God hates divorce? Not always.
In Malachi 2:16, many Bibles have the words “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel.” These words have been paraphrased and turned into the well known saying “God hates divorce.”
This saying is really problematic for victims of domestic abuse. It is bandied around like a proverb, dropped casually into sermons and magazine articles, propounded in marriage manuals, amplified in Bible studies, and thrust accusingly over cyberspace and kitchen tables. It appears to condemn all acts of divorcing, with no thought for who is the innocent party. Christian victims of domestic abuse have it carved in stone in their minds and feel trapped between two terrible alternatives: stay in the marriage (and suffer the destruction of ongoing abuse), or reap condemnation for divorcing their abusive partners.
A third alternative presented to the victim is almost as bad: separate from the abuser but never divorce — a limbo which still brings tongue wagging from the church and leaves the victim vulnerable to a dangerous reconciliation if an unreformed abuser makes an outward show of reformation.
Significantly, most people do not realise that Malachi 2:16, the text which has given rise to this saying, has been mistranslated. The incorrect translation came about as follows. The word “hates” in Malachi 2:16 is he hates. The Hebrew denotes third person masculine singular = he. The King James version had For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away. Many subsequent translations switched the third person “he” to a first person “I” without any grammatical warrant. For example, the 1984 NIV was “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel. Possibly translators thought the switch was okay because it retained the sense of the KJV — that God feels the hatred [for divorce]. They did not seem to worry that “I hate divorce” was grammatically inaccurate to the original Hebrew.
But modern translations are starting to correct this mistake. The construction in Hebrew (“he hates… he covers”) shows that the one who feels the hatred is not God, but the divorcing husband. To be faithful to the Hebrew, the verse could be rendered, “If he hates and divorces,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with violence.” It is talking about a husband who hates his wife and divorces her because of his aversion for her. Therefore, Malachi 2:16 is only referring to a specific type of divorce: divorce for aversion, which could be dubbed “hatred divorce”. Divorce for hatred is treacherous divorce: if a man hates his wife and dismisses, he “covers his garment with violence” — his conduct is reprehensible, he has blood on his hands.
To date, three Bible versions have translated Malachi 2:16 correctly: the ESV, the Holman Christian Standard and the 2011 NIV. But these aren’t the only worthy translations. Since 1868, sixteen individual Hebrew scholars have translated the hatred as being what the divorcing husband feels, rather than what God feels. In my book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion, I list all these translations.
The conclusion is simple. And liberating.
- God did NOT say “I hate divorce.”
- God doesn’t dislike all kinds of divorce; he only condemns the divorce which unjustly dismisses a spouse without valid grounds.
Examples of divorce without valid grounds might be when a man discards his wife for a younger woman; or a woman throws off her husband because he doesn’t earn enough to keep her in the luxury she believes she deserves; or a mate who says “We’re incompatible: my spouse hasn’t done anything really wrong, we just don’t have anything in common.”
Malachi 2:16 does not condemn all divorce. It certainly does not condemn the divorce which a person might take out because of the persistent misbehavior of their spouse. It doesn’t condemn divorces undertaken because of adultery, abuse or desertion.
Does it make much difference?
The correct translation of Malachi 2:16 makes a vast difference to victims of abuse who are devoted to the scriptures.
If they know that God does not condemn all divorce but only treacherous divorce, they will be much better positioned to make biblically informed decisions about their marriages.
The mistranslation of Malachi 2:16 has generated a load of malarkey (exaggerated or foolish talk usually intended to obscure, mislead, deceive or impress; nonsense; bunkum; empty rhetoric). Malachi-malarkey. Okay, I know that’s not the greatest pun, but humor me. 🙂
We need to stop saying “God hates divorce.”
The saying “God hates divorce” is unbiblical and unjust. It stigmatizes people who have divorced on valid grounds.
If you have never been divorced, you probably will not grasp how deep this stigma can be. It can cause profound and long-lasting guilt and self-condemnation. It besmirches anyone who divorces on valid biblical grounds: victims of domestic abuse; victims of unjust abandonment; the innocent party in adultery, and those who have chosen to divorce porn addicts, child abusers, thieves and murderers.
Victims of domestic abuse or other violations of the marriage covenant can be trapped in horrible marriages for a whole range of reasons. Let’s remove one of those reasons by banning the unscriptural slogan “God hates divorce”.
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Here are the three modern Bible translations of Malachi 2:16 that accurately convey that the verb ‘hates’ is third person, not first person:
Holman Christian Standard Bible / Christian Standard Bible (HCSB / CSB)
Update: In 2017 the HCSB was revised and renamed the Christian Standard Bible. In the update they did not change their translation of Malachi 2:16
“If he hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the Lord of Hosts.
“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.
English Standard (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.
* Hebrew: who hates and divorces
For Further Reading
The Bible does Allow Divorce for Domestic Abuse — guest post by Barbara Roberts at restoredrelationships.org [restoredrelationships.org is now restored-uk.org and the link has been updated to reflect the change. Editors.]