Understanding Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Part 1: Textual Considerations

As Christians under the new covenant mediated by Christ Jesus our Lord, we find ourselves rarely involved with significant doctrinal disputes regarding Old Testament passages, and especially passages in the Law of Moses itself. In the current heat of the marriage, divorce, and remarriage controversy that has gripped the church, however, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 has become a passage of significant contention because of its use in Matthew 19:3-9:

And there came unto him Pharisees, trying him, and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?”
And he answered and said, “Have ye not read, that he who made them from the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh?’ So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
They say unto him, “Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorcement, and to put her away?”
He saith unto them, “Moses for your hardness of heart suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it hath not been so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery.”

The question of the Pharisees in verse 7 refers directly back to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and if we are going to be able to properly understand the reason for the question of the Pharisees and Jesus’ response to it, we must first understand Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Let us now begin our examination of this text.

As I have studied the passage in the original languages of the Bible– Hebrew and Greek, along with the witnesses of Latin and Syriac, it became evident that before we could properly analyze the message and apply it to Matthew 19, we must first reach some form of consensus on the text itself and understand what the text is trying to tell us. Let us examine these witnesses.

The two main variants can be found explicitly in the translations of the King James Version (KJV) and English Standard Version (ESV), as we may see below:

“When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance,” (KJV).

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance,” (ESV).

In order to understand the textual problems surrounding this passage we first must establish some terminology. Moses, when speaking these laws, is using what is called “conditional” clauses. A conditional clause is often seen in English as an “if…then” clause. “If you touch a hot stove, then you will be burned.” The “if” clause is called the protasis; the “then” clause is called the apodosis. Moses here is using a complicated form of a conditional sequence, with multiple protasis clauses.

The difference between the KJV and ESV translations of this passage involves verse 1: the KJV represents verse 1 as having three protasis clauses (if a man takes a wife, and he marries her, and she finds no favor in his eyes…), followed by a causal clause (because he has found in her an unclean thing), and then takes the next three clauses as the apodosis (let him write for her a certificate of divorce and give it into her hand and send her away), and then translate verses 2-3 as the protasis to the beginning of verse 4. The ESV, however, considers all of the clauses in verses 1-3 (save the causal clause in verse 1 and a relative clause in verse 3) as protasis clauses with the apodosis being the first apodosis in verse 4.

This difference may seem academic to some, but it makes an important difference in the exegetical history of this text: does Moses here command for the man to divorce his spouse in verse 1, or does Moses provide the divorce as a part of the circumstance that leads to the overall legislation in verse 4? This difference is critical for an understanding of Matthew 19:3-9. Let us examine the texts from the original languages.

Let us first look at the Hebrew, the language in which most of the Old Testament was originally composed:

“If a man takes a woman and marries her and it is that she finds no favor in his eyes because he finds in her an unclean thing and he writes for her a certificate of divorce and he puts it in her hand and he sends her from his house, and she goes out from his house and she goes and she becomes to another man (i.e., she marries another) and the latter man hates her and he writes for her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and he sends her from his house, or if the latter man, who took her as wife, dies, her former husband, who sent her away, is not able to take her again to be to him for a wife, after which she has been defiled, for this is an abomination in the sight of the LORD, and you will not cause the land to sin which the LORD your God is giving to you as an inheritance,” (Author’s Translation).

Let us examine what is going on in verse 1. The discussion begins with a “yiqtol” (imperfect/imperfective) verb form (generally translated as an English future; I have opted for the present tense due to the conditional construction at hand). Following this form are multiple clauses (broken up only by a causal clause– “because he finds in her an unclean thing”) with a verb-initial “qatal” (perfect/perfective) verb form. The “qatal” form is generally translated as an English past tense; when the verb begins with the vav-conjunction and is the first word (or second behind a preposition) in the clause, the verb form carries a “modal” tense– either an imperfect, an imperative, or an infinitive sense; this is often determined by the previous verbal form. Therefore, we take these verbal forms with the same sense as the “yiqtol” at the beginning of the clause.

What, then, do we do with our translations? The literal sense of the passage is exactly as the ESV has translated it; a comparison between my translation and the ESV demonstrates this. The Hebrew favors the belief that verses 1-3 serve as a long protasis to the first clause of verse 4: after many clauses with verb-initial “qatal” forms, we are greeted at verse 4 with another “yiqtol,” breaking the symmetry and presenting us with a main clause to which verses 1-3 are subordinate. It is also significant to note that the portion translated, “and he writes for her a certificate of divorce and he puts it in her hand and he sends her from his house,” is exactly the same in verse 1 as it is in verse 3. We see, therefore, that the Hebrew text favors the ESV rendering.

Let us now look at the Greek Septuagint, translated about 1300 years after the events in question yet is based on Hebrew texts and also the Bible of Jesus and the Apostles.

“If anyone may take a woman and lives with her and if it happens that she may find no favor in his eyes because he found in her an unclean thing, and he will write for her a certificate of divorce and he will give it into her hand and he will send her away from his house and departing she becomes to another man (i.e., she marries another man) and the latter man will hate her and he will write for her a certificate of divorce and he will give it into her hand and he will send her away from his house, or if the latter man who took her himself as a wife will die, the former husband, the one who sent her away, will not be able to return to take her as wife to himself after she has been defiled, because it is an abomination in the sight of the Lord your God; and you may not sin upon the land which the Lord your God is giving to you in an inheritance,” (Author’s Translation).

In order to understand the Greek text, we must realize first that its translators are going from a language in the Semitic family– Hebrew– to a language in the Indo-European family. Significant concepts in Indo-European languages (in Greek as well and English) such as tense was not marked as definitively in Hebrew as it is in Greek. The Greek translators, therefore, had to determine from their text the best way of expressing tense and other grammatical concepts so that the Greek reader would understand. We also must understand that Hebrew constructions like the conditional clause are inferred from preposition use, context and textual meaning rather than specific markers; Greek, although having specific prepositions for conditional clauses, is often sloppy with the conditional tenses and prepositions. This is precisely what we see in this text.

The Greek text begins with favoring the KJV rendering of verse 1, since it translates the first few clauses with a subjunctive mood and then switches to the indicative mood with a future tense at “he will write for her a certificate of divorce…;” this represents a normal future more vivid conditional construction. At this point, however, the text continues with the verbs in the future tense through verse 3; this either would represent a continual apodosis (i.e. if he marries her and then divorces her she will find another and and he will either hate and divorce her or he will die), which would denote contextually a mandate of future events, or we just have clauses continuing on without any subordination. This is very difficult to reconcile with verse 4. The parallelism and obvious conclusion of the Hebrew text is not present here; the apodosis seems to be too early and the translator did not have any idea what to do with verses 2-3. It is significant to note two other things: first, verse 2 does not contain a particle demonstrating another conditional clause (which one would expect if we were to have two conditionals in this passage, as the KJV translates), and the parallelism between verses 1 and 3 is broken in the Greek text by a mood and tense change.

What, then, shall we say about this text? Perhaps Jesus Himself can assist us in Matthew 19:7-8:

They say unto him, “Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorcement, and to put her away?”
He saith unto them, “Moses for your hardness of heart suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it hath not been so.”

The Pharisees here in verse 7 apply Deuteronomy 24:1 as if Moses were giving a command for the Israelites to divorce their wives, and yet Jesus corrects them by saying that Moses “suffered” them to put away their wives. It was not a command but a concession. Is Jesus verifying the original Hebrew version over a possible corrupted variant in the Greek Septuagint? Even if this is reading too much into the text, the fact that Jesus did not assent to the idea that Moses “commanded” divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1 gives credence to the Hebrew version over the Greek version of the text. It is always difficult to weigh against the Septuagint since it is the Bible of Jesus and the Apostles; the testimony of Jesus Himself, however, demonstrates this as being necessary.

Let us now look at two other textual witnesses, the Latin Vulgate of ca. 350 CE and the Syriac Peshitta of ca. 400 CE.

“If a man will have taken a woman and will have lived with her and she will have not received favor before his eyes because of a filthy thing, then he will write a certificate of divorce and he will put it into her hand and he will send her from his house, and if departing she will have married another, and this one will have hated her and and he will have given her a certificate of divorce and he will have sent her from his house or this one will have died; the previous husband will have not been able to take her as wife because she is polluted; this being an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. Make not sins on your land which the Lord your God is giving to you as a possession,” (Author’s Translation of the Latin Vulgate).

“And if a man will take a woman and he will live with her; if she did not find mercy in his eyes, because he will find in her an unclean thing, he will write for her a certificate of divorce, and he will give it to her an he will send her away from his house, and if she will go and she will become to another man as wife, and this other man will hate her, and he will write for her a certificate of divorce, and he will give it to her, and he will send her away from his house, or if this other man who took her will die, it is not lawful for the first husband who sent her away to have her; he cannot take her again after she is defiled, because it is an abomination before the Lord. And do not sin upon the land which the Lord your God is giving to you as an inheritance,” (Author’s Translation of the Syriac Peshitta).

We can see that the Latin completes the conditional tendency seen in the Greek, but this time Jerome completes fully the conditional clauses of verse 1 (future perfect and then future, a future more vivid construction, at the same point at the Greek), and then begins verse 2 with a conditional conjunction, yet, as in the Greek, the verb translated “will not have been able” is in the same tense as all the verbs in verses 2 and 3, this time the future perfect. This causes the same kind of tensions as we saw in the Greek text regarding conditional clauses.

The Syriac, while adding more “if” conjunctions/prepositions in the text, yet still maintains the verb continuity that is present in the Hebrew, using the imperfect form throughout the text, except, curiously, in the clause, “she did not find mercy in his eyes,” which uses a perfect form. This does not make any real changes to the analysis, however, and it should be noted that the Syriac maintains the verse 1/verse 3 parallelism as the Hebrew did also.

What, then, shall we say regarding these things? Which translation shall we use? The ESV’s rendering has strong evidence from both the Hebrew and the Syriac texts, and while the KJV favors the Greek and Latin rendering in verse 1, it attempts to correct in English the problems that the Greek and Latin texts have in verses 2-4 regarding continuity in tense and conditional construct. The difficulty that the Greek and Latin texts portray in verses 2-4 and also the truth of Jesus in Matthew 19:7-8, both as noted above, however, should lead us to recognize that the ESV (and the author’s rendering of the Hebrew) is the best way of looking at Deuteronomy 24:1-4. We determine, therefore, that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 represents a law for the Israelites made in the form of a conditional sequence, with verses 1-3 representing the protasis that provides the situation and verse 4 being the apodosis that provides the law and the explanation for the law in the situation of verses 1-3. Next we will examine the ramifications of this truth when we continue to look at Deuteronomy 24:1-4, this time to understand the text and how it relates to the current controversy surrounding marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

ELDV

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