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. No one disputes that translations of the Bible are far from perfect. So why then would we base critical, life-altering, doctrines on translations without looking into the original text? It’s an honest mistake, but sadly it happens far too frequently in the church.
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:
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ESV Bible Study Notes
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 and context of this passage is God’s concern for the women! 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! There was never a time when divorce was not allowed. 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 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! Therefore you should be seeking to stay together, not mulling over what is and isn’t an acceptable reason for deserting your wife!” His answer also implies that man can separate marriage. But wait a minute, didn’t Jesus just say the “two become one flesh“?
The Profound Mystery of ‘One Flesh’
There is sufficient teaching in scripture to point us to a unique and even mysterious union that happens through sex.
Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” – 1 Cor. 6:16 ESV
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. – 1 Cor. 7:4 ESV
In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. Eph. 5:28-32 ESV
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Mark 10:7-9
The union of the two becoming one flesh is a profound mystery which essentially means it’s beyond understanding: They are no longer two. The scripture does not really explain this much further. We can venture to guess what this means, but I’m not sure how much it will benefit us. We can however ascertain that this bond is breakable or separable from Jesus’ own words: let not man separate (Mark 10:9). This same verse is often used to argue for the indissolubility of marriage (i.e. God joined the two and therefore it is permanent) But if the union was impossible to break, Jesus wouldn’t have said not to break it. The reality is, man can break this bond. This also brings the issue of God’s character in question–why would God join a wife to a husband who turns abusive, for example, and then refuse to allow the bond to be broken? Is that who He is? Moreover, such a belief makes out the institution of marriage to be of higher value than people. Does God value the institution of marriage more than he values his people? Of course not. That kind of thinking always leads us into religion. He made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath . Likewise, he made marriage for man, not man for marriage.
Marriage obviously implies a deep, profound unity between two individuals. But it seems that some go so far as to insinuate that the two individuals become one person. I think that’s taking it a bit too far. There seems to be no ground in scripture for ‘losing one’s sense of self’ in marriage. Spouses live sacrificially, take on the same name, and unite economically, socially, emotionally, and even spiritually through the body of Christ. But they are still individuals each with their own personalities and differences. Marriage is about oneness, not sameness. Oneness implies two (or more) different things working together in perfect harmony. For example:
- The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different persons, yet one.
- All people with all their differences of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc. are one in Christ.
The concept of unity and oneness deserve an entire study of its own, as its often misunderstood to signify sameness and is a simply a fascinating subject in and of itself.
These teachings regarding our physical bodies also lend weight to the fact that our bodies ought to be well-taken care of as they now belong to the Lord:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? 1 Cor. 6:15
In a way, that also makes them holy, doesn’t it? Our bodies belong to the lord by becoming one spirit with him whereas, our bodies also belong to our spouse by becoming one flesh with him or her.
‘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
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!
No Rules, Just Soft Hearts
We have to be particularly weary of when we derive ‘rules’ from scripture as that defeats the purpose of the Holy Spirit who was sent to take over as our guide:
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian… – Gal 3:24-25 ESV
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. … For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. – Gal 5:1, 13 ESV
These verses bring out one of the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity: We are free from the rules, and now subject only to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This means we can study and learn from the law to get an understanding of the mind and character of God, without fear of it. 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 soft heart. We also learn that God instituted divorce for the protection of women as hardened men were often discarding or deserting them which created treacherous, long-term difficulties for the women. Without the certificate of divorce, these discarded women would end up living in poverty, unable to remarry, and otherwise doomed to a very unhappy life.
There are many men out there whose hearts are going to be hardened and sometimes, there’s nothing anyone can do. Not even God forces men to soften their hearts. Thus, God’s command requiring that a certificate of divorce be written up and given to the wife sounds like something a gracious, merciful, kind God would do. We should aim to strengthen our marriages as much as possible in accordance with the divine ideal laid out in Genesis 2 but God nowhere commands us to do so at all costs. Marriage is sustained by faithfulness which is something found in the heart, 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 harden their heart and bring nothing but misery to the other spouse. Divorce is permitted because of such a reality. Thank God for that. And as we have seen, remarriage after divorce is not adultery. Marriage is not indissoluble. God is for us, not against us! The Church is way, way out of line if it imposes upon a spouse in a destructive, miserable marriage that they must suffer it. Jesus taught us to soften our hearts and to make every effort to seek the divine ideal for marriage, but in no way did he condemn those who are dejected by hardened spouses or those forced to escape a destructive marriage to a life of celibacy. That definitely does not sound like setting captives free.
It’s not the divorce that God hates, it’s the hardness of heart that God hates. This makes sense and fits very well with the character of God.
God is gentle and soft, like water. He is not a hard man. 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.