The Bible And Spousal Abuse

It is written:

10  “If the master marries another woman, he must not give less food or clothing to the first wife. And he must continue to give her what she has a right to have in marriage. 11  The man must do these three things for her. If he does not, the woman is made free, and it will cost her nothing. She owes no money to the man.” (Exodus 21:10-11)

In this passage, Moses addresses the subject of polygamy in Israel (i.e., husbands having more then one wife). While polygamy was not God’s ideal, there was a time when He allowed it without necessarily approving of it (cf. Acts 17:30-31).

What is interesting is that in this text, God dealt with the subject of spousal abuse. As one researcher has noted:

“My sudden realization of how a first-century Jew would have understood these texts wasn’t due to a blinding flash of inspiration but was the result of three years of hard work for my Ph.D., which suddenly came together: three years of reading huge sections of rabbinic literature, digging into the Mishnah, Tosefta Talmud, Midrashim, Philo and the Dead Sea Scrolls; analyzing the texts—especially to see how they interpret the Old Testament—and comparing my findings with those of medieval and modern scholars. At the end of all this I could think and interpret more like the ancient rabbis themselves, and I was able to unpack the highly abbreviated accounts of their debates…..In fact, the Bible does have a law that addresses this situation. Exodus 21: 10-11 is a text that is usually forgotten, but it provides precisely what is needed, for it allows the victim of abuse or neglect to be freed from the marriage. This text is actually a law about a slave who has married her master; it states the rights that she has if he decides to marry a second wife….The rabbis found the following principles in this text, and I think they were right. They reasoned that if a slave wife had the right to divorce a husband who neglected to supply food, clothing and conjugal love, then a free wife would certainly also have this right. And they argued that if one of two wives had this right, so did an only wife. Furthermore, if a wife had these rights, then a husband was also entitled to divorce a wife who neglected him. The biblical principle that is established, therefore, is the right of someone to divorce their partner if they neglect their vow to provide food, clothing or conjugal love.” (David Instone-Brewer, Divorce And Remarriage In The Church: Biblical Solutions For Pastoral Realities,15, 35-36 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Press)

While this passage deals with the Old Testament, it is certainly worthy of prayerful study and contemplation. Some abusive situations may be resolved through separation and repentance (without necessarily divorce). Regardless, spouses who are in abusive situations need to carefully consider their safety, as well as the safety of their children. Sadly, children often become the targets of physical abuse in marriages where one spouse is abusive. In twenty years of full-time ministry, I have seen this pattern often repeated.

If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, reach out to someone you trust for help.

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