Is an engaged couple bound to each other just as if they are married?

Question:

Hi

I read an article on your web site that gave me an impression that you are a God-fearing man who wants to make choices based on God's words. I am troubled with a problem, and I need advice.

I got engaged some time ago, but my fiancee left me. The Bible tells that Joseph, who was engaged to Mary, wanted to write a divorce letter to Mary, even though he was not yet married to her. Jesus also refers to (at least parts of) the Jewish engagement in other places in the Bible. Does this mean that I am bound to my fiancee for the rest of my life because of our engagement? Since the Bible tells us that you cannot divorce and still stand rightous before God. Or was the divorce letter Joseph was thinking of sending different from the divorce letter that he would have sent if they had already been married? I had not yet given my promise to here, and to God, to be faithful to her for the rest of my life. But I did ask her to marry me, and she said yes.

Thank you so much for your time.


Answer:

In the Israelite society, engagements were a more serious matter than people treat them today. A part of the seriousness was the fact that person making a commitment was considered bound by his word. Today we only give this level of seriousness to a formal contract.

An engagement, then, was essentially a contract to get married at a future date. Even though the couple were not married, in many ways they were considered as good as married. This is why the law of Moses had different penalties for sex involving someone unengaged, sex involving someone engaged, and sex involving someone married (Deuteronomy 22:22-29). Unattached, engaged, and married were considered three different states.

Another thing to understand is that Greek didn't have a specialized word for divorce. Two words are used, one for sending someone away and one for being sent away. "Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly" (Matthew 1:19). Joseph had decided to formally end the engagement, which in Greek is the same word used to say a married man deciding to end his marriage. Most translations use the general phrase "put her away" but unfortunately the New International Version translated this as "divorce," which is misleading since we assume a divorce only happens after a covenant is made.

Therefore, no, you are not bound to your fiancee because of your engagement. She broke the engagement by leaving you. There is nothing hindering you from finding another woman to marry.

It is incorrect to say that a person cannot be divorced and be righteous before God. God hates divorce because in involves sin. ""For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one's garment with violence," says the LORD of hosts. "Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously"" (Malachi 2:16). But this doesn't infer that both people sinned when a divorce occurred. Nor does it mean a divorced person cannot be forgiven. What isn't permitted is for a divorced person to marry someone else. "Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife" (I Corinthians 7:10-11). The one exception to this rule is if the divorce was due to fornication on the spouse's part. Then the innocent party is allowed to marry again as implied by Jesus' statement. "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery" (Matthew 19:9). The spouse guilty of fornication remains bound by the terms of the marriage covenant, even though the marriage itself ends.