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Hebrew Corner 11: Divorce (Deut. 24:1-4)
by John H. Walton

Categories Guest Posts Hebrew and You


Last week we discussed the nature of the Hebrew stem system, the means by which the language indicates a variety of relationships between subject and object of the verb. This week, as we look at that troublesome passage in Deut. 24:1-4, we are going to find that it is an understanding of the stem system that helps us to sort out what is going on.

This is an intriguing passage in that it is the only legislation in the Pentateuch that has anything to say about divorce and remarriage. It therefore warrants our careful attention.

In the first verse we learn that after marriage the husband is displeased by something that is vaguely referred to as an "indecency" (NIV). This is used as grounds for divorce, but we find in v.2 that it does not interfere with a second marriage. The second marriage ends (under any of a variety of circumstances) and the force of the legislation is driven home—the first husband is not allowed to take the woman as wife again. It must be noted that there is no prohibition on what the woman can do (she may marry a third time with no condemnation or restriction). The text indicates that the reason for this prohibition against the first husband is given as "after she has been defiled."

The critical issues in the passage concern the woman’s "indecency" and the understanding of "she has been defiled." The phrase (remember the importance of collocations) "an indecent thing" occurs elsewhere only in Deut 23:15 where it is used to refer euphemistically to excrement that could pollute the camp. Consequently, we could not conclude that the word had to do with immoral behavior on the part of the woman. More likely it is a reference to a distasteful condition. For example, if a woman had a menstrual dysfunction and was regularly bleeding, she would be rendered perpetually unclean and could not be approached by her husband for childbearing (cf. Lev 15:14, 25). It is easy to see how such a condition could bring disfavor and lead to divorce. Though her condition would not be her fault, the divorce by her husband would make this humiliating situation public knowledge. Yet, it is not so bad that another husband was not willing to take her in—an important aspect of the legislation. Through v. 3, then, we find that the woman has done nothing wrong, her first husband is within his rights, though perhaps lacking in charity, and the second husband is willing to live with her condition.

The force of the legislation does not affect the second marriage, but comes only when the second marriage ends (it doesn’t matter how) so that the woman is free again for marriage. Her condition did not mean that she could not remarry, nor was she condemned for the second marriage.

Now we get to the key Hebrew aspect of the interpretation. The word translated by the NIV as "she has been defiled" is built from the root tm’ which is a stative verb when in the qal, meaning "to be unclean." The difficulty is that in Deut 24:4 the verb is in a stem identified as the hutqattel (or hutpa’al). This stem is not a usual part of the Hebrew stem system and is often not even covered in grammars. Most translations of Deut, 24:4 render it as if it were a passive, but there is another stem that covers that territory (here it would have been the pual). There are only four occurrences of the hutqattel stem in the Hebrew Bible (others are Lev. 13:55, 56 and Isa. 34:6). At this point we have to pass by some of the very technical discussion, but the results of the study of the hutqattel both semantically and morphologically lead to the conclusion that with this verb it should be translated "she has been made to declare herself (or consider herself) to be unclean." In other words, the first husband’s divorce action had exposed her condition. Since he was the one who had forced her to publically declare herself unclean, he is not allowed to marry her again. This has nothing to do with any moral behavior of the woman (she is not restricted), and has nothing to do with the second marriage (that was only in the legislation to demonstrate that someone else could live with it, implying the first husband’s hardheartedness). It is interesting too that Jesus cites the case in relation to hardheartedness (Mt. 19:8). The legislation is here to protect an unfortunate and vulnerable woman from a predatory husband who has already disgraced her. Why would he want to marry her again? The most likely explanation: money, which she likely brought out of the second marriage. The very focused nature of the case can offer no insight into remarriage questions, and very little regarding divorce.

For treatment of all the technical details see J. Walton, "The Place of the Hutqattel Within the D-stem Group and its Implications in Deuteronomy 24:4" Hebrew Studies 32 (1991): 7-17.

John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).

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