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Malachi 2:16 and the Priest who Divorced his Wife

Newer English Translations of Malachi 2:16

“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. Malachi 2:16 NIV 2011

In a previous article, here, I briefly pointed out that a few newer English translations of the Bible, such as the CSB, ESV, and the NIV which I’ve quoted from above, give the meaning of Malachi 2:16 as something like “He, or the man, who hates and divorce his wife …” This is different from English translations that have God saying, “I hate divorce” (e.g., CEB, GNT, NASB, NET, NLT, NRSV).

In this post, I draw heavily on the work of Dr George Athas who is Director of Research and Old Testament Lecturer at Moore Theological College in Sydney. Athas understands Malachi 2:16a as saying, “For he who divorced and expelled his wife” with he referring to a specific individual. We will look at this individual and his circumstances. My primary aim, however, is to show that Malachi 2:16 is not a general statement about divorce.

The Backstory of Malachi 2:16

The backstory of Malachi 2:16 is the marriage of a priest named Manasseh (brother of Jaddua, the High Priest in Jerusalem) with Nicaso (daughter of Sanballat II, governor of Samaria) in around 350 BCE, and Manasseh’s divorce of his first wife.

The historical and political situation surrounding this marriage is explained in detail in Dr Athas’s forthcoming book Bridging the Testaments. This fascinating book explores the history between the return of Judah from exile (520s BC) and the death of  Herod the Great (4 BC). It also traces theological developments during these centuries.

Here’s an excerpt.

Nicaso’s marriage to Manasseh ignited a halakhic scandal. It was not over the marriage of a Judean man to a Samaritan woman, for this was evidently taking place en masse, and there was nothing in Torah to prohibit it. Rather, it had to do with monogamy and the restrictions on priestly marriage. The Torah permitted polygamy among laypeople, as the examples of the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob demonstrate, and there were laws to ensure the fair treatment of a man’s multiple wives (Exod 21:10–11). Deuteronomy 21:15–17 even stipulated that a man was not permitted to privilege the children by his second wife over those by his first wife when it came to the inheritance; primogeniture was to be strictly followed. However, polygamy was not permitted for priests. According to Leviticus 21:7–15, priests were restricted in who they could and could not marry in order to preserve their holiness as the ones who presented food offerings to God (Lev 21:8). Part of the cultic logic of these laws was that priests had to be monogamous (cf. m.Yoma 1:1; b.Yeb. 59a). The scandal surrounding Manasseh implies that he was already married, which made Nicaso his second wife, thereby compromising his own sacral status.

Malachi addresses the scandal of Manasseh’s marriage to Nicaso in Malachi 2:11-12.

Judah has been disloyal.
An abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem.
For Judah has violated the sanctuary of Yahweh, which he loves,
and married the daughter of a foreign deity.
May Yahweh cut off the man who does this
as a nemesis and a wretch
from the tents of Jacob,
and from bringing an offering to Yahweh of Ranks. (Mal 2:11–12; cf. 2:14–16 Athas’s translation)

Athas explains,

Manasseh is “the man” (sg.) who is labelled “a nemesis and a wretch;” the “daughter” (sg.) whom he marries is Nicaso; and the foreign deity is an allusion to Sanballat, whose name included a theophoric element preserving the name of the moon god, Sin.

A Better Understanding of Malachi 2:16

This is how Athas understands Malachi 2:13-16.

Guard your spirit and do not betray the wife of your youth. For he [i.e., Manasseh] who divorced and expelled [his wife],” Yahweh, the God of Israel, has said, “has covered his own garment with violence,” Yahweh of Ranks has said. “Guard your spirit and do not betray.” (Mal 2:13–16).

Manasseh’s divorce was a political act that had ramifications.

Manasseh divorced his first wife and defected to Samaria, and along with him went most of the priests who had either married Samaritan women, or who were not partisan to Jaddua’s conservative agenda (Ant. 11.311–312). Like Manasseh, they were drawn no doubt by the prospect of more lucrative circumstances in the north [at Mt Gerizim]. The priesthood had become a profession for personal gain, rather than a sacral service rendered to the deity.

This situation with the priesthood is Malachi’s concern.

The slogan “God hates divorce,” which is clumsily derived from Malachi 2:16, is rarely understood in context. My hope is that by understanding the backstory, it will be accepted that Malachi 2:16 is not a general statement on divorce and that the unhelpful slogan will be retired.

Look out for George Athas’s book Bridging the Testaments (Zondervan Academic) which is expected to be released in 2022. It’s excellent! (Note that the excerpts above are from the unedited manuscript of his book. Wording in the final publication might differ from what I’ve presented here.)

Update: George’s book was officially published on the 14th of November, 2023. Information about the book is on ZondervanAcademic.com.


Chess scene via Pexels

Explore more

God on Divorce (Malachi 2:16)
Jesus on Divorce, Remarriage, and Adultery
Hyperbole and Divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31-32)
Paul’s Words on Divorce, and Leaving an Abusive Marriage
A Critique of Wayne Grudem’s “Grounds for Divorce”

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11 thoughts on “Malachi 2:16 and the Priest who Divorced his Wife

  1. George Athas has also written a first rate article on the seemingly problematic story of Lot and his daughters in Genesis 19. He calls attention to translators’ misunderstandings and disentangles the story. The article is called ‘Has Lot Lost The Plot? Detail Omission and a Reconsideration of Genesis 19’. (By typing the title into a search engine, it is easy to find a pdf for download.) Highly recommended.

    1. I second your recommendation, Andrew.
      I’ve referred to George’s work elsewhere on my website. I like his thoughts on Deuteronomy 22. Also, he gives a reason why Samson continued to trust Delilah, and on a possible reason for Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.

  2. Marg, Thank you for this teaching and explanation. Athas’ translation uses the name, Yahweh of Ranks. What is the meaning of this term “ranks”?

    1. “Ranks” is a translation of tsebaot (צְבָאֽוֹת), sometimes transliterated as “Sabaoth.” It is often connected with God’s name YHWH to form a kind of title.

      The title has traditionally been translated as “LORD of hosts” but means something like “LORD of Heaven’s Armies” or “LORD of Heavenly Forces” as in the CEB, CSB, NLT, NASB 2020, MSG, NET, and NLT.

      The NIV and GNT translate it as “LORD Almighty.”

    2. Robert, in addition to Marg’s comments, I went for “ranks” as a kind of military term, which is equivalent to “hosts.” It’s just that we never use “host” in this way anymore, except unknowingly when we say things like “I have a host of reasons.” We’ve lost the original meaning of the word, whereas “ranks” tends still to have a military connotation.

  3. As a very recent divorcee, I REALLY appreciate this article. That slogan, ‘God hates divorce’ kept me stuck in a virtual prison for far too long.

  4. Is Athas’ book available yet? I cannot find it on Amazon nor in Zondervan Academics.

    1. No not yet. Last I heard, it’s still being edited.

  5. I checked the Lev and Mishnah refs but did not see where any of them said or implied that a priest was monogamous. Am I missing something you are seeing?

    1. Perhaps it is reading too much into Leviticus 21:13-15 to say that it indicates monogamy and forbids polygamy. But Mishnah Yoma 1:1 does seem to imply monogamy. Yevamot 59a (a disturbing read) is about the “condition” of the wife of a high priest and doesn’t give much indication of monogamy or polygamy one way or the other.

      1. Yeah, Yoma 1:1 is for the high priest. Almost everyone was monogamous, only the very wealthy could afford to have multiple wives. I do not know if any high priests were polygamous. I think the concern in the Yoma 1:1 case was that the high priest would not have any “house/wife” and so the proposed “solution” was a backup wife, just in case. If he had 2 wives, and one died, he would still have a “house/wife” so there would be no need for a backup wife.

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