For whatever reason, as Christians we initially think that everyone in the Bible lived perfectly holy lives. We think that because they are examples of how to live a life in fellowship with God they were so much better than we are today. But then we start reading the Bible. And we are instantly shown that people throughout history have had a hard time staying on the straight and narrow.
In total, there are six examples of divorce in the Bible, including God the Father, the most surprising example of all! Abraham and Hagar get divorced after they and Sarah totally muddle God’s plan for their future generations. Moses divorced Zipporah. The Israelites were commanded to divorce their foreign wives. Herodias and Philip were divorced in an unsanctioned-by-God- divorce. And Joseph came very close to divorcing Mary, the mother of Jesus. Let’s take a deeper look at all of these examples.
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Examples of Divorce in the Bible: Old Testament
Surprisingly, the Old Testament has more to say about divorce than the New Testament. The reason for this is because the Old Testament speaks a lot to the establishment of laws and culture. Let’s take a look at some of them. I am sure you will recognize some of them, but then be surprised by others.
Abraham and Hagar get Divorced
This isn’t just a sad case of divorce; it is a sad case of marriage and life.
Abraham and Sarah married as Abram and Sarai. As God blessed them, He changed their names and promised them descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. But Sarah was barren and ended up childless and too old to bear children. They couldn’t understand why God would promise something so hopeful and then turn His back on them. But He didn’t. More on that later.
Because Sarah could no longer bear children in her old age, she suggested Abraham marry her servant, Hagar. Abraham did just that and Hagar became pregnant and bore a son, Ishmael. Sarah regretted her advice to Abraham and became jealous and enraged, to the point she got very abusive with Hagar. This behavior, as well as the birth of Abraham and Sarah’s promised child’s birth, forced Abraham to divorce Hagar and send her and Ishmael away.
Abraham was deeply grieved about this because he loved his son, Ishmael. But surprisingly, God tells Abraham to do what Sarah says because it is the best thing for both Isaac and Ishmael. (This was disastrous for history at large, because both Isaac and Ishmael went on to have innumerable descendants which have battled with each other throughout history). You can read the full story in Genesis 16 and 21.
Moses Divorced Zipporah
While the Bible does not specifically say Moses divorced his first wife, Zipporah, his act of sending her back to her father with their two sons is indication of divorce in Bible times. It is the very definition of divorce: giving your wife supplies and needs and then sending her away to live independently as he proceeded to commence the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. You can find the verse about Moses sending Zipporah away in Exodus 18:2.
The theory that Moses had divorced Zipporah is further bolstered when you read in Numbers 12:1, that he married a Cushite (Ethiopian) woman while Zipporah and children were with her father. This was during the time Moses and Aaron were leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness. As the story goes, Miriam and Aaron (Moses siblings according to Numbers 26: 57–59) were offended that Moses would marry an Ethiopian woman and complained loudly about it. God heard them and chided them for their criticism. God then struck Miriam with leprosy for one week, to feel the pain of the unfair judgment against their brother.
As a side note, some people believe that Zipporah and the Ethiopian woman were the same person. But Zipporah was from Midian, so that theory really doesn’t hold up.
What makes this story interesting is that Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a priest. And he ended up later sending Zipporah back to Moses, telling him he needed to take her back and take care of her and their children. So, apparently, Moses remarried Zipporah and was from then on a polygamist. Not wonderful, but something God did not outright condemn at that time. We will have to unpack that one in another article!
Here are several articles that deal directly with divorce that you may find helpful (this article continues below this list):
God Allowed Divorce to Protect Women From the Hardness of Men’s Hearts
There were times in the Old Testament that men would marry women, get tired of them, and then throw them away. In those times, the humiliation the woman faced was not the biggest problem. The primary issue was that women could not make a living on their own at the time, so divorcing and sending away their wives was the same as throwing them out to live on the street. It was brutal to say the least.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14 speaks directly about this. It actually speaks about beautiful women that men at war find and desire to have as their own. The first problem with this is that the men treated these women as property they could just take as spoils of war. They didn’t even see them as people or someone to relate to.
Typically, these men would subsequently tire of the women and just toss them away. It was very cruel. So God, realize that if He forced a law that made these men remain married to these women, it would be miserable and potentially dangerous for these women. So he allowed the men to divorce them but to not make money off of them by selling them or treating them as a slave.
The Bible actually goes a little bit further to talk about how a man was to continue to take care of his ex-wife’s needs (and the children as well) after the divorce. Exodus 21:10 says, “If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.”
God is truly not happy with men who choose to throw away their wife and devalue her. Malachi 2:16 says that the man who divorces his wife does violence to the person he should actually be protecting.
So, while it is true that God hates divorce, the whole truth is that men (and women) who throw away their spouse made allowance for divorce to protect the people who are so viciously abused by the person that is supposed to love them the most for their entire lives.
Israelites Returning From Captivity Were Commanded to Divorce Their Foreign Wives
This third example of divorce in the Bible is a little bit different for a couple of reasons. First, it wasn’t just one or two couples that got divorced. it was a great number of men who had returned to Israel from captivity with foreign wives and some had children. The fact that they were foreign was not the problem. The problem lay in the fact that the foreign wives worshiped foreign gods.
Second, it is different because God didn’t tell them to get divorced. They did it of their own accord because they wanted to be proactive in returning to good standing before God. The returning men actually went before the town leaders and had a huge process created with the priests that would cover a lengthy amount of time. They did this because it was the rainy season and they felt that the process of divorce could be done in an orderly manner by setting appointments for everyone.
The whole account can be found in Ezra 10.
God Divorced the People of Israel
My final example of divorce in the Old Testament portion of the Bible is when God divorced the people of Israel. This is proof that the concept of divorce was indeed allowed by God. It was never His best plan for us, and it never will be. But because we live in a sinful world, sometimes it becomes a necessary way of life.
Let’s take a look at why God divorced His people and the symbolism He was giving us to teach us.
In Jeremiah 3, God says that Israel had played the harlot by worshiping other gods instead of staying loyal to him. So, to show the validity of divorce for adultery, He demonstrated a symbolic divorce for his people. But while I say symbolic, it absolutely affected them in reality. The people of Israel actually lost their freedom and safety in God and were held in captivity for around 70 years by the Assyrians for the northern 10 tribes and 50 years by the Babylonians for the two southern tribes.
I want to clarify that by Israel, I was talking about the Northern Kingdom, of Israel which had split off from the two tribes, making up Judah. God had words for Judah, too, though. He said that even though Judah had watched Him divorce Israel, they too played the harlot. All twelve tribes were found guilty of “adultery” against God.
God did not just instantly divorce His people. He sent several prophets to warn them to turn away from their idols and come back to Him as the one true God. But they did not heed the prophets’ warnings. And that is what caused them to be exiled to Assyria and Babylon.
The “moral” of the story here is that if God finds it acceptable to get a divorce, it is not the pariah that many churches make it out to be. Is it right to divorce for irreconcilable differences? No! There have to be good reasons to divorce. But God makes it clear that if you have good reasons, you are not in sin.
How Old Testament Rabbis Interpreted/Misinterpreted Divorce Laws
In Old Testament days, divorce became so prevalent that men could divorce their wives because they burned the pot roast. While I say that in a humorous way, unfortunately, it was a reality for women in those days. If a husband was no longer enamored by his wife, he could put her away for whatever he wanted. For that reason, changes had to be made. So God led the church leaders to have standards that would keep women from being thrown away by their husbands and essentially becoming homeless.
Men could not just send their wives away. They needed to obtain a certificate of divorce. And then there were rules. They had to keep their former wives clothed, fed, and cared for for the rest of her life. There was no more turning wives out to the streets to fend for themselves.
While there is no definitive proof of exactly what caused the disconnect with regard to when divorce is acceptable, there are some substantive beliefs. One school believed in “any-cause” divorce, based on the verses that say if a woman was not clothed, fed, and loved, she could seek out divorce in the hopes of finding someone who would truly take good care of her. On the flip side, there were church leaders who believed there was never a case for divorce, based on the verses that say what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
Both extremes are not what God was thinking. And unfortunately, people on both sides of the coin paid for the lack of proper study of God’s Word.
Examples of Divorce in the Bible: New Testament
There are actually fewer specific examples of divorce in the New Testament part of the Bible. But they give us great additional insight.
But before we proceed, I want to share with you the book that was my inspiration for writing about all of the examples of divorce in the Bible. It was so encouraging to me, especially since many churches do not rightly interpret the Scriptures regarding divorce. David Instone-Brewer says in his book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities,
that many well-meaning churches misinterpret Scriptures on divorce because they don’t understand the culture under which those Scriptures were written. Without this crucial piece of the puzzle, people cannot have an accurate view of what Jesus, Paul, and others actually meant with the words they used. He also expresses the difference in meaning between the person who gets a divorce from the person who causes a divorce.
This is an amazing book in the way it will help you to balance the Scriptures on divorce in a balanced and godly way. It really helped to bring peace to me when I was struggling with the stigma of getting a divorce in a church setting. You can check it out right here:
And with that, let’s take a look at examples of divorce in the New Testament.
The Divorce of Herodias and Philip
This is by far the most convoluted case of divorce in the Bible, at least where specific details are mentioned.
Herodias was married to her Uncle Philip and they had a child named Salome. Herod Antipas was Philip’s half brother, and also Herodias’ uncle. At some point, Herod Antipas went to visit his half brother. It was around this time that Herod decided he wanted Herodias for his own. She agreed, divorced Philip, and went with him. Much to Philip’s chagrin.
Herod went on to marry around 10 women, so I doubt that Herodias really had a great and fulfilling marriage. It would seem that she may have thought the grass was greener on the other side, got to the other side, and realized she was very wrong.
In any event, Herodias was not a good woman herself. She maneuvered and manipulated to get John the Baptist killed. She seemed to have very little conscience and lived a very barbaric yet royal life.
Joseph ALMOST Divorced Mary, the Mother of Jesus
In yet another very different example of divorce in the Bible, Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, planned to very privately divorce Mary, who he was betrothed to, but not yet officially married. Back in the day, even if you were engaged, you had to get a divorce to part ways.
So, as the story goes, when Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit in order to give birth to the Son of God, Joseph was devastated. He had no way to think anything other than that Mary had cheated on him. And nobody could blame him for thinking that.
An angel had to appear to Joseph to explain to him what the situation was. And thanks to that angel’s visit, the marriage of Joseph and Mary was saved.
The most important takeaway from this story is the fact that Joseph was a devout follower of God and would not have done something that was not acceptable in God’s world. It was considered a normal and even wise thing to do when a marriage was marred by the severe sin of one of the partners. In Joseph’s case, he was also noble enough to divorce her “quietly,” meaning that he was willing to preserve her reputation, even though he believed she had cheated on him. He was certainly a good man. And fortunately for him, the life he thought was terribly out of control ended up being specially preserved by God.
These are the only examples of divorce in the New Testament. That is because the majority of history and people relating to each other is in the Old Testament while the New Testament is more about instructions for us about how we should live our Christian lives.
Before I close out this article, I would like to share one very interesting twist in the subject of divorce in the Bible.
The Surprising Case When God Disallowed Divorce
There was one case in the Bible where God said a man could not divorce his wife. And the most ironic thing about this situation is that the man had more grounds for divorce than most of the other examples of divorce in the Bible. Let’s look at this one.
In the book of Hosea, the prophet Hosea (who’s name means “salvation”) is sent by God to Israel to warn the people about their idolatry and cheating on Him. He willingly goes. What he doesn’t realise is that his life is about to be turned upside down. He is led by God to marry Gomer, a known prostitute and lewd woman. He marries her, thinking that God is going to bless and grow their marriage. But that isn’t what happens.
Gomer continues to cheat on Hosea constantly. With no repentance. In fact, she repeatedly throws her prostitution and cheating in his face. And through it all, God insists that he needs to love and honor her in the best way he can. So why would God do this?
Because Hosea is the picture of God and Gomer is the picture of Israel, and ultimately, us. We “cheat” on God when we make other things more important than Him. God uses Hosea’s message of being married to Gomer as a picture of God being married to His church, His children. But then he further goes on to use the names of Hosea’s and Gomer’s children to further that message. Let’s take a look at those three children:
- The first child was a boy named Jezreel. He was named so because the land of Jezreel was an amazingly beautiful and bountiful land. But over the years, it had been ravaged by people who came through and was no longer the beautiful land it used to be. This shows us what years of sin will do in a person’s life who chooses not to repent. The years will catch up with them.
- The second child was a daughter named Lo-ruhamah. That meant “womb” symbolizing the love that God the Father bestows on all of his children. Until you put the Lo in front of it, making it actually mean “no mercy.”
- And finally, the third child of Hosea and Gomer was a son named Lo-Ammi, which means not my people. If that isn’t a painful sign, I don’t know what is. And yet, it wasn’t enough for Israel to repent and turn from their evil ways.
All of these children’s names represent the judgment that God is going to bring to His people for choosing not to stay true to him, just like Gomer refused to stay true to Hosea. And that is the whole reason why Hosea was not allowed to divorce her. He had to show the picture of God’s longsuffering love.
I also have an article on whether emotional abuse is grounds for divorce in the Bible and whether there are biblical grounds for divorcing a narcissist, known for how abusive they are.
Contrary to popular belief, divorce was pretty much as common back in bible times as it is today. And often for just as insignificant reasons. The whole reason God created divorce laws for His people was because they were mostly men were divorcing for trivial reasons, ruining their wives and not allowing them any way to emerge from a life of poverty and homelessness.
While most of us live in a vastly different world now, divorce is still a thorny and difficult issue. Women as well as men are still abused, mistreated, and thrown away. The court system seems to reward the evil and penalize the victims, often because the abusers know how to work the court system.
At the end of the day, no matter how difficult your divorce was, know that God can indeed be with you through the process. God does hate divorce, just like anyone who lives through one. It is a devastating and difficult process to go through. But it is sometimes necessary and way better than living in an abusive or destructive marriage.
I hope that these examples of divorce in the Bible are a helpful resource to you if you or someone you know and love is suffering in their marriage and needs comfort and peace that only God can give. At the end of the day, we all need to realize that while God does hate divorce, he will never prefer the institution of marriage to be maintained at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of His children. He loves His children dearly and will never promote abuse and danger above keeping false appearances of perfection.
If you are currently going through a divorce, I have a 57-page guide that will help you keep yourself in a healthy place and make sure you do everything necessary to not only survive, but thrive throughout the process of your divorce.
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