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
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
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
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
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