Is Jesus Just Explaining

The Divorce Law Of

Deuteronomy 24:1-4?

By Patrick T. Donahue

In Mt 5:31-32, Jesus said "It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." The obvious approach to take on this passage is that Jesus is quoting Deut 24:1, and then giving his new covenant teaching on the subject in contrast to the old covenant teaching of Moses. But many among us are rejecting this application, and instead are teaching that Jesus was just explaining the true meaning of Deut 24:1-4 in Mt 5:31-32 (and Mt 19:3-9). They then make a jump (with no justification), and say therefore that the teaching contained in Deut 24:1-4 applies to us today under the new covenant.

Jerry Bassett uses this approach as a basis for his false teaching on the subject that is presented in his book "Rethinking Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage." Samuel Dawson teaches that the "uncleanness" in Deut 24:1 is adultery, and since the woman put away in Deut 24 could remarry (and since the teaching of Deut 24:1-4 still applies today), the put away guilty fornicator can remarry under the new covenant. Others teach that the "uncleanness" in Deut 24:1 is not adultery, and since the woman put away in Deut 24 could remarry (and since Deut 24:1-4 still applies today), an innocent put away person can remarry under the new covenant.

Jesus Is Contrasting The New Law With The Old Law

It is strange to me how so many could believe that in every instance in Mt 5:21-48, Jesus is just correcting false interpretations of Moses' law, when in no less than five of the six times that he speaks of what "was said by them of old time," he essentially quotes Moses' law (verses 21, 27, 31, 38, and 43a). Since when is a false interpretation of God's word correctly represented by an exact quote from God's word? In addition, the case that does not appear to be an exact quote is perhaps the clearest of all in showing that Jesus is in the (preparatory) process of establishing a new law in this section. In Mt 5:33-37, Jesus says "Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: ... But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." Is Jesus correcting a false interpretation of Moses' law here by giving the true understanding? The obvious answer is no. What Jesus presents in verse 33 is not a false interpretation of Moses' law. Lev 19:12, Num 30:2, and Ps 15:1,4b clearly taught that it was wrong to "forswear thyself" (swear to do something and then fail to follow through on that promise). And Jesus' contrasting teaching in verse 34, "Swear not at all," is not the true meaning of Moses' law; instead it is different than Moses' law. Moses' law taught that it was right to swear, but just wrong to forswear thyself (see the three verses above). Jesus' teaching is stricter than that. He is teaching that you shouldn't swear in the first place. His is new covenant teaching (see also James 5:12).

Nowhere in Mt 5:21-48 is Jesus just giving the true interpretation of Moses' law. He is giving new covenant law. This includes Mt 5:31-32, where Jesus is contrasting (notice the contrast word "But") his new law on divorce ("new," but the same as in the beginning, Mt 19:3-9) with Moses' law. Jesus' and Moses' divorce laws are different.

Jesus' Divorce Law Is Different Than Moses' Divorce Law

In previous discussions, many differences between Jesus' law on divorce and Moses' law on divorce have been brought out. In Deut 24:1-2, the one who was divorced had the right to remarry another, while Mt 5:32b and 19:9b teach that the one divorced does not have the right to remarry another. In Deut 24:3-4 the put away woman could not go back to her first husband if she remarried and the second marriage ended in divorce or death, but the new testament demands that she must go back if the first divorce was unscriptural (Mt 5:32, I Cor 7:10-11). Lev 20:10 teaches that the adulterer was to be stoned, while Mt 19:9 teaches, not that they are to be stoned, but that they could be divorced. In addition, Deut 21:11-14 allowed a man to get rid of a foreign wife simply if he had "no delight in her." The New Testament allows no such thing.

Here the discussion turns to whether or not "uncleanness" in Deut 24:1 refers to adultery. The point has been made many times that "uncleanness" in Deut 24:1 cannot refer to adultery, because adulterers were not divorced under Moses' law, they were stoned (Lev 20:10). But Samuel Dawson and others say that the adulterer was only put to death when there were two or three witnesses (Deut 17:6); that Deut 24:1 is talking about divorce for fornication when there were not two witnesses. Thus they think they have Mt 19:9 and Deut 24:1 equivalent on this point. This idea, that Deut 24:1 could be talking about divorce for adultery, when the adultery wasn't witnessed by two or more, sounds plausible on the surface, but I believe Mr. Dawson and the others are overlooking the significance of two important test cases found in Moses' law, and another important verse concerning two or three witnesses.

Two Tests For Sexual Immorality

It is true that a person could not be put to death under Moses' law without incontrovertible proof. But there was at least one other valid form of proof (a test of God) that was acceptable in addition to the proof of two or more actually witnessing a woman in the act of adultery. In Deut 22:13-21, we are given the case of what is sometimes called the "tokens of virginity" test. If a man suspected that his wife had not been a virgin when he married her, then he could bring it up before the elders of the city. The parents of the wife then had the opportunity to bring the tokens of their daughter's virginity to the elders to prove her innocence. If they could not produce these tokens of virginity, their daughter's guilt was evidently assumed. Now normally someone wouldn't be stoned without two or three witnesses to the act, but in this case, because she failed God's test, that was considered good enough proof, and the people were instructed to stone the immoral woman (Deut 22:21).

In Num 5:13-27, we have another test given. This one was for sexual immorality after the marriage. It is generally called the "bitter water" test. If a man suspected his wife of adultery, but there were "no witnesses against her" (verse 13), the man was to take his wife to the priest. The priest was to cause the woman to drink the bitter water (holy water with dust put in). If the woman was guilty of adultery, then the Lord would cause her belly to swell, and her thigh to rot. If this did not happen, she was considered to be innocent of the charge. Here is valid proof of sexual immorality just like in Deut 22:13-21, and I think it is safe to say that the instructions of Lev 20:10 (stoning) were to be carried out in this case also (divorce is certainly not mentioned).

Remember, Deut 24:1 is talking about a woman "found" in uncleanness. This indicates that there was not just some suspicion of guilt, but that there was valid proof of the guilt. But if adultery were involved, valid proof would lead to death, not divorce. So Mr. Dawson's point that Deut 24:1 could be talking about adultery (witnessed by less than two), because no one could be put to death without two witnesses, is not true. Deut 22:13-21 clearly gives a case where another form of proof, in absence of two witnesses, was good enough for stoning. Therefore the proposition that Deut 24:1 cannot be talking about divorce for adultery (because the sentence for adultery was stoning, not divorce) still stands. And that leads again to the conclusion that Jesus is not explaining the true meaning of Deut 24:1-4 in Mt 5:32 and 19:3-9, but instead is teaching something different (his new law).

2 Or 3 Witnesses Applies To All Offenses

An "ungetoverable" problem with Mr. Dawson's theory that Deut 24:1 is talking about divorce for unwitnessed adultery, is that under this supposed scenario, a man wouldn't be able to divorce his wife without 2 or 3 witnesses either. Deut 19:15 shows that the 2 or 3 witnesses rule applies to "any" accusation of sin, not just to capital offenses. So it would take 2 or 3 witnesses (or another form of valid proof) for a man to "convict" his wife of adultery, regardless of whether the penalty was death or divorce. If the man had 2 or 3 witnesses (proof), the instruction was for the wife to be stoned. If he had no proof, if it were just his word against hers, he had no right to have her stoned or to divorce her. She was not just assumed guilty just because he accused her. Proof was required. Divorce for "uncleanness" in Deut 24:1 had to have been divorce for a proven non-capital offense, something other than adultery.


Jesus' law on divorce is stricter than Moses' law (as has already been shown). Those who try to bring Deut 24:1-4 into the new covenant do so with the result that the looser teaching of Moses on the subject applies to situations today. But Moses' law does not apply today, Jesus' law does.

Jesus shows this in Mt 5:31-32 by quoting Moses' law from Deut 24:1, and then giving his contrasting ("But") teaching that divorce is wrong except for fornication. Jesus shows this again in Mt 19:8-9 by admitting that Moses did allow divorce for reasons other than fornication, before pointing out that ... "but from the beginning it was not so." Verse 9 shows that Jesus' teaching was going to be the same as in the beginning, that his teaching was, divorce except for fornication, followed by remarriage, is adultery.

Will the new methods of introducing more exceptions never end? Jesus' teaching is simple and straightforward. Divorce is always wrong, "saving for the cause of fornication" (Mt 5:32).

[Pat Donahue, Pat.Donahue@MSFC.NASA.GOV, 4607 Old Railroad Bed Road, Harvest, Alabama 35749, (205) 721-0726 home, (205) 461-4303 office]

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks to Pat for the article! If you DISAGREE with what Pat Donahue taught in his article, please write him, or me, and we will be happy to consider publishing a "differing view" (and review), or arrange for a public discussion (written or oral) on this vital Bible subject. I can be reached at  

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