The Bible verse that supports victims of domestic abuse

The book of Malachi, tucked away at the end of the Old Testament, contains a gem of a verse (sentence) that gives the lie to the idea that people should not divorce but endure abuse in marriage.

Abuse campaigner Barbara Roberts has released an academic paper on this verse – and Eternity thinks her insight is worth sharing.

Barbara Roberts is speaking up for abused partners.

She is convinced that a proper reading of Malachi 2:16 is very significant when dealing with domestic abuse. Her paper argues that the King James Version sets Bible translations on the wrong course. Instead, she reaches back to the work of Myles Coverdale, whose translations (yes more than one) of the Bible into English have been influential – especially in the Book of Psalms.

“Myles Coverdale’s translation of Malachi 2:16 (published in 1535, in the Coverdale Bible) best conveys the meaning of the Hebrew text and is most consistent with the heart and character of God,” sys Roberts.

Here is Coverdale’s Malachi 2:16 from the Coverdale Bible:

“Yf thou hatest her, put her awaye,” sayeth the LORDE God of Israel and “geue her a clothinge for the scorne,” sayeth the LORDE of hoostes. “Loke well then to youre sprete, and despyse her not.”

Or in more modern English, as rendered by Roberts:

“If you hate her, let her go! And vindicate her so she will not be blamed for the breakdown of the marriage, compensate her for the wrong you have done!”

In this translation, the “thou” or “you” is the divorcing man, who is putting his wife away/letting her go.

But 60 years later in the King James Version, the verse is changed around. “The King James Version (1611) translated the first part of this verse as ‘For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away.'”

“Thus the ‘God hates divorce’ mantra was born,” says Roberts.

In succeeding centuries, under the influence of the KJV, many later versions rendered it as “’For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel.”

“At face value, the words ‘God hates divorce’ condemn all divorce with no thought for what the grounds of divorce were,” says Roberts. “The innocent party in the divorce is tarred with the same brush as the guilty party. When Christians say ‘God hates divorce’ they often have no idea how hurtful their words can be to those who might use divorce for disciplinary reasons – those who divorce abusers, adulterers or deserters.”

Roberts is speaking up for abused partners. Her argument is that the first two chapters of Malachi are about male misbehaviour. So that the person verse 16 is about is a man.

“No translator has suggested that 2:16b refers to God covering something with violence. God does not sin.” – Barbara Roberts

In chapter two, Malachi concentrates on two sins in particular, spiritual adultery and domestic abuse.

Don’t all of us have one Father? Didn’t one God create us? Why then do we act treacherously against one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? Judah has acted treacherously, and a detestable thing has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the Lord’s sanctuary [or profaned what is holy to the Lord], which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. (Malachi 3:10-11 HCSB)

And this is the second thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and crying; so he does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth.” (Malachi 3:13-15 NKJ) 

Roberts suggest that the tears in verse 13 are the wife’s tears. “The abused wives were weeping and calling on the Lord for help because their husbands despised them. The word ‘groaning’ in verse 13 occurs only three other times in the OT and each time it refers to the sighs and groans of prisoners. Abused wives are prisoners of capture crime. The male intimate abuser surreptitiously invades the woman’s inner world so she blames herself and doesn’t realise she is being abused. Her personhood is slowly undermined. She wonders whether she is going crazy. She lives in fear. She is hedged in by his power and control. Therefore it is more likely that the tears were shed by women.”

This sets up the beginning of 2:16. Roberts points out that the translators have a decision to make. Who is doing the hating? This is the key part of Roberts’ argument.

The second word in this verse in Hebrew, sanê. Roberts describes this verb as meaning to hate (personally), be an enemy, foe, be hateful, or odious. “The form of sanê in this verse is third person masculine singular: ‘he hates’. It definitely does not mean ‘I hate’. If it were in the first person singular (‘I hate’), it would be spelled śā-nê-ṯî.

“All English translations which have ‘I hate’ rely, in one form or another, on the assumption that the Hebrew Masoretic Text is incomplete or inaccurate.

“So who is ‘he’? Who is the agent doing the hating? We have two choices. The agent-subject could be a man who deals ‘treacherously with the wife of his youth’ (v. 15). This makes grammatical sense. The masculine singular ‘the wife of his youth’ flows seamlessly to ‘he hates’ (v. 16). And the theme is consistent: a man who deals treacherously with his wife, hates his wife. The other choice is that the agent-subject doing the hating is God. That is the assumption of the “God hates divorce” mantra. But if God hates in 16a, that creates an awkward disjunct with ‘he covers (something) with violence’ in 16b.

“No translator has suggested that 16b refers to God covering something with violence. God does not sin.”

The person who hates in Malachi 2:16 is the treacherous husband.

Roberts notes that there is a swing back to translating the verse with the divorcing man doing the hating. This includes the Christian Standard Bible:

“If he hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the Lord of Armies. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously.

The NIV:

“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

And the ESV:

“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.

Here again is Roberts rendering of Coverdale:

“If you hate her, let her go! And vindicate her so she will not be blamed for the breakdown of the marriage, compensate her for the wrong you have done!”

The person who hates in Malachi 2:16 is the treacherous husband.

From an obscure part of the Bible comes a command to treat women fairly even in – or especially in – a marriage breakdown.

Barbara Roberts forthcoming book called Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion will have a chapter on Malachi.

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