One of the most fundamental necessities in accurately translating scripture is knowing what God is really like. If we don’t know what he is really like, it is almost inevitable that we’ll come up with false or inaccurate interpretations and translations.
There is a saying that “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text”. This means that context is very important to deduce accurate, intended meanings. The biggest, most important context I think, would be the character of God.
It’s pretty common for us to take verses out of context when we speak of or recall something from the Bible. I do it all the time without thinking about it. It’s not necessarily something we intend to do, but it happens. We’re all growing and learning to know God and what he’s really like. So when it comes to doctrines this is one of the most crucial things to be on guard against because it is very easy to come up with incorrect doctrines if we aren’t paying attention. It is also my belief that if the Church teaches a doctrine it must be based on the original text and not a translation. Many traditional church doctrines have been built off the King James translation because it was thought to be an inspired translation. We know now how the KJV is not a perfect translation. And to point to an English text as the final authoritative word is technically wrong. Next time you read a word in isolation and it carries great impact on your soul, stop and think, “Is it in the original text?” Many times it is not, and when we realize how we made a single word that doesn’t exist in the original text our clavis aurea, our golden key, we feel stupid and let down. Thankfully tools exist online today to allow anyone to read a verse in interlinear fashion with the click of a mouse. I recommend biblehub.com and studylight.org.
Many of us have heard at one time or another the phrase: “God hates divorce.” It rings loud and clear and seemingly conveys an “end-all” statement that cannot be argued with. It induces in us a bit of fear that God is a hard man when it comes to divorce. I would venture to guess that the majority of church-goers and leaders are not divorced nor have been in the past, so when it comes to a statement like this there is typically not much reason for people to bother studying into the subject. And so it passes into our regular ‘Christian vocabulary’ without much forethought. That is, until you go through a divorce.
I myself have not ever experienced divorce and thus never took note of it as a theological topic of study. Why should I? If I should enter into a marriage covenant and make the vow one day, I have no intention of ever breaking it–which behooves me to be discerning, prayerful, and wise about making the right choice in the first place. And besides, there are so many theological topics that still confuse me and have much more appeal for study.
I’ve taken the concept for granted much of my life. But recently I found myself confronted with a rather contradictory thought in regards to the saying that “God hates divorce.” I read the following in the book of Jeremiah:
She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Jeremiah 3:8 ESV
So, God hates divorce, and yet, divorces Israel? It struck me that God is, technically, a divorcee. What a thought! This caused me to do some more searching and study for myself on the subject and afterwards left me with quite a few very interesting conclusions.
Things God Hates
The word hate is a very strong word and when we come across it in the Bible I think we have to be extra careful with taking into account how it is used and the context in which it is being used, otherwise we could be left with some very bad ideas about things that we shouldn’t. The Bible rarely speaks to things that God ‘hates’. When it does, it seems to be very specific and clear. For example,
There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. – Pro 6:16-19 ESV
The proverb is clear, and no one is left to guess what it is that God hates. In looking up the verse so often quoted in Malachi I read the following:
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. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless. – Mal 2:16 ESV
No mention of God hating anything. In the footnotes of the ESV translation regarding this verse I read,
Probable meaning (compare Septuagint and Deuteronomy 24:1–4)
I looked up other translations of Malachi 2:16 to find out where the “God hates divorce” thing came from. The variances in the English translations are astonishing.
For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously. – King James Version
“For I hate divorce!” says the LORD, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty – New Living Translation
“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect – New International Version
“For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong – New American Standard Bible
These are the popular translations of the Bible, and clearly, they do not agree with each other. But that’s the thing about translations–they are usually filled with the translators interpretations of the Hebrew or Greek text. Sometimes this may be necessary, for example, when the Hebrew reads, “they pulled up stakes” which is a phrase that won’t mean anything to us unless it’s interpreted to “they moved”. Such minor interpretations are not a big deal as no one is building doctrine off of them. For texts that the Church builds doctrine of off, there must be much more scrutinizing of the translations and, in general, the original translations ought to be used.
Here’s the literal translation of the Hebrew in Malachi 2:16:
“For he hates putting away,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with violence.”
Notice that the pronoun is he and not I. So, who is signified regarding the he? The English Standard Version (ESV), which is usually my translation of choice, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) translate it thus:
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. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless. – Malachi 2:16 (ESV)
If he hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the LORD of Hosts. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously. – Malachi 2:16 HSB
Translating the verse this way makes much more sense and fits the overall tone and flow of the text. The latest edition of the NIV from 2011 updated their translation to reflect this. The study notes included in the ESV Study Bible have a long commentary on this verse of which I’ve included a few snippets:
2:16 The Hebrew text of this verse is one of the most difficult passages in the OT to translate, with the result that the two main alternative translations proposed for this verse are strongly disputed…
…The ESV text reads, the man who does not love his wife but divorces her. This rendering understands the Hebrew (and the Gk. of the Septuagint) in the sense of, “For he hates (or “does not love”) [and] he divorces.” The action of “hating” and thus “divorcing” is seen also in Deut. 24:3; further, the idea of a man “hating” his wife appears in Gen. 29:31; Duet. 21:15-17; 22:13; each case in the sense of “loving less” or “ceasing to love.”…Although divorce based on loss of affection was under OT civic law, it is nowhere morally approved (unlike divorce based on a spouse’s sexual infidelity or desertion). This is so, as Malachi stresses, because divorce based merely on the loss of affection breaks the marriage covenant and defiles one’s character, since it is untrue to the creation ideal of faithfulness (Gen. 2:24; see note on Deut. 24:1-4).
Nowhere is it written that God hates divorce. It is an incorrect assumption drawn by a mistranslated verse. The main point of this passage is God’s concern for the women! A man who does not love (hates) his wife and thus puts her away or divorces her is dealing treacherously with her. True love fights and never fails. How did we miss that? Clearly, God does not like to see them treated this way and calls such treatment treacherous. He greatly desires husbands to be faithful! It’s not the act of divorce that God is worried about in this passage–it’s the hardness of heart, the unfaithfulness, and the well-being of women he’s concerned about! Somewhere along the line this verse came to be all about God’s great displeasure, and even anger, toward the act of divorce when there’s no such indication. And as far as whether God gets angry or not, check out my in-depth study on the Anger of the Lord.
A key verse that influenced the ESV translation of Malachi 2:16 was Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which says this:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deu 24:1-4 ESV (emphasis mine)
This is a loaded piece of scripture, that I had never examined closely before. According to this passage God permits divorce, and gives laws concerning the protection of the woman in the midst of it. In addition, the passage also shows that God permits the divorced woman to remarry. Very interesting! If remarriage was ‘living in adultery’ as the traditional church doctrine holds, there would be a serious contradiction between this passage and verses such as Exodus 20:14 which says “You shall not commit adultery” and Leviticus 20:10, “both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.” But notice also that God states, “former husband”. Why does the traditional doctrine of divorce hold that marriage is indissoluble if God himself says “former husband”? I looked up the Hebrew word for former which is הָרִאשׁוֹן֙ (hā·ri·šō·wn). And indeed, it means just that–former or first. Clearly marriage is not indissoluble in God’s eyes.
This understanding gave me a whole new perspective on Jesus’ words in the New Testament:
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. – Matthew 19:8
What was not so in the beginning? The hardness of heart! This means that the Pharisees in confronting Jesus on the issue of divorce were not asking whether it was permissible or not. Everybody knew that the Law permitted it already and there was no dispute. The dispute in the Jewish nation however was over the reasons for divorce. They were trying to see if Jesus would takes sides in the same way they did with the issue of paying taxes. Compare the two questions of the Pharisees:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause? – Matt 19:3
Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not? – Luke 20:22
The Pharisees were continually trying to trap him by getting him to say either yes or no–that is, to take sides, and Jesus was continually eluding them with his answers to avoid taking sides. So Jesus answered them thus:
Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. – Luke 20:25
So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. – Matt 19:6
The rule of Caesar over the Jewish people was a terrible, tyrannical thing. Divorce was, and is, a terrible and awful thing. But Jesus didn’t say yes or no to either of these questions. Instead he answered by going straight to the heart. These were profoundly wise answers. Jesus’ response to the question of divorce was in effect, “Marriage is a gift from God! He bound you together as one flesh! Therefore you should be fighting tooth and nail to stay together, not mulling over what is and isn’t an acceptable reason for deserting her!” His answer also implies that marriage is not indissoluble. But wait a minute, didn’t Jesus just say the “two become one flesh“?
‘Putting Away’ and Adultery
The modern translation of the sayings of Jesus on adultery have been one of the primary references for the traditional doctrine of divorce and remarriage. They seem pretty plain in their meaning. But again, the context is everything. Jesus did not come to set everyone free except divorcees. He came to set everyone free including divorcees.
Adultery is sexual unfaithfulness within marriage. Even looking at another woman lustfully is being sexually unfaithful within marriage–a.k.a. adultery. (As a side note, unmarried guys looking lustfully at women do not commit adultery. They commit fornication in their hearts. See Mark 7:21.) Fornication is sex outside of marriage.
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matt 5:32 ESV
This is one of those verses that has never made sense to me because, as it has been translated, it says that one can make another person sin. Since when was this possible? And where in the Bible is such a concept even explained? As I’ve understood it, sin is a result of our own choice and not someone else’s. The seed of rebellion has been passed down to us since Adam and Eve, but everywhere in the Bible we are taught to take responsibility for our sin, and repent for it. How do you repent for a sin someone made you commit? Repentance for a sin someone made you commit is completely illogical. But again, since this was a passage in regards to divorce I didn’t bother studying into it too much to try to understand it. Since such a concept of divorce and adultery is not in line with Old Testament teaching, some interpreters and commentators have proposed that Jesus was ‘adding to’ or ‘changing’ the law of Moses. What? The problem with that, as I see it, is that in the same sermon Jesus starts out by saying:
Do not think that I came to annul the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to annul, but to fulfill.
Truly I say to you, Until the heaven and the earth pass away, in no way shall one iota or one point pass away from the Law until all comes to pass.
Therefore, whoever relaxes one of these commandments, the least, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in the kingdom of Heaven. Matt 5:17-19 Literal Version
Jesus didn’t come to annul, change, rewrite, or even enforce the law. He came to fulfill it. The Pharisees were doggedly and desperately trying to get him to contradict the law anyway they could so as to destroy his reputation and get him in trouble. But they never could!
To better understand the teachings of Jesus on adultery we have to understand that marriage was, and is, a civil institution under civil authority. And civil authority was given and instituted by God. Therefore God’s recognition and civil recognition of marriage are linked.
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. – 1 Peter 2:13
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. – Romans 13:1-2
Adultery is unfaithfulness within this civil, legally binding, marriage covenant. Two people living together and acting like a married couple are not legally married, nor ‘married in the eyes of God’. They are not committing adultery. God would call them out on fornication. The traditional doctrine however, in assuming that marriage is indissoluble, forces us to conclude that adultery is something we can commit irrespective of being legally married or not. In other words, the sin of adultery is in regards to how God sees things and not how civil law sees things. Thus it is assumed that God does not recognize remarriage, even though civil authority does. But from what we see in Deuteronomy 24, God clearly recognized remarriage and did not see it as adultery.
The literal word Jesus uses is “putting away“. Putting away is not the same as divorce, and God himself even makes a distinction between the two. One implies the act of “getting rid of” and the latter implies “the breaking of a legal contract“.
She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away [שָׁלַח shalach] with a decree of divorce [כְּרִיתוּת kĕriythuwth]. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. – Jeremiah 3:8 (emphasis mine)
Notice also that our key verse Malachi 2:15-16 is also written this way:
Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. He [who] hates [and] sends away [שָׁלַח shalach], says the LORD of hosts, does violence to the one he is to protect, therefore take heed to your spirit, that you deal not treacherously.
Notice the immediate context surrounding this saying. The same words wrap around the line regarding hating and divorcing: let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. Sending one’s wife away without a bill of divorce was cruelty, and the reason for the laws in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Without the ability to remarry she would be condemned to a life of poverty, loneliness, and possibly even childlessness. Deserting her and not letting her go away freely was treacherous!
The New Testament also makes a distinction between ‘putting away‘ and ‘legal divorce‘:
They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement [ἀποστάσιον apostasion], and to put her away [ἀπολύω apolyō]? Matt 19:7 KJV
I have always been one to let scripture interpret scripture. While I am not a Hebrew or Greek linguist or scholar, I do know that if two different words are used in the same sentence you can’t really get a more convincing proof that they mean two different things. If we apply this understanding to the sayings of Jesus, many of these ‘difficult’ verses are suddenly no longer so difficult. Not only that, we find that Jesus wasn’t being a hard man at all but was instead rebuking the hardness of man. It’s very much in line with Jesus’ character this way! Yet, as with Malachi 2:16, presuppositions and 1800 years of religiosity have played a negative role in the translations of these verses.
Whosoever putteth away [ἀπολύω apolyō] his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away [ἀπολύω apolyō] from her husband committeth adultery. – Luke 16:18 KJV (emphasis mine)
Every one who is sending away [ἀπολύω apolyō] his wife, and marrying another, doth commit adultery; and every one who is marrying her sent away [ἀπολύω apolyō]from a husband doth commit adultery. – Luke 16:18 Young’s Literal Translation (emphasis mine)
Everyone putting away [ἀπολύω apolyō] his wife, and marrying another, commits adultery. And everyone marrying her who has been put away [ἀπολύω apolyō] from a husband commits adultery. – Luke 16:18 Literal Version by J.P. Green (emphasis mine)
Well that changes things a bit! It’s consistent, and leaves no question in the reader’s mind that adultery is connected to being in a legal, civilly recognized marriage. He/she who marries someone else, while still being legally married to another, commits adultery. Now that makes logical sense. Other verses in the New Testament can also be treated thus:
But I say to you, Whoever puts away [ἀπολύω apolyō] his wife, apart from a matter of fornication, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever shall marry the one put away [ἀπολύω apolyō] commits adultery. – Matt 5:32 Literal Version (emphasis mine)
And her husband [betrothed] Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce [put away, ἀπολύω apolyō] her quietly. – Mat 1:19 ESV
But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away [ἀπολύω apolyō], for she is crying out after us.” – Mat 15:23 ESV
“Unwilling to put her to shame, he resolved to divorce her” is perhaps the worst practice of translation I’ve seen in the ESV. How is divorce not a shameful thing?
Most translations translate Mat 1:19 to show that Joseph was Mary’s husband. Later on he became her husband, but he was not her husband at the time signified by this verse. If he was her husband, that is, legally married, then by sending Mary away he would have been causing her to commit adultery according to Matt 5:32, yet we are told that Joseph was being just or righteous for doing what he intended to do! Strong Greek shows that the word translated husband is anēr (ἀνήρ G435) which means man, male, husband, betrothed or future husband.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David – Luke 1:27 ESV (emphasis mine)
Obviously, the way we translate these handful of words really makes a big difference in our understanding of the passages.
For a more thorough definition of apolyo and to see how it is used in other non-biblical ancient Greek texts, click here to see the entry on the Perseus Digital Library.
Divorce is like War
Divorce is like war, not in the sense that it is war although that can sometimes be the case, but in the sense that both are evil and not of God’s designs. Yet we know from Scripture God himself both enacts a divorce and makes war. If we say that God hates divorce (or God hates war) we essentially end up with rules, or at least standards, that God himself is guilty of breaking. Put another way, if God hates divorce and war, that makes God out to be a hypocrite with a double standard. We know God hates some things for he says so (Pro 6:16-19)–and we see in Scripture that he never does any of those things. Hardness of heart is something he hates and that is the worst thing about divorce.
The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. (Proverbs 8:13)
This is why we have to be careful with our understanding of what God hates. it’s the hardness of heart that God hates. That proud, arrogant, hard heart that cares not for the woman he is deserting or divorcing is the thing God detests. The same holds true for women. When women harden their hearts, become arrogant, stretch out their necks, mince around with deceptive eyes, God is appalled (Isaiah 3:16). This makes sense and fits very well with the character of God. It’s not the act of war or divorce. It is the inclination of the heart.
God has a heart like water. Though that water can instantly become mighty and devastating, it is gentle and delightful when settled. He is not a hard man but he can be. He is pained by many things we do, and he wants to help us. The institutions and precepts he put forth were made for us and our benefit, not the other way around. One of the most fundamental necessities in accurately translating scripture is knowing what God is really like. In fact, I think it’s imperative. Scholarship may have the smarts and academia behind them but, as with anyone, if they don’t know what God is really like, in a personal way, it’s inevitable that there will be misconceptions drawn about many Bible passages. God is love. The sum of scripture is: love. Everything hinges on this.
From the law we learn God’s attitude and heart towards the hardness of the heart, and thus we can endeavor to be like Christ–and learn to have a heart of flesh. We also learn that God instituted divorce for the protection of women as hardened men were often discarding or deserting them which was treacherous especially if they were sent away without a certificate of divorce. Without the certificate of divorce, these women would end up living in poverty, unable to remarry, and otherwise condemned to a very unhappy life of ignominy.
There are many men and women out there whose hearts are going to be hardened and sometimes, there’s nothing anyone can do. Today I see more women hardening their hearts than men and the statistics support this notion–over 70% of divorces are filed by women, a fact rarely if ever discussed in the Church.
Marriage is sustained by faithfulness which is a posture and condition of the heart only made possible by the regeneration and sanctification of the Spirit, not a law, legal document, or anything else (unless you’re in a country where women have little or no rights). The reality is, a spouse can become dangerously abusive and one will have no choice but to divorce. While those situations are rare, every spouse fights and becomes emotionally abusive to some degree. But the Christian spouse is the one who overcomes evil with good. He or she believes in a sacrificial love that conquers all. A line will have to be drawn in terms of what constitutes hardness of heart and unacceptable abuse but the Christian sticks with it. It’s not putting up with hardness but taking a stand for the marriage and doing whatever it takes to save it. The world today wants men and women to divorce. They want them to commit adultery. They want us to believe that divorce and adultery can be ‘healthy’ things to do. These are lies, plain and simple.
And as we have seen, remarriage after divorce is not always adultery. Marriage is not indissoluble. God is for us, not against us. Jesus taught spouses to make every effort to seek the divine ideal for marriage. Paul’s additional teachings on divorce affirm that Jesus in no way did he condemn those who are divorced by hardened spouses or those forced to escape an abusive marriage to a life of celibacy. That definitely does not sound like setting captives free.