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(what does the word ‘may’ in verse 2 & 4 really mean?)
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Deuteronomy 24: 1-4:
(what does the word ‘may’ in verse 2 & 4 really mean?)
by Bob Crawford
The meaning of the English word 'may' in Deuteronomy 24:2,4
Dictionary definition of 'may' found at:
b: have permission to<you may go now>
c—used to indicate possibility or probability <you may be right><things you may need>
So, in English, the word 'may' has two general meanings: 'permission granted' and likely (or might). 'Likely', does not imply that permission has been granted.
The meaning of 'halak' and 'yakol': the Original Ancient Hebrew words translated into the English 'may':
A. Deuteronomy 24:2 - 'halak':
Deut. 24:2 (KJV) “And when she is departed out of his house, she may go [H1980;'halak'] and be another man’s [wife].”
She may go = Strong’s H1980, transliterated as ‘halak’
The following information on 'halak' is from:
Lexicon / Concordance for Deu 24:2
Hebrew for H1980
Part of Speech
Root Word (Etymology)
akin to H3212, a primitive root
Outline of Biblical Usage
1) to go, walk, come
1) to go, walk, come, depart, proceed, move, go away
2) to die, live, manner of life (fig.)
1) to walk
2) to walk (fig.)
1) to traverse
2) to walk about
d) (Niphal) to lead, bring, lead away, carry, cause to walk
Authorized Version (KJV) Translation Count — Total: 500
AV — go 217, walk 156, come 16, ...away 7, ...along 6, misc 98
Gen 3:8 “...God walking [H1980] in the garden...”
Gen 12:9 “And Lot also, which went [H1980] with Abram...”
Gen 15:2 “...what wilt thou give me, seeing I go [H1980] childless...”
Summary: In Deuteronomy 24:2, none of the definitions of ‘halak’ [H1980] include ‘permission granted’ as is assumed in modern interpretations of this text.
B. Deuteronomy 24:4 - 'yakol'
Deut 24:4 (KJV) “Her former husband, which sent her away, may [H3201; 'yakol'] not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.”
The following information on 'yakol' is from:
‘may’ in Deut. 24:4 = Strong’s [H3201] , transliterated as ‘yakol’.
Hebrew for H3201
Part of Speech
Root Word (Etymology)
a primitive root
Outline of Biblical Usage
1) to prevail, overcome, endure, have power, be able
1) to be able, be able to gain or accomplish, be able to endure, be able to reach
2) to prevail, prevail over or against, overcome, be victor
3) to have ability, have strength
Authorized Version (KJV) Translation Count — Total: 195
AV — could 46, able 43, cannot 34, prevail 22, may 16, can 12, canst 5, endure 2, might 2, misc 13
None of the definitions for ‘yakol’ [H3201] state ‘permission granted’.
To “be able” to do something, as in definition #1, is not the same as ‘having permission’ to do it.
Taken together, all the definitions suggest an act will be successful because of the abilities or strength of the actor none of which carry the implication of permission or intent. On the other hand, we can see that 'yakol' is sometimes translated: cannot, can, canst, -which imply permission- and: able, prevail, endure, and might -which do not imply permission. The words: 'could' and 'may' could go either way. If you study the Bible texts which contain 'yakol', it is nearly impossible to determine with any degree of certainty whether or not permission or intent are implied by the context.
Perhaps ‘yakol’ [H3201] is like the unrelated greek word ‘dynamai’ [G1410] which is defined as:
1) to be able, have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and resources, or of a state of mind, or through favourable circumstances, or by permission of law or custom
2) to be able to do something
3) to be capable, strong and powerful
The word 'dynamai' is a very non-specific word. It does not specify or imply the reason or source of the 'power'.
In other words, these ancient words did not explicitly specify permission or intent.
Those who argue that divorce is allowed reason thus:
The source of strength could be viewed as ‘God’, therefore permission is implied, More specifically, one could argue that 'yakol' means 'have power' as in the first definition, so Deut.24:4 is saying that the husband does not 'have power' to take her back. This cannot mean 'physical power' since a man does indeed have such physical power, so it must mean 'moral power', therefore God's permission is implied.
This argument assumes that there are only two, mutually exclusive types of 'power'. I deny this. Emotional power is another type of power. 'Yakol' could mean that the man does not have the mental inclination or will or ambition to be reunited with his spouse.
So even in the original Hebrew, they have to take a special case of the meaning of the word 'power' (taking it to mean 'moral power') to arrive at the conclusion that 'yakol' means 'permission granted'. On its own, 'yakol' does not appear to have any implied: intentions or permissions.
Ancient Hebrew, like most ancient languages, has a limited vocabulary compared to modern languages. None of the words in the definition of 'yakol' explicitly imply permission - either granted or denyed. We are forced to interpret. My main point is this: those who argue that this text gives permission for divorce are interpreting. They are not merely stating the clear, explicit meaning of the words. This text could easily be interpreted to mean just the opposite of their position.
I could argue that 'yakol' in Deuteronomy 24:4 means 'able to'. The husband is not 'able to' take back his wife because he has made other plans for the necessities she needs. Perhaps he is not 'able to' take her back by virtue of his own disabilities and resources, or of his state of mind, or through his unfavourable circumstances. The definition: 'able to' does not imply any intention on the part of the husband nor permission on the part of God. Another good English word for 'yakol' would be the word 'might' - the husband 'might' not take her back - a word that has no implied intentions on the part of the husband nor implied permissions on the part of God. You can see if you substitute the word 'might' for the word 'may' in Deut.24:4, it destroys the ability to argue that divorce is permitted in this text. The entire word-meaning argument hinges on whether intent or permission is implied in their interpretation of the meaning of 'yakol' in this text.
To summarize: Neither of the Hebrew words translated as ‘may’ in Deuteronomy24:2 (‘halak’ H1980) or in verse 4 (‘yakol’ H3201), are explicitly defined as ‘permission granted’. In verse 4, ‘yakol’ is defined in three of the four definitions as ‘able to’ with does not imply permission or intention.
The Logic of Deuteronomy 24:4
Deut 24:4 (KJV) “Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.”
Question: Grammatically speaking, to what does the phrase "for that is abomination before the LORD" refer?
Answer: "may not take her again..." -the action of the sentence.
If the word 'may' means 'permission granted', then the abomination consists of the husband not having permission to reunite with his wife.
If the word 'may means 'likely', then the abomination consists of the husband failing to be reunited with his wife.
Choice A is a grave injustice- a gross violation of logic. A man cannot be condemned because he does not have permission to do something. It makes the fault God's. Choice B, on the other hand contains no such injustice or violations of logic.
Examples of People who Reunited with an Ex-Spouse
In Jeremiah 3:8, God divorces Israel and gives a letter of divorce as specified by Moses in Deut. 24.
In Jer. 3:12 God says, "Return thou backsliding Israel..."
Jer 3:14 "Turn, O backsliding children [Israel and Judah], saith the LORD; for I am married unto you..."
Isaiah 27:12 "...in that day...and ye shall be gathered one by one, O ye children of Israel..."
Rev 21:12 [Speaking of the New Jerusalem] "And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and the names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel:"
So God, divorces Israel according to the law of Moses in Deut. 24, then asks them to return, calling Himself their husband, even after He divorced them, then God says that He and Israel will be reunited in the end, and on the gates of the New Jerusalem is written the names of the tribes of Israel - the same tribes He divorced. Clearly, God is reuniting with a spouse He has divorced in direct violation of my opponents interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:4. So if 'may' in Deut.24 means 'permission granted', then God reuniting with Israel makes God into a sinner. On the other hand, if 'may' means 'likely', then God is doing a great and righteous thing in reuniting with his divorced spouse Israel.
In 2 Samuel 3:14 David demands the return of Michal even though she is married to another man. "...Deliver me my wife Michal..."
2Sam 3:15 Michal is taken away "...from her husband, even from Phaltiel..." and given back to David.
1Ki 15:5 "Because David did [that which was] right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any [thing] that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite."
So David reunited with Michal, who was married to another man and thus 'defiled' and God said David did what was "right in the eyes of the LORD...save only in the matter of Uriah..."
Hosea 3:1 God orders Hosea to reunite with Gomer even after she committed adultery against Hosea.
Counter-Arguments against these three examples:
My opposition argue that these three examples cannot be used. They argue that there is no proof that David wrote a letter of divorce for Michal nor did he give into her hand as is required by Moses in Deuteronomy 24, therefore David and Michal were not 'divorced'.
This is a valid point which I cannot counter. We can only go by 2Sam 3:13where it specifically states that Phaltiel was Michal's husband and in 1Sa 25:44, it specifically stated that "Saul had given Michal his daughter, David's wife, to Phalti the son of Laish, which [was] of Gallim." So, if David was not 'divorced' from Michal, then, as another debater has pointed out, then Michal had two husbands' - she was a polygamist. (It remains an area of active debate as to what constitutes a valid 'divorce' but I'll grant them the point for now as it does not seem to harm my position that much.)
The counter-argument does not detract from the claim that, as Phaltiel's wife, Michal would have met the definition of 'defiled [by another man]' in Deut.24:4, and therefore, could not have returned to David, under their interpretation of this text. Under my interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:4 reunion with the 'defiled' women is mandatory. Since David did reunite with Michal and yet, was not condemned by God, this is evidence that my interpretation is correct and theirs incorrect.
My opposition argues that the example of Hosea and Gomer, and God and Israel cannot be used to support my case because God is above the law. They argue that God made the law for man but it does not apply to God. Also, since God ordered Hosea to marry Gomer, that fact shows it to be an exception to the normal rule.
This 'God above the law' argument has been a very difficult one for me to counter. It is an area of active debate - rather, FoC has raised the challenge but I have not been able to give a satisfactory response until now. I've been working on this for nine months and I am almost ready to post my reply. I will be arguing that God, indeed, is subject to 'the law' - the law of love, the law of charity, the law of mercy, etc. I will post my full article on this topic when it is finished.
So, you can see, these examples are areas of active debate, so, you can't accept them as rock-solid pieces of evidence quite yet, but I am hopeful they will stand in the near future.
The English word 'may' has two dictionary meanings: 'permission granted' and 'likely'.
The argument that Deuteronomy 24:2,4 outlaws the reunion of 'ex-spouses' can only be sustained if 'may' is taken to mean 'permission granted'.
If 'may' is taken to mean 'likely', the logical consequence is that this text makes the reunion of 'ex-spouses' mandatory.
The ancient Hebrew words translated into the English word 'may' are not explicitly defined as permission granted nor do they give a clear indication as to whether or not 'permission' is implied.. The conclusion that Deuteronomy 24:2,4 implies God grants permission, is strictly interpretation and cannot be concluded merely from the clear, explicit meaning of the words.
According to a study of the logic and grammar of Deuteronomy 24:2,4, there is strong evidence that 'may' must mean 'likely', otherwise God is made to look unjust and outrageously illogical. Specifically, in Deuteronomy 24:4, we can, logically, only come to two choices:
If the word 'may' means 'permission granted', then the abomination consists of the husband not having permission to reunite with his wife, therefore it's God's fault.
If the word 'may' means 'likely', then the abomination consists of the husband failing to be reunited with his wife.
God will be reunited with his ex-spouse Israel, therefore, if 'may' means 'permission granted', such a reunion is forbidden, thus God is a sinner. The problem of God being made into a sinner is avoided by taking 'may' to mean 'likely'.
Therefore, based on the logic and grammar of Deuteronomy 24:2,4, and God's example of reuniting with his ex-spouse Israel, we must choose 'may' to mean 'likely' and acknowledge that this text teaches that the reunion of 'ex-spouses' is mandatory.
- the end -
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