Divorce and Remarriage in the Old Testament (updated and edited)

The Old Testament permitted divorce and remarriage. This was written into Mosaic law, which is of divine origin. The opinion which states that the Old Testament contains the misunderstandings and errors of an ancient people is abject heresy. All of Sacred Scripture is infallible and divinely-inspired.

In the Gospels, Jesus teaches that divorce and remarriage was permitted by Moses due to the hardness of hearts of humanity (not only of the Israelites).

{19:7} They said to him, “Then why did Moses command him to give a bill of divorce, and to separate?”
{19:8} He said to them: “Although Moses permitted you to separate from your wives, due to the hardness of your heart, it was not that way from the beginning.

But the plan and will of God, in all its perfection, was not that way from the beginning. Does this imply that the divorced and remarried of the Old Testament were living in sin, still married to their first spouses, and therefore committing adultery? No, that cannot be the case. For Jesus says that Moses did permit divorce, and therefore, it was permitted by divine ordinance.

“Wherefore, conjugal faith, or honor, demands in the first place the complete unity of matrimony which the Creator Himself laid down in the beginning when He wished it to be not otherwise than between one man and one woman. And although afterwards this primeval law was relaxed to some extent by God, the Supreme Legislator, there is no doubt that the law of the Gospel fully restored that original and perfect unity, and abrogated all dispensations as the words of Christ and the constant teaching and action of the Church show plainly.” [Casti Connubii n. 20].

As a reader pointed out to me, the relaxation of the law requiring marriage to be an indissoluble union of one man and one woman was restored to its original fullness by Christ, universally. Thus, divorce and polygamy are not moral, even for the unbaptized, subsequent to the arrival of Christ.

“And this inviolable stability, although not in the same perfect measure in every case, belongs to every true marriage, for the word of the Lord: “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder,” must of necessity include all true marriages without exception, since it was spoken of the marriage of our first parents, the prototype of every future marriage. Therefore although before Christ the sublimeness and the severity of the primeval law was so tempered that Moses permitted to the chosen people of God on account of the hardness of their hearts that a bill of divorce might be given in certain circumstances, nevertheless, Christ, by virtue of His supreme legislative power, recalled this concession of greater liberty and restored the primeval law in its integrity by those words which must never be forgotten, “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” ” [CC 34].

The marriage of the New Testament is greater than the marriage of the Old Testament. Therefore, even in New Testament times, a natural-only marriage can be dissolved by the Pauline privilege, i.e. by the authority of the Holy See. The full Sacrament of marriage, ratified and consummated, is not dissolvable by Church authority.

A related question is whether the polygamy of the Old Testament represents multiple valid natural marriages, or only one valid marriage, with the rest of the relations being adulterous? The multiple marriage and the resultant offspring of Jacob (Israel) form the very basis for the 12 tribes of Israel. And there is no hint of divine objection to these multiple marriage in the entire Old Testament, despite the clear condemnation of adultery in the Ten Commandments. So the polygamy of the OT was not a grave sin tolerated by God, but was permissible under a dispensation from God.

Permitted, at the time, were merely natural marriages with multiple simultaneous bonds of matrimony (perhaps only with multiple wives, not multiple husbands) and also divorce and remarriage. Both of these things are far from perfect, but were permitted due to the hardness of hearts of fallen sinners as well as the absence of the Seven Sacraments (needed to strengthen fallen sinners).

All this implies that, in the current economy of salvation, divorce and remarriage, as well as polygamy, are grave sins even for the unbaptized. However, they are immoral under the third font of circumstances, not the second font of the moral object. For God cannot grant a dispensation from an intrinsically evil act. To do so would contradict His own Nature, which is the source of all morality.

Similarly, God permitted the children of Adam and Eve to marry, even though they were closely related in the collateral line. But in the present time, persons related in the first and second degrees of the collateral may not marry, as it would be a grave sin (under the third font). By comparison, marriage in the direct line is intrinsically evil (under the second font), and there was never a dispensation from God for such a union.

A valid Sacrament of marriage, ratified but never consummated, is dissolvable by the power of the Church or by the solemn profession of religion by either spouse. A valid Sacrament of Marriage, ratified and consummated, is dissolved only by death (or by the general Resurrection, which has the same effects as death).

If baptized persons divorce and remarry, the sin is greater than for unbaptized persons, as the offense falls under the second and third fonts. And the same is true for polygamy.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

First font: intention
Second font: moral object
Third font: circumstances

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16 Responses to Divorce and Remarriage in the Old Testament (updated and edited)

  1. jbbt9 says:

    Thanks for this worthwhile post Ron.
    What is the meaning of “ratified” in the context of a Sacramental marriage?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Marriage is ratified at the exchange of vows, which is the formal consent to the marriage, usually at the wedding ceremony before a priest. Ratified refers to consent, before a witness for the Church (the priest). In the East, a priest is required for a valid marriage; in the Latin rite, it is ordinary but not required.

  2. Dora says:

    Could you explain “the solemn profession of religion by either spouse” ?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Trent, Matrimony, CANON VI — If anyone says that matrimony ratified, but not consummated, is not dissolved by the solemn profession of Religion by either spouse: let him be anathema.

      A spouse can join a religious order, as a nun or monk, and thereby dissolve a non-consummated Sacrament of marriage.

  3. Matt Z. says:

    Correct me if Im wrong. The last 3 paragraphs you are talking about in the Old Testament, not in our times? Because Christ changed the all the laws of marriage, for each and every person, not just the institution of the Sacrament. From what I understand, according to Servant of God, Fr.John Hardon, a natural marriage isnt valid unless the spouses are intending to be faithfull to each other, and only each other. This of course makes the sin of polygamy to be rejected by all people. Maybe Im not understanding you?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Edited and corrected: You are right that the dispensation to permit polygamy and divorce with remarriage ended with Christ. I’ve corrected my post above.

      Note that this implies that greater graces have been available from Christ, since His advent, worldwide, even among peoples who never heard of Him. Greater grace prevails in the hearts of very many persons who are unbaptized, since Christ died for them.

  4. Matt Z. says:

    Saint Thomas says that: Plurality of wives neither wholly destroys nor in any way hinders the first end of marriage (procreation and education of children) But though it does not wholly destroy the second end (support of spouses), it hinders it considerably for there cannot easily be peace in a family where several wives are joined to one husband, since one husband cannot suffice to satisfy the requisitions of several wives, and again because the sharing of several in one occupation is a cause of strife. (Supplement, Q. 65)

    St.Thomas is saying that polygamy goes against the second end of marriage.

    • Ron Conte says:

      St. Thomas implies that, for the unbaptized, polygamy is immoral under the third font (circumstances), but is not intrinsically evil (second font). See my updated post above.

  5. Marco says:

    “I answer that, on this point there are two opinions. For some say that under the Law those who put away their wives, after giving them a bill of divorce, were not excused from sin, although they were excused from the punishment which they should have suffered according to the Law: and that for this reason Moses is stated to have permitted the bill of divorce. Accordingly they reckon four kinds of permission: one by absence of precept, so that when a greater good is not prescribed, a lesser good is said to be permitted: thus the Apostle by not prescribing virginity, permitted marriage (1 Corinthians 7). The second is by absence of prohibition: thus venial sins are said to be permitted because they are not forbidden. The third is by absence of prevention, and thus all sins are said to be permitted by God, in so far as He does not prevent them whereas He can. The fourth is by omission of punishment, and in this way the bill of divorce was permitted in the Law, not indeed for the sake of obtaining a greater good, as was the dispensation to have several wives, but for the sake of preventing a greater evil, namely wife-murder to which the Jews were prone on account of the corruption of their irascible appetite. Even so they were allowed to lend money for usury to strangers, on account of corruption in their concupiscible appetite, lest they should exact usury of their brethren; and again on account of the corruption of suspicion in the reason they were allowed the sacrifice of jealousy, lest mere suspicion should corrupt their judgment. But because the Old Law, though it did not confer grace, was given that it might indicate sin, as the saints are agreed in saying, others are of opinion that if it had been a sin for a man to put away his wife, this ought to have been indicated to him, at least by the law or the prophets: “Show My people their wicked doings” (Isaiah 58:1): else they would seem to have been neglected, if those things which are necessary for salvation and which they knew not were never made known to them: and this cannot be admitted, because the righteousness of the Law observed at the time of the Law would merit eternal life. For this reason they say that although to put away one’s wife is wrong in itself, it nevertheless became lawful by God’s permitting it, and they confirm this by the authority of Chrysostom, who says [Hom. xxxii in the Opus Imperfectum falsely ascribed to St. John Chrysostom] that “the Lawgiver by permitting divorce removed the guilt from the sin.” Although this opinion has some probability the former is more generally held: wherefore we must reply to the arguments on both sides [Cf. I-II:105:4 ad 8; I-II:108:3 ad 2; Contra Gentes iii, cap. 123.]”

    I personally hold the first opinion, which entails that those people were living in sin by they were not punishable because Moses’ permission took way from them one the necessary subjective conditions to be guilty of actual mortal sin.

    What you stated in your post, Ron, is tenable in and of itself, but i disagree. I disagree even because God cannot make lawful what is intrinsically evil.

    In fact Saint Thomas says

    “Although their hardness of heart excused them not from sin, the permission given on account of that hardness excused them. “

    So according to Aquinas they were sinning, but that permission excused them from the consequences of said sin, because they couldn’t be held guilty.

    • Ron Conte says:

      “those people were living in sin by they were not punishable because Moses’ permission took way from them one the necessary subjective conditions to be guilty of actual mortal sin.”
      My position is that divorce and remarriage, and polygamy, are not intrinsically evil for the unbaptized, but are intrinsically evil for the baptized. So the dispensation applies to the circumstances, as is suggested by Thomas when he says that polygamy is not fitting to marriage because of secondary reasons.

    • Marco says:

      “My position is that divorce and remarriage, and polygamy, are not intrinsically evil for the unbaptized, but are intrinsically evil for the baptized.”

      But Saint Thomas, at least as far as divorce is concerned, said

      “Although their hardness of heart excused them not from sin, the permission given on account of that hardness excused them”

      Therefore he says very clearly that those people were sinning, from the objective point of view. They were not committing actual mortal sin, because they couldn’t, believing that that was what God wanted, but they sinned nontheless.

      “My position is that divorce and remarriage, and polygamy, are not intrinsically evil for the unbaptized, but are intrinsically evil for the baptized. “

      I don’t know Ron, it seems strange to me. Natural law applies to every man and woman, without distinction, as far as i know. Culpability is a different thing, though.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Three things can make an act a sin: intention, object, circumstances. A bad object makes the act intrinsically evil. A good object with one or two other fonts that are bad means the act is a sin, but not intrinsically evil. Since God and Scripture permitted these things, they cannot be intrinsically evil, certainly. And then my opinion is that these things were not sinful at all, prior to Christ, as the disorder is in the circumstances and is limited (to things related to marriage secondarily).

    • Marco says:

      But then again, why Saint Thomas said

      “Although their hardness of heart excused them not from sin, the permission given on account of that hardness excused them”

      As you can see he doesn’t deny that they were sin, even though he said that those people were excused.

      And the Church always condemned remarriage like an intrinsically evil.

      The Church says, in the Catechism, about polygamy

      “Conjugal] communion is radically contradicted by polygamy; this, in fact, directly negates the plan of God which was revealed from the beginning, because it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive.”

      So, if polygamy is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women, how is it possible that it wasn’t an objective sin? How could something which undermines the equal personal dignity of men and women be good in and of itself?

      And the Catechism even says ”divorce is a grave offense against the natural law” but the moral law is universally binding, so i don’t see how divorce and remarriage could have been good in and of itself in Moses’ times.

      Besides, Saint Thomas’ words are clear, he said that those people sinned objectively but they were excused subjectively.

    • Ron Conte says:

      My comments on the three fonts are being ignored. Sacred Scripture on divorce and remarriage before Christ is being ignored. Thomas is not infallible on this topic, whereas Scripture is infallible. I don’t see why I should keep replying to the same arguments repeated again and again. Maybe I’ll write a new post with a longer explanation.

    • Marco says:

      Ron, i’m not ignoring you, you wrote

      “A good object with one or two other fonts that are bad means the act is a sin, but not intrinsically evil. Since God and Scripture permitted these things, they cannot be intrinsically evil, certainly.”

      And my question is: why, then, the Church condemns them as intrinsically evil act? And intrinsically evil act cannot be rendered good by circumstances or different times, so how is it possibile that something that today can’t be committed under the pain of eternal damnation back in the days was inherently good?

      That’s my problem.

      Jesus said that MOSES permitted divorce and remarriage for the hardened hearts (so that they weren’t hold accountable at least) he didn’t say that God permitted it.

      So my opinion is that that law was put into practice because of the permissive will of God, with that i mean that God allow Moses to allow this concession. But i really can’t see how it wasn’t an objective sin.

    • Ron Conte says:

      My opinion: These acts are intrinsically evil for the baptized, and the Church is teaching the baptized. The view that says these acts are intrinsically evil for the unbaptized but they weren’t held accountable, fails to explain that the holy Patriarchs had multiple wives without any objection from Scripture. And God does not give concessions to intrinsically evil acts.
      My opinion: the unbaptized, before Christ, were in such a circumstance that these acts (which are not intrinsically evil for them) were permissible for a limited time. The traditional view of Augustine and Aquinas (and the Magisterium in CC) is that God gave a dispensation which ended with Christ. But dispensations never apply to intrinsically evil acts, but only to circumstances. My view explains everything, and the opposing view, while tenable and supportable, doesn’t really explain how a supposedly intrinsically evil grave sin would be given a dispensation. And No, you can’t hold that it was a grave sin (no dispensation) and they were just not held accountable. That doesn’t fit magisterial teaching or Scripture.

      I’m not going to continue to reply to these comments. I need to work on a long post to cover every point. I’m not ready to write that. It will probably have to wait until the new year.

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