The question was presented to me on the nature of Biblical divorce. Are there any circumstances (such as spousal abandonment) which would warrant a divorce? The answer is twofold:
1. Abandonment is divorce. There is no “divorce for abandonment”. They are the same thing.
2. Even if abandonment was not divorce, when Jesus is talking about divorce he might be taking for granted that divorce for abandonment is acceptable. Paul even mentions abandonment as being reason “not to be bound” to marriage.
Abandonment is divorce
It is very important to understand the definition of both marriage and divorce. In American culture, these things are synonymous with government documents. Americans are obsessed with legal documents and often confuse what is written on paper with what is real.
This obsession with legal documents is a modern phenomenon. The ancient Israelites had no formal documentation process for marriage. Marriage was defined as a cultural recognition that two individuals were married, coupled with a sexual bond. It was not until after the time of Jesus that marriage contracts (not even governmental licenses) began to be used in Israel.
We see illustrations of documentless marriage throughout the Bible. Jacob marries two women (Gen 29), a feast is described for Leah’s wedding, but nothing for Rachel’s (the father had ulterior motives to get Jacob drunk the first night).
We see from Abraham and Sarah’s marriage that no one even knew they were married (Gen 12, Gen 20).
In Ruth, we see Boaz attempting to get Ruth’s in-laws to give him the rights to Ruth as a wife. The marriage is a public declaration. It also alludes to sex being a key event:
Rth 4:13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she was his wife: and when he went in unto her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bare a son.
Samson seems to pick out a wife, have a feast, and is considered married during the feast (Jdg 14).
It is important to see that marriage was not Biblically merged with the State. The state did not issue “Marriage Licenses” and the Bible never prescribes one. Likewise, divorce was also not contingent on State documents. Long before Catholic Popes started requiring Church sanctioned “annulments”, divorce was standard practice (initiated with no State involvement).
The one document that the Bible does discuss was actually a protection for the wife. In ancient Israel, not only did divorced wives face the stigma currently faced by divorced women, but men might not even want to marry the divorced woman for fear that the original husband might come and reclaim her. To protect the woman, Moses required a “Bill of Divorce” (a private document explaining the wife was divorced). Once divorced, a further protection was that the husband could never remarry the wife. It is telling that the man required no equivalent “Bill of Divorce” (he did not need the same protections).
The divorce was not the “Bill of Divorce” but the “sending away”. Once a husband sent away his wife, she was divorced whether or not she had this paper (that would make her life slightly easier). Even the Hebrew word for divorce (gaw-rash’) literally means “to drive out”. God “drove man” out of Eden (Gen 3:24). Abraham “drove out” the bondswoman (Gen 21:10).
When Paul talks about divorce (in the case of an unbelieving wife leaving a husband), the divorce is the abandonment. Paul does not say, “if she leaves, then divorce her.” Paul says:
1Co 7:15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace.
What this means for the modern Christian is that we need to start thinking in terms of God’s law, not man’s law. The government does not tell us who is married and who is divorced. A piece of paper does not define reality. Actions have meaning. If two people claim to be married, we should take their word for it even if it later turns out that there is no Marriage certificate on file. If a husband abandons his wife, she is divorced regardless if she has a “divorce certificate”. For example, if a husband withdraws physical and finance support for a decade, his wife has every right to remarry.
Abandonment is a common sense reason for divorce
Pretend a woman is married to an axe murderer, or a child molester, or an abusive husband. Pretend a woman is married to a husband who abandons her sexual, physically, or financially. No one instinctively forbids divorce in these cases. It is not only morally accepted, but sometimes coerced:
Although the church forgot the other cause for divorce, every Jew in Jesus’ day knew about Exodus 21:10-11, which allowed divorce for neglect. Before rabbis introduced the “any cause” divorce, this was probably the most common type. Exodus says that everyone, even a slave wife, had three rights within marriage—the rights to food, clothing, and love. If these were neglected, the wronged spouse had the right to seek freedom from that marriage. Even women could, and did, get divorces for neglect—though the man still had to write out the divorce certificate. Rabbis said he had to do it voluntarily, so if he resisted, the courts had him beaten till he volunteered!
Paul, as show before, allowed divorce for abandonment. He was not contradicting Jesus when Jesus said divorce was only acceptable for immorality. Instead, Jesus’ statement was more likely referring to a specific cultural question:
One of my most dramatic findings concerns a question the Pharisees asked Jesus: “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” (Matt. 19:3). This question reminded me that a few decades before Jesus, some rabbis (the Hillelites) had invented a new form of divorce called the “any cause” divorce. By the time of Jesus, this “any cause” divorce had become so popular that almost no one relied on the literal Old Testament grounds for divorce….
When Jesus answered with a resounding no, he wasn’t condemning “divorce for any cause,” but rather the newly invented “any cause” divorce. Jesus agreed firmly with the second group that the phrase didn’t mean divorce was allowable for “immorality” and for “any cause,” but that Deutermonomy 24:1 referred to no type of divorce “except immorality.”
In short, divorce for abandonment is a non-concept. Divorce is abandonment. Not only is divorce for abandonment acceptable (by modern understandings of the words) but also divorce for neglect. Paul says to not be bound in the case of abandonment, meaning “marry whom you would like.”
Here is David Instone-Brewer (author of Divorce and Remarriage in the Church) on the issue: