God on Divorce in Malachi 2:16

Incorrect Translations of Malachi 2:16

I’ve just learnt something new.

Until today, I understood Malachi 2:16a as saying, “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. (NASB)

But I’ve discovered that traditional translations of this verse into English may be incorrect.

In the Hebrew of Malachi 2:16, God does not say, “I hate” (first person singular); rather God says, “He [who] hates” (third person masculine singular). This “he” is a man who hates and divorces his wife, and in so doing behaves unjustly towards her. (A divorced woman in Bible times could be very vulnerable and disadvantaged.)

The Hebrew is reasonably clear here that God is speaking about someone else. The Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) uses the second person: “If you hate and send away/divorce . . .” which makes it even clearer that God is speaking about someone else.[1]

Better Translations of Malachi 2:16

A few recent English translations have broken with the traditional rendering of Malachi 2:16.

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) “If he hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the LORD of Hosts. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously.

English Standard Version (ESV) “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.”[2]

New International Version 2011 (NIV) “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.

Several English translations of Malachi 2:16 can be viewed here.

Malachi’s Comments, and Ours

After quoting God in the beginning of verse 16, Malachi comments on God’s statement by saying, “Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously” (Mal. 2:16b). Malachi had prefaced verse 16 by saying, “So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth” (Mal. 2:15b). There is a real warning in these verses, but the warning isn’t that God necessarily, or always, hates divorce.[3]

Divorce is hard, horrible and heart-breaking, but we should stop saying “God hates divorce”, as this is misquoting, misrepresenting, and adding to, scripture. Moreover, pronouncing that “God hates divorce” brings only hurt, confusion, and feelings of condemnation to Christians who are divorced or contemplating divorce. This pronouncement does nothing to help the church’s mission of bringing healing and hope through the gospel. Furthermore, we simply must stop using Malachi 2:16 to coerce or guilt a wronged or abused spouse to remain in a harmful marriage.

For more information about domestic abuse and divorce from an evangelical Christian perspective go to A Cry for Justice.


Endnote

[1] An online English translation from the Septuagint of Malachi 2 is here.

[2] I find the use of inverted commas in the ESV confusing in Malachi 2:16. What’s going on there?

[3] Divorce was not a rare occurrence in the community of God’s people. I’m fairly certain Moses divorced his first wife Zipporah (Exod. 18:2-3). Abraham effectively divorced Hagar, with God’s instigation and full approval (Gen. 21:14 cf. Gen. 16:3). God said that he divorced Israel because of her infidelity (Jer. 3:8). Under Ezra’s leadership, the Israelites sent away (i.e. divorced) their pagan wives (Ezra 10:2-3 NLT). In the New Testament, Joseph was planning on divorcing Mary by breaking their legally binding betrothal (Matt. 1:19).

Postscript 

Since posting this article, I’ve discovered (thanks to comments from readers) that scholars such as Gordon HugenbergerDavid Instone-Brewer, and Martin A. Shields believe that “He hates . . .” is correct. A short comment from Martin Shields is included in the NET Bible’s note 24 on Malachi 2 here.
Also, a reader has asked if I can prove that “He hates” is correct. This link here may be helpful for those who have no knowledge of Hebrew. It “shows” that the verb is third person (“he hates”) and not first person (“I hate”) in Malachi 2:16.