By Timothy Sparks
God’s law did not favorably approve divorce for adultery. It was the death penalty for such (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). Since some believe they find God’s favorable approval to divorce for adultery in Deut. 24:1, this brief article addresses the Hebrew phrase ‘ervat dãbãr or ‘erwat dãbãr (עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר, “exposure of a thing” or “nakedness of a matter,” Deut. 24:1). [Since some incorrectly transpose the word order to dãbãr ‘ervat, we must remember to read Hebrew from right to left.]
When addressing ervat dãbãr or ‘erwat dãbãr, it is important to remember that the phrase occurs only twice in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible (Deut. 23:14; 24:1). We should examine those two occurrences as we try to understand the meaning of the phrase. We know עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר (‘ervat dãbãr, Deut. 24:1) cannot refer to adultery since God previously made clear that such was dealt with by the death penalty (Deut. 22:22). While we do not always remember to read for remote context, going back about a chapter and a half to Deut. 22:22 helps us understand that עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר (‘ervat dãbãr, Deut. 24:1) was not sexual since adultery was punishable by death, not divorce (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).
‘Ervat dãbãr also occurs about half a chapter prior to Deut. 24:1 (Deut. 23:14). Notice the context in which it occurs:
“You must have a designated area outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. Each of you must have a spade as part of your equipment. Whenever you relieve yourself, dig a hole with the spade and cover the excrement. The camp must be holy, for the Lord your God moves around in your camp to protect you and to defeat your enemies. He must not see any shameful thing among you, or he will turn away from you” (Deut. 23:12-14, NLT).
God states that the excrement must be covered. If they failed to cover it, God indicates by the use of ‘ervat dãbãr that he would see the excrement exposed or “naked.” Young’s Literal Translation consistently translates ‘ervat dãbãr as “the nakedness of anything” (Deut. 23:14; 24:1).
Blenkinsopp says that Deut. 24:1-4 “speaks of the husband divorcing his wife after finding something improper, indecent or at least objectionable in her” and was “probably chosen precisely because it was vague, ill-defined, and nonrestrictive.”1 He further states, “The impossibility of a literal translation (‘nakedness of a thing’) indicates idiomatic usage; it occurs elsewhere only in Deut 23:15 [EV 23:14], with reference to feces or other unclean matter in the camp.”2
McFall says it well: “But God shows His disdain for husbands who, on non-sexual grounds, divorce their wives over trivial matters, which He refers to as an ‘ervat dãbãr ‘an exposed thing,’ and ‘hatred’ (Deut 24:1-3).”3 He points out, “This meaning has no connection with the ‘matter of fornication,’ λόγος πορνείας of Mt 19:9. If Jesus had intended to refer to the ‘ervat dãbãr category He would have used the phrase ἄσχημον πρᾶγμα (the LXX translation of ‘ervat dãbãr). One (λόγος πορνείας) is sexual, the other (ἄσχημον πρᾶγμα) is non-sexual.”4
Some incorrectly assume Jesus refers to Deut. 24:1 in Mt. 19:8 and Mk. 10:5, even thinking they hear God endorsing divorce.5 If that is what they hear, God is not the one speaking. Jesus does not endorse hardness of heart for any reason.
1Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Family in First Temple Israel,” in Families in Ancient Israel, ed. Leo G. Perdue (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 65.
2Ibid., 97, n. 37.
3Leslie McFall, The Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage, rev. Aug. 2014: 93. https://lmf12.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/divorce_aug_2014.pdf.
4Ibid., 93, n. 144.
5See also “Did Jesus Say God Favorably Allowed Divorce?,” https://timothysparks.com/2017/12/21/did-jesus-say-god-favorably-allowed-divorce and “Does God Endorse Divorce (Deut. 24:1)?,” https://timothysparks.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/does-god-endorse-divorce-deut-241.