Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ever Heard It Preached, “God Hates Divorce”?

Like any avid reader of God’s Word, I’m just thrilled when something quite remarkable comes to my attention regarding a fresh and better interpretation of the biblical text.
Two recent articles, God on Divorce, and Jesus on Divorce, by Marg Mowczko of New Life blog, came to my attention through Christian Bloggers Network on Facebook.
What Mowczko was able to show was a great encouragement to me, a remarried divorcee.  In context of Malachi 2:16 — an historical proof-text that “God hates divorce” — the biblical Word may not, and does not in fact, appear to say that at all.
What this verse says in reality is not that God hates divorce under all circumstances, but that a man, “he hates and divorces his wife” with the presumption that he divorces (lit. “sends her away”) unjustifiably (where the only justification is notionally adultery) and therefore he does violence against her.  This verse makes no sense if it says “God hates divorce,” because the second half of the verse is talking directly about the man who divorces his wife.  The bulk of Malachi 2:16 is a conditional “if… then” sentence.  The protasis (if…) and apodosis (… then) always have the same context.
I wish to draw your attention to the graphic above, so you can contrast the differences in the interpretation between five popular translations of the Bible.  Isn’t it staggering?  Three of those versions say something quite different to the other two (even if the NIV has a foot in both camps looking at the footnotes).
Anthony Petterson prefers, ‘“If he hates [her enough] to divorce,” says Yahweh God of Israel, “he [the husband] covers a violence on his garment.”[1]  By going about remarrying as if he were innocent, having divorced her without cause, he is concealing a violence done to her.  In fact, if either gender was to divorce (refuse to reconcile) their partner, without cause, they do a violence to that partner.  At the very least, the maligned partner would be allowed to remarry.  Douglas Stuart’s[2] rendition of Malachi 2:15b-16 is also helpful: “So watch out for your lives and do not be unfaithful to your childhood wife.  If one hates and divorces [Yahweh, Israel’s God, said], he covers his clothes with crime.” Presumably, the clothes are no longer seen on the divorcing husband’s body, only the crime (which, as a word, is said by Stuart to be vaster and more descriptive than “violence”).
“Hating” one’s wife (or husband) may still not be grounds for divorce, given that even marital unfaithfulness can, at times, be overcome.  But one ought not be “hated” for divorcing either, especially if the one divorcing is doing it for their own and their children’s safety.  Rather than be hated, criticised or condemned, that person ought to be commended for the courage they’ve taken to provide safety for themselves and their dependents.
I personally have never heard a sermon devoted to Malachi 2:16 or “God hates divorce,” but I’m sure there have been many of these sermons preached.  Such sermons would be a misuse of the biblical text at best; at worst they offer a pastoral noose with which divorced persons or victims of divorce could well hang themselves.
I’m sure God does actually hate divorce, because it severs a covenant He witnessed and ordained, but it’s unfair to say that through Malachi 2:16, simply because the text doesn’t say that.
The practical outworking of this reframing of God’s Word to challenge “God hates divorce” is extremely encouraging for many divorcees.  Many, many people are victims of divorce, and would never have chosen it, having rather remained married, if it were more appropriate or possible to do so.
Too many divorcees have been sullied by their divorces, and incorrect interpretation of Malachi 2:16 hasn’t helped their cause, because, frankly, Malachi 2:16 does not say, “God hates divorce.”
Perhaps out of all the versions shown in the above graphic, the New Living Translation (NLT) comes closest to showing that God not so much abhors divorce, but more the unfaithful treatment of the person being divorced.
© 2016 Steve Wickham.

[1] Petterson, A.R. Haggai, Zechariah & Malachi – Apollos Old Testament Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), p. 354.
[2] Stuart, D. Malachi – The Minor Prophets – An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Ed. McComiskey, T.E.) (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), p. 1339.

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