One text in the Bible that has caused much anguish and distress in the lives of many people is the statement in Malachi 2:16, “For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel” (Malachi 2:16 NRSV). Many people use this statement to ostracize, exclude, and marginalize people in church. However, most people who read this statement are not aware that this English translation of Malachi 2:16 does not accurately reflect what the Hebrew text says.
In order to clarify what the prophet is trying to communicate to his audience, it becomes necessary to look at the Hebrew text as it appears in the book of Malachi.
I am aware that most people reading this post do not know Hebrew and are not aware of the peculiarities of Hebrew verbs and Hebrew grammar. However, in order to explain the problem with the translation of Malachi 2:16, it is imperative to deal with Hebrew grammar. The results of dealing with Hebrew grammar will result in the justification for a new translation of Malachi 2:16.
The Hebrew text of Malachi 2:16 reads as follows:
כִּי־שָׂנֵא שַׁלַּח אָמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (Malachi 2:16).
kî-śānēʼ šallaḥ ʼāmar yhwh ʼlōhê yiśrāʼēl (Malachi 2:16).
“I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel” (Malachi 2:16 NIV 1984).
The Hebrew verb śānēʼ which is translated in English “I hate” is a Qal perfect, third masculine singular which means “he hates.” The reason for the change from “he hates” to “I hate” is complex, but it is this change that has complicated the discussion of the biblical view on divorce.
The change from “he hates” to “I hate” requires a repointing of the Hebrew text, from שָׂנֵא (Qal perfect third masculine singular) to שׂנֵא (a participle). Since what follows in the text reads, “says the Lord, the God of Israel,” then an “I” is supplied to indicate that it is Yahweh who says “I hate divorce.”
This is the view adopted by Walter Kaiser. In his article ““Divorce in Malachi 2:10–16,” Kaiser wrote,
The speaker of the words שנא שלח clearly is Yahweh—אמר יהוה. [However], שנא is to be regarded as a participle, the pronominal subject being omitted, as often happens in Hebrew. The reading “I hate divorce” is to be preferred even though the Hebrew words have an element of uncertainty about them” (Kaiser 1987:77).
However, this translation is in conflict with what follows.
וְכִסָּה חָמָס עַל־לְבוּשׁוֹ אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת (Malachi 2:16).
wekissāh ḥāmās ʽal-lebûšô ʽāmar yhwh ṣebā’ôt (Malachi 2:16).
“I hate a man’s covering himself with violence says the LORD Almighty” (Malachi 2:16 NIV 1984).
The Hebrew verb wekissāh, translated “I hate a man’s covering himself” by the NIV 1984, is a Piel third masculine singular, “he covers.” Since the verb has a waw consecutive, this means that this verb continues the same idea of the first verb. In order to make the second clause of the text agree with the first clause, the NIV 1984 deviates from the original text by adding the words “I hate a man’s.” These words are not in the Hebrew text.
The consecutive ideas of the two Hebrew verbs should be translated as “he hates” and “he covers.” A literal translation of Malachi 2:16 should read as follows: “he hates divorce, says Yahweh, the God of Israel, and he covers violence upon his garments, says Yahweh of Hosts [Sabaoth].”
As it is written, the Hebrew text is difficult to interpret. Who is he who “hates divorce” and who is he who “covers his garment with violence.” In order to understand what the author of Malachi is trying to convey to his audience, it becomes imperative to look at the context of this verse.
The context of the statement on divorce is unfaithfulness in marriage and this is expressed by the use of the Hebrew verb בָגַד (bāgad).
The verb בָגַד (bāgad) means “to act unfaithfully.” The word is repeated five times in the section dealing with divorce, Malachi 2:10–16. Malachi uses this Hebrew verb to express the people’s unfaithfulness in several different relationships:
The people have been unfaithful with one another: “Why then are we faithless to one another” (Malachi 2:10).
Judah has been unfaithful to God: “Judah has been faithless, and has married the daughter of a foreign god” (Malachi 2:11).
Some people have been unfaithful to their wives, “the LORD was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (Malachi 2:14).
God exhorts the people not to be unfaithful to their wives: “do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth” (Malachi 2:15). Once again God exhorts the people not to be unfaithful to their wives, “So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:16).
The word בָגַד (bāgad) is used four times in connection with unfaithfulness in marriage.
In his article “Malachi on Divorce,” David Clyde Jones quotes an article by A. van Hoonacker in which he suggests repointing the Hebrew word from an infinitive construct to a Piel perfect third masculine singular. Without changing the consonantal text, the repointed text would read as follows:
“If [anyone] hating [his wife] divorces [her], Says the LORD God of Israel, Then violence covers his garment, Says the LORD of hosts.”
This translation of Malachi 2:16 reflects the context because it addresses the issue of men being unfaithful to their wives and men leaving their wives to marry the daughters of a foreign god.
A similar translation of Malachi 2:16 was proposed by J. M. Powis Smith in the The Complete Bible: An American Translation. He translates Malachi 2:16 as follows: “‘For one who hates and divorces, Says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Covers his clothing with violence,’ Says the Lord of Hosts.”
Even the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, recognizes that it is the husband, not God, who hates. The Septuagint translates Malachi 2:16 as follows: “But if thou shouldest hate thy wife and put her away, saith the Lord God of Israel, then ungodliness shall cover thy thoughts, saith the Lord Almighty: therefore take ye heed to your spirit, and forsake them not.”
The New English Bible has a much better translation of Malachi 2:16: “If a man divorces or puts away his spouse, he overwhelms her with cruelty, says the LORD of Hosts the God of Israel. Keep watch on your spirit, and do not be unfaithful.”
Even the NIV, recognizing the “unfaithfulness” of its translation of Malachi 2:16 in the NIV 1984, corrected its translation of Malachi 3:16 in the NIV 2011:
NIV 1984: “I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, ‘and I hate a man’s covering himself1 with violence as well as with his garment,’ says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith” (Mal 2:16 NIV)
NIV 2011: “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.”
Does God hate divorce? Malachi 2:16 does not say that God hates divorce. However, God is not happy with people when they divorce. From God’s perspective, marriage is a commitment that should last a lifetime, “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6).
However, God, through Moses “permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended” (Matthew 19:8 NLT). Although God is against divorce, in certain situations divorce is necessary. In referring to the unfaithfulness of the Northern Kingdom, Yahweh said, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries” (Jeremiah 3:8).
So, here is the final lesson about Malachi 2:16: people must stop saying that Malachi 2:16 says “I hate divorce” because “I hate divorce” is not a good translation of Malachi 2:16 and it is not what the text says. It is not God who hates divorce. It is the husband who hates his wife and divorces her.
For other studies on translating the Bible, see my post, Studies on Translation Problems in the Old Testament.
Jones, David Clyde. “Malachi on Divorce.” Presbyterian 15 no 1 (1989): 16–22.
Kaiser, Walter C. Jr. “Divorce in Malachi 2:10–16.” Criswell Theological Review 2 (1987): 73-84.
The Complete Bible: An American Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago 1939.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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