This one goes out to my fellow pondering prophet, Nancy.  I appreciate your journey!

A look at Malachi’s words on divorce

The Old Testament book of Malachi gives the reader a jarring statement in Chapter 2, verse 16:  “I hate divorce, says the Lord of Israel…”  Upon hearing this, I would imagine that many divorcees would begin a very good inspection of their shoe laces.  But there is more to this statement than meets the initial reading.

 A lil’background on Malachi

 Malachi is a very difficult text.  Assigning a time period and accurate translation is a challenge. Most scholars assume that it was written during a time when Jews that had been formerly dispersed by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.  (A method of wiping out a population was to divide the ethnic groups into such small divisions; they would be forced to intermarry, thus being absorbed into other cultures.)

But the Jewish people were allowed to return home years later by the new sheriff in town: Persia.  Under Nehemiah, they began to rebuild in their homeland.   But (as Malachi points out) they fell into complacency.  Malachi addresses this as “unfaithfulness” in three distinct failures and a list which serves as an addendum for the reader.

 Three forms of unfaithfulness as defined by Malachi

 CHARGE ONE: INTERMARRIAGE Malachi communicates clearly that intermarriage with “daughters of another god” was not to be allowed (Malachi 2:11-12).  This joining produces children without a firm foundation in Judaism (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).  Identity is important, especially for Malachi’s time.  These Jews are the remnant of God’s chosen people.  Passing on cultural values, religious identity and familial ties are essential if Malachi’s audience is to be a true remnant.

CHARGE TWO: IMPROPER DIVORCE Broken marriage vows are sighted in Malachi 2:14-16 as the second charge of unfaithfulness.  This is the key passage to which we will return.  Scholars have gathered (from the study of the culture) that Jewish men were leaving their Jewish wives (that they married in their youth) to marry foreign women of means.  This would ensure a more comfortable lifestyle.  Unfortunately, they were not converting these women to Judaism.  As a matter of fact, the exact opposite was happening.

CHARGE THREE:  LACK OF TITHING Thirdly, Malachi sights unpaid tithes (Malachi 3:8-10).  Tithes would be central for the rebuilding process.  The charges end with a list in Malachi 3:5.  It is a sundry of odds and ends of unfaithfulness. 

 Divorce as unfaithfulness in Malachi

 From the NIV we read Malachi 2:14-16

You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.  Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.  “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.

Please note that the NIV translates the famous Malachi quote a little differently than “I hate divorce”.  Remember, I said this text is difficult and it is.  Translation does not come easy.  Most translators find “The one who hates and divorces” to be more accurate.  (The NIV uses “a man who” because only men could divorce during this time period.) 

This translation highlights a legal distinction.  Divorce on legal grounds had legitimate reasons, divorce papers were given and the wounded party was compensated financially.  All of this took place in court.  The “hates” adjective is a clue that divorce was occurring without legal grounds or a legal process.  Rather divorce was a result of cruelty. 

Malachi is speaking to the husbands who have left the “wife of your youth” for other foreign women. 

To compound the problem, the process of obtaining a divorce was not practiced.  This meant no court proceedings, no testimony of the wife and no divorce papers.  And without divorce papers in hand, the woman could not remarry.  (see Sad But Necessary Post)  Technically, no divorce happened at all.  This is why some translators argue that the word “divorce” is not accurate.  They believe that “putting away” should be used in the translation. (see divorce hope article) For Malachi, “putting away” would mean abandonment.  Basically the men left the wife of their youth to graze in greener pastures of a foreign woman who could offer them more status and/or comfort.

Therefore, Malachi is pleading with the more powerful partner in the marriage to practice fidelity and fairness.

PART B OF VERSE 16

The end of the 16th verse in the NIV translation omits a motif that would not speak to modern readers.  Let’s change gears to the English Standard Version to highlight this visual.

16 “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her,says the Lord, the God of Israel, covershis garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

In the original Hebrew, mention is made of a garment that covers.  This is reminiscent of Ruth 3:9 when Boaz claims Ruth by spreading his garment over her.  This is a pledge of sorts hints at the fidelity of marriage vows .  The original text speaks of violence as bloodshed on this garment.  This refers to the “one flesh” idea of Genesis.  The garment is bloodied because the one flesh has been severed.  Also, the mark is left not only on the victim, but on the perpetrator.  For Malachi, divorce is equivalent to violence.  Also, please note the assumption of the passage:  violence is not acceptable in a marriage. 

Malachi says to us that God hates not divorce, but unfair divorce that comes from the more powerful partner abandoning the less powerful partner.  It is as if violence, the cutting of flesh has occurred.  The repercussions traumatize the victim but also affect the perpetrator. This form of unfaithfulness and the pain caused to both victim and perpetrator is what God hates. 

Our study has left a burning question:  Is there a divorce that would have God’s approval?  Check out the next post called “Ye Old Testament Divorce” for details but think about that until then.

–One pondering prophet signing off–

Advertisements