Divorce and Remarriage
by David Instone-Brewer

"Arguably the best biblical study on the question of divorce and remarriage. Even if the reader disagrees with his conclusions, or with his suggestions regarding pastoral situations, he will enjoy the book as a rich resource for the OT, Jewish, and NT material. The presentation of primary texts and their meaning is superb, the discussion of dissenting views is fair, and the summaries are concise and to the point."


Eckhard J. Schnabel

Trinity Journal Spring 2003

Full review:

Dr. Instone-Brewer, an expert in rabbinic studies and research fellow at Tyndale House, an evangelical research center in Cambridge, England, divides the material into eleven chapters. He discusses: (1) the Ancient Near East ("Marriage is a Contract," pp. 1-19); (2) the Pentateuch ("The Divorce Certificate Allows Remarriage," pp. 20-33); (3) the later Prophets ("Breaking Marriage Vows is Condemned," pp. 34-58); (4) the intertestamental period ("Increasing Rights for Women," pp. 59-84); (5) rabbinic teaching ("Increasing Grounds for Divorce," pp. 85-132); (6) Jesus' teaching ("Divorce on Biblical Grounds Only," pp. 133-88); (7) Paul's teaching ("Biblical Grounds Include Neglect," pp. 189-212); (8) marriage vows ("Vows Inherited From the Bible and Judaism," pp. 213-37); (9) history of divorce ("Interpretations in Church History," pp. 238-67); (10) modern re interpretations ("Different Ways to Understand the Biblical Text," pp. 268-99); and (11) pastoral conclusions ("Reversing Institutionalized Misunderstandings," pp. 300-314), A full bibliography and detailed indexes follow.

As the author states his conclusions in the second paragraph of his introduction, they may introduce this review as well: "Both Jesus and Paul condemned divorce without valid grounds and discouraged divorce even for valid grounds. Both Jesus and Paul affirmed the Old Testament grounds for divorce. The Old Testament allowed divorce for adultery and for neglect or abuse. Both Jesus and Paul condemned remarriage after an invalid divorce, hut not after a valid divorce" (p. ix). Instone-Brewer sees, of course, that these conclusions differ substantially from what he calls "the traditional church interpretation of the New Testament texts" according to which divorce with remarriage was not allowed on any grounds (ibid., cf. p, 304). This acknowledgement reflects the fact that he writes in an Anglican context in which this "traditional" interpretation of the church has much more influence, as it does in the Roman Catholic church (cf, p. 306), than in Lutheran or Reformed or more generally evangelical contexts. This "traditional interpretation" goes back to the early church fathers. While Instone-Brewer claims that the early church fathers had forgotten the background knowledge and the assumptions of the first-century readers by the second century, he must surely be aware that in many parts of the world, and in many Christian denominations, the "traditional" interpretation of the church is no longer traditional, as it has been replaced by the "tradition" that anything can be forgiven and that therefore anything is possible, with the result that divorce for just about any reason and remarriage in any situation is allowed by a majority of local congregations and their pastors, both in North America and in the continental European churches.

As regards the OT evidence, placed in the context of covenants of the Ancient Near East, Instone-Brewer argues that the correct phrase for a marriage agreement in the OT is "marriage contract" as the proper translation for Hebrew berit (p. 19), written and enacted exactly like any other business "covenant," The narratives and legal stipulations of the Pentateuch assume that both polygamy and divorce occur; neither is criticized. Compared with the laws of the surrounding cultures, the distinctive ness of the Pentateuch "lies in the relatively greater rights of women within marriage and remarriage, and the greater rights to divorce and remarry"; entirely unique was the right of a (divorced) woman to a divorce certificate "which affirmed that she was free to remarry" (p. 33), The prophets Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiei, and Isaiah all refer to the fact that Israel, the nation to whom God was "married," was unfaithful and was thus divorced, but that God was merciful and after a time of separation sought reconciliation. Malachi condemns all Israelites/Judeans who break their marriage vows. In Second Temple Judaism we find that the rights of women were increased, e.g., women who were divorced without good cause had a guarantee that they would receive their dowry back, and that both polygamy and divorce started to be criticized. The Qumran exegetes seem to have been the first to actually forbid polygamy, which had been allowed in Mosaic law. Instone-Brewer sides with those who argue that divorce was allowed in Qumran, a view that scholars like J. Murphy-O'Connor continue to dispute. In the first century B.C., Simeon ben Shetah evidently tried to discourage divorce, while at the same time procuring greater financial security for divorced women. Rabbinic literature indicates that the grounds for divorce were expanded in Judaism. Valid divorces could be based on infertility, sexual unfaithfulness, or, according to their interpretation of Exod 21:10-11, material and emotional neglect. The older view that only men could initiate a divorce is incorrect: a woman could ask a court to persuade her husband to divorce her if she suffered neglect Rabbis in the school of Hillel interpreted dabar in Deut 24:1 in the sense of "any matter," i.e., any grounds beyond indecency (adultery) and neglect, while the rabbis following Shammai declared "any matter" divorces invalid. Divorce did not carry social stigma, and remarriage was expected, although remarriage after an invalid divorce was regarded as adultery.

As regards Jesus' teaching, the accounts in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 can be traced back to an abbreviated account of a debate between Pharisees and Jesus about the interpretation of the phrase 'erval dabar ("matter of indecency") in Deut 24:1. Both the exegesis of the Pharisees and of Jesus need to be unpacked against the background of rabbinical debates. Jesus agreed with some of the things taught by some Jewish groups: he sided with the Qumran community concerning monogamy and with the Shammaites concerning the interpretation of "matter of indecency." But he stood out in his declaration that "any matter" divorces are invalid.

Instone-Brewer interprets Jesus as teaching six matters: (1) marriage should be monogamous; (2) marriage should be lifelong; (3) divorce is never compulsory; (4) divorce should be avoided unless the erring partner refuses to repent; (5) marriage is optional; (6) "any matter" divorces are invalid. The Pharisees held the position that divorce was compulsory on the grounds of adultery (and probably already before A.D. 70 even in cases of suspected adultery), which conflicted with Jesus's teaching that God wants marriage to be lifelong, Jesus argues against the Pharisees that Moses did not "command" divorce, but merely "allowed" it, which means that even in cases of adultery divorce is not mandatory (p. 143). His comment on the "hardness of heart" seems to imply, in the context of Jer 4:4 LXX, that the divorce law should be used only if the guilty partner stubbornly refused to repent and give up adulterous behavior (p. 146). In the exception clause Matt 19:9 ("except for indecency," cf. 5:32), pomeia is most plausibly regarded as the most accurate translation of 'ervat dabar in Deut 24:1 (pp. 152-59): "any matter" divorces are invalid; divorce is allowed only in cases of (stubbornly maintained) adultery. Since the interpretation of pomeia is disputed, as is the interpretation of the term "hardness of heart," Instone-Brewer acknowledges that "it is not certain that Jesus was teaching this" (p. 181), i.e., it is not certain that Jesus taught that divorce is allowable if there is a stubborn refusal to stop committing adultery. Since Jesus did not comment on the other grounds of divorce derived from Exod 21:10-11, since everyone would assume that Jesus recognized that there were other OT grounds for divorce, and since the wording of Jesus' exception clause is parallel to the Shammaite ruling in the divorce debate, Instone-Brewer surmises that Jesus regarded these other grounds for divorce (material and emotional neglect) as acceptable.

In his chapter on Paul, Instone-Brewer again presents fairly and succinctly all major options of interpretation. He sees Paul as emphasizing that a believer should never cause a divorce, either by separating from the spouse or by neglecting marital obligations. If a Christian spouse is deserted by her (pagan, unbelieving) husband, she has a right to divorce because of the neglect of the marital obligations. The phrase "not bound" in I Cor 7:15 should be understood as implying the freedom to remarry, as an obvious implication in the first-century world.

The chapter about marriage vows and their link with traditions in the OT, Judaism, NT, and Roman law is informative, as is the chapter about interpretations in church history, which could benefit from more detail, particularly concerning the question whether and how changes in interpretation are changes prompted less by exegesis but, rather, by general theological positions and by cultural developments. In the chapter about modern re interpretations, Instone-Brewer investigates six areas: How many grounds for divorce apply today? What does the pomeia exception mean today? What does Paul's exception mean today? When is remarriage allowed today? How much does the NT agree with the OT and with first-century Judaism? What is the main message of the NT about divorce? For each area the author lays out the main positions that scholars argue today, briefly indicating their strengths and weaknesses before summarizing his own position.

In the concluding "pastoral conclusions," Instone-Brewer compares today's situation with the situation in both the Jewish and the Greco-Roman world: divorce is made easier, and, as no-fault divorces, divorce is no longer a matter for the courts but a matter of financial arrangement, lie emphasizes that the NT clearly teaches believers that groundless no-fault divorces are wrong. In terms of practical procedure, Instone-Brewer, with pastoral experience in a Baptist church in Cardiff, advises that a pre-marriage course for the couple is imperative and should clearly emphasize the significance of the marriage vows, that a minister/pastor "should rarely, if ever, advise a divorce, even if there are clear grounds for it" (p. 311), and that if a couple decides to divorce, the minister has to support their decision, even if their divorce cannot be justified by clear biblical grounds. He regards remarriage as the most difficult issue: he made the personal decision not to ask divorce's questions about their former marriage, but conducts a service of "repentance for broken promises" before the wedding.

Dr. Instone-Brewer has not just written another hook about this well-known and difficult topic, but arguably the best biblical study on the question of divorce and remarriage. Even if the reader disagrees with his conclusions, or with his suggestions regarding pastoral situations, he will enjoy the book as a rich resource for the OT, Jewish, and NT material. The presentation of primary texts and their meaning is superb, the discussion of dissenting views is fair, and the summaries are concise and to the point. His emphasis that the church should not follow the pressure of our modern societies in which divorces are no-fault divorces and have become commonplace, needs to be stressed today. His emphasis that the NT wants faithfulness of couples and reconciliation of sinners needs to be heard again. The question remains, however, whether the consensus of the early church fathers did not indeed reflect the proper interpretation of the NT divorce texts. Ins tone-Brewer finds the traditional position logically "very sound" but sees as its "biggest problem" that it is "totally impractical" (p. 272). Is the latter verdict really true, or a reaction to the state of affairs in our "modern" societies where everything goes? If the noble endeavor to avoid legalism (pp. 308-10) results in pastors supporting every person who seeks a divorce, even on unbiblical grounds, and in refraining from asking questions about the divorce of divorces who seek remarriage, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that divorce on demand and remarriage on demand have won the day, at least in the eyes of outside observers. The issue of divorce and marriage continues to be a difficult one, for real people in the real world and their pastors and for exegetes as well.

Eckhard J. Schnabel, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


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