By Timothy Sparks
We do not read a dismissal penalty or divorce penalty for sexual unfaithfulness in Deuteronomy 22. Some would have Jesus approving divorce for sexual unfaithfulness in Mt. 19:9. However, Jesus clearly did not contradict his Father’s law while teaching on earth (Mt. 5:17-20). Under God’s law, Jesus could not teach divorce for fornication; the law was death. If Jesus had taught they could divorce rather than put to death, he would have been a false teacher.
Concerning the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8:3-11), God’s penalty according to the law was stoning (Jn. 8:5). Jesus upheld his Father’s death penalty, as seen in the Greek imperative βαλέτω (baletō), “do throw” (Jn. 8:7). He did not offer divorce as an option because it would have been against God’s law. If the Pharisees had changed the penalty for adultery from death to divorce, then they would have been guilty of changing God’s law. It was not a lawful option to change the death penalty to a divorce punishment.
Just as God has the ability to pardon, like he did David (2 Sam. 12:13), so Jesus had “authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mk. 2:10). Notice the similarity of the statements by Jesus and Pilate:
● “Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more’” (Jn. 8:11).
● “Do you not know that I have power to crucify you, and power to release you?” (Jn. 19:10).
● A proverb of Roman law says, “Nobody who can condemn cannot acquit” (Nemo, qui condemnare potest, absolvere non potest. Justinian, Digest 50.17.37).
Philo supported the death penalty for adultery. Philo regarded a betrothed “wife” as a wife because she is his wife in all but deed. He says betrothal is the equivalent of marriage and therefore if she has intercourse with another man it “is a form of adultery.” “And therefore the law orders both to be stoned” (III.58, 72-73).
We read only about the death penalty for sexual unfaithfulness during both betrothal and marriage and nothing about divorce as an authorized punishment (Deut. 22:13ff):
13 “If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and detests her, 14 and charges her with shameful conduct, and brings a bad name on her, and says, ‘I took this woman, and when I came to her I found she was not a virgin,’ 15 then the father and mother of the young woman shall take and bring out the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. 16 And the young woman’s father shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man as wife, and he detests her. 17 Now he has charged her with shameful conduct, saying, “I found your daughter was not a virgin,” and yet these are the evidences of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. 18 Then the elders of that city shall take that man and punish him; 19 and they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name on a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.
20 “But if the thing is true, and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, 21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father’s house. So you shall put away the evil from among you.
22 “If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die—the man that lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall put away the evil from Israel.
23 “If a young woman who is a virgin is betrothed to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry out in the city, and the man because he humbled his neighbor’s wife; so you shall put away the evil from among you.
25 “But if a man finds a betrothed young woman in the countryside, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; there is in the young woman no sin deserving of death, for just as when a man rises against his neighbor and kills him, even so is this matter. 27 For he found her in the countryside, and the betrothed young woman cried out, but there was no one to save her.
28 “If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days” (NKJV).
While God is able to pardon abundantly on his terms (Is. 55:7), humans are to obey God’s law under which they live. If the Hebrews had failed to execute the death penalty as God commanded, deciding instead to be merciful and let the fornicator live, they would have been in direct disobedience to God’s law. Deuteronomy 22 granted favorable approval to execute fornicators and adulterers as specified.