Domestic Violence, Divorce and Malachi.

I am currently writing a book on the use of the Bible in situations of domestic violence. I’m interested in – and very disturbed by – the way that the Bible is used — by abusers, and by churches — to try to manipulate the woman into submitting to the abuse and remaining in the marital home. Now, I’m aware that I’m using gendered language here, and that not all domestic abuse is male-on-female. But I make the choice to use this gendered language for two reasons. First, the vast majority of cases of domestic violence are male-on-female. And second, as I understand the situation, the Bible is being referenced in these instances in ways that it is not used in cases of female-on-male violence.

One of the passages that is sometimes used – sometimes by husbands, but more commonly by churches – is Malachi 2v16, ‘I hate divorce, says the LORD’. Therefore, the woman – who has perhaps just screwed up her courage to disclose the abuse and seek help for the first time – is told she must stay in the marriage, and in the marital home. God hates divorce. End of conversation.

But it really isn’t the end of the conversation, for all sorts of reasons, as I will try to show you.

First, this is a notoriously difficult passage to translate. If you compare several Bible translations you will see substantial differences. In particular, you may find that the oft-quoted snippet, ‘I hate divorce’ is not in your translation! There’s a lot of ambiguity here.

But let’s look at the passage in its context and in more detail. Malachi the prophet is writing in the time of post-exilic Israel. In other words, he is addressing the ancient nation of Israel, after the time of the kings, when they have been conquered by the Babylonians and the scattered people have made their way back to Jerusalem. They are trying to re-establish a godly way of being. This means that Malachi was not talking to twenty-first century people. If we are to understand how this passage might be relevant for us, we first need to understand exactly what he is and isn’t saying to his original audience.

Now, notice this: Malachi is talking exclusively to men. Why? Because it was not possible for a woman to divorce her husband in those days. That means that there was an enormous power imbalance in society. (And to those people who are content to drag-and-drop Bible verses onto modern situations, it raises huge questions about how directly applicable it is to a modern woman seeking divorce from her husband.) To the man – the one with the power – God says, in effect, ‘I’m watching you. I was the witness at your wedding and I am watching to see if you are keeping your promises.’

But yes, God does appear to say ‘I hate divorce’. Doesn’t that make it an absolute prohibition to all people at all times?

Well, let’s look a bit more at the context. In the ancient world, a woman who was unmarried and not a virgin was regarded as ‘spoiled goods’. If she were a widow, she might be able to remarry. (Remember the story of Ruth.) But if she were not a virgin because she had pre-empted marriage, or because she was raped, she was regarded as unmarriageable. (This is why Exodus 22:16 insists that a man who has slept with a woman he is engaged to must marry her. See also the story of the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13, where her desolation is clearly linked to her unmarriageability after the rape.)

And a woman divorced by her husband, for no fault of her own, is similarly viewed as ‘spoiled goods’. She is unlikely to be able to remarry – there must be something wrong with her, mustn’t there? And so she is without a protector, at risk of destitution, or of having to take the most desperate measures to avoid it. Let’s name it, unless she has a father able and willing to take her back in again, or a well-disposed brother, she is extremely vulnerable to anyone who chooses to take advantage of her, and is likely to have to prostitute herself to provide for herself and her children.

So yes, God does appear to hate divorce, because he cares about the protection of the vulnerable.

And, finally, there are three important words and ideas in this short passage, all linked. They are bagad – to deal treacherously; berit – covenant; and hamas – violence.

Bagad is translated ‘to be faithless’ in most versions. Three times (verses 14,15,16) Malachi accuses the men of faithlessness. But at root, this word really means to deal treacherously. It refers to someone who breaks a covenant (e.g. Judges 9:23). It is most commonly used of situations in society where one person breaks faith with another. It is also used of Israel’s disobedience to God. And a few times it is used in the marriage context, for acting treacherously in marriage. And in particular (v.14), it refers to the breaking the covenant (berit) of marriage – the solemn, binding contract that God has witnessed.

What constitutes this covenant breach that Malachi referring to? We might be forgiven for assuming that he is simply speaking about divorce itself. But, I think the treachery Malachi is talking about runs deeper than that. Because unexpectedly, we suddenly encounter the word hamas, violence. Depending on your translation, the men appear to be condemned for covering their garments in violence. What does this mean? It may simply be a powerful image – in God’s sight they are as filthy as a man in a bloody butcher’s apron. Or it may somehow be referring to the marriage custom of the day, where a man appears to have taken the woman under his cloak as a sign of her entering his protection (see Ruth 3:9). If this is the image we are to have in mind as we read, then Malachi’s words seem to refer to the bringing of violence into the marital home.

What does seem clear, either way, is that the husband’s breach of covenant with his wife is described in terms of violence against her – either because of the circumstances in which she will now have to live, or – perhaps – this is an ancient description of domestic violence itself. And God hates it. If God hates divorce, God hates violence too. Or, to put it in its gendered terms, God hates it when a man is violent to his wife, and God hates it when he abuses his power and privilege to throw her to the wolves.

So, to summarise:

  • The best translation of these verses is unclear, and as a result some of the fine details are quite ambiguous
  • But, unambiguously:
    • Husbands were being condemned for acting treacherously towards their wives, using the language of covenant breach, and with reference to violence.
    • The divorce that God hates refers exclusively here to the dangerous putting aside of the (vulnerable) woman by the (powerful) man

In other words, this passage in Malachi is all about protecting the wife. To use it to manipulate a woman into staying in an abusive relationship is an exact inversion of its original intent.

Helen Paynter
Director of the Centre for Study of Bible and Violence

June 2019

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