Does Malachi 2:16 teach that God hates divorce?
The King James: For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.
The New King James: “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.”
The New American Standard: “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”
The English Standard: Malachi 2:16 “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
The New International Version: “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.
One can certainly tell that there is no unanimity in the translation of this rather difficult text.
The current interpretation of the text by conservative Christians is close to the New American Standard translation. “I hate divorce”, says the Lord, the God of Israel…”
I have an incessantly curious nature when it comes to God’s word. Why are there so many different translations? Why are there so many interpretations? Why, if God hates divorce, does God divorce his people Israel? Why does God permit divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4? God never permits that which he hates. What does it mean?
Another problem that arises is that anyone who strays from the “God hates divorce” camp is immediately accused of being tainted by the world. “50% divorce rate because of liberal thinking like this. God hates divorce!” You will be called worldly, or worse, a feminist!
But I am a Christian who believes in the infallible and inerrant word of God as our only guide to eternal life. Our faith and our practice is driven ONLY by the inspired word.
So with that understanding, I delved into Malachi 2:16. I could not simply allow the “professionals” to translate it and pick which version I liked best. I am accountable to God to use whatever gifts He has given me to discern what the text actually says.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what the world says. It doesn’t matter what accusations are thrown around. It doesn’t matter the opinion of the latest celebrity preacher. All that matter is what God says.
This article is a little more technical than I usually write. There is a reason for it. I am fully aware that the views expressed here will leave me open to accusations of being “soft on divorce”. I assure you that is not the case. My only concern is to rightly discern God’s word and go where it leads. This article is for the purpose of making it clear what my view is; how I arrived at it; and perhaps open up some very closed minds to the truth of God’s word.
If we believe that the Bible is the word of God; if we believe that it is sufficient, necessary, clear and authoritative; then we must go to the text itself and let it speak for itself.
There are certain principles of interpretation that every student of the Bible, especially those of the Reformed and Presbyterian persuasion, should recognize.
First, the primary author of Scripture is God Himself. There is only one author, and He is perfectly wise and His lips speak knowledge and understanding. For this reason, there are no contradictions in Scripture. God doesn’t change His mind. God doesn’t grow in His knowledge and understanding. Jesus doesn’t contradict Moses and Malachi doesn’t contradict Hosea. To apply this simply, those texts that are clear must interpret those texts that are rather difficult. If an interpretation on a text flat-out contradicts a clear text elsewhere in scripture, great care must be taken. God is not foolish. He is not “yes” and “no”.
Second, God used human language and human authors. This means that ordinary rules of grammar were used to communicate eternal truths about God. These human authors lived in cultures and eras of history and their language was the language of the time. Of course, this can be and has been greatly abused – mostly by those who do not keep the unchanging Divine Author clear in their thoughts. But the truth of the matter is that the words that were used were intended to be read and understood by a contemporary audience. There was no “secret” language with secret numbers and hidden codes. Just ordinary words used in an ordinary way following the ordinary rules of communication.
Third, the Hebrew language contains some challenges all its own, especially for English speakers. The Hebrew text is a consonantal text. This means that in the original there were only consonants. Vowels were passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition. In the early Middle Ages after Christ, (around 800AD or so) a group of Hebrew scholars known as the Masoretes invented a system of dots and lines to indicate the vowels and the proper pronunciation. After several centuries, this system was modified, edited and corrected until it was received by all, and by the 10th century, there was a received text of the Hebrew Bible with the vowel points added.
The vowel points are crucial to the interpretation of the words. If the pronunciation of a word changed, the meaning and the grammar of that word would change. If the vowel points are not reliable, then the text is not reliable.
I hold to the general inerrancy of the Hebrew vowel points. I believe that God has providentially preserved even the pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible. I am aware that this means that at times there will be difficulties, but I am far more comfortable saying that I don’t understand something than I am saying that the text is somehow corrupted .
This is important. Current scholarship generally denies the inerrancy of the points. Whenever a passage is difficult to interpret, they tend to try to make sense of the words by attempting different vowels here and there until they think that they have a solution. I believe that this is bad exegesis. It tends to lend itself to endless variation of translation based upon the presuppositions of the translator.
This also explains why there are so many different translations of Malachi 2:16, especially as the “fluidity” of the vowel points became more and more an acceptable interpretation technique. Change a vowel here and there, and “he hates” becomes “I hate”; and the verb “to send away” becomes the noun “divorce”.
For example, one analysis reads:
“The verb שָׂנֵא (sane‘) appears to be a third person form, “he hates,” which makes little sense in the context, unless one emends the following word to a third person verb as well. Then one might translate, “he [who] hates [his wife] [and] divorces her…is guilty of violence.” A similar translation is advocated by M. A. Shields, “Syncretism and Divorce in Malachi 2, 10–16, ” ZAW 111 (1999): 81-85. However, it is possible that the first person pronoun אָנֹכִי (‘anokhi, “I”) has accidentally dropped from the text after כִּי (ki). If one restores the pronoun, the form שָׂנֵא can be taken as a participle and the text translated, “for I hate” (so NAB, NASB, NRSV, NLT).”
Do you see what great lengths this commentator has gone to twist the words to say what he wants them to say? Amend the words, assume an entire pronoun has dropped out, and that the Masoretic scribes got the pronunciation wrong, even though there is absolutely no reason to believe so. The manuscript itself has never been in dispute.
So to summarize: God’s word does not contradict itself; God used ordinary language and grammar to communicate His word; The Hebrew text has been passed down to us accurately – let’s begin to look at the words themselves.
With that in mind, lets look at Malachi 2:16
As it happens, the entire difficulty in this passage is in the interpretation of the first three words of the text: כִּי־שָׂנֵא שַׁלַּח ki-sane shallach
The first word is ki. It is a common Hebrew conjunction that can be translated many different ways depending on the context. It can mean “because” or “for” or “that”, or it can be used similar to our quotation marks to mark off a direct quotation. Other possibilities are “When, if, although,” and so on.
The second word, sane, is “he hates”. The third word, shallach is “send away, set free, let go.”
After these three words, the text says, “Says the LORD, the God of Israel”.
So what does it mean? We will take the conjunction last, since its interpretation depends upon the other two words. Here are the possibilities from the English translations:
First, “For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away” (King James Version). In this version, the conjunction is tied to the second phrase, not the first one. The assumption is that the subject of the verb “to hate” is God and that the object of God’s hatred is “the sending away”. This scheme is generally followed by the NKJ and the NAS. But there are some problems:
First, the third phrase, completing the quote is this: “and violence covers his garments”. If “he” in the first phrase refers to God (as the one hating) then why would the antecedent suddenly change in the rest of the quote? Is it God’s garments that are covered with violence? If “he” is God in the first, it must be God also in the rest of the quote. Then we would have “God hates divorce and violence covers his garments.”
You could make some sense of it in English, but not without mangling the Hebrew.
If you took the stance of the New American Standard, and changed the subject of “hates” to the first person singular pronoun, (I hate), then the rest of the phrase could justify a change in the pronoun (as the NAS does) but the problem is that the vowel points do not fit. In fact, there is only one translation that matches the pointing of the text: “He hates”. That’s the only thing that it can mean without twisting the pronunciation. So who is the subject of the sentence? It can’t be God, because that doesn’t fit the rules of grammar. Since the subject is not given expressly, I would take the subject as a hypothetical man, an indeterminate “he”.
The next word shallach (to send away) is a little more difficult. The first problem is the assumption that “to send away” is the exact equivalent of “to divorce”. It is not. The primary meaning is to send. The form that it is in (the vowel points and double consonant “L”) is what is called the piel form, which slightly changes the meaning. The most common translations are “set free”, “let go”, “dismiss”, “send away”. Divorce, as it is understood today, and as practiced in ancient Israel (give her a bill of divorcement), is the legal procedure of acknowledging the broken marriage covenant. One can certainly “send away” a wife without divorcing her. Furthermore, Deuteronomy 24:1 uses both the legal term “divorce” and the word “shallach”, meaning to send (her) away. These are not identical terms.
If the meaning of this text is as it is commonly presented, “God hates divorce”, then even the translation of the word itself is problematic. Usually those who hold this view say that if a woman is in an abusive relationship, she can separate, but not divorce. However, the word shallach means to send away, not to obtain a bill of divorcement. If divorce is forbidden here, then certainly separation is.
Instead of ascribing a rather obscure and perhaps unknown meaning to the word shallach, let’s take it in its most common and highly attested use, “send away”, and see where that leads us.
The next issue are the vowel points. As they stand, there are only two forms of the Hebrew verb that use these vowel points. One is called the infinitive construct, the other is a masculine singular imperative (or, command). The infinitive construct is similar to an English infinitive. If it was an infinitive construct, the two words together would be translated, “He hates to send away;” Since this doesn’t make a lot of sense, it is generally understood as a participle: “He hates the sending away”, or “he hates divorce”. But there are a lot of assumptions that need to happen for this to be valid. First, one would have to assume that an infinitive construct is the equivalent of a participle, which it is not. The second assumption is that “he” refers to God, and then switches to the treacherous man in the second half of the quote. That is a big leap, and contrary to the ordinary rules of grammar. Quite simple, we must rule out the infinitive construct, for it would be complete nonsense grammatically. To view an infinitive construct as the direct object of the verb “to hate” is to do violence to rules of grammar. It is nowhere attested as a valid interpretation.
But there is a far easier way that fits the grammar, the historical context, and the analogy of Scripture perfectly. The word shallach is actually a command. It is an imperative, 2nd person, masculine singular. That is the only form it CAN be without twisting the natural use of language. The use of shallach, the exact spelling – points and all – is found fifteen times in the Old Testament. Three times it is used as an infinitive construct (Genesis 8:10; Exodus 8:29 and Jeremiah 40:1). In the Genesis passage, the infinitive construct acts as a helping verb to complete another verb, which is the most common form of an infinitive construct standing without a preposition. But in the Exodus and the Jeremiah passage, both the infinitives have a preposition. (that’s a whole other story. I just added that for the Hebrew purists). Every other time it is a command, translated “Let go, drive away, release” depending on the context.
Nine of those times, it is the command of the Lord to Pharaoh. Thus saith the Lord, let my people go.
In not one of these places does shallach mean “divorce”. That would be nonsense. Did Noah divorce the dove, or send her away? Did Pharoah divorce Israel, or send them away?
The problem with the translation given by the ESV (“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her”) is that the word “divorce” is translated as if it is a simple action verb. But the vowel pointing does not allow that. In order for this to mean “he divorces her”, the verb would have to be spelled differently. The points don’t fit. The only form where the points and the grammar fit is an imperative, (command). Not only does shallach NOT mean divorce, but it isn’t an simple action verb, nor is there a connecting conjunction (and). Taking these liberties with the text is contrary to the history of the church in translating this phrase, but it also changes the meaning and misses the point.
Taking the whole phrase in its most natural sense, without any assumptions and without changing any of the pronunciation, we have this:
“Because he hates, let (her) go,” says the LORD, the God of Israel…
This translation not only is the only one that does full justice to the inspired text, including the vowel points and the simple, ordinary use of language, but it is also well attested in the history of the church. It is the translation of the Vulgate, the Geneva Bible of 1599, and Calvin. In fact, Calvin wrote,
“This then is the reason why the Prophet now says, If thou hatest, dismiss; not that he grants indulgence to divorce, as we have said, but that he might by this circumstance enhance the crime; and hence he adds, For he covers by a cloak his violence.”
This may seem a bit strange to those who have been steeped in the teaching of the church for the past 30 years. Does the Bible really say that if a man hates his wife, he should set her free? This can’t be so! Does that fit the context of Malachi?
That will be the subject of my next article.