“she may go free, without paying any money.” Exodus 21:10-11 is very important for a proper understanding of marriage, marriage duties, and divorce. It is often taught in Christian circles that the only reason for divorce is adultery, and that opinion is based on verses such as Matthew 19:3-9. But there has been a lot of work done on the cultural debate about marriage at the time of Christ, and many competent scholars have shown that the debate about divorce was between competing rabbinic schools and involved a disagreement over the reasons that a man could divorce a woman (Matt. 19:3). Jesus addressed that to a point, but also said that he had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-18).
Jesus never addressed all the conditions under which a woman could leave a man, and there is no reason to assume that he changed the Mosaic Law of Exodus 21:10-11 on that point. Many Christians today feel trapped in their marriage because even though their spouse is mentally or physically abusive, or does not provide for them, or their marriage is loveless and sexless, because the spouse has not committed adultery the abused one does not feel free to leave. Marriage is a covenant made in good faith that both partners will fulfill their proper roles, and if that does not happen the covenant is broken, just as Israel broke their covenant with God. Adultery is not the lone “key” to a door leading out of marriage, as we see here in Exodus. God gave divorce as a way out of an abusive marriage because humans sometimes sin horribly against each other.
Was divorce God’s intention for unhappy marriages? Certainly not. God desires change and reconciliation, which is why He pleaded over and over with Israel to change her ways. Furthermore, there is no verse in the Bible that says a couple has to divorce. Many seemingly unredeemable marriages are saved by counseling, forbearance, and forgiveness. But God eventually divorced Israel because of her sin, hardheartedness, and worship of other gods (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8), and Jesus was certainly not condemning his heavenly father for that. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), but hardness of heart gets involved between people (Matt. 19:8), and there are times when divorce can be a viable choice, just as it was for God Himself.
It should be said that although God allowed for a woman to leave a man for abuse and non-support, in actual practice it apparently must have been very uncommon for a woman to be able to leave. As often happens with biblical law, God’s law is righteous but people do not obey it. Women in the biblical world often had little or no control over their lives. Thankfully, that has changed in many parts of the modern world.