Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Deuteronomy 24:1 "Erwat Dabar"

     Moses wrote, "If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him
because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate
of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves
his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes
her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from  his
house, or if he dies, then her first husband , who divorced her, is not allowed to
marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes
of Yahweh. Do not bring this sin upon the land Yahweh your God is giving you
as an inheritance." (Deut. 24:1-4; TNIV)

     What is the meaning of the phrase "something indecent" (erwat dabar) in
verse1? This has been a point of discussion for many centuries, and we have no
reason to believe it will cease any time soon. Even in the days of Jesus' earthly
service there were at least two dominant rabbinic schools of thought; the Hillelites
and the Shammaites. The school of Hillel allowed divorce for virtually any reason
whatever, and the school of Shammai interpreted Deut. 24 more narrowly, only
on the grounds of sexual immorality, that is, as unchastity on the part of the woman
within marriage. (Cf. m. Git. 9:10; b. Git. 90a; Josephus, Ant. 4.8.23 ...244-59,  
Vit. 76; Philo, Spec. Leg. 5)

     A sampling of English translations of the Hebrew text interpret erwat dabar
in the following manner: "some indecency" (RSV, ESV); "something indecent"
(NIV); "something objectionable" (NRSV); "something improper" (HCSB);
"some uncleanness" (KJV); "some unseemly thing" (ASV); "something obnoxious"
(TANAKH).  This gives us quite a range of interpretations. The Septuagint (LXX)
reads "aschemon pragma,"  literally  "nakedness  of  a  thing"  i.e., a matter of
uncleanness. The Latin Vulgate reads, "aliquam foeditatem" i.e., any filth.

     Hebrew lexicons show a wide range of definitions for erwah. Hebrew and 
Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament, George Fohrer, page 213, "indecency."
Student's Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, Alexander Harkavy, page 547, "any
filthy thing." Student's Hebrew Lexicon, Benjamin Davies-Edward C. Mitchell,
page 491, " a blemish." Hebrew-English Lexicon To The Old Testament, William
Gesenius, page 653, "shame, filthiness...any defect found in a woman." A Concise 
Hebrew And Aramaic Lexicon Of The Old Testament, page 283, "something
indecent." The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Koehler-
Baumgartner, volume 2, page 883, "bareness, nakedness." The Brown-Driver-
Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, page 789, "nakedness of a thing, i.e. probably
indecency, improper behavior." 

     The lexicographical data makes clear that erwah is something indecent, filthy or
shameful or possibly some sort of defect. The question is, what was the "indecency?"
One thing is certain, it was not adultery. Adultery was punishable by execution!
(Deut. 22:22; If adultery were meant by erwah rather than being allowed to
leave and become the wife of another man, the offending woman would have been
put to death.

     Erwat dabar refers to something the husband found offensive or distasteful in
his wife other than adultery. The phrase is found in the context of purity ordinances
and in this text must refer to something repulsive. It seems to refer to sexually
indecent behavior. It could have been that she was caught with her genitals exposed.
Erwah was commonly used with the meaning "nakedness or genitals" particularly
of a woman. (Cf. Lam. 1:8 where Jerusalem is personified as a lewd woman) One
thing is for certain, it refers to some unspecified form of unacceptable behavior.
The exact details of  what the indecent thing was are yet elusive.

Copyright 2011


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