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.”