God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce (Review)

protection

by Marie Notcheva

For several months now, I have wanted to review Pastor Herb Vander Lugt’s booklet, “God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce”. As the senior research editor for RBC (now Our Daily Bread Ministries), Lugt’s 1982 book is a concise, yet exegetically-rich resource biblically challenging the view that divorce is never justified by abuse. Far from being a plea to reason based on emotionalism (or even pastoral experience), Lugt effectively shows how a faulty hermeneutic has led many conservative pastors and churches to teach that Matthew 5:32 is the final and definitive word on divorce.

As a former pastor of mine used to say, “Be careful about basing a doctrine on one verse.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in the thorny endeavor to unpack all of what Scripture has to say about divorce (as well as abuse of different kinds; abandonment; and re-marriage). Wisely, Lugt begins with the assertion that “Moses, Jesus and Paul all recognized a range of marital conditions that are worse than divorce”. (P. 3). He then re-caps historical anthropology of women being treated as property, pausing on the Puritans who were a notable exception:

“In the spirit of the Reformation, Puritans didn’t see marriage as an indissoluble sacrament but as a civil contract that could be terminated if either party did not fulfill fundamental duties of marriage. Although cruelty was not a recognized ground for divorce in the Puritan era, there are those who thought cruelty to a wife was a type of desertion.” (p. 4).

Lugt then proceeds to demonstrate how, even in modern times, women have been overly-subjugated by a misunderstanding of the word “helper” in Genesis 2:18.

“There is no sense in which this word connotes a position of inferiority or subordinate status. The word “suitable for” literally means “in front of”, signifying one who stands face to face with another, qualitatively the same, his essential equal, and therefore his “correspondent” (“Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 666-7, IVP, Downers Grove, 1996).”

Before delving into the second section of the booklet, “Protection of Women under the Law of Moses,” Lugt then highlights the fallacy that male domination is a “right” inherited from the Fall — consistent with the rest of Genesis 3, it was a “curse” that, like sickness, thorns and discord, should be resisted and fought.

Mosaic Law

Even the most weak and vulnerable women in Hebraic society — daughters sold as slaves, wives or concubines were protected under the Law of Moses. Quite progressive for its time, Exodus 21:7-11 lists the “three foundations of marital duty” — namely, the provision of food, clothing, and ‘marriage rights’ – often interpreted as affection and marital love. (In fact, the Jewish Ketubah lays these out as a contract, not very much unlike Ephesians 4.)

Breaking these conditions is, in fact, a violation of the marriage covenant. But more significantly, it shows the principle of protection that is seen throughout Scripture, from the lesser to the greater: if God would provide protection and care even for a slave, how much more is owed to a free wife? Verse 11 makes it clear that if the husband fails to fulfill this contractual obligation, he is to “let her go free”. This has been proven conclusively by theologians to mean a formal divorce, the get. Of course, neither rabbis nor Lugt in this apologetic argues that this is the ideal; rather, the Mosaic divorce allowance was given by God for humanitarian means – to protect women from cruelty. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 similarly makes provision for the divorce, protection and remarriage of non-Israelite prisoners of war.

A slightly more obscure passage Lugt addresses in the Mosaic code is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which he points out would cause a man to think twice before deciding to divorce his wife at will (he was now prohibited from re-marrying her). Worthy of note is that the vague term “uncleanness” in verse 1 does not refer to adultery, which would have carried the death penalty. He was, however, precluded from re-marrying her, which underlines the permanence of the divorce and foreshadows Jesus’ warning in Matthew 19:8 against divorcing one’s wife “for any and every reason”. Divorce was a concession; a last-resort, and not something to be carried out lightly.

“The same law that offers penalties for murder, theft, perjury, and adultery also provides consequences when the purpose and covenant of marriage are broken by contempt and abuse.”(p. 12).

Unraveling Malachi 2:16

After demonstrating the similar intent of protection of both Jesus and Moses, (whose Law Jesus upheld completely during His ministry), Lugt turns toward the most oft-misquoted verse in the Bible regarding divorce: Malachi 2:16 (which he quotes from the New King James Version:

“For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce,
For it covers one’s garment with violence,”Says the Lord of hosts.” 

Compare this rendering with the more accurate, word-for-word translation of the English Standard Version:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (ESV).

While Lugt correctly noted that the prophet was dealing with “treacherous” divorces — men who didn’t care about their wives, and abused their power to abandon them to a live of poverty and disgrace — what he failed to do was address the etymology of that verse. As Barbara Roberts (author ofNot Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion”) has pointed out, the verse is often incorrectly and incompletely translated as “I hate divorce” and used as a catch-all conversation stopper to assert that divorce is never permitted biblically. However, this is neither the correct interpretation nor intention of the passage (written during a time period when male casual divorce was rampant). She writes:

“The incorrect translation came about as follows. The word “hates” in Malachi 2:16 is he hates. The Hebrew denotes third person masculine singular = he. The King James version had For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away. Many subsequent translations switched the third person “he” to a first person “I” without any grammatical warrant. For example, the 1984 NIV was “ ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” Possibly translators thought the switch was okay because it retained the sense of the KJV — that God feels the hatred [for divorce]. They did not seem to worry that “I hate divorce” was grammatically inaccurate to the original Hebrew.

But modern translations are starting to correct this mistake. The construction in Hebrew (“he hates… he covers”) shows that the one who feels the hatred is not God, but the divorcing husband. To be faithful to the Hebrew, the verse could be rendered, “If he hates and divorces,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with violence.” It is talking about a husband who hates his wife and divorces her because of his aversion for her. Therefore, Malachi 2:16 is only referring to a specific type of divorce: divorce for aversion, which could be dubbed “hatred divorce”. Divorce for hatred is treacherous divorce: if a man hates his wife and dismisses, he “covers his garment with violence” — his conduct is reprehensible, he has blood on his hands.[1]

Apart from this omission, Lugt’s treatment of Old Testament divorce laws’ protection and provision for women was solid. He correctly points out (quoting biblical scholar Joe Sprinkle) that the context of Malachi 2:16 is a limited one: taken in accordance with the allowances for divorce made elsewhere in Scripture, it is clearly only certain divorces in certain circumstances to which God is opposed. While upholding the sanctity of marriage, Lugt next turns to the New Testament teaching on divorce to demonstrate how Christ, Moses and Paul’s teachings complement one another.

New Testament Application

The reader doesn’t need to be convinced that Jesus demonstrated a concern and caring for women that went beyond the social mores of the First Century. Nor is it hard to see that the God of Scripture is a Protector and Defender of the weak and downtrodden.  Lugt asks then the rhetorical questions, “Does Matthew 5:31-32 over-ride the provision offered divorced women in Deuteronomy? Was Jesus, by this one statement, disagreeing with Moses?

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV)

Of course not. Just as with all of Scripture, a correct hermeneutic demands we examine context (Literal-Historical and Synthetic Principle of Scriptural interpretation.) Jesus was, in the Sermon on the Mount, addressing the Pharisees’ specific excesses and “stretches” in interpreting and teaching the Law of Moses. They had added hundreds of laws onto the original Levitical code, and the abuse of the divorce clause in Deuteronomy 24 was no exception. In reality, divorced women of the First Century were disgraced and had few career prospects outside of prostitution. It is not biblically consistent to say that He was contradicting the conditions Moses had set, but is more consistent with the passage that He was forcing the Pharisees to focus on the condition of their own hearts. Relational sin was the point; the one statement was clearly not intended to be the single and final word on divorce (as Paul later demonstrates).

Later in Matthew 19:3-9, Lugt notes, we in fact see the Pharisees trying to entrap Jesus by confronting Him with the Law of Moses on the same subject. While upholding the sacred ideal of the permanence of marriage, Jesus did not disagree with Moses in allowing divorce.

“Commenting on the allowance made for hardness of heart, Dr. Willard notes: ‘No doubt what was foremost in His [Jesus’] mind was the fact that the woman could quite well wind up dead, or brutally abused, if the man could not “dump” her. It is still so today, of course. Such is our “hardness of heart”. Better, then, that a divorce occur than a life be made unbearable. Jesus does nothing to retract this principle….no one regards a divorce as something to be chosen for its own sake…but of course a brutal marriage is not a good thing either, and we must resist any attempt to classify divorce as a special, irredeemable form of wickedness. It is not. It is sometimes the right thing to do, everything considered.” Professor Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, HarperCollins, 1997. pp. 169-70.

Lugt begins his conclusion by demonstrating again how the Mosaic Code and the teachings of Christ on divorce complemented each other. He argues that Jesus was forcing the hypocritical religious leaders of the time to examine their own hard hearts in putting women in danger           (both by abuse and neglect, and unrighteous divorce), as they were actually ignoring Moses’ rabbinical provision for women. Moses had given the Elders of Israel “a legal basis to free a woman from the neglect, contempt, and abuse of a cruel husband” (p. 21). There was no need for Jesus to cite all of these scripturally-valid grounds for divorce, any more than He explained the full Gospel of salvation by faith alone when speaking to the Rich Young Ruler. As Lugt points out, context is crucial. He was not addressing women in distress; He was addressing the self-righteous men who did as they pleased in “putting away” their wives.

Of course, Jesus also didn’t mention the additional circumstances meriting divorce later cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

 

Giving these instructions on the basis of Christ’s authority, why is there no mention of the fornication clause? It is evident here that the woman can obtain a divorce (under civil law; for unspecified reasons). And why the no-remarriage clause, Lugt asks, when Paul would have been well-acquainted with Mosaic teaching on remarriage? Lugt argues that the context of chapter 7 suggests Paul was answering specific questions raised by the Corinthian believers about celibacy (advocated by some even within marriage), and about marriage itself. He urges wives not to leave, but as a concession states that they are then to remain unmarried (which brings up another set of questions about divorced Christians re-marrying within the Church, which Lugt doesn’t address). Nor does Lugt address the fact that the New Testament uses the same word for “divorce” as for “separation” – the distinction made by the modern-day church is absent in the pages of Scripture. Nowhere do we see the Early Church pressuring divorced women to “reconcile” with their husbands, under any circumstances.

Conclusion

Lugt’s short book is a helpful resource for pastors, counselors and Christians in abusive or contentious marriages in order to understand God’s original design for marriage; as well as His protection in certain circumstances where divorce is allowed as a concession. Abuse is unequivocally one of these conditions. Actually examining the context and hermeneutic in which certain passages were written is illuminating in dispelling the “abuse is not biblical grounds for divorce” fallacy that exists in some churches, and serves to keep women in bondage. Lugt writes:

“Many…in trying to return to the ideal of marital love and permanence have not seen the wisdom God Himself showed in circumstances of marital abuse….divorce reflects a serious and costly departure from God’s original design. But the solution to the problem is not found in misrepresenting the heart of the law or in ignoring the plight of abused or unloved wives. Neither can we rightly maintain that sexual unfaithfulness or the desertion of an unbelieving mate are the only grounds for a divorce.”  (p. 26).

The brevity of Lugt’s book did not address every possible question that arises from the question of Christian divorce (such as remarriage), and while his exposition of Malachi 2:16 was somewhat lacking, overall “God’s Protection of Women” is an excellently-written and much-needed treatment of an issue that has caused much confusion and additional pain to abused women. It deserves a place in every biblical counselor’s library.

[1] https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/10/24/god-hates-divorce-not-always/ Barbara’s book can be purchased at notunderbondage.com or from any book retailer.

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One thought on “God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce (Review)

  1. Excellent booklet I’ve had on my shelf for many years, and have used it for reference in one situation where my wife and I counseled a woman living with a very abusive husband; she was seeking a divorce but was told she by her church leaders that she had no biblical justification and therefore had to remain with him. She did end up divorcing him.

    Liked by 1 person

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