Divorce and the Law—Part 4

The Lord separates those who are his. All of them are holy.

(Lev 20:26)NKJV And you shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine.

As we read in the following passage, the Lord has separated people for himself:

(1Ki 8:53) ... thou didst separate them from among all the people of the earth, to be thine inheritance, as thou spakest by the hand of Moses thy servant, when thou broughtest our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord GOD.

Believing Gentiles were included in his people, as stated in Isaiah:

(Is 56:3) Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying, The LORD hath utterly separated me from his people ...

(Is 56:6) Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant;
(Is 56:7)Darby even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar: for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.

The following passage mentions people who have separated themselves from the nations and joined the Israelites. The context is the Feast of Unleavened Bread that followed the dedication of the second temple.

(Ezr 6:21) And the children of Israel, which were come again out of captivity, and all such as had separated themselves unto them from the filthiness of the heathen of the land, to seek the LORD God of Israel, did eat,
(Ezr 6:22) And kept the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy: for the LORD had made them joyful ...

Later, after Ezra and the people with him returned from exile, he found that some Israelites had joined the peoples of the land. Instead of being separated to the Lord, they were joined to the pagan nations of the land.

(Ezr 9:1)Darby Now when these things were completed, the princes came to me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites;
(Ezr 9:2) for they have taken of their daughters for themselves and for their sons, and have mingled the holy seed with the peoples of the lands; and the hand of the princes and rulers has been chief in this unfaithfulness.

Since these Israelites did not separate themselves for the Lord, they were not very concerned about breaking commandments of the law. The law did not allow the Israelites to enter into agreements with the peoples of the land and to intermarry with them.

(Ex 34:12) Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee

(Ex 34:15) Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice;
(Ex 34:16) And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.

(De 7:3) Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.
(De 7:4) For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.

No one can come to God unless he draws him. The Lord knew that during the time for which the law was given, the peoples of the land will not be granted, generally speaking, saving grace. He knew not only that they will not be converted to the truth, but also that they will try to persuade the Israelites to follow their religious views. Even Solomon, in spite of his amazing wisdom, was drawn to pagan worship by his pagan wives.

(1Ki 11:1) But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites;
(1Ki 11:2) Of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love.
(1Ki 11:3) And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart.
(1Ki 11:4) For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.

We read about mixed marriages also in Nehemiah.

(Ne 13:23) In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab:
(Ne 13:24) And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people.

The law was probably not taught in the language of the peoples of the land. The children did not speak the language in which the law was preached because they were not taught by their parents. The parents did not teach the language to their children because they did not regard the instruction of the law as very important. This is an indication that the foreign women mentioned in Ne 13:23 were not converted to faith in the true God.

Now, when Ezra learned about the Israelites that have not separated themselves to the Lord, he was grieved deeply. He mourned about it, and many people gathered to him.

(Ezr 10:1)Darby And while Ezra prayed, and made confession, weeping and falling down before the house of God, there were gathered to him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children; for the people wept very much.
(Ezr 10:2) And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, answered and said to Ezra, We have acted unfaithfully toward our God, and have taken foreign wives of the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel concerning this thing.
(Ezr 10:3) And now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandments of our God; and let it be done according to the law.

In Ezr 10:3 we read about "such as be born of them". The children were very young (Ezr 10:44), so they had to remain with their mothers. The young age of the children is implied by the word "even" in Ezr 10:44, which states that "some of the women had even borne children". In this way Ezr 10:44 indicates that the mixed marriages were recent.

In Ezr 10:3 we also read the commitment "let it be done according to the law" (Ezr 10:3). Therefore, what followed was not a proclamation that all should divorce their foreign wives. Instead, a proclamation was issued that all men should come to Jerusalem within three days (Ezr 10:7-8).

(Ezr 10:9)Darby Then were all the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered together at Jerusalem within three days. It was the ninth month, on the twentieth of the month; and all the people sat in the open space of the house of God, trembling because of the matter, and because of the pouring rain.
(Ezr 10:10) And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, Ye have acted unfaithfully, and have taken foreign wives, to increase the trespass of Israel.
(Ezr 10:11)ESV Now then make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.

As we read in Ezr 10:11, Ezra asked the people first to separate themselves from the peoples of the land, and then from the foreign wives. Separation from the peoples of the land did not mean that they were to live in complete isolation from the other peoples, for that would have been hardly possible. Rather, separation was about a commitment to be holy to the Lord and to walk in his ways. But then, did separation from the foreign wives mean just separation from their ways, or did it imply divorce? The following passage helps answer this question.

(Ezr 10:12)ESV Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, "It is so; we must do as you have said.
(Ezr 10:13) But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for we have greatly transgressed in this matter.
(Ezr 10:14) Let our officials stand for the whole assembly. Let all in our cities who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every city, until the fierce wrath of our God over this matter is turned away from us."

It is clear that the matter was not that everyone married to a foreign wife should divorce. If this were the case, a deadline could have been set for it, and the penalties of Ezr 10:8 could have been imposed on anyone failing to divorce. Rather, in order to do it according to the law, each mixed marriage was to be examined in the presence of wise people (the elders and the judges), and then a decision was to be made. The matter could not be solved at the time of Ezr 10:12-14, for there were too many men who had married foreign women. In fact, it took about two months to examine all people involved in these marriages (Ezr 10:16-17). A list of men involved in these marriages is given in Ezr 10:18-44. It is noteworthy that only about the men of Ezr 10:18 do we read that "they pledged themselves to put away their wives" (Ezr 10:19). We do not read it about the men listed in Ezr 10:18-44. We may infer that these men did not have to divorce.

A question that may arise is under what circumstances it was lawful to divorce. The context is outlined Ezr 9:1-2, indicating that the people did not separate themselves to the Lord. They had taken foreign wives because they were not separated to the Lord. However, a man could have repented after he married a foreign wife. When a man decided to separate himself to the Lord, if the wife desired to remain a pagan, the man could no longer do or tolerate certain things that the woman desired. If the woman consented, there was nothing in the law in support of a divorce, apart from adultery. However, if the woman wanted to leave, then divorce had to occur. There was nothing in the law allowing the man to keep her by force. On the contrary, as indicated earlier in this article, in the context of De 21:10-14 the law allowed the man to divorce when the woman wanted to leave. Thus, it seems that divorce had to take place if the woman could not accept that her husband would be separated to the Lord. The same conclusion can be reached based on the New Testament directions found in 1Co 7:12-15.

(Ne 12:27) And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps.

(Ne 12:30) And the priests and the Levites purified themselves, and purified the people, and the gates, and the wall.

(Ne 12:43) Also that day they offered great sacrifices, and rejoiced: for God had made them rejoice with great joy: the wives also and the children rejoiced: so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off.

(Ne 13:1) On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever;
(Ne 13:2) Because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing.
(Ne 13:3) Now it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.

In view of Ezr 7:7-8 and Ne 2:1, taking in account that Ne 1:1-13:3 happened approximately within one year, the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem took place about 13 years after the time of Ezr 10.

It should be noticed that Ne 13:3 does not refer to divorcing foreign wives, for it is in the context of De 23:3-5, a passage dealing not with divorce but with who may be in the congregation of the Lord. In De 23:3 we read that "An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever". This did not mean at all that they were not allowed to worship the Lord. However, they were not allowed to worship together with the congregation. They had to worship separately. In view of De 31:11-12, it appears that they were to be present with the congregation when the law was taught. Therefore, it was not at all a problem that "the mixed multitude" of Ne 13:3 was present when the law was read (Ne 13:1). However, for the purpose of worship,. they had to separate from the congregation "all the mixed multitude". Now, the Hebrew word for "mixed multitude" is understood here with the meaning of "foreigners", as in Ex 12:38.

After the walls of Jerusalem were completed in the sixth month (Ne 6:15), the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles followed in the seventh month (Ne 8:16-18). The next passage speaks about what happened immediately after the feast.

(Ne 9:1) Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them.
(Ne 9:2) And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.

As in Ne 13:3, preceding a time when the congregation had to be alone with the Lord, the strangers were separated from the congregation. The fact that strangers were present indicates that strangers had participated in the feast. This separation preceded a time of confession. In the end, there was a commitment to walk according to the law (Ne 10:29). Not only Israelites but also foreigners were part of this commitment, for we read about "they that had separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the law of God" (Ne 10:28)Darby. In addition to the general commitment to walk according to the law, there were also a number of commitments dealing with certain topics of the law (Ne 10:30-39). Among them, we find first the commitment "that we would not give our daughters to the peoples of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons" (Ne 10:30)Darby. This commitment ensured that their children would not get married to people of a different religion. Notable in Ne 10:30-39 is the absence of any commitment to divorce foreign wives.

The commitment of Ne 10:30 did not put an end to mixed marriages. Indeed, we read again about it in Ne 13:23-28, which took place about 12 years later. (The 12 years can be inferred by comparing Ne 5:14 and Ne 13:6.) In Ne 13:23-28, Nehemiah confronted the people who were inclined to make mixed marriages for themselves or for their children. It is notable that he did not say anything about divorcing foreign wives. Now, Ne 13:30 speaks of a purification from everything foreign. While Ne 13:30 in the KJV has "Thus cleansed I them from all strangers", it should be noticed that "Thus cleansed I them from every foreign thing" is a better translation. The Hebrew phrase for "from every foreign thing" is מכל נכר. It is translated with απο πασης αλλοτριωσεως "from every estrangement" in the Septuagint. The word נכר is found typically in phrases such as אלהי נכר "foreign gods" and בן נכר "foreigner". By itself, the word נכר is never used to denote a foreign man or woman elsewhere in the Bible. Instead, we find that the phrase בן נכר is used to denote a foreigner. Moreover, the related adjective נכרי is also used to denote a foreign man, and its feminine form נכריה a foreign woman. We can conclude that at least explicitly, Ne 13:30 does not mention foreigners but foreign things. The verse is in the context of people who were joined to foreigners that were not converted (or not truly converted) to God. Since these men were influenced by foreigners, their manner of life involved various things that were foreign to the devotion of God. This verse would refer then to a purification from such foreign things.

Ruth the Moabitess illustrates the point that the problem with foreign wives was not that they were foreign but that they were pagan. It is remarkable that in the context of her marriage to Boaz, Ruth was blessed, and her blessing is recorded in the Bible (Ru 4:11-12).

Two parallels that could be made to New Testament passages are as follows. First, Ex 34:16 and De 7:3-4 are two passages of the law that did not permit the Israelites to take wives from the peoples of the land. We also read in the New Testament that a believer should not get married to an unbeliever.

(2Co 6:14) Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

Moreover, the New Testament indicates also that if a believer is married to an unbeliever (this could happen, for example, when a person is converted after getting married), the marriage is supposed to continue.

(1Co 7:12) ... If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.
(1Co 7:13) And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.

(1Co 7:15) But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.

This parallels the fact that during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah not all marriages to foreign women ended in divorce. As indicated above, excepting adultery, the law did not permit a man to divorce his wife unless she wanted to leave.

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