10 Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?11 Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god.12 May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant[a] of the man who does this, who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts! 13 And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord‘s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was 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. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?[b] And what was the one God[c] seeking?[d]Godly offspring. So guard yourselves[e] in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her,[f] says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers[g] his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
The book of Malachi, the last book in the Hebrew Bible, is a rebuke of the Kingdom of Judah’s sins against God and a prophecy about the coming messiah. The writer of Malachi is particularly distraught over the men of Judah marrying pagan women and divorcing their Hebrew wives in Chapter 2. In several translations, Malachi 2:16 thunders “God hates divorce.” However, as is the case in several passages of ancient scripture, Malachi is open to various legitimately plausible interpretations. Some scholars claim that Malachi speaks of divorce and marrying foreign women in a metaphorical sense. Others defend a literal interpretation of Malachi chapter 2. So, while it is obvious that Malachi rebukes the Kingdom of Judah for their ungodly behavior, the question that persists is about the specific sin that the Hebrew people were committing.
Marriages at the time Malachi was written were arranged, and, according to some, were a covenant with God as well as their wives. While polygyny was common practice during this period of Jewish history, taking another wife was never an excuse for a man to divorce his first wife. If God truly “hates divorce,” there are some serious interpretive issues that come into question. Is it possible that Malachi 2 could have been referring to some other sin?
Some bible scholars argue that Malachi is using the metaphor of men leaving their wives for foreign, pagan women to symbolize Judah leaving Yahweh for foreign gods. The issue is not adultery but idolatry. Yahweh, according to those who believe this theory, is characterized by the wife, or “the wife of your youth,” and Judah represents the unfaithful husband. Initially, this theory seems like a great fit because this passage of Malachi speaks of altars and sacrifices. There is little known Jewish sources of the time that are opposed to divorce, and all medieval Jewish commentators understood the passage to be dealing with mixed marriages that lead some Jewish men to idolatry.
Patrons of the symbolic interpretation of Malachi 2 argue that if the passage actually meant that God hates divorce, divorce meaning not apostasy but the putting away of one’s wife, Malachi 2 would contradict Deuteronomy 24, in which God permits divorce and Jeremiah 3 in which God “divorced” Israel. Also, verses 10-12 focus on intermarriage while verses 13-16 focus on divorce. This brings up two interesting questions: If the men of Judah were divorcing their wives to marry pagan women, why isn’t divorce mentioned first? Divorce is obviously the first step in this series of sins against God. Secondly, the series of verses, 10-16, seem to be inseparable. These seven verses are isolated by both content and position in the text. For this reason it is unlikely that verses 10-16 of chapter 2 are isolating two sinful actions; it’s more likely that 10-16 is speaking about Judah’s worship of false gods- one solitary action in one solitary section of verse. The marriage of pagan women is Judah’s idolatry, and the divorce is apostasy.
Old Testament scholar Abel Isaksson, writer of Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple, offers a few points in favor of the metaphorical interpretation.
- The Old Testament concept of “berith,” or “covenant,” is incompatible with marriage.
- Neither the LXX nor the TG take verse 16 as a prohibition of divorce.
- The symbolic interpretation of apostasy matches the themes of the remaining chapters in Malachi.
A rebuttal to Isaksson contests that:
- “Berith” is shown in the Old Testament as marriage in Genesis 31:50, Proverbs 2:17, and Ezekiel 16:8
- The TG and LXX have been translated to better match Deuteronomy 24. They avoid “for, because” and translate as “if.”
- Not everything in Malachi should be interpreted from a single point of view.
According to some translations, the KJV for instance, portray divorce to be commanded in Deuteronomy 24, but most scholars agree that the conditional “if” from verse one continues through verse three. So, with this in mind, Deuteronomy 24 seems to permit divorce under some circumstances but not support or command it. Additionally, those that maintain a literal understanding of Malachi 2 interpret Jeremiah 3, which says that God “divorced” Israel, as an allegory. As Charles C. Ryrie from Grace Theological Journal put it, “If these illustrations are pressed to make God a divorcee, then perhaps he was also a polygamist, since he married both Israel and Judah.” Moreover, Jeremiah explicitly presents its symbolic intent in 3:20. Lastly, in Malachi 2, the husband’s unfaithfulness is not expressed against God, but their wives.
The literal interpretation of Malachi 2 is the most common among bible scholars. Some clues lie in the language; there are two key words in Malachi chapter 2:15-16. The first of these is “one” in verse 15. John Calvin and St. Jerome Hieronymus believed this “one” to be Abraham, but Abraham doesn’t quite fit. While Abraham did put away, or divorce, Hagar, Hagar was not a Jew. A popular idea today is that “one” parallels “one flesh” from Genesis 2:24. There is no explicit indication that God is “he” in Malachi 2:15, but that would be consistent with the context and Hebrew syntax. So, according to Walter C. Kaiser Jr. of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, “The resulting thought (of verse 15) would be this: why did God make Adam and Eve only one (flesh) when he might have given Adam many wives, for God certainly had more than enough residue of the Spirit in his creative power to furnish multiple partners? Because! God was seeking Godly offspring, but multiple partners would not have been conducive to this result.” Next, the verb “bagad” or “to act treacherously” plays a part in separating the two sins recognized in Malachi 2:10-16. The verb “bagad” is used to describe two separate transgressions- “marrying the daughter of a foreign God” (v 11) and also “breaking faith with . . . the wife of your marriage covenant” (v 14). Such organization delivers a rebuttal to the point made in favor of a metaphorical interpretation stated earlier (that verses 10-16 are inseparable, and so they must convey one sin).
Advocates of both interpretations read the text in relation to Ezra and Nehemiah. Malachi was probably written before Ezra and Nehemiah, and it is widely understood to describe a preparatory phase to the reforms in Ezra (Ezra 9&10). Both Ezra and Malachi deal with issues of intermarriage, and when one reads the books in order, the reader’s understanding of Malachi is emphatically effected. Hosea is placed first and Malachi last in the Book of the 12. The upshot of reading a book in consideration of another book in response to historical context or place in the canon is referred to as “canonical effect”- a term coined by John Jackson of Pepperdine University. Another example of this “canonical effect” in regard to the second chapter in Malachi comes courtesy of the placement of Malachi and Hosea in the Book of the Twelve. In whole, Malachi and Hosea have little in common in terms of language and form, but, when read by itself, Malachi 2:10-16 resembles the first the chapters of Hosea in unique ways. The aforementioned verb “bagad” is only found in relation to marital infidelity in these seven verses in Malachi and Hosea 5:7 & 6:7. Similarly, in the Book of the Twelve, only Malachi and Hosea use the verb “aheb” or “to love” as a verb employed by God, the subject of the sentence. Elsewhere in the Book of the twelve the verb is used only in reference to people’s love for other people. Hosea is widely understood to be a metaphor of marriage, and because of Malachi’s similarities to Hosea as well as the two books’ positions in the canonical Book of the Twelve, many have used Hosea as evidence if Malachi’s symbolic intent. Scholars that use this argument suppose that Malachi’s author drew from Hosea when writing chapter 2:10-16. In truth, Malachi was probably an isolated response to the intermarriage and divorce that plagues the Kingdom of Judah.
There is a reasonable approach to defend both the metaphorical and literal interpretation of Malachi chapter 2:16. Old Testament scholars have wrestled with the definitive phrase “God hates divorce” for decades. While reading chapters with inconclusive meanings, the best, most reasonable approach is to consider historical context while paying close attention to eschatological meanings of English translations, as well as researching the original Hebrew. Even with such egregious efforts, one might still not be able to discern truth from error, but when reading ancient documents in the Tenakh, interpretation is often the bulk of the fun.