Why ask this question? Does it even matter? I’m asking the question because I’m going to attempt to answer it. I’m also asking it because I have heard “God hates divorce” more times than I can count at this point, and I think that there is some confusion around divorce because of this statement–or rather the interpretation of this statement. Also, this statement has perpetuated long-term suffering upon people in terrible and often abusive marriages, and I would like to explore the meaning behind it.
So, God hates divorce. Really? I’m not a big fan of divorce myself. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who, upon hearing that a couple is divorcing, says, “Oh, you go get that divorce. I love divorce!” Where does the idea of God hating divorce even come from anyway? It originated in the Tanakh (Old Testament) in the book of Malachi:
“For I hate divorce!” says the Lord.
Why? What is the context of this statement? When you read strong, declarative statements like this in any text, it is vital to attempt to understand what it means in the historical setting, to whom the statement is being directed, and the purpose of it. So, what is going on here?
The prophet Malachi is speaking to the Levitical priests (the Levites) of Israel in this chapter. He begins his prophetic speech by reminding them of the covenant that God made with them. To do this, he tells them who they are and how God sees them:
“Listen, you priests—this command is for you…The purpose of my covenant with the Levites was to bring life and peace, and that is what I gave them. This required reverence from them, and they greatly revered me and stood in awe of my name. 6 They passed on to the people the truth of the instructions they received from me. They did not lie or cheat; they walked with me, living good and righteous lives, and they turned many from lives of sin…The words of a priest’s lips should preserve knowledge of God, and people should go to him for instruction, for the priest is the messenger of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” (Malachi 2: 1-7)
That seems clear enough and easy to understand. What went wrong with the Levites?
“But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. 9 “So I have made you despised and humiliated in the eyes of all the people. For you have not obeyed me but have shown favoritism in the way you carry out my instructions.” (Malachi 2: 8-9)
Ah yes, corruption. This is not a new story. We hear about corruption all the time. How does divorce enter the narrative?
“Here is another thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, weeping and groaning because he pays no attention to your offerings and doesn’t accept them with pleasure. 14 You cry out, “Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?” I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows. Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth.” (Malachi 2: 13-15)
For clarification, the priests in Israel were one of the tribes of Israel–descendants of the Israelite tribe of Levi who was the third son of Jacob and Leah. This tribe had certain temple and political duties, and today in Orthodox Judaism those Jews descended from the Levites still hold certain responsibilities in synagogues. It might seem confusing, however, to read the term ‘priest’ because of the religious affiliation with celibacy in other religious practices such as Catholicism. That is not the case in Judaism. Priests married and had children.
What does Malachi go on to say to the priests?
“For I hate divorce!”says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” (Malachi 2:16)
In this context, God hates divorce because it is cruel. Malachi ends his prophetic rant with this:
“You have wearied the Lord with your words.
“How have we wearied him?” you ask.
You have wearied him by saying that all who do evil are good in the Lord’s sight, and he is pleased with them. You have wearied him by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2: 17)
He ends this on a note concerning justice. God does not hate divorce because divorce is by nature a detestable thing. It isn’t some abomination. If it were, then it would not have been historically permitted among the Israelites, and we know that divorce was a permissible social action. What God hated, in this context, was the cruelty and injustice behind the priests’ actions towards their wives.
What does this mean then for our present discussion and understanding?
The reason that divorce exists as an option is to prevent further injustice and cruelty. My interpretation of the statement “God hates divorce!” by means of the transitive property is that God hates cruelty: “For I hate divorce!”says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty.” If divorce will prevent further cruelty and injustice, then divorce is a perfectly viable path to take. It is in no way wrong, and God does not hate divorce for the sake of hating divorce as so many people have come to believe. To maintain that view is essentially cherry-picking. It is to pick one sentence out of an entire chapter of the Old Testament that provides the meaning for the statement.
This entire passage is actually a strong correction regarding keeping your word and getting your act together particularly with your partners and families. They got married, so act like it. They made promises, so keep them. Treat their partners as they said they would. Stop acting like assholes at home, serving at temple and asking God to come through for them while, at the same time, wondering why he’s not. Have some integrity for God’s sake! Literally! And this applies to both men and women today.
So, if I could reframe this in the positive, then what would it be? Love justice and kindness in your relationships. Be an integrated person in private and public. Keep your promises. Value compassion. Never take your partners for granted.
Why? How you behave in private with those closest to you influences how you will behave in the public spheres. The more integrated you are in your life, the more integrated your character will become, and this matters because as we get older pressures increase. There are more responsibilities. Valuing people, justice, goodness, and compassion enable us to grow, stand up to pressure, and maintain our integrity. When we live double lives, we eventually fail in both our private and public lives. There are a plethora of reasons to avoid this.
So, does God hate divorce in and of itself? No. Does God hate divorce if it is used as a mechanism to promote cruelty and injustice? Yes.
Divorce. No one loves it, but it’s an option if you need it. And, that’s how it’s always been. Even in 2nd century BCE when Malachi was prophesying to Israel.