Malachi 2:10-16 – “Faithlessness” Subverts “Oneness”

“Faithless” is the word that dominates this section of Malachi. It occurs five times in Malachi 2:10-16 (10, 11, 14, 15, 16) and only here in Malachi. “Faithless” comes from the root bagad that means to deal with another treacherously. This word characterizes Israel’s covenantal relations and thus epitomizes what is broken in the life of post-exilic Judah.

“One” (‘ehad) is another key word. It is used four times in this brief section–twice in 2:10 and twice in 2:15. The one God makes one community, one family, one marriage. This oneness, a unity in community, is rooted in the oneness of God. Israel, as God’s child, is to exhibit this fundamental unity.

But the intended oneness is marred and subverted by the faithlessness of God’s people.

This answers the question which Malachi’s prophetic word raised for the people.  Malachi (2:13) noted that Judah covers the altar of God with tears and sighs. They bring their sacrifices but there is no joy because God does not accept their offerings.  This allusion reminds us of the previous section in Malachi–two addresses to the priests–which describes how God has rejected the sacrifices of the people.

The people, however, ask, “Why does he not?” Malachi’s answer is two-fold:  (1) faithlessness in their relations with each other whereby they profaned the sanctuary (2:10-11a) and (2) faithlessness in their relations to their spouses (2:11b-12, 14-16). The latter receives the emphasis but it is set against the broad backdrop of the first.

The meaning of “faithless” (bagad) is related to the use of “garment” (beged). The verb is probably related to the noun such that the meaning of the verb has the sense of “garmenting” others or “covering up” others. To “cover up” another is to treat them in ways that reflect inequity; it is to dishonor another through fraud, cheating or swindling. It is a failure to act in good faith with another person. This has application both to the wider community and particularly to marriage. We see the fruit of this in Malachi 3:5 where such faithless acts are listed.

The unity of the community is assumed because Israel has “one Father” and “one God” who created or begat this community. This communal consciousness should be a barrier to treacherous activity toward another community member, but, alas, Malachi complains that “we are faithless to one another” (or, more literally, a man is faithless to his brother). This, in effect, “profanes the covenant of our fathers” and even “profanes the sanctuary” of Yahweh (2:10-11).

Malachi had used this word to describe how the priests had profaned or defiled the sacrifices by their words and actions (1:12). The faithlessness of Judah has dishonored the divine presence (sanctuary) and disrupted the covenant relationship with God. Covenant and sanctuary are at the heart of Israel’s way of life and faithlessness subverts both of them.

Malachi, in this section, focuses attention on a significant post-exilic problem. His attention is squarely set on the faithless act of marrying “the daughter of a foreign god.” Ezra and Nehemiah dealt decisively with this problem in Ezra 9-10 and Nehemiah 13:25-27. The language of Nehemiah parallels Malachi’s accusation. Nehemiah asked, “Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?” Marriage to a foreign wife was itself an act of faithlessness which violated the covenant between Yahweh and Israel as it opened the covenant community to potential, if not de facto, idolatry.

Malachi does not pass over this pervasive post-exilic problem with just a few words. He confronts Judah with the circumstances of their faithlessness (2:14-16).  In this Malachi makes several claims about marriage within Israel’s covenant community.

  • Yahweh was a witness (as in legal testimony) between “you and the wife of your youth.”
  • “Your wife” is your “companion” (connected!) by “covenant” (cf. Proverbs 2:17; Ezekiel 16:8).
  • Yahweh made them “one” (literally, “did-he-not-make-one?”).
  • Yahweh seeks “godly offspring” (or, literally, “seed”).

These function as four pillars for the meaning of the covenantal relationship between a husband and wife. God is a witness who actively joins the two for the purpose, at least in part, of “godly seed.” Husbands enter into this relationship by a covenantal commitment, and that covenant commitment mirrors God’s own covenantal relationship with Israel. Within the covenant of Israel, God joins men and women who covenant together as marriage partners.

The divine action and presence is highlighted in the text by the use of “one God” and the divine ruach (Spirit). God’s Spirit participates in the union of male and female. As a result, the husband is called upon to “guard” his own spirit (ruach) that he might not treat his wife in a treacherous manner. The text ends with the same admonition:  “guard (or watch) yourselves in your spirit” (2:15, 16).

What is the faithless act? The context, initiated by 2:11, is the marriage of the “daughter of a foreign god.” The specific act in view, it seems to me, is one where a man divorces his wife and marries another woman who stands outside the covenant of Israel. This man is faithless as he has divorced one to marry another and he marries one whom the covenant denies him.

The commonly known translation “I hate divorce” is not a literal translation of the text as it appears in Hebrew. Translators only get that rendering by emending the standard Hebrew text. The Hebrew actually reads: “because he hates sending away.” The ESV renders this, “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her…”  The LXX reads similarly, “if you hate your wife and put her away…” This would follow the form of Deuteronomy 24:3. Grammatically, the one who hates is the one who sends away (or divorces). In other words, the “he hates” does not refer to God but to the a member of the covenant community who hates his wife and thus divorces her (sends her away). This translation is supported by others as well (cf. NEB, HCB, NIV [2010, 2011] as well as LXX and Luther’s 1545 Bible). The Vulgate renders it:  “if you hate, divorce.” All the early English versions until the King James Bible followed the Hebrew text:  “if thou hatest her, put her away” (Geneva Bible, 1560).

C. John Collins, in Presbyterion (1994, p. 40; and undated version is here), summaries the conclusion in this way (see also David Clyde Jones in JBL, 1990, 683-685):

He tells us what the Lord ¿links of the composite action on the part of some hypothetical member his covenant people, of disliking and consequently divorcing his wife: the resulting “covering the garment with wrongdoing” clearly conveys the Lord’s strong disapproval. He then applies it to all of us who claim a relationship with the Lord: “all of you carefully watch yourselves in your inner man, so that you will not deal treacherously in like manner.” He who is wise will watch for the first stirrings of resentment, which might turn into dislike, and repent of it immediately, lest he deal treacherously with her whom the Lord has given to be a blessing.

Luther himself commented (Minor Prophets, 406, as quoted by Collins):

After all, whoever divorces his wife because he hates her is revealed as a violator, a hurter, a promise-breaker, a violator of his pledge, a man who lacks honesty and honor, one who has not done what he should but what he should not. … This stain covers him like a cloak.

The point is that whoever hates their wife and divorces them covers themselves with “violence.” They have violated the covenant and mistreated the wife of their youth. Divorce is a violent act.

Consequently, twice in 2:14-16 men are called to watch (or guard) themselves in their spirit.  Husbands are to pay attention to the stirrings of their heart–whether it lust, resentment or greed.  Watching these stirrings husbands will hinder the kinds of feelings and emotions that lead to divorce, including hating their wives.

Malachi condemns the sort of divorce that arises from the inner stirrings of a man who seeks another wife and particularly seeks a non-Israelite wife. The problem is not merely social but also internal and syncretistic.

Fundamentally, God, according to Malachi, rejects Israel’s temple offerings because they have treated each other treacherously and because Israel’s sons are divorcing their wives to marry outside the covenant. This violates the oneness of the covenant and provides an opening for idolatry within the post-exilic Israelite community.

God does not receive a faithless community, that is, a community that mistreats each other while at the same time voicing their praise of God. God does not accept those sacrifices.

6 Responses to “Malachi 2:10-16 – “Faithlessness” Subverts “Oneness””

  1.   Joshua Pappas Says:

    Thank you so much. This sheds light for me on Malachi 2 that I’ve needed ever since first reading the ESV translation years ago. Would you say this is the theological background of Peter’s statement in 1Peter 3:7? —JLP

  2.   David W Fletcher Says:

    Of course, John Mark, divorce under the older covenant, something permitted but not required, was very much male oriented. Jesus, living in Roman times, recognized more of an equality in the matter of divorce–“…and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10.12, ESV). Paul recognizes the same sort of “equality” in his remarks about marriage (see 1 Corinthians 7). So things are different now, but the point about “faithfulness” versus “faithlessness” is well made and very much applicable.

    I would ask, though, if there might be any points of application of Malachi’s ethic by way of parallel with Paul’s dictum in 2 Corinthians 6.14–“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (ESV)–which has been taken often in reference to marriage but, as you know, is set in a much different context by Paul in his letter.

    Could we say the marriage ethic presented by both Malachi and Paul prohibit marriage between, say, a Christian and an unbeliever (i.e., an agnostic or an atheist)? A Christian and a Muslim? A Christian and a Jew? Or even a particular “type” of believer in Christ (e.g., evangelical) and a more “liberal” “type” of believer in Christ (e.g., mainstream Episcopalian)?

    The bigger question, for believers today, is: Can we take an ethos or general principle, like “faithfulness” in Malachi, and make binding application of his specific “do’s” and “don’ts” such as intermarriage with non-covenant people(s), etc.

    These are the issues that our preachers are looking for answers to as they week by week try to make the text alive and meaningful for pew fillers today.


    PS – But then maybe the text, when proclaimed in covenant community or church, carries its own inherent power of application (I’m sure you can think of statements from Reformed theologians that highlight this). Scripture says much about the “word” being written on the heart and about conviction by the Holy Spirit about spiritual matters!

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      You are correct, David, about the patriarchy of the Hebrew covenant–there is no record of women divorcing their husbands as we have in the Greco-Roman period (and as Mark illustrates).

      I did not move to an application about marriage outside of the covenant as a hermeneutical thread because I think this is unique to Israel’s covenant with Yahweh for ethnic, religious and nationalistic reasons. I don’t see 2 Corinthians 6 coming into play as I don’t think it is talking about marriage.

      It seems to me the hermeneutical move is to root the theological notion of “fathlessness/faithfulness” in the reality of God and then move to contemporary application. This does yield a condemnation of divorce as a violent act but it does not comment on what redemption looks like for the divorced (which is another topic itself). Rooting it in the theological reality of God, however, invites the divorced into community.

      At one level the hermeneutical moves are difficult since the covenantal, situational and context differences are present. At another level, the narrative story of what “faithlessness and faithfulness” involve at a macrolevel is, I think, clearly discernable (a la Micah 6:8).

      •   David W Fletcher Says:

        Good thoughts about hermeneutical applications, JM, and they spark all kinds of subsidiary distinctions/questions re the bond of marriage and the reality of divorce. Obviously, there is a civic as well as a religious side to marriage, and there may be a civic as well as a religious side to divorce. The faithfulness versus faithlessness dichotomy also highlights the possibility of different kinds of, or different contexts for, divorce. While divorce is disruptive and involves the sinner(s) and the sinned against, it may not always be the worst thing that could happen between a wife and a husband, especially when the relationship has become unworkable and abusive. So there can be divorce that is representative of “faithlessness,” and there seems to be the possibility of divorce that could occur in the context of an ethic of “faithfulness.” This would certainly rule out any sacramental view of marriage that sees the union as inviolable, i.e., arbitrarily permanent and impossible to break.

        From a historical perspective, your readers might enjoy Nancy Cott’s PUBLIC VOWS: A HISTORY OF MARRIAGE AND THE NATION (Harvard, 2000). She looks at the evolution of and national interest in marriage in the U.S. as an important civic union and in light of personal / priviate, religious meanings. I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but the libraries should have a copy.


  3.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    As one who has been put away I find reading Malachi difficult to do objectively and dispassionately. I appreciate your handling of the text. I am always blessed

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