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Spring 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 1 · pp. 54–56 

Respecting the Silences

Response to “Interpreting the Silences (Deut. 24:1-4)” by Allen R. Guenther 24/1 (1995): 41–53.

Harold J. Dyck

In his provocative study of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Allen Guenther aims to extend the process of exegesis beyond attention to the mere words of the text to the lining situation silently encased in the text. This entails, he suggests, that the numerous silences in the text, crucial for an understanding of the law in question, be filled in by recourse to careful linguistic and cultural resources now available to us.

The endeavor to bring the text to life is surely to be welcomed. Yet we have nothing but the words of the text to tell us which windows are best opened. Light from the wrong angle does nothing but cast a glare upon the page, so the exegete must judge carefully the terms of engagement between a text and its universe. Guenther believes that marriage laws from the ancient Near East can address our questions about the legal and cultural context of Deut. 24:1-4, and that meticulous attention to the vocabulary of the text encourages just such a connection. Accordingly, his study features a series of extensive treatments of the terminology on which his case ultimately rests: ba’al, to marry, ‘erwath dabar, “nakedness of a thing,” sane’, to hate, tame’, to defile, and to ‘ebah, abomination. When these word studies are joined to data concerning economic and social aspects of ancient marriage law, an image about the nature of the situation addressed in Deut. 24 takes shape.

It is precisely such a social awareness, he argues, that enables us to understand why a first husband is forbidden to remarry a woman he has previously divorced and who is again available upon dissolution of her second marriage. The first husband, having divorced his wife for an apparently just cause (incest), has gained financially through her being in the wrong; now that she has emerged from her second marriage a respectable widow of means, he is not free to remarry her as though nothing amiss had happened the first time, and thereby gain a second financial advantage. Such an action would be all the more abominable and dangerous to the land in view of the fact that the first husband is not just any man but a ba’al, a pillar of the community, as biblical usage demonstrates.

This interpretation achieves, I think, the exegetical goal of creating a scenario that makes good sense to the reader. It assumes that the law {55} addresses a genuinely delicate situation in the culture of ancient Israel, and it reflects a theological outlook in keeping with other family laws in Deuteronomy.


Nevertheless, there are serious problems with this thesis as an exegesis of the text in question, and with its methodology. The reader should be wary when it is proposed at the outset to find the key to the text in its silences, a risky venture at best. We do well to take note that they are silences, but also to respect them as such, and to suspect that if we insist on teasing out the meanings of things about which the text is silent, we may accord them precisely that prominence which the author did not intend for them to have. They may then stand in the way of things about which the text is not silent, and in this study I believe they do so.

It is unfortunate that a clear indication of the structure of this law is not provided. Does the formal design of this law support Guenther’s conclusion? Related to this is the lack of attention to the likelihood (which he seems to acknowledge) that an older law, paralleled in Jer. 3:1-5, underlies this text. The question for us then is not simply what place such a law had in the ancient Palestine, but what role it now plays in Deuteronomy’s agenda. Deuteronomic themes and interests are not adequately taken into account in this study.

Guenther’s actual argument is that the first and second marriages must be distinguished not only in manner of termination, but also in their formal status. The evidence of this is that the first husband ba’als her, while the second merely takes her as wife. He contends that the verb ba’al (1) is “assiduously avoided” where it involves the remarriage of one of the partners and that (2) it denotes elevated social stature. But this verb is used so rarely for marriage that no conclusions can be drawn about its deliberate avoidance. The entire Hebrew Bible uses it only 16 times, including in that five substantive participles. Of these, nine refer to the marriage of the land or of Judah, to the relationship of Yahweh to his people, or to lords who rule over people, thus leaving only seven that have actual human marriage in mind, and of these, only in the case of Abraham do we have a non-hypothetical use: Sarah is identified as Abraham’s wife by the passive participle form of ba’al (Gen. 20:3). Deut. 21:13, referring to the circumstances in which a man may ba’al a captive woman, makes no mention of marital status. No actual marriage reported in the Hebrew Bible, except for that of Abraham, uses the verb ba’al. As to noun forms, Guenther asserts that the death penalty of the ba’alath (wife) of a ba’al (husband) is legislation for the elite, but Exodus 21:3 presents us with a slave who is ba’al of a wife. {56} Moreover, does not the term “her first ba’al” in v. 4 imply that the second was also a ba’al, whether stated or not? As a term for marriage, it refers to the man’s ownership of his wife in that society, a functional equivalent to “taking a wife.” Exegesis cannot then proceed on the basis of a social distinction between the two marriages.

It would raise similar objections to the development of the term ‘erwath dabar as an indicator of incest. Its only other occurrence refers to fecal matter left exposed in the camp (Deut. 23:14). Despite the frequent use of ‘erwah (nakedness) in reference to incest in Leviticus, I see nothing to suggest such a connection in Deut. 24. Moreover, the abomination to be avoided is connected in the text not with the cause of the first divorce, but with remarriage after her intervening one. Structurally, the apodosis in v. 4 requires that all preceding conditions are assumed, but if the defiling element belongs to the first marriage, the second is rendered irrelevant. What the law does not leave in silence is the fully legal conclusion of both marriages, and its proscription of remarriage has much broader application, in my reading, than a case of incest in the first.

I would suggest that comparison with 23:12-14, where we have the only other instance of ‘erwath dabar, and where the need to preserve the holiness of the camp stands parallel to the concern in 24:1-4 for that of the land, is more promising for an understanding of the law. The proper context for our text seems to be the Deuteronomical concern for purity, for the preservation of boundaries and avoidance of the mixing of categories. Where it is important to keep a lineage straight and an inheritance intact, purity rules fall easily into place. For a man to remarry a woman he once divorced and who has since lived as wife to another is to skew their proper relation abominably. There is no barrier to her becoming a wife to a third husband, but for the first she is unclean. Guenther’s attention to the cultural context remains a promising avenue of inquiry into the overall social background of this law, but for its role in Deuteronomy, I think we must look for the clues present in the text.

Harold J. Dyck, Associate Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana.

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