Marriage and divorce in ancient Israel (Malachi 2)

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Illustration: Abram sends Hagar away

At the heart of the Hebrew concept of marriage is the notion of covenant – a legally binding agreement with spiritual and emotional ramifications (Proverbs 2:17). God serves as witness to the marriage covenant, blessing its faithfulness but hating its betrayal (Malachi 2:14-16). The Lord’s intimate involvement renders this legal commitment a spiritual union, “so they are no longer two, but one” (Matthew 19:6). The purpose of marriage as articulated in the Bible is to find true companionship (Genesis 2:18, Proverbs 18:22), produce godly offspring (Malachi 2:15, 1 Corinthians 7:14) and fulfil God’s calling upon an individual’s life (Genesis 1:28).

It was customary in ancient Israel for parents to arrange a marriage (Genesis 24:47-53, 38:6, 1 Samuel 18:17), although marrying for love was not uncommon (Judges 14:2). Arranged marriages highlight the nature of the marriage covenant as a commitment intended to outlast youthful infatuation. The declaration at the first marriage, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23), is a kinship formula (Genesis 29:14, 2 Samuel 5:1, 19:12-13). Marriage binds husband and wife together into an entity greater than either partner as an individual, and it does so in order to assure continually of the family lineage. Marriage within the kinship group was encouraged so as not to alienate family land holdings (Genesis 24:4, Numbers 36:6-9), and in the event that a woman’s husband died and left her childless, the law provided for the husband’s brother to act as a levirate in order to raise up offspring for the deceased (Genesis 38:8, Deuteronomy 25:5-6).

An engagement period preceded the wedding celebration and the consummation of the marriage union. The pledge of engagement was regarded as being as binding as the marriage itself, and a betrothed woman was considered legally married (Deuteronomy 22:23-29). The engagement was concluded by the payment of a bride-price to the woman’s father (Genesis 29:18, Judges 1:12). This may be understood as a compensation given to the family for the loss of their daughter. The father enjoyed its usage temporarily, but the money reverted to the daughter at the father’s death or in the event she were widowed. In addition, gifts were given to the bride and her family at the acceptance of a marriage proposal (Genesis 24:53). Thus, marriage and its attendant economic investment brought the bride and groom’s families into legal relationship with one another (Genesis 31:50).

Israelite law included a provision for divorce . initiated by the husband only. Marriages were dissolved contractually with a certificate of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1). The divorce document most likely recorded a formula of repudiation declared orally before witnesses: “She is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hosea 2:2). The declaration might have been accompanied by a sign, the act of an annulment of the promise made at the time of the wedding to protect and provide for her (Ruth 3:9, Ezekiel 16:8, Hosea 2:3, 9). A man was not permitted to divorce his wife if he had forcefully violated her while she was yet unbetrothed (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) or if he had falsely accused her of nonvirginal status at the time they had weed (Deuteronomy 22:13-19).


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