been greatly misunderstood.
[April 5, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
Jesus didn’t say “Hardness of heart is grounds for divorce”. In Deuteronomy 24, Moses didn’t say that hardness of heart is grounds for divorce, he only set limitations on the future conduct of men who chose to divorce their wives. That is the take-home message of this post.
In this series I am doing my best to help you untangle the knotty problem of how to understand what the Bible says about divorce. Part 1 presents the knotty problem. Part 2 dispels the mistaken idea that the meaning of particular words in scripture is the key to untying the knot.
In the series, some of the ideas I am elaborating on are ideas I presented in my book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (2008). I am hoping that this series will make some of the finer points in my book easier to understand.
Okay, let’s proceed…
A mother says to her child: “If you play out in the street in your best clothes and damage your clothes, or run in the puddles and come back with muddy shoes, or if you come home later than 5pm, then you will not be allowed to go to the party next weekend.”
She did not tell her child, “You have to play in the street in your best clothes”. Nor did she say, “I allow you to play in the street in your best clothes, and get your shoes muddy.” She mentioned the possible actions of the child, but did not actively condone or endorse them.
What the mother said to her child was an example of a conditional sentence. Here is another conditional sentence:
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (NKJV, bold emphasis mine)
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,
2 when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife,
3 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,
4 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.
The word “then” in verse 4 is the hinge to understanding this passage. Then and only then: only if the events in verses 1-3 have transpired does the law in verse 4 apply.
Verse 1 mentions a husband writing a certificate of divorce, giving it to his wife and putting her out of the house. But verse 1 does not actively condone or give leave to husbands to behave that way.
The first three verses of Deuteronomy 24 give the conditions under which the fourth verse applies. Verse 1 is part of the case-study narrative which sets out the circumstances under which the law in verse 4 applies.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 has been greatly misunderstood
Many professing Christians have the idea that Deuteronomy 24 is where Moses allowed divorce for hardness of heart. We’ve heard so many teachers and pastors assert this idea that we can easily accept it without questioning it. Teachers articulate this idea in many ways. Here are some of the ways you may have heard it articulated:
- “Moses permitted divorce for hardness of heart.”
- “Moses allowed divorce, but Jesus tightened the rules. Jesus said divorce is not allowed except for sexual unfaithfulness.”
- “Jesus annulled the Mosaic concession about divorce.”
- “Mosaic Law said that when a husband found ‘some uncleanness’ in his wife, he could divorce her.”
One reason why this idea is so embedded in people’s minds is that they have read the words “Moses commanded / permitted divorce” in Matthew 19 / Mark 10.
Now dear reader, please pay attention. Who said that in the New Testament? It was the Pharisees!
Matthew 19:3-7 (NKJV)
The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce 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, and to put her away?”
Mark 10:1-4 (NKJV)
The Pharisees came and asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” testing Him.
And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?”
They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her.”
If you look at the two passages I just cited, you will see that in the Gospel of Matthew the Pharisees say Moses commanded (Gk entellō) to give a certificate of divorce. And in the Gospel of Mark, the Pharisees say Moses permitted (Gk epitrepō) divorce.
Should we just go along with the Pharisees, assuming they were right?
Jesus was enemies with the Pharisees. He tore strips off them for their hypocrisy and twisting of scripture. Surely we should be wary of assuming the Pharisees had got this right? — especially since they claimed two fairly different things: that God commanded divorce, and God permitted divorce. Hmm. Weasel words much? That is typical of Pharisees.
People assume that the Pharisees were right in claiming that Moses commanded / permitted to give a certificate of divorce, because they have misunderstood how Jesus rebutted the Pharisees.
Please look closely at how Jesus rebutted the Pharisees:
He said to them, Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to put away your wives. But from the beginning it was not so. (NMB)
He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (NKJV)
Jesus said Moses suffered / permitted divorce. That word is epitrepō. It has a range of meaning: suffered, tolerated, permitted, gave leave. It never means commanded.
What did Jesus mean when he said Moses suffered / permitted divorce?
I suffered my daughter exploring the large storm water drains under the town we lived in (Ballarat) when she was a child. She told me she and her friends were exploring the drains. I knew if I forbade her to explore the drains, she would just disobey and lie to me. (Hey, it’s fun to explore storm water drains when you are 10 or 11 years old and can stand up in drains which adults would have to bend over to walk inside.)
I responded to my daughter like this. I did not say, “I permit you to explore the drains.” Rather, I warned her to never do it alone. I told her that if she and her friends explored the drains, they must always make sure to stick close together. And I told her to never do it if it had recently rained, or looked like it might rain soon. I took the approach of risk management and harm minimisation. Thankfully, she and her friends soon lost interest in that adventure. (!)
In a similar way, Moses suffered men divorcing their wives. Like the mother who said to her child “If you behave in such and such a way, you will not be allowed to go to the party next weekend,” Moses said to men “If you behave in such and such a way, and these events take place, you will not be allowed to do xyz.”
How do we know for sure that Jesus was not saying “Moses permitted divorce for hardness of heart”? Because Jesus told the Pharisees that Moses gave the precept in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 because of MEN’s hardness of heart. In my book and this blog post I explain that Jesus specifically implicates hardhearted husbands.
Mark 10:5 gives us vital insight into what Jesus meant
And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.” (NKJV)
And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. (KJV)
And Jesus answered and said to them, For the hardness of your hearts he wrote this precept for you. (NMB)
The word ‘precept’ used there is entolē. It means injunction, i.e. an authoritative prescription: — commandment, precept. The KJV translates it as commandment 69 times, and as precept twice. (link) I think that is pretty strong evidence that Jesus was referring to the LAW which Moses laid down in Deuteronomy verse 4, not the bit of pre-law narrative in verse 1.
Therefore, when Jesus told the Pharisees Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept, he was telling them that the reason Moses had to write Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was because some Israelite men (including these Pharisees) were treating their wives as objects they could discard and later pick up and reuse.
In Deuteronomy 24, Moses did not specify grounds for divorce. God, using Moses as his servant messenger, took the harm minimisation approach: — Some men will hardheartedly divorce their wives, but these men MUST NOT remarry the woman they had divorced if she had married another man and that marriage had ended.
Mosaic Law had other provisions that were designed to protect women from domestic abuse. One is found in Deuteronomy 21:10-14; I go into that in chapter 6 of my book. Another is in Exodus 21:7-11 and you can read about that here.
Jewish religious leaders have always seen the passage in Exodus 21 as giving grounds for divorce when a husband was abusing his wife. I argue in my book (following David Instone-Brewer) that both Deut 21 and Ex 21 mean God approves of divorce in cases of spouse abuse.
Analogies from scripture
God tolerates the actions of fallen men, but that does not mean he approves of those actions.
Before the Fall in the Garden of Eden, God had given Adam and Eve tremendous liberty and ease. The garden had an abundance of fruit bearing trees. Adam and Eve could pick and eat fruit without having to labour hard for their sustenance, so long as they refrained from eating the fruit of one particular tree in the garden. Because they had never sinned and did not at that stage have any bias towards sin, it would have been easy for them to obey that simple commandment.
After they fell, God did not destroy them immediately as punishment for their offense. God showed mercy on their now-fallen nature. In His compassion and longsuffering, God imposed certain penalties and restrictions on them. One of the penalties He imposed on Adam was alienation from the ground, the earth from which Adam was made and from which he previously drew sustenance without having to labour hard.
In a similar way, God tolerated Cain’s evil attitude while Cain was nursing resentment against his brother Abel. God could have caused the earth to instantly swallow up Cain for that evil attitude, but instead He compassionately gave Cain counsel on how to avoid temptation. After Cain had willfully ignored God’s counsel and killed Abel, God allowed Cain to continue living, albeit with restrictions and penalties. One of the penalties was that Cain would be a wanderer, alienated from the earth, and the ground would no longer yield to him its strength (Gen 4:12).
In a similar way, the Mosaic Law shows that God tolerates a man divorcing his wife, but God imposes a restriction when a man divorces his wife. He cannot remarry her after she’d been married to another man and that marriage of hers had terminated. Deuteronomy 24:4 spells out the restriction God imposed on such men: her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife…for that is an abomination before the LORD.
Deuteronomy 24:4 also spells out the penalty if men disobey this Law: such conduct will bring sin on the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance. The land will be cursed by this sin. The sin of these self-serving men will affect the whole nation and its people.
I hope this explanation of mine has helped you understand in what sense Moses permitted divorce in Deuteronomy 24. He reluctantly tolerated men divorcing their wives; but he did not give them leave to do so. Moses did not specify legitimate grounds for divorce in Deuteronomy 24.
Additional reasons why Deuteronomy 24:1-4 been so misunderstood
The King James Version (1611) gave the impression that Deuteronomy 24 verse 1 lays down a law. Here is how the KJV rendered Deuteronomy 24:1-2.
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.
By using the words “then let him” in verse 1, it makes verse 1 sound like a law. It gave the sense of authorising the husband to give his wife a certificate of divorce and end the marriage if he found her repugnant. This made verse 2 sound like a second law: once the woman was given a divorce certificate she was allowed to marry another man if she so wished.
Rather than following suit with the KJV, many modern translations have correctly given the impression that verse 1 and 2 are only part of the pre-law narrative to the law in verse 4. The NKJV example which I quoted earlier does this correctly. As does the Good News version:
1 Suppose a man marries a woman and later decides that he doesn’t want her, because he finds something about her that he doesn’t like. So he writes out divorce papers, gives them to her, and sends her away from his home.
2 Then suppose she marries another man, 3 and he also decides that he doesn’t want her, so he also writes out divorce papers, gives them to her, and sends her away from his home. Or suppose her second husband dies.
4 In either case, her first husband is not to marry her again; he is to consider her defiled. If he married her again, it would be offensive to the Lord. You are not to commit such a terrible sin in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
For other examples of modern translations that correctly give the sense that verses 1-3 are the conditions for the law in verse 4, check out the passage in the NASB, NASB1995, ESV, NIV, GW, NCV, NIRV, NRSV, RSV, ISR, JPS, NABRE. [April 5, 2022: We added the link to the NASB1995, as there are some differences between the NASB1995 and the most recent NASB. Editors.]
While there is much I don’t like about Jay Adams the founder of Nouthetic Counseling (he lacked understanding of trauma and interpersonal abuse), he did affirm that verse 1 is not a law in and of itself. He cited the Berkeley translation of the passage:
When a man has married a wife and comes to dislike her, having found something improper in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and putting it into her hand, sends her from his house, and she goes off and becomes the wife of another, and her second husband, likewise comes to hate her and also gives her a bill of divorce and sends her away, or if the second husband dies, in such case, the man who first divorced her must not take her again, for she has been defiled; such practice is abhorrent to the LORD, and you must not bring such guilt upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you for your heritage.
— quoted in “Marriage Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible,” Jay E. Adams, (Zondervan 1980), 61. (Bold emphasis mine).
Adams emphasised that Deut 24:1-3 sets out the circumstances in which God forbids a man remarrying a woman he has divorced.
Fortunately, all commentators agree on this change. Argumentation for it can be found in most standard commentaries.
Note: in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, there is no command to divorce, no criteria for determining what is a valid or invalid divorce, nor even a requirement to give a bill of divorce. (Moses mentioned the proper legal process with its three steps not to institute the process, or even to insist upon it, but rather to make clear that what he is speaking about is a genuine divorce proceeding.)
- Deuteronomy 24 merely recognises divorce as a existing legal process that it regulates.
- Deuteronomy 24 does not institute or even allow divorce for a cause other than fornication.
- Deuteronomy 24 does not encourage easy divorce; indeed the whole point of the four verses in question is to forestall hasty action by making it impossible to rectify the situation when divorce and remarriage to another has taken place. [i.e., making it impossible for the first husband to take his wife back]
– “Marriage Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible,” Jay E. Adams, 62 (bold emphasis mine)
In 1980, Jay Adams was able to say that “all commentators agree” that the KJV was wrong in conveying the idea that verse 1 is a law condoning men divorcing their wives when they found them objectionable.
Perhaps Adams didn’t appreciate how hard it is to dislodge the idea that verse 1 is a stand-alone law.
The idea that God laid down a law in verse 1 is VERY hard to dislodge.
Sadly, people still tend to think that Deut 24:1 was a law which positively permitted and condoned divorce.
The King James Version had a massive impact because it was the dominant English translation for centuries. The mistaken idea that verse 1 is a law has been passed on from teacher to teacher and scholar to scholar so often that very few people think to question it.
It is disappointing that some modern Bible translations and commentators continue to follow the KJV in giving the sense that verse 1 is a law which positively authorised a husband divorcing his wife when he was displeased with her (perceiving her as odious or obnoxious).
One modern translation which does this is the CSB. Here is how the CSB renders verse 1:
If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house. [emphasis added]
‘He may’ can convey that it might happen: the husband might decide to divorce his wife just like he might decide to go fishing this weekend, or stay at home and watch his favourite team’s game. But ‘he may’ can also convey that God says it’s okay for the man to divorce his wife if he finds her objectionable. So which is it? The CSB translation is not helpful because the English word ‘may’ can mean so many things.
Walter Callison, whose book I do NOT recommend, says verses 1-2 are a law (Divorce: A Gift of God’s Love, 2002, Kindle location 137). Callison is very muddled and confused about lots of things. He is one of the authors who claims that word meanings are the key to untangling the knotty passages about divorce – a mistaken idea which I challenged in Part 2 of this series. Callison’s book is being recommended by domestic abuse advocates, which saddens me.
[April 5, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to April 5, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to April 5, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to April 5, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (April 5, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
Posts in this series
Part 3: Is this post.
What about Divorce? — An FAQ page on this website. It lists our most significant posts about divorce.