Revisiting Isaiah 50:1: The Problem of Divorce in the Old Testament

A few days ago I read Wayne Leman’s review of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) published on Better Bible Blog on Monday, April 11, 2005.Wayne reviewed how the HCSB translated several verses in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.Among those verses reviewed was Isaiah 50:1:

Where is your mother’s divorce certificate that I used to send her away?

In his review of this verse, Wayne wrote:

Inaccurate: “send her away” is not an accurate English wording to communicate the original Hebrew (figurative) meaning of what is done when divorcing someone.

Suggested revision: “get rid of her” or, simply, “divorce her”

The purpose of this article is to defend the translation proposed by the HCSB. Wayne’s criticism of the HCSB’s translation does not do justice to the complicated problem of divorce in the Old Testament.

First, it is important to notice that all translations, ancient and modern, support the HCSB’s translation.For instance, this is the translation of Isaiah 50:1 in the ESV, NIV, and the RSV:

ESV:Thus says the LORD: “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away?

NIV:This is what the LORD says: “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away?”

RSV: Thus says the LORD: “Where is your mother’s bill of divorce, with which I put her away?”

Even the Septuagint agrees with the classical translation of this verse:

LXX: Thus saith the Lord, Of what kind is your mother’s bill of divorcement, by which I put her away?

Second, in order to understand the reason these translations are right and Wayne’s proposal is unacceptable, one must look at the issue of divorce in the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament it was the husband who ended a marriage since the woman did not have the right to separate herself from her husband.When a man wanted to terminate an unacceptable marriage, he would simply send his wife away.Since a woman was considered the possession of her husband, she could not marry again because she was still legally married to her husband.

A divorced woman was destitute and without the legal protection of her husband.Often, a divorced woman was also refused readmission into her family because the bridal price paid by the husband caused the woman to be legally under the control of her husband.Without the support of her husband or her family, divorced women were forced to beg and to become prostitutes in order to survive.

In order to deal with this problem, the Deuteronomic reform under Josiah enacted a law to protect divorced women.The law reads:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife,and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD (Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV).

This Deuteronomic law gives a man the right to put his wife away, but whenever he sends her away, he must provide her with a certificate of divorce.The certificate of divorce allows a divorced woman to remarry if she so desires.

The issues of divorce and sending away appear in the New Testament.In Matthew 19:3 a Pharisee asked Jesus: Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?Jesus’ answer did not please the Pharisee.So he asked another question: Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away? (Matthew 19:7).

The issue raised in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and in Matthew 19:1-8 is based on the fact that when a man sends his wife away (and this is not figurative language), he is not divorcing her, he is merely sending her away without any legal protection.When a man sends a woman away, the woman is still married to her husband.This is the reason she cannot belong to another man: she is still married.

The Hebrew makes a difference between sending a woman away and divorcing her.In Hebrew, the word שלח (shalah) means “to send away” while the word כרתות (keritut) means to dissolve the marriage by giving the woman a certificate of divorce.

The word shalah appears in Malachi 2:16.However, translators are divided on how to translate the word.These are some of the versions that translate shalah as “putting away” or “sending away”: LXX, ASV, KJV, and JPS.These are some of the versions that translate shalah as “divorce”:ESV, NIV, RSV, and NRSV.The reason Yahweh hates “sending away” is because sending away is an illegal separation: the woman was put out of the house of her husband without a certificate of divorce.

In addition to Deuteronomy 24:1, the words shalah and keritut appear together in Jeremiah 3:8:

She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce (Jeremiah 3:8 ESV).

The two words also appear together in Isaiah 50:1:

Thus says the LORD: Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away? (Isaiah 50:1 ESV).

It is clear then that in the Old Testament “sending away” does not necessarily mean “divorce.”It means that a man “gets rid of” his wife and sends her away from his house without any legal protection.

Thus, Wayne suggested revisions, “get rid of her” or “divorce her” would not be correct because his suggestions do not reflect the practice of divorce in the Old Testament.The expression “get rid of her” could be used in Malachi 2:6 because the sending away was an illegal separation, but not in Isaiah 50:1 because the woman was legally divorced.

The expression “divorce her” could not be used in Malachi 2:16 because the separation was illegal.The same expression also cannot be used in Isaiah 50:1 because once the woman was legally divorced (this is the intent of the certificate of divorce) the woman was sent away from her former husband’s house.Wayne’s proposal, Where is your mother’s divorce certificate that I used to divorce her?may not indicate that she was sent away from her husband’s house.

I support the HCSB’s translation.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Book of Deuteronomy, Book of Isaiah, Book of Malachi, Divorce and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Revisiting Isaiah 50:1: The Problem of Divorce in the Old Testament

  1. >Hello,Thanks for a clear statement on the distinction between “putting” or “sending away” – and divorce.Could I ask a related question? In your opinion, was Christ making adultery the sole acceptable reason for a divorce (thus it would seem changing the law by deleting other causes), or was he simply not mentioning them?Thanks for any comment possible.

  2. >Dear reserveretirepay55:Thank you for your comment. As for Jesus’ view on divorce, his view on divorce is clear: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32). However, Jesus also agreed that divorce will happen because people choose not to live by God’s Word: “ Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning’” (Matthew 19:8).It is unfortunate that divorce happens but when a couple lives by God’s Word (Psalm 119:9), both husband and wife can find a common ground to solve their problems.Claude Mariottini

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