Deuteronomy 24:4: Why Was the Ex-Wife Defiled?

Today, I want to talk about Deuteronomy 24:4, which occurs within a passage that’s about divorce.  Deuteronomy 24:1-4 states in the King James Version: “(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.  (3.) And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, 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 thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.”

The situation is this: a man puts away his wife through divorce, and she marries another man.  If her second husband dies or puts her away through divorce, then she is not allowed to remarry her first husband, for she has been defiled.  But I wonder why she is not allowed to remarry her first husband.  What is the big deal?  And how exactly has the woman been defiled?  In this post, I’ll look at a variety of commentaries, some more scholarly than others, in my search for answers.

1.  Although I ordinarily find the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary to be quite lucid in its explanations of verses in the Hebrew Bible, I was disappointed by its treatment of Deuteronomy 24:4, for I found it to be rather elliptical.  It still brought up some thought-provoking points, however!  This commentary says the following:

defilement.  The very unusual form of the Hebrew verb used in verse 4 makes it clear that the woman in this case is the victim, not the guilty party.  She has been forced to declare her uncleanness by the uncharitable actions of the first husband, and the second marriage demonstrates that another husband has been capable of accommodating whatever *impurity she was plagued with.  The prohibition is aimed at preventing the first husband from marrying the woman again (in which case he might be able to realize some financial gain), whereas if the woman were impure the prohibition would be against her and would preclude a marriage relationship with anyone.”

I wish that the commentary had specified how the first husband would financially gain by remarrying his ex-wife.  Gleason Archer in the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties states that the husband when he was divorcing his wife was surrendering whatever “rights to the dowry that she had brought into the marriage” (page 152), so perhaps that’s why the first husband can financially gain were he to remarry her: she would bring some of that dowry back!  In terms of defilement, what the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary seems to be suggesting (and I’m open to correction) is that the ex-wife actually is not defiled.  She was merely declared to be such when her first husband put her away, but the fact that she was then able to get married to somebody else demonstrated that she was not in a genuine state of defilement.  It’s like Deuteronomy 24:4 is saying something like this: “You, first husband, said that your first wife was ‘defiled’ when you divorced her.  Well, if you really think that she’s defiled, then you can’t have her back!  You’ve got to live with your words!”

In a similar vein, Bernard Levinson in the Jewish Study Bible states regarding Deuteronomy 24:4: “Since she has been defiled, not in general, since she is permitted to remarry, but specifically as regards relations with her first husband.”  Levinson, like the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary, picks up on why it’s odd for the ex-wife to be called defiled: because she’s free to remarry, something that defiled women apparently cannot do!  Levinson does not dismiss the reality of her defilement, however, but he merely says that the defilement is limited to the ex-wife’s relationship with her first husband: in that relationship, she is defiled.

I’m not yet satisfied, for I still wonder why it would be so wrong for the ex-wife to remarry her first husband after the end of her second marriage.  Deuteronomy 24:4, after all, treats that as an abomination and a sin!  Why?

2.  Jeffrey Tigay in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Deuteronomy says the following: “the first husband…shall not take her to wife again after she has been defiled  That is, disqualified for him by virtue of her second marriage.  Had she not remarried, there would be no objection to the couple’s reunion…Interestingly, Islamic law prescribes the opposite procedure: if a man has irrevocably divorced his wife, he may not remarry her unless she has been married in the interim.  When a couple wishes to reunite, a beggar is hired to marry the woman and consort with her for one night, after which he divorces her and frees her to reunite with her husband.  Wives understandably find this repulsive, and some Muslims permit a sacrifice to be offered in place of the intervening marriage.”

This has a lot of interesting information.  For one, I learn that the remarriage in the movie, The Parent Trap, is allowed under Deuteronomy 24:4, since the man and the woman did not marry anyone else between the time that they divorced and the time that they remarried each other (though the man was about to marry Vicki)!  And, second, it was interesting that Islamic law differed from the one in Deuteronomy 24:4.  But I still don’t know why it’s a sin and an abomination to the LORD for a woman to remarry her first husband after the dissolution of her second marriage.

3.  John MacArthur states regarding Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in his MacArthur Study Bible:

“This passage does not command, commend, condone, or even suggest divorce. Rather, it recognizes that divorce occurs and permits it only on restricted grounds. The case presented here is designed to convey the fact that divorcing produced defilement. Notice the following sequence: 1) if a man finds an uncleanness (some impurity or something vile, cf. 23:14) in his wife, other than adultery, which was punished by execution (cf. 22:22); 2) if he legally divorces her (although God hates divorce, as Mal. 2:16 says; He has designed marriage for life, as Gen. 2:24 declares; and He allowed divorce because of hard hearts, as Matt. 19:8 reveals); 3) if she then marries another man; 4) if the new husband then dies or divorces her; then that woman could not return to her first husband (v. 4). This is so because she was ‘defiled’ with such a defilement that is an abomination to the Lord and a sinful pollution of the Promised Land. What constitutes that defilement? Only one thing is possible—she was defiled in the remarriage because there was no ground for the divorce. So when she remarried, she became an adulteress (Matt. 5:31, 32) and is thus defiled so that her former husband can’t take her back. Illegitimate divorce proliferates adultery.”

For MacArthur, the woman was defiled by the divorce and the remarriage itself, of which God disapproved.  But, if that’s the case, it is odd that the text only forbids the woman to remarry her first husband after the dissolution of her second marriage.  It doesn’t altogether forbid her to go for a third marriage—-she just can’t remarry her first husband!

4.  The Nelson Study Bible says: “defiled: Returning to her first husband after an intervening marriage might have placed the woman in the same position as an unfaithful wife.”

I vaguely understand what this is saying: that there is a thin line between a married woman sleeping with another man while she is married, and a married woman being put away, marrying someone else, and then returning to her first husband after the dissolution of her second marriage.  But, in my opinion, the two are different: in the second scenario, the first marriage is legally dissolved before she remarries!  And yet, could Deuteronomy 24:4 be conveying a message of “Look, if you want your marriage to be dissolved, then leave it dissolved, rather than muddying the waters by remarrying each other after you had got a divorce”?  But that contradicts Tigay’s point that a couple under Deuteronomy 24:4 can remarry each other after they have divorced, as long as there was not another marriage in between of their divorce and their remarriage of each other.
5.  Keil-Delitzsch state the following:
“The law that the first husband could not take his divorced wife back again, if she had married another husband in the meantime, even supposing that the second husband was dead, would necessarily put a check upon frivolous divorces…The thought, therefore, of the impossibility of reunion with the first husband, after the wife had contracted a second marriage, would put some restraint upon a frivolous rupture of the marriage tie: it would have this effect, that whilst, on the one hand, the man would reflect when inducements to divorce his wife presented themselves, and would recall a rash act if it had been performed, before the wife he had put away had married another husband; on the other hand, the wife would yield more readily to the will of her husband, and seek to avoid furnishing him with an inducement for divorce. But this effect would be still more readily produced by the reason assigned by Moses, namely, that the divorced woman was defiled…by her marriage with a second husband. The second marriage of a woman who had been divorced is designated by Moses a defilement of the woman, primarily no doubt with reference to the fact that the emissio seminis in sexual intercourse rendered unclean, though not merely in the sense of such a defilement as was removed in the evening by simple washing, but as a moral defilement, i.e., blemishing, desecration of the sexual communion with was sanctified by marriage, in the same sense in which adultery is called a defilement in Lev_18:20 and Num_5:13-14. Thus the second marriage of a divorced woman was placed implicite upon a par with adultery, and some approach made towards the teaching of Christ concerning marriage: ‘Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery’ (Mat_5:32). – But if the second marriage of a divorced woman was a moral defilement, of course the wife could not marry the first again even after the death of her second husband, not only because such a reunion would lower the dignity of the woman, and the woman would appear too much like property, which could be disposed of at one time and reclaimed at another (Schultz), but because the defilement of the wife would be thereby repeated, and even increased, as the moral defilement which the divorced wife acquired through the second marriage was not removed by a divorce from the second husband, nor yet by his death. Such defilement was an abomination before Jehovah, by which they would cause the land to sin, i.e., stain it with sin, as much as by the sins of incest and unnatural licentiousness (Lev_18:25).”
A lot of this is similar to what MacArthur said: that the woman was defiled in the sense that she remarried after her divorce.  I’ve already expressed my problems with that position.  But Keil-Delitzsch raise additional considerations: that the ban in Deuteronomy 24:4 is intended to discourage flippant divorce and the casual treatment of women as property, who can be put aside then taken back again.  This reminded me of something that Pastor Jon Courson said in a sermon, which addressed Deuteronomy 24:4: that God does not want marriage to be the equivalent of going steady—-a couple breaks up, the woman has another boyfriend, and later the couple gets back together again.  But, as Tigay says, the couple can get back together as long as the woman did not have a second marriage!  What that tells me is that the second marriage is significant.  I don’t like to read evangelical Promise Keeper ethics into the Hebrew Bible, but perhaps the message is that sex is a sacred act of union, and it is cheapened when a couple can be divorced, the woman then sleeps with someone else in a second marriage, and then the couple remarries.
6.  John Gill says: “after that she is defiled; not by whoredom, for in that case she was not forbidden, as it is interpreted, but by her being married to another man; when she was defiled, not by him, or with respect to him, nor with regard to any other man, whom she might lawfully marry after the decease of her latter husband; but with respect to her first husband, being by her divorce from him, and by her marriage to another, entirely alienated and separated from him, and so prohibited to him; and thus R. Joseph Kimchi interprets this defilement of prohibition, things prohibited being reckoned unclean, or not lawful to be used[.]”
According to Gill, the woman’s second marriage utterly alienates her from her first husband, and so she cannot return to him after her second marriage ends.  It’s like her second marriage seals the deal that her first marriage is over.  That makes a degree of sense.  And yet, doesn’t a woman’s marriage to anyone alienate her from other men, at least when she is married?  There’s something missing from Gill’s answer that I can’t quite put my finger on.
7.  Rashi says (according to what the Chabad has): “since she was defiled [to him]: [This unusual expression comes] to include a sotah [a woman suspected of adultery] because she secluded herself [with another man]. [Until her trial ceremony takes place (see Num. 5:11-31) and it is yet unknown whether she has indeed committed adultery, he may not have relations with her.] – [Sifrei 24:136]”
I’m not sure what Rashi is saying here.  Is he saying that both the incident in Deuteronomy 24:4 and the sotah are examples of a woman being defiled?  Or is he suggesting that somehow the sotah relates to Deuteronomy 24:4—-that the woman was divorced because her husband suspected her of adultery, or something like that?
Maybe all of these answers (well, except for Rashi’s) get at the truth in some way, even if I don’t find them entirely satisfactory.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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8 Responses to Deuteronomy 24:4: Why Was the Ex-Wife Defiled?

  1. Jim King says:

    Good discussion. I believe she was defiled by whatever uncleanness caused the first husband to divorce her combined with the remarriage. The first husband could forgive the offense if he chose to – until she compounded the matter with a second marriage.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thank you for your comment, Jim!


  3. Francesca Amato Banfield says:

    There is no confusion in God here is the easy to understand Biblical Truth


  4. Ned Thyben says:

    1st Corinthians 7:27-28 explicitly states that you do not sin if you are divorced and remarry. The Asv translation is the most accurate and faithful to the Greek. Loosed is the Greek word “Lusis” which means divorced. The problem is that the newer translations of bibles are not faithful to the original Greek and have confused many people.


  5. Ronald says:

    I think that Deuteronomy 24 verse 4 may have a scientific reason for the Lord to forbid the divorced wife to return to her former husband. Scientists discovered that every man who has a sexual intimacy with a woman leaves his em-point inside her. I think there might be an issue with the reactivation of a former em-point after another one was activated. In Jeremiah 3 verse 1, the Lord say if a situation like that occurs it will pollute greatly the land. I think it is the occurrence of this issue and some similar things that create all those STDs (sexually transmissible diseases) in the world now a day.


  6. El Ivory says:

    Even if she didn’t marry a2nd man she couldn’t remarry the first because he disgraced her by divorcing her.
    She has been defiled by being with another man if she’s taken a 2nd husband.


  7. patricia says:

    What on earth is an Em point?


  8. jamesbradfordpate says:

    That’s a good question. Not sure if I want to get into the details of that here! The point I gleaned from the comment is that the law relates to not spreading STDs.


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