Deuteronomy 24: Divorce, Purity and Justice

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“Ten Commandments by A.Losenko (?)” by Anton Losenko – http://www.university.kiev.uawww.uer.varvar.ru/arhiv/gallery/klassitsizm/losenko/losenko13.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ten_Commandments_by_A.Losenko_(%3F).jpg#/media/File:Ten_Commandments_by_A.Losenko_(%3F).jpg

Deuteronomy 24:1-5  Divorce, Remarriage and Wedded Bliss

1 Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2 and goes off to become another man’s wife. 3 Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); 4 her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession.
 5 When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be charged with any related duty. He shall be free at home one year, to be happy with the wife whom he has married.

As a person who has gone through a divorce (I share some of my reflections on this here, here and here) I found it interesting that this is really the only place that divorce is discussed in the law for the general population. There are the prohibitions of a priest marrying a divorced woman in Leviticus 21 and the ability of a divorced daughter of a Levite to return to her father’s home and eat of his food in Leviticus 22: 13 but otherwise the reality of divorce is simply assumed. Numbers 30, for example can discuss that the vows a divorced woman makes are bound to her, while a married woman the husband (or if unmarried the father) may nullify the vows-but divorced women are an assumption as is their remarriage. We saw that in Deuteronomy 22: 13-30 a couple situations (the false accusation of lost virginity before marriage or a virgin who is violated and the man pays the bride price for her) where a woman cannot be divorced but in the Hebrew Bible divorce seems mainly to be an assumed option for men. Here the issue of divorce comes up in the complicated issue of a woman who is divorced, remarries, is either widowed or divorced again and a prohibition against her remarrying her first husband.

Here, as in the discussions of blood guilt in Deuteronomy 19, 21 and 22, the concern is for contaminating the land. The re-unification of first husband with the now defiled ex-wife (notice that the husband is not considered defiled since polygynous weddings were accepted in Israel). This is an issue that receives the strong condemnation of being ‘abhorrent to the LORD.’ In the author of Deuteronomy’s ordered world this is simply something that is not to be done.

Deuteronomy discusses things from a male-centered perspective and it is inconceivable that a woman would ask for a divorce. A husband may release the woman from the relationship, but not the other way around in the ancient world. In releasing the woman from the relationship he also removes her from her means of support. For women in the ancient world there were limited options of support, so a divorced woman would be property-less, and if she wasn’t accepted back into her father’s home (and this may have been an issue of shame so severe that a family would not re-accept their child) then she either must re-marry, or be reduced to begging, or prostitution. Even with the provisions to care for the vulnerable outlined below, being a divorced woman in the ancient world would put one at a severe economic disadvantage.

This passage takes on a life in two other significant places in the Bible, the first being Jeremiah 3 where God is cast in the role of the husband who wants to re-take the wife who abandoned her marriage.  God refuses to abandon God’s love for God’s adulterous people (using the language of Jeremiah) and is willing to set aside the past for the possibility of something new. The other place this passage comes up is in Mark 10, and its parallel in Matthew 19, where Jesus is asked by a group of Pharisees whether divorce is lawful. Jesus interestingly reframes the issue that the man who divorces commits adultery against the divorced wife and the woman who divorces (not a conceived possibility in Deuteronomy) commits adultery against her former husband.

Divorce is a difficult issue in ancient times and in modern times. The church has often been a place where divorced men and women were excluded or made to feel like second class citizens. In earlier times, even though my own divorce was not something I wanted or did anything to cause, I would not have been permitted to serve as a pastor within my denomination. There are other denominations where this still would be the case. I have certainly had verses like Titus 1: 6 where it refers to a bishop being, “someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious.” Texts like this are difficult, but essential to wrestle with in a world where we also find divorce as an assumed reality. As we as individuals and churches struggle with issues of relationship like divorce and sexuality it is important to exercise wisdom and compassion. Divorce is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, even in modern times it is an incredible emotional, financial and spiritual drain on a person. While a man or woman who is divorced in our society has opportunities to re-invent themselves they need communities to care for them while they and the affected families are in very vulnerable states.

The final line in this section links back to Deuteronomy 20 where a person who is recently married is exempted from military service. Here the issue is expanded slightly giving a one-year window where a newly married man is freed from military service.  Here the language can be read that the exemption is so that the wife may be happy, which would be an uncommon acknowledgment of the value of women’s feeling in the ancient world. From a person who served in the Army this is would have interesting implications if it were applied in modern times (and I would think in times of conflict the marriage rate would skyrocket to avoid wartime service), yet in the world of Deuteronomy it makes sense. It is essential for the man to have the ability to ensure a future descendent who will carry on his name and inheritance in Israel. I also wonder how effective this was in practice when the elites would have been able to marry multiple times, and perhaps prevent themselves the risk of military action. Again, very different from the experience of the modern military which is filled with stories of people being married immediately before deployment.

Deuteronomy 24: 6-22: Purity and Justice

  6 No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge.
 7 If someone is caught kidnaping another Israelite, enslaving or selling the Israelite, then that kidnaper shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
 8 Guard against an outbreak of a leprous skin disease by being very careful; you shall carefully observe whatever the levitical priests instruct you, just as I have commanded them. 9 Remember what the LORD your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt.
 10 When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. 11 You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. 12 If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. 13 You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God.
 14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. 15 You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.
 16 Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.
 17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. 18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
 19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. 20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 22 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
This portion of chapter 24 deals predominantly with protecting the vulnerable within the community from exploitation, but within this passage is also a provision for protection from skin disease. The guarding against the “leprous” skin disease, which we honestly don’t know what this disease is-it isn’t what would be medically categorized as leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease).  The mention of Miriam and Aaron’s speaking against Moses where Miriam is afflicted with this skin disease (Numbers 12) is an interesting narrative linkage that the text makes. Miriam (not Aaron, perhaps because of his role as priest) is placed outside the community, yet the community waits for seven days when she is healed and is able to be re-united with the community. Leviticus 13 and 14 go into great detail for the priests on how they are to diagnose and deal with these skin diseases and it was a significant issue in the community. There are numerous places where lepers are lifted up as a part of the narrative throughout the bible, too many to address here, and apparently this was a significant issue among the people of Israel they had to guard against.

The remainder of the chapter deals with caring for the vulnerable in the community. Verse 6, dealing with taking a mill or millstone in pledge prevents a person’s livelihood from being taken which would not only prevent the repayment of the debt but also imperil the person’s ability to live. To take a person’s livelihood is to deprive them of life. In a similar way they are not to be a society where a person is taken captive or sold into slavery, this was not a practice the people of Israel were to tolerate and this is probably behind the command to not allow kidnapping. In verse 6 the people of Israel are prevented from depriving another Israelite of livelihood and in verse 7 they are prevented from depriving another person of freedom.

In Deuteronomy 23: 19-20 there is already a prohibition against charging interest on debt to another Israelite, but Deuteronomy spends even more time on the issue of debt here. This must have been a pressing issue among the people. As Deanna Thompson can state these laws reveal, “a fundamental respect for the dignity of the neighbor; even if he stands in need of money.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 178)  A person was to respect the neighbor’s property and to wait outside the home to receive a pledge (preventing the lender from voyeuristically deciding what among their neighbor’s property they would confiscate). Nor may a person’s means of being warm at night be taken away. As the prophet Amos can criticize in his time:

They lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge;
 and in the house of God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed. Amos 2:8

In any society the poor and vulnerable are likely to be preyed upon by those in power and debt can become a burden that they cannot ever emerge from. Yet, Israel was to be a society that cared for the poor in their midst and did not allow a neighbor to become permanently enslaved or burdened by their debt. In a similar manner the following verses relating to paying the poor and needy laborers daily and not holding onto wages for it could put their livelihood at risk. In a society where the poor are preyed upon by ‘payday loans’ and high interest rates on purchases, higher prices for goods and pay schedules that benefit the business but may not benefit the employee we have a lot we could learn from this view of economic justice based upon being a covenant people.

When I first encountered liberation theology[i] the idea of a “preferential option for the poor” it troubled me, because it seemed that God was picking one group over another. The reality is that the God of the Bible does pick, and that this is a faithful witness to the God we come to know.  As Miroslav Volf can state eloquently:

Consider, second, God’s partiality. In the biblical traditions, when God looks at a widow, for instance, God does not see “a free and rational agent,” but a woman with no standing in society. When God looks at a sojourner, God does not see simply a human being, but a stranger, cut off from the network of relations, subject to prejudice and scapegoating. How does the God who “executes justice for the oppressed” act toward widows and strangers? Just as God acts toward any other human being? No. God is partial to them. God “watches over the strangers” and “upholds the orphan and the widow” (Psalm 147: 7-9) in a way that God does not watch over and uphold the powerful.
Why is God partial to widows and strangers? In a sense, because God is partial to everyone—including the powerful, whom God resists in order to protect the widow and the stranger. (Volf, 1996, p. 221f.)

God seeks justice, but not revenge. We live in a revenge culture, if a person harms me there is the desire to make sure that this could never happen again. In the United States, and much of the world, this also informs foreign policy. Revenge in interpersonal conflicts is addressed here, where the idea of “if you hurt me, I will not only hurt you but all those close to you” is forbidden. A person is to be penalized for their own offense, not their children or parents. Justice ultimately seeks to establish an end to the cycle of punishment. In our own society where children of parents who are in prison are often set up to follow in their footsteps by the lack of opportunities and support for a different path maybe we too can imagine how we could imagine a society where children are not punished for the mistakes of the parents and vice versa.

These commands to help the vulnerable, highlighted in the widow, alien and orphan, are brought into the narrative of liberation of the people from their slavery. In Exodus 23: 9 we hear for the first time this command brought into the narrative “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” The people are to remember their own situation was not one where they ‘pulled themselves up by their bootstraps’ but instead a gift of their covenant identity with their LORD. They are given concrete ways to enact this justice towards the vulnerable. They are to be shown justice, not taken advantage of. These landless ones are to have a method of living off the plentiful harvest that the people are promised in the land. They are to be different than the world they knew in Egypt, or the societies they see around them. “The neighbor—especially the neighbor in need—lives in a world governed not by the ruthless “iron law” of the market or by the unencumbered autonomy of the powerful, but by the same God who curbed Pharaoh.” (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 240f.) Throughout their life, they would struggle with this view of justice. The prophets would often cry about the way the widow, orphans and the resident aliens were being denied justice, being oppressed by practices designed to keep them poor and being denied their rights within the land. The vision was a noble one, and yet, justice is a hard dream to achieve. Yet, even though dreams of justice may be difficult to achieve in reality it does not free us from the struggle of attempting to live into the vision of justice that God calls us to.

[i] Liberation theology is a broad term for theological perspectives that came out of various experiences of oppression. Liberation theology started with the experience of base communities in Latin America among the poor, but also now are experienced in black liberation theology, feminist liberation theology and many other branches of theology which utilize the experience of oppression as a lens to encounter God and God’s action towards the world.

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