Divorce and Remarriage
by David Instone-Brewer

"While I am sympathetic with Instone-Brewer's goals, the book does not hold up to its promise. His argumentation is frequently based on one or two texts and is often developed through leaps in logic, broad assumptions, speculation, and/or overgeneralization."

Mary E. Shields

Review of Biblical Literature, August 2003

Full review:

From an avowedly Christian standpoint, David Instone-Brewer endeavors to show that the New Testament teachings on divorce were based on Old Testament, intertestamental, and rabbinic teachings. His goal in writing the book is to provide Christians with a more thorough view of what Jesus and Paul intended in their discussions of divorce. He seeks to accomplish this task through a wide-ranging study of the topic of divorce from the divorce laws of the ancient Near East dating from the second millennium B.C.E. through a history of Christian interpretation of the New Testament teachings.

Eleven chapters cover various stages of interpretation identified by Instone-Brewer: the ancient Near East, the Pentateuch, "the Later Prophets," intertestamental period, rabbinic teaching, Jesus' teaching, Paul's teaching, a chapter on marriage vows and how they developed out of the biblical traditions, a history of the church's interpretations on divorce, a chapter devoted to modern reinterpretations, and, finally, his own pastoral conclusions.

Instone-Brewer describes his methodology as follows: (1) "Scripture should be read through the filters of the language and culture to which it was first addressed" (294); (2) "The morals and laws of Scripture should be compared with those of the cultures for which Scripture was written" (295); and (3) "The primary meaning of Scripture is the plain sense, as it would be understood by an ordinary person in the culture for which it was written" (295). Thus he places himself squarely within traditional historical-critical circles in his work, which combine with his own Christian commitment.

His conclusions, as summed up in his introduction are: (1) "Both Jesus and Paul condemned divorce without valid grounds and discouraged divorce even for valid grounds;" (2) "Both Jesus and Paul affirmed the Old Testament grounds for divorce;" (3) "The Old Testament allowed divorce for adultery and for neglect or abuse;" and (4) "Both Jesus and Paul condemned remarriage after an invalid divorce, but not after a valid divorce" (ix).

While I am sympathetic with Instone-Brewer's goals, the book does not hold up to its promise. His argumentation is frequently based on one or two texts and is often developed through leaps in logic, broad assumptions, speculation, and/or overgeneralization.

For instance, Instone-Brewer wishes to argue that the Old Testament has four grounds for divorce. In his first chapter, he argues on the basis of Old Babylonian and Old Assyrian law and the Code of Hammurabi that the Old Testament understands marriage to be a contract (a subject of some debate). He does so on the basis of one Old Testament text, Deut 24:1-4, which he interprets following Raymond Westbrook's unusual financial interpretation, an interpretation that no other scholar I know of shares and that Carolyn Pressler has convincingly shown to be full of holes in The View of Women found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws. On the basis of this one text, interpreted in this quirky way, together with texts from Hosea and Malachi (prophetic and not pentateuchal texts) he argues that "the world of Pentateuchal literature was the same as the world of the ancient Near East. Marriage covenants in the Old Testament are very similar in almost every respect to marriage covenants in the ancient Near East" (15). There are obvious flaws in his logic, both in terms of the number of examples he uses and in terms of the sweeping generalizations he makes. The fact of the matter is that we have very few laws dealing with divorce in the Pentateuch. We have no way of knowing how well the laws reflected actual practice or whether there were other laws at work in conjunction with those we do have. Thus, the pentateuchal evidence does not lend itself to the kind of sweeping conclusions he makes about its own meaning, let alone how closely the biblical material resembles laws covering a period of several millennia before the Old Testament texts were written.

The second and third chapters, dealing with the Pentateuch and "the Later Prophets" respectively, are equally flawed. For example, in chapter two Instone-Brewer bases his argument that the divorce certificate (mentioned only in Deut. 24.1-4 in the Pentateuch) allows for remarriage, and that the Pentateuch actually has broader rights for women than ancient Near Eastern law on ancient Near Eastern law, rabbinic (!) texts, and prophetic texts. He also makes a number of arguments from silence. The argumentation in these chapters goes like this: the ancient Near Eastern law codes say "X," and the Pentateuch does not say "X"; therefore, X is inherited from the ancient Near East. This argumentation also rests on the assumption that laws are included in the Pentateuch precisely because they are different in some way from other ancient Near Eastern laws (even though he acknowledges the influence that the Code of Hammurabi, for example, has on the Old Testament law codes). While I do not necessarily disagree with his thesis that the divorce certificate allowed for remarriage, his actual argumentation is quite unconvincing.

The fourth and fifth chapters, devoted to the intertestamental and rabbinic periods respectively, contain perhaps the strongest material in the book. While he starts from the questionable premise (especially given some of his examples in support, such as Jer 2:2 and Ezek 16:8, neither of which presume nor prescribe monogamy) that "monogamy is the ideal" of the Old Testament, in chapter 4 he discusses the Qumran community's prohibition of polygamy as well as the Qumran and Elephantine records regarding divorce. These chapters are much better argued but continue to make broad assumptions that cannot be established or sustained. For example, in chapter 4 Instone-Brewer assumes that women had increasing rights in divorce due to the financial obligations of the husband to her upon divorce. He says that marriage contracts in this period show "almost total equality of men and women" (79), yet his argument does not take adequate account of possible practice. How many women had to remain in a marriage because they could not pay the 7.5 shekels Instone-Brewer says was required for divorce? How many women were unable to leave marriages because the husband could not or would not repay the dowry? Texts do not necessarily account for practices. My point here is that there is too much we do not know about actual practice to produce the kinds of sweeping conclusions he makes.

In chapter 5 Instone-Brewer focuses on two specific laws regarding divorce in the Hebrew Bible, Exod 21:10-11, which discusses how a husband should treat his slave wife if he takes a second wife; and Deut 24:1-4. In Exod 21:10-11, the slave wife is entitled to food, clothing, and marital rights (which he later calls "love"). He argues first that this law regarding slave women was broadened to include free women as well. Moreover, it pertained to men and women equally (he gives a couple of examples showing that women could go to court to get a divorce in rabbinic times). His main argument here is that the rabbis considered these three specific conditions to include two broad categories: material and emotional circumstances. Regarding the second law, Deut 24:1-4, Instone-Brewer acknowledges that the primary meaning of this text was not financial for the rabbis (contra his conclusions on the meaning of the text for the pentateuchal audience). Rather, he discusses in detail the debates between the Hillelite and Shammaite schools regarding divorce based on the disputed words <erwat dabar. This chapter is key for his interpretation of Jesus' position on divorce, which, as he argues in chapter 6, adopts the Shammaite position over against the more usual Hillelite position of Jesus' time (according to Instone-Brewer).

Instone-Brewer's discussion of Jesus' position on divorce and remarriage is problematic on several counts: he seems to be arguing that the historical Jesus (though he never uses this term) held a rabbinic-like debate with the Pharisees as shown in Matthew and Mark and that he used "shorthand" to speak about the law regarding divorce in Deut 24:1-4, a shorthand that his first-century audience would have recognized immediately. His basic argument is that Jesus disagreed with the Hillelite school, which allowed for divorce for "any matter." Jesus' statements on divorce supported monogamy over against polygamy and allowed for divorce only in certain cases (adultery, material neglect, emotional neglect). One problem with his argumentation is a tendency to mix authorial voice with Jesus' voice; a related problem is his lack of attention to the fact that Mark, at least, had a primarily Gentile audience who could not be counted on to recognize shortened rabbinical debate terms. His rhetoric in this chapter continues to include the kinds of leaps of logic and broad assumptions that were apparent in the first several chapters. The chapter on Paul, which argues that Paul had similar restrictions on divorce but allowed for remarriage without waiting for the former spouse's death, suffers from the same difficulties.

Instone-Brewer's chapter on marriage vows appears almost to be an excursus. His conclusion is that "the origins of the Christian marriage vows He in Exodus 21:10-11, as mediated by Ephesians 5:29" (237) and that "the vow of obedience was added later" (237).

The next two chapters address the history of Christian interpretation and modern reinterpretations, respectively, showing how broad the spectrum of interpretation of the biblical texts, particularly Jesus' and Paul's teachings, have been. In his final chapter, after summarizing his conclusions in each of the previous chapters and modern church practice, he consciously steps away from the Bible to tell his readers what he thinks the church should do regarding divorce and remarriage. Here he says "the following is a personal view, based on pastoral experience. It is not based on Scripture" (310), a statement that seems to undercut his entire pursuit. Here he adopts a view that "the role of the minister is to encourage the couple to rescue the marriage, if at all possible" (311). He adds that "a minister should rarely, if ever, advise a divorce, even if there are clear grounds for it. The only exception would be when one of the couple is in danger, but even in that situation the minister should suggest separation and counseling, not divorce" (311). This conclusion is very troubling for this reader. With large numbers of families affected by domestic violence, this kind of ministerial attitude has been shown to keep women whose lives are threatened within marriages that ultimately cause their deaths. Without some nuancing, this view is dangerous to those who are in abusive marriages. Yet his final conclusion seems to undercut his own practice: "Too many generations of husbands and wives have been forced to remain with their abusing or neglectful partners and have not been allowed to divorce even after suffering repeated unfaithfulness. The Church should not continue in a false teaching because Church tradition should not be regarded as superior to the teaching of Jesus and Paul" (314).

In sum, while I may agree with some of Instone-Brewer's ideas and theses, this book is disappointing. I would not recommend it for either a scholarly or a church audience.

Mary E. Shields, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, OH 43209

This review was published by KBL 2003 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a subscription to RBL, please visit



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