If a man hates his wife he should set her free from the marriage. That’s what Malachi 2:16 says.
Many Christians believe that God hates divorce. This mistaken idea comes from mis-translations of Malachi 2:16.
I have been rebutting the idea that ‘God hates divorce’ since 2008. I wrote about it in my book Not Under Bondage. I am in the process of revising my book and the chapter on Malachi will be entirely rewritten.
The work of Ruth Magnusson Davis has prompted me to deeply research how Malachi 2 has been translated in old versions of Scripture. I have looked at the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Targum Jonathan, the Latin Vulgate, the Hebrew Masoretic Text, and all the English Bible translations which came before the King James Bible. It has been a fascinating journey.
Here is how the Coverdale Bible (1535) rendered Malachi 2:16:
If thou hatest her, put her away, sayeth the Lord God of Israel and give her a clothing for the scorn, says the Lord of Hosts. Look well then to your spirit, and despise her not.
In the revised version of Not Under Bondage I will be presenting detailed arguments for WHY Coverdale’s translation of Malachi 2:16 is a valid translation. Coverdale only varies from the meaning of Hebrew Masoretic Text in that Coverdale uses the 2nd person (If you hate…) rather than the 3rd person (If he hates…). That suggests Coverdale was following the Septuagint which had the verb in the 2nd person. The difference is not significant to the meaning of the verse. Treacherous abusive husbands are being commanded to let their wives go, whether the translator uses the 2nd or the 3rd person.
Coverdale’s translation was taken into the 1537 Matthew Bible. (see Altars Covered in Tears – Malachi by Ruth Magnusson Davis)
Moses told Pharaoh “Let my people go!” The Hebrew word ‘let go!’ in Exodus is the same word which Coverdale rendered ‘put her away’ in Malachi 2:16. It is the Hebrew word shallach.
The way shallach is spelled and pointed in the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Mal 2:16 is a form of shallach which is not very common. Myles Coverdale construed it as an imperative — a command. “Let her go!” or “Set her free!” or “Release her!” would be reasonable translations of that word in Malachi 2:16. Because exclamation marks were not used in Coverdale’s day, the strength of the command “put her away, and give her a clothing for the scorn” may not be apparent to modern readers.
Malachi’s use of the word shallach cannot be an accident. Malachi is drawing an analogy between the oppressive husband as Pharaoh, and the oppressed wife as Israel. Pharaoh hated the Israelites, so God told him, “Let my people go!” When a husband hates his wife, God commands the husband to let her go free.
Pastors and churches declaim, “God hates divorce! Get back to your husband! Get back to your wifely duties!” But the Bible says, “Set the oppressed wife free!”
The translation of Malachi 2:16 is crucial
If the Bible says that a man who hates his wife must set her free, this has two big implications:
- God must deplore the ‘God hates divorce’ mantra because it is diametrically opposed to what He conveys through the prophet Malachi.
- Malachi 2:16 coheres with all the other Bible texts which permit divorce.
Malachi 2:16 is a text that endorses divorce in specific circumstances. Rather than opposing divorce, it instructs a treacherous and malicious husband to divorce his wife. It therefore is consistent with the other Bible passages that allow, commend and even command divorce —
- Matthew 19:9 permits divorce for adultery.
- 1 Corinthians 7:15 tells us to acquiesce when an unbeliever divorces a believer.
- 1 Corinthians 7:15 allows an abused spouse to divorce. It could even be said it urges the abused spouse to divorce the abuser. “If the unbeliever causes separation, let there be separation.” (Don’t keep giving the abuser umpteenth chances. He is a liar; his promises to reform always come to nothing. His claim to be a Christian is a sham. His conduct has effectively broken the wedlock. The abuse victim cannot be bound to a marriage that is already dead.)
- Deuteronomy 21:14 entitles a mistreated wife to divorce a negligent / abusive husband.
- Deuteronomy 21:14 commands the negligent or abusive husband to let his wife go.
- Malachi 2:16 commands the abusive husband to (i) let his wife go, and (ii) give her a covering for the scorn. The husband must compensate her for the wrong he has done her, to mitigate the poverty and stigma she might endure as a divorced woman.
The Old Testament specifically uphold the rights of abused wives. This is another implication which the church must face fair and square if it is going to rightly address domestic abuse. Deuteronomy 21 and Malachi 2 uphold the rights of women who have been mistreated by men. The message of those texts to men is: Do not mistreat your wives! And if you choose to mistreat your wife, you must let her go free! This message harmonises perfectly with 1 Corinthians 7:15. The mistreated spouse is not under bondage, not bound morally, or spiritually, to remain married to the abuser. The oppressed spouse is free to divorce and marry another (in the Lord).
Bad translation leads to bad tradition
‘God hates divorce’ is a clichéd dictum. It sounds like a formal pronouncement from an authoritative source, but it is overused and hackneyed. Most Christians recycle the dictum without ever questioning whether it is true. Those who spout it betray a lack of original thought. They simply believe it must be true because they heard it preached and because so many versions of the Bible have translated Malachi 2:16 wrongly:
- “I hate divorce” says the Lord God of Israel… (NASB, AMP, NLT, NET, MSG, GW, GNT, ICB, NCV, NLV, ERV, NRSV, CJB, EXB and others)
- The LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce… (NKJ, ISV, KJV and others)
All those translations have to be called into question. If so many translators have been mis-translating this verse in a way that diametrically opposes what God is really saying, God must be deeply grieved.
The Rev Samuel Powell was threatened with a charge of heresy for putting forward his alternate translation of Malachi 2:16. The person who threatened to charge Sam with heresy doesn’t even know Hebrew, so he couldn’t evaluate Sam’s translation on its merits. He was just outraged that Sam (a Hebrew scholar) was challenging the long-standing tradition that ‘God hates divorce’.
The New Testament warns us to beware of human traditions.
Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ. (Col 2:8, CSB)
Here are Jesus’ words as recorded in Mark 7:6-9 (NMB):
He answered and said to them, Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain they worship me, teaching doctrines which are nothing but the commandments of men. For you lay the commandment of God aside, and observe the precepts of men, such as the washing of pitchers and of cups. And many other suchlike things you do.
And he said to them, All too well do you cast aside the commandment of God to maintain your own precepts.
There is a problem with saying ‘God hates divorce’ because it contradicts other parts of Scripture. If God unilaterally hates divorce, why does God tolerate divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-3? Why does God positively commend and command divorce in Ezra? Why does God Himself divorce Israel? Why did Jesus say divorce was permitted for adultery?
In my experience, if you point out to people the contradiction between the ‘God hates divorce’ dictum and the rest of Scripture, they brush you off. They say “Well, God hates the harm that divorce does to families,” or “God hates the breakdown of marriage,” or “God hates divorce, but you can ask God to forgive you if you are divorced.”
If you really press them, they shuffle and say, “Well, God hates divorce, but yeah, He permits it for adultery and desertion by an unbeliever.” That kind of response leaves abuse victims out in frozen Siberia unless someone tells them that abuse is a type of desertion and an abuser is an unbeliever no matter what he may profess with his mouth.
God’s message to husbands:
“If you hate your wife, release her! Let her go free!” says the Lord God of Israel, “and give her a clothing for the scorn!” says the Lord of Hosts. “Look well then to your spirit, and despise her not.”
Footnote: As well as rewriting my chapter on Malachi, I will be rewriting the appendix in my book on the translation of Malachi 2:16. Plus, I will be removing the appendix which quoted Jay Adams, and replacing it with an appendix that gives more info on the translation of Malachi 2:16. I may even publish an article at Academia to share the results of my research on the translation of Malachi 2:16.
UPDATE 13 Nov 2020: I have now published this paper at Academia — Malachi 2:16, ancient versions and English translations, and how they apply to domestic abuse
I have compiled tables that set out the various versions: Septuagint (of which there are several variants), Dead Sea Scrolls, Targum Jonathan, Latin Vulgate, all the English Bible translations which preceded the King James Bible, and English translations of the Septuagint.
I don’t hold out hope that many Hebrew scholars or pastors will bother to read my paper. The churches are in such a dire state, and the world is so transfixed with the covid story, that fewer and fewer Christian leaders have the time or willingness (let alone see the need) to read a paper by me. After all, I’m “only a woman” and I have no letters after my name. So be it. God knows. He will be rescuing the remnant. Maybe a few of the titled leaders in the crumbling edifice of churchianity will look at my paper.
The complexity of my research on Malachi largely explains why I have not been publishing many posts here during the last few months. (And I’m still in Stage 4 Lockdown in Melbourne.)