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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” seems to be 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.)[1]

The Hebrew of Malachi 2:16 is not straightforward, however.[2] The Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures, is somewhat easier to understand and uses the second person: “If you hate [and] send away/divorce . . .” which makes it clearer that God is speaking about someone else and he is not the one doing the hating.[3]

Better Translations of Malachi 2:16

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

Christian Standard Bible (CSB) “If he hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the Lord of Armies. 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.”

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

Malachi’s Comments, and Ours

After quoting God at 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.[4]

Divorce is hard, horrible, and heartbreaking, but we should stop saying that God hates divorce, as this is misquoting and misrepresenting 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.


Footnotes

[1] In Deuteronomy, the Hebrew verb “hates” (שָׂנֵא–sane’), the same verb that occurs in Malachi 2:16, also occurs in verses where a man hates his wife and wants to divorce her (Deut. 22:13ff, 22:16; 24:3). It is practically a technical term used in the context of divorce. (The NASB translates the “hate” verb as “turns/turned against.”)
The same verb occurs in other verses where a man hates his wife or would-be wife. Leah was hated (sometimes translated as “was unloved”) by Jacob (Gen. 29:31-33). The father of Samson’s first wife assumes Samson has abandoned her because he hated her (Judg. 15:2). Amnon hated Tamar immediately after he raped her, and he refused to marry her despite her pleading to do so (2 Sam. 13:15). (See Strong’s H8130.)

[2] C.C. Torrey comments on the difficulties of the text and notes that it isn’t clear how the translators of the Greek Septuagint and Aramaic Targum understood the beginning of Malachi 2:16: “They seem to have translated, as the Massoretes pointed [the Hebrew], with faithful adherence to an impossible text and in despair of making anything out of it.” Torrey, “The Prophecy of ‘Malachi,'” Journal of Biblical Literature, 17.1 (1898):1-15, 4 fn 9.
Some of the grammatical questions this verse raises are: Is the divorce phrase conditional (as in the CSB translation, “if”) or not? Is the “hate” verb (sane’) second or third person? Is the “send away/divorce” verb (shalach) an imperative or not? And how are we to understand the clothing phrase?

[3] An online English translation from the Septuagint of Malachi 2 is here.
The second person masculine verb (“you hate”) may also occur in Malachi 2:16 in line 4 of 4QXIIa, a damaged document found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. See Russel Fuller, “Text-Critical Problems in Malachi 2:10-16,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110.1 (Spring, 1991): 47-57, 55.

[4] 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 Jews 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).
The same Hebrew verb (שָׁלַח–shalach) that is used for Abraham sending Hagar away (Gen. 21:14) and Amnon sending Tamar away (2 Sam. 2:16) is used for wives being sent away (i.e. divorced). The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon notes that שָׁלַח with the accusative of “wife” means “divorce” and it cites Deuteronomy 22:19 & 29; Deuteronomy 24:1 & 3; Jeremiah 3:1 and Malachi 2:16. (See Strong’s number H7971.) The same verb is used in Jeremiah 3:8 for God divorcing Israel. A rarer, related word (שִׁלּוּחִים– shilluchim) is used for Moses sending away his first wife Zipporah (Exod. 18:2). (See Strong’s H7964.) A different, unrelated word is used for the Jews divorcing their pagan wives (Ezra 10:3). (See Strong’s H3318.)

Postscript 1

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 on Malachi 2:16 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.

Postscript 2 August 18 2020

Perhaps “I hate divorce” is a legacy of the King James Bible which has God as the one who hates: “For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away…” (Mal. 2:16 KJV) “He hateth” is a correct way to render the third person masculine Hebrew verb sane’, but having God speak and say “he hateth …” breaks other grammar rules in the Hebrew of Malachi 2:16. [See footnote 2.]

English translations published in the 1500s and before the KJV have “If thou [i.e. “you”] hatest her …” or something similar. These translations include the Matthew Bible (1537), Great Bible (1539-1541), Geneva Bible (1556-1560), Bishops’ Bible (1568-1602), all translating from Hebrew, and Douay-Rheims translating from Latin (1582-1609).

However, there are other issues with Malachi 2:16 in these older translations. For example, they render “putting away” as an imperative (as do some Greek texts): “If though hatest her, put her away, sayeth the Lord God of Israel.” And the Matthew and Great Bibles have, “And give her clothing [alimony?] for her scorn” which is different from “he covereth injury under his garment” in other translations. Malachi 2:16 is a tricky passage to translate from the Hebrew.

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