Does Scripture differentiate between ‘putting away’ and ‘divorce’?
Some people claim we can cut through the knotty DIVORCE scriptures by simply differentiating words and their meanings.
Their argument goes like this:
(i) The Hebrew word shalach and the Greek word apoluo should be translated ‘put away’. Both of those words are used for the husband orally dismissing and sending away his wife without giving her a certificate of divorce.
(ii) The Hebrew word kĕriythuwth and the Greek word apostasion should be translated ‘divorce’. Both those words mean that the husband wrote and handed a certificate of divorce to the wife.
(iii) Seeing the difference between (i) and (ii) is THE KEY to un-knotting the divorce texts.
The people who promote this idea are mistaken. In Part 2 of this series I began to demonstrate how they are mistaken. This post follows on from what I said in Part 2.
In this post I will make my case by looking at the Hebrew word shalach as it occurs in Deuteronomy 21:14 and Malachi 2:16. So get a cuppa, slow down, and put your thinking caps on!
And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her. – Deuteronomy 21:14 (NKJ)
Even though English translations of this verse don’t use the word “divorce,” it MUST be talking about a proper legal divorce.
“..if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free…”
The Hebrew word translated ‘set her free’ is shalach. That word is used more than 800 times in the Old Testament. Only nine of those times is it used for what we moderns think of when we hear the word ‘divorce’: the ending of wedlock, the legal ending of a marriage between husband and wife. Those nine instances are Deuteronomy 21:14; 22:19,29; 24:1,3,4; Isaiah 50:1b; Jeremiah 3:1,8 and Malachi 2:16. In some of the nine instances, shalach is used alongside the word kĕriythuwth (which means bill/ certificate/ writ of divorce), but in others it is used on its own.
Let us look at Malachi 2:16. In that verse, shalach is used on its own – not in conjunction with kĕriythuwth.
“If he hates and divorces [shalach] his wife,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the Lord of Armies. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously. (Mal 2:16 CSB)
God inspired Malachi to use the word shalach in that verse. What is he talking about? We have two options, only one of which can be correct.
- Malachi 2:16 is talking about a legal divorce (certified, legal, a writ of divorce).
- Malachi 2:16 is talking about a man ‘putting away’ his wife without giving her a divorce certificate.
If option 1 is correct, the verse is condemning men who hardheartedly (treacherously) divorce their wives.
If option 2 is correct, then it is only condemning the failure of the man to give his wife a divorce certificate when he dismisses her. It’s not denouncing treacherous divorce per se, it’s only denouncing the failure to issue a divorce certificate.
Option 2 puts all the emphasis on the paperwork. In option 2, treacherous divorce is not condemned so long as the paperwork is issued.
Which makes more sense? Option one makes much more sense! It fits with what we know about God: His condemnation of treachery and hardheartedness.
To assert that shalach means ‘putting away without a certificate’ turns Malachi 2:16 into a rather limited verse: an admonishment only to husbands who fail to issue the paperwork for divorce. But this contradicts the context of the passage! Malachi 2:13-16 sternly warns men not to act treacherously against their wives. It condemns all men who hardheartedly cast off their wives, not just the ones who fail to write a divorce certificate.
This is yet more proof that it is simplistic to say that word meanings are the KEY to understanding the divorce texts in Scripture.
It is wrong to claim that some words mean the wife is put away without a divorce certificate, while other words mean divorce certified with a written document.
Those who would claim otherwise need to defend their case using logical argument. And if they do so, they ought to address the points I’ve put forward here.
The folks who claim that the key to understanding what scripture says about divorce is to Pay Attention To The Words have not followed their own advice!
If you are going to write a book or teach others, you ought to study and then think through the logic of your ideas to make sure there are no contradictions. I don’t know Hebrew, but I’ve figured this out simply from careful study using the Blue Letter Bible, Strong’s Concordance, and spiritualised common sense.
Authors like Walter Callison (Divorce: A Gift of God’s Love) and Stephen Gola (Divorce: God’s Will?) have not done this. They haven’t seen the contradictions in what they are saying. Neither have the well known abuse advocates who are recycling Walter Callison’s or Stephen Gola’s ideas.
Leslie Vernick is promoting this mistaken idea that word meanings are the key to un-knotting the divorce texts. In 2018 she said:
there are two different words for the term divorce throughout both the Old and New Testament. Our English bibles translate one word as a certificate of divorce and the other word is translated simply divorce. When you read what the Bible has to say about divorce, notice when it says certificate of divorce or just divorce because they mean different things in that culture. (link)
At least one other female author/advocate who is working with victims of domestic abuse is promoting this mistaken idea. I have tried courteously and respectfully to get her to reconsider her admiration for Walter Callison’s book, but she chose not to engage in debate.
Why don’t people want to engage in reasoned intelligent debate? Maybe it’s got something to do with what our guest-poster James wrote about here. Logic. Multiple variables. Capacity or willingness to engage in Mental Effort.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14 is a law about divorce
We can apply the principles of this law to our own time, even though we are not living in the Old Testament era.
The law which Moses gave about divorce in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 is not to be sneezed at or passed over. Even though English translations of verse 14 do not use the word ‘divorce,’ that doesn’t mean it is not a law about divorce.
And there is much in this law which we can apply to domestic abuse right here and now! I will talk more about what this law means in the next post in this series.
Posts in this series
Part 5: Is this post.
I may add a seventh part later, but it’s not in the pipeline at present.
For further reading
What about Divorce? — an FAQ page on this website. It lists our most significant posts about divorce.
A little more about Walter Callison and Stephen Gola
Walter Callison, Divorce: A Gift of God’s Love (2002) shows no evidence that he is familiar the extant ancient Jewish and ancient Near East documents which mention divorce. So he is nowhere near the scholarly competence and in-depth knowledge of David Instone-Brewer.
Stephen Gola, Divorce: Gods’ Will? (Divorce Hope 2003) argues that abuse is grounds for divorce, but he makes many logical and exegetical errors in his argumentation to arrive at that conclusion. His views on intercultural marriages are very strange, almost racist. And his charismatic approach to ‘soul ties’ lacks understanding of the way the abuser manipulates the victim to brainwash her. He recommends people I would never recommend: Marilyn Hickey, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Focus on the Family.
Both of their books are on our Hall Of Blind Guides.