Does God hate divorce? (Part 2)

Does God hate divorce? (Part 2)

This is the second post in a series called Divorce In The Church. Check out the previous post here. 

God is opposed to divorce because God is pro covenant and pro people. And because of that, we can’t assume that God is opposed to every divorce. Let’s take a look at what the Bible says and work to make sure we are being faithful to the text and context of scripture in our attitudes about the topic.

“For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lordof hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”” (Malachi 2:16, NASB95)

This verse is used often as a sort of proof text to prohibit almost all categories of divorce. If God hates it, that should tell us everything we need to know about the subject. But relational matters are usually a bit more nuanced. And interpreting and applying scripture often requires a bit more exploration and openness.

For instance, did you know that there’s a bit of controversy regarding translation? The ESV renders it quite differently than the NASB does:

“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 Lordof hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”” (Malachi 2:16, ESV)

There is nothing about God hating divorce at all in the ESV version. Why? Because they’ve translated the Hebrew word for hate (in the NASB) to does not love (in the ESV), making the man the subject of the sentence, does not love the verb, and his wife the object. Does that change the meaning much? Perhaps not. It’s still a prophetic message correcting divorce. But at the very least, it invites us into a bit more thought and exploration. Instead of a blanket statement from God about his hatred for divorce, perhaps the verse invites us to find out more about these men and these wives and what was going on that the prophet is specifically correcting.

That invitation brings us to a principle of interpretation and application of scripture that is often helpful to keep in mind. We sometimes have a tendency to take what scripture says in answer to a specific question on a topic and interpret and apply it as if that is scripture’s answer to every question on a topic. In my study, I’m not sure that God hates divorce is even what the text should say, much less God’s definitive answer to every question about divorce.

In the case of Malachi 2:16, the context historically and textually provides great insight into the meaning and scope of what is being said here about divorce. 

The Context of Malachi 2:16

Malachi was written in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Judah had been conquered by Babylon and many had been carried off into exile in Babylon. Persia then overtook Babylon and, under the influence of Cyrus, there was a reconstruction process underway. Jews were returning from exile. Ezra was working to re-establish the Temple and the priesthood. Nehemiah was rebuilding the wall. A people scattered among the nations were returning to the promised land to re-establish themselves as an independent nation, a people distinct from the surrounding nations.

Malachi makes so much sense within this framework. For instance, many of you are familiar with what Malachi has to say about tithing. Why this particular emphasis? Because the reformation of the Temple and the priesthood requires support.

One of the central aspects of Malachi’s concern is to define and protect the distinction between Judah as a people and the surrounding nations. This concern is both religious and ethnic. Those aspects are very related. The men of Judah had been marrying foreign women who continued their pagan worship of false gods. The practice of intermarrying with women of surrounding nations was blurring the distinction between Judah and those nations and, at the same time, inviting idolatry into the community of God’s people. Malachi was very much interested in bringing reformation to this process, with the goal of distinguishing Judah from those surrounding nations, and also with the goal of eliminating idolatry from among the people of Judah.

It gets worse. The men of Judah were apparently divorcing their Jewish wives in order to marry these foreign women. The men of Judah who would divorce their Jewish wives to marry foreign women were blurring the boundary between Jew and Gentile and they were inviting idolatry into the Jewish community. In addition to this, they were covering their garments with wrong (or violence) and dealing treacherously with their Jewish wives! In each case, it was as if the man’s garment was covered in his wife’s blood.

All of this was taking place in a cultural setting where women were considered property and marrying a woman was like taking possession of property. In fact, the word for has married in the following verse is baal.

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.” (Malachi 2:11, ESV)

1166. בָּעַל bāʿal: A verb meaning to marry, have dominion, or to rule over. In relation to marriage, it refers to marrying a woman (Deut. 24:1); or a woman to be married (Prov. 30:23). Figuratively, it is used in connection with God’s marriage to Israel (Jer. 3:14), as well as Judah and Israel’s marriage to the daughter of a foreign god (Mal. 2:11). Other times, this verb means to have dominion over land (1 Chr. 4:22) or people (Isa. 26:13). Used as a participle, it means to be married to (Gen. 20:3).  Baker, W., & Carpenter, E. E. (2003). The complete word study dictionary: Old Testament (pp. 150–151). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

The entire concept of marriage here assumes a VERY patriarchal and misogynistic concept within which men took possession of women like an army might take possession of land. The modern practice of a dad “giving” his daughter in marriage is a leftover residue of this way of thinking.

Have you ever thought about what life must have been like for the Jewish women who had been discarded so that the men could marry foreign women? They had no voice. No rights. No ability to own property.  Their options for generating income were minimal at best and detestable at worst. Put away and left to a life of destitution and poverty, these women had been dealt with treacherously. Their ex husbands were, metaphorically speaking, covered in their blood.

All of this then becomes a metaphor for God’s relationship with Judah. God is married to Judah and feels very betrayed. Judah has treated God the same way these men have treated the wives of their youth. In bringing in foreign women with their foreign gods, God feels betrayed and discarded as well.

How does Malachi 2:16 apply today?

Having sketched out the broader context of Malachi’s message, we can now take a look at how best to interpret and apply Mal 2:16 in our lives today. Is God prohibiting all divorce? I don’t think so. He is confronting and hopefully correcting divorce in a very specific set of circumstances. Our context might be quite different. 

Is it currently important to avoid cross-cultural marriage in order to protect religious and ethnic uniqueness? No. Please no. 

Are we living in a patriarchal and misogynistic society where women are property? No. Hopefully not.

In an egalitarian society where women aren’t property,  and where prohibiting cross-cultural marriage to protect ethnic and religious purity is not an issue, we have to ask how this prohibition of divorce might apply to us. 

The value being affirmed and protected in this passage is the value not to harm or deal treacherously with women.

In this age and culture, there is no built in social construct (patriarchy, misogyny) that guarantees a divorced woman would be worse off and damaged by divorce. But there are some divorces in our day and age that do harm women. Certainly it is fair to the text and context to affirm that God would be opposed to such divorces.

And, within our more egalitarian society, it would be fair to acknowledge that there are some divorces that harm men too. Knowing this, we can apply the same value all the way through. Some divorces are treacherous in the way they bring harm to the other spouse. I think it is very fair to this passage to take from it a strong sense that God is against divorce that treacherously brings harm to a spouse.

But sometimes it is being married that is harmful and treacherous to a spouse. And this passage really has very little to say about that. But would the value still apply? What needs to happen to protect the spouse being harmed? In those instances, does God hate divorce? All we could say in faithfulness to the text would be that the statement that God hates divorce would not apply in a situation where a married spouse is being harmed by the other spouse within the marriage. To do so would violate the very value system that the phrase itself is aimed at affirming and protecting.

To use the phrase God hates divorce to pressure a spouse to stay in a relationship where they are being treacherously harmed is to violate the text by ignoring the context. I’ve seen this done by church leaders and well-meaning religious friends far too often. Let’s cite this passage to affirm the value of covenant marriage where we recognize that divorce would be harmful and treacherous. Let’s not cite this verse to require people to stay in relationships that are harmful. 

And let’s recognize that until you’ve had enough conversation with both spouses to understand their story and the nuanced dynamics of their relationship, you likely have no idea who is or isn’t being harmed by a marriage or by a divorce. 

Of course this post is just one post in a series. It isn’t everything that could be said or needs to be said on the topic. Check out the upcoming topics to see what’s coming up:

  • Can someone divorce their spouse for any reason?
  • Does divorce and remarriage equal adultery?
  • Help! I think I might be Spouse 1: What do I do?
  • Help! I think I might be Spouse 2: What do I do?
  • Help! I think I might be done? What do I do?
  • Help! I think my spouse is done? What do I do?
  • What about covenant?


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