A preacher asks concerning Deuteronomy 24:1, the text to which Jesus refers in his own teaching about divorce, “Does ‘uncleanness’ in this passage mean that the woman has been immoral?”
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That has always been open to question, among ancient Jewish rabbis as well as among Christians today. Where English translations say “uncleanness” or “indecency” (NASB) in Deut. 24:1, the Greek Old Testament used by the earliest church and known as the Septuagint has “disgraceful (aschemon) thing (pragma).” A few verses earlier, the same two words refer to excrement which Israelites are to bury and not leave on the ground because God “walks in the midst” of their camp and must not see “anything indecent” (Deut. 23:13-14 / Greek OT 24:14-15).
This adjective describes Shechem’s rape of Dinah in Genesis 34:7, and Paul uses it when he speaks of the “unseemly” parts of the human body (1 Cor. 12:23). The verb form of this same word means “to behave unseemly” or “to act indecorously.” That might involve an excessive judicial beating (Deut. 25:3), an infant girl abandoned naked and “bare” (Ezek. 16:7, 22, 39), or a naked and “bare” Israel as God’s unfaithful wife (Ezek. 23:29). The New Tesament uses this verb in saying that love “does not behave itself unseemly” (1 Cor. 13:5), and in speaking of a father who thinks he is acting “unbecomingly” toward his virgin daughter (1 Cor. 7:36).
What might be most interesting about Deuteronomy 24:1-4, to which our Lord alludes in his own teaching about divorce (Matt. 5:31; 9:7-9; Mk. 10:4-5), is that it explicitly FORBIDS what traditional teaching today often REQUIRES, namely that a woman divorced from one husband and married to a second husband divorce the second husband and remarry the first one. To do that, according to the author of Deuteronomy, would be an “abomination” and would “bring sin on the land.”
Jesus calls us to rise above legalistic quibblings on this subject and to seek to fulfill God’s original and highest purpose for marriage. The fact that human beings never fully live up to it does not lower the standard. The good news is that, with God, it is never too late to seek divine forgiveness for past failings and to take up the quest anew.