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Divorce in the Prophets: Discipline or Adultery?

Introduction to the Prophetic Literature

It is not known to what degree the laws protecting the marriage vows were enforced. It is clear from the numerous passages in the Proverbs that speak of the adulteress or strange woman that the marriage vow was breached, and we may infer from the persistence of her presence that by the time of the United Monarchy execution for such an offense was not readily practiced. But these are all only inferences. As for the intentional failure of a man to provide for his wife, the text says virtually nothing, although it may surely be assumed that some of these offenses occurred as well.

What is clear is that by the time of Jesus, the death penalty was seldom if ever used for the offense of adultery. This is clear not only from a consideration of the Shammai-Hillel debate, wherein both schools presume that adultery would be grounds for divorce, not death, but from a consideration of the fact that Israel was a dependent nation and had to function under the laws of the overlords. Rome, at least according to the Julian Laws, did not recognize adultery as a capital crime, except under the most rare circumstances.149 It may well be that something similar was the case under the prior overlords back to the times of the separate deportations of the Northern and Southern kingdoms.

Further light is shed on this matter by a consideration of several of the writings of the prophets. One of the most significant indications that adultery did not usually lead to execution but to divorce is found in Jeremiah 3. In this passage, dealing with an oracle given after the fall of the Northern Kingdom and before the fall of the Southern, God states that he has divorced the Northern Kingdom for their adulteries. He threatens the Southern Kingdom with the same treatment if they fail to be faithful. Such a discussion presumes that divorce is a customary treatment for unfaithfulness. But whether such language accommodates a prevailing practice, or whether it bespeaks a new dispensation of divine law is not clear. Usually, the former is assumed by commentators. (And this is my conclusion as well.)

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In this chapter we will seek to uncover the two major marriage/divorce themes of the prophets. The first of these is the idea of divorce as a discipline for the sin of adultery; the second is the idea of groundless divorce as the sin of adultery.

The Discipline of Divorce

Divorce as a Step to Restoration from Adultery

(Hosea 1 and 2)

The Prophetic Background

As noted earlier, at some point prior to the deportation of the Southern Kingdom, execution for adultery was at least partially displaced by divorce.150 This fact plays into a very interesting analogy (or figure) found in the prophetic literature of how God’s relation to Israel is like a man’s relationship to his adulterous wife. God’s treatment of adulterous Israel is similar to how a man treated his unfaithful wife: divorce. Let us look first at the marital analogy, then consider the disciplinary aspect of the analogy. Both elements are necessarily present in the two major passages we will consider: Hosea 1 and 2 and Ezra 9 and 10.

The presentation of Israel as the betrothed or bride of Yahweh does not arise until the times of apostasy just prior to the deportation of the Northern Kingdom.151 Nonetheless, in reading the prophetic writings, we are clearly made aware that God has understood his relationship to Israel in those terms. In Jeremiah, for example, we read:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord (Jer. 31:32).152

It is easy to see why the parallel should be drawn. For not only is marriage the prototypical covenant (hence its clear connotation in the form of the seventh commandment, which protected valid covenants) but also Israel’s legal responsibility to God is put in similar terms. Consider, for example, these verses found in Leviticus 18:

And you shall not have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife, to be defiled with her (18:20).

Do not defile yourselves by any of these things (18:23).

The idea here is that for Israel to have practiced any of the abominations of the gentile nations would be for them to have dirtied themselves in a way similar to how a wife is defiled by an adulterous relation with a man other than her husband.

Even more striking is the Deuteronomical Law treatment of the first commandment. In Deuteronomy 7, we read of the possible social interrelation of Israel to the Canaanites:153

You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods (7:2 f).

Echoing this, Joshua says:

But you are to cling to the Lord your God, as you have done to this day [a day of reaffirmation of the people to the Mosaic legislation] … So take diligent heed to yourselves to love the Lord your God. For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you [Josh, 23:8,11 ff.].

The word cling here is the very term used in Genesis 2:24 of a man cleaving to his wife. When Israel is told to cleave to God and not to cleave to others, it is not a far jump to the marital metaphor of the prophets. This is especially true when the method of infidelity mentioned is “intermarriage” with the peoples of the land.154

Sadly, Israel did not keep the vows to God. The first breach had already occurred, and that involving culpable ignorance. Back in Joshua 9, the story is told of how the Israelites foolishly made a covenant with the Gibeonites, who had deceived them into believing that they were from afar, peoples with whom Israel was allowed to make a covenant. Because of the culpability that Israel bore in not clarifying the exact origin of the Gibeonites, God made the Israelites keep the covenant to them. And, later, in the days of Saul, when the covenant was not kept with the Gibeonites, God judged Israel for being unfaithful.155 But the later infidelity was intentional. The chronicler (perhaps Ezra) writes:

But they acted treacherously against the God of their fathers, and played the, harlot after the gods of the peoples of the land, whom God had destroyed before them.156

What is only alluded to earlier is, however, very explicit around the time of the pending exile of the Northern Kingdom. Recording God oracle given to that people some thirty years before the fall of Samaria, Hosea presents us with a striking illustration of the God-Israel, husband-wife analogy.

Israel As The Unfaithful Wife Of Yahweh

God wastes no time in the oracle getting to the point. Says he,

“Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry, and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord.” (Hos. 1:2)

Obediently, the prophet marries Gomer, who promptly bears what may have been their only legitimate child, for the text does not use of her subsequent offspring the telltale “bore him” as it does of the first. Nonetheless, Hosea names the next two children upon the command of the Lord. The name of the last child speaks of the nature of the relation between God and Israel: “Lo-ammi, literally, “not my people.” By this name God wishes to tell the Israelites that “you are not My people and I am not your God” (v. 9).

But lest any think the analogy does not come into the story, that is, that the rejection will only be God of Israel, and not Hosea of Gomer, the second chapter makes the matter clear. Hosea, apparently speaking to Jezreel (the legitimate firstborn), notifies Gomer:

Contend with your mother, contend, For she is not my wife, and I am not her husband; And let her put away her harlotry from her face, And her adultery from between her breasts,

Hosea continues to speak of the things he plans to do to Gomer:

Lest I strip her naked
And expose her as on the day when she was born.
I will also make her like a wilderness,
Make her like desert land,
And slay her with thirst
Also, I will have no compassion on her children,
Because they are children of harlotry.
For their mother has played the harlot (1:3-5a)

Therefore, behold, I will hedge up her way with thorns,
And I will build a wall against her so that she cannot find her paths. (2:6)

Therefore, I will take back My grain at harvest time
And My new wine in its season.
I will also take away My wool and My flax
Given to cover her nakedness.
And then I will uncover her lewdness
In the sight of her lovers,
And no one will rescue her out of My hand.
I will put an end to all her gaiety (2:9-11a)

And I will destroy her vines and fig trees. (2:12a)

And I will punish her for the days of the Baals
When she used to offer sacrifices to them …
And follow her lovers, so that she forgot Me (2:13)

Clearly, these adversities are intended to make the erring wife come to her senses and return:

Then she will say, “I will go back to my first husband, For it was better for me then than now!”(2:7)

And she will come at the first husband’s invitation: I will allure her, … And speak kindly to her. (2:14)

Taking the literal interpretation of this section of the Book of Hosea, we are faced with the fact of Gomer’s husband’s discovery of her infidelity, his stated rejection of her, his intention to make her see the error of her ways, and his attempt to restore the relationship. On the allegorical interpretation, this section speaks of the relationship of God to Israel and perhaps has nothing to do with real events in the life of Hosea. I prefer to combine the views and argue that God really had Hosea marry and go through the pain of Gomer’s infidelity, and that Hosea did, in fact, reject her for that infidelity, stating his intention to treat her in such a way as to make her come to her senses. I hold that chapter 2 is largely anticipatory of actions that Hosea did in fact take, but the historical actions themselves are not recorded. Chapter 3 resumes the oracle at a point subsequent to Gomer’s realizing her true state. That chapter tells of how Hosea regained Gomer’s companionship.157

Israel as The Disciplined Bride Of Yahweh

It is more difficult to discern when and if Hosea, in rejecting Gomer and her behavior, actually went through a legal divorce. Some argue that he did not. Representative of them is Francis I. Anderson, who thinks that Gomer (representative of Israel) has deserted Hosea (cf. 2:7 vis-a-vis 2:15) and committed adultery. Accordingly, Anderson believes that “you are not my wife and I am not her husband”158 simply means that they are no longer living together. But this is hasty. It seems clear from the fact that children two and three are “children of harlotry” (1:2), yet named by Hosea (1:6, 9) that Gomer was, at the point of 2:1-2, living with him. Moreover, it is clear that Hosea’s threats (2:2-6) are then yet future. If so, then one would imagine that the pursuit of lovers (2:7) should also be considered future rather than present, and 2:7 is so translated. In addition, 2:7 states that she will not “overtake” the lovers. But having two illegitimate children by them at the time of 2:2 certainly speaks of her having been overtaken at that point! It is more reasonable to assume that her lovers are predicted to abandon her, at some point in the near future. But, if future at all, then Anderson’s point about a present desertion fails.

Arguing further, Anderson says that no simple dissolution of the covenant can be intended by 1:9, because

the covenant nowhere makes provision for such an eventuality. Covenant-breaking on the part of Israel (unilateral withdrawal) calls for severe punishment Israel cannot opt out by no longer acknowledging Yahweh. The punishment is not an expression of a broken relationship On the contrary, it is enforced within the relationship; punishment maintains the covenant Similarly Hosea’s threats of punishment are proof that his marriage continues. The corrective discipline expresses his authority over his wife, and his continuing claim upon her The husband does not take any initiative to dissolve the marriage. That, rather, is what the wife has already done by her conduct.159

This is a strange collection of statements. Anderson seems to have lost track of the analogy altogether. For though it is true that the Law made no provision for a legal release of an adulteress from her covenant, it is to be remembered that the Law did require the execution of the adulteress (Lev. 20:10). It made no provision for an adulteress to be punished by some means that involved her staying alive “within the relationship.” Clearly it will not do to refer to the terms of the covenant, if by that we mean the prescriptions of the Mosaic Constitutions. It is far preferable simply to refer the matter to the practice of marriage/divorce in the days of Hosea and see the oracle as using these practices to speak of how God now intends to relate to Israel.

The Commentary of Jeremiah

But what were the practices of Israel at that time? It is here that Jeremiah 3 enters the picture to support the view that Hosea really did divorce Gomer. For it is about the same events spoken of in Hosea 2 that Jeremiah’s oracle speaks:

Have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there. And I thought, “after she has done all these things, she will return to Me”; but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of Divorce [Jer. 3:6-8a].

The “treacherous departing” (Jer. 3:20) is within the covenant, not a desertion that is physical. And the rejection by the husband of the wife involves a legal writ. This is all rather straightforward and apropos. Jeremiah’s oracle is speaking of the event of the casting away of the Northern Kingdom years earlier. It clearly identifies the action of God against that kingdom as a certified divorce, and not merely as a temporary and informal failure to provide bed and board.

An Alleged Isaiac Alternative

Anderson is, of course, familiar with Jeremiah 3:8:

Jeremiah 3:1-14 shows that Yahweh saw no difficulty in overriding such legalities in order to remarry his divorced Israel. Since Jeremiah 3 shows the influence of Hosea, its clear statement that Yahweh divorced Israel Jer. 3:8), the northern kingdom, could be used as evidence that Hos. 2:4 is the declaration embodied in the bill of divorce Isaiah 50-1 contains another tradition it implies that there never was a divorce.160

The verse in Isaiah that Anderson has in mind reads:

Thus says the Lord, “Where is the certificate of divorce, By which I have sent your mother away? Or to whom of My creditors did I sell you?”

In this verse, the mother stands for Israel as a nation, while the children stand for the Israelites as individuals.161 Something happens to the Nation and its individuals, but what?

Anderson sees in this verse a rhetorical denial that God gave a writing of divorcement to Israel. Preferring this Isaiac tradition to that of Jeremiah, Anderson concludes that Hosea’s illustrative marital situation did not involve a true and complete divorcement, but only a separation. He is joined in this conclusion by D.H. Small,162 who cites Westerman’s translation: “Where then is the bill of divorce with which I am supposed to have put your mother away?”163 Thus Anderson and Small simply counter Jeremiah with Isaiah and choose the one which agrees with their view of what must have transpired in the life of Hosea.

But is this choice really necessary? I think not. There are several factors that deserve discussion before the method of “arbitrary choosing” is taken. First, we should remember the audiences of each of the books in question. The Children of Israel are divided into two nations. They are not simply Israel. Hosea prophesied to the Northern Kingdom about thirty years (750 B.C.) prior to its fall (722 B.C.).164 His oracle speaks of and to that kingdom. Isaiah, lived till about 681, and the oracles spoken in 40-66 are assigned to his latter years.165 His oracle was spoken to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah spoke his prophecy to the Southern Kingdom in about 626 B.C.166 However, Jeremiah’s comments regarding the divorce writ relate to the previous judgment of God upon the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C., not the threatened judgment of God upon the Southern Kingdom.

Accordingly, the Isaiac comment should not be brought into direct contrast with the Jeremiah 3:8 comment, since they refer to different kingdoms, who will receive judgment at different times. Anderson and Small imply that the divorce writs referred to in Jeremiah and Isaiah relate to the same divorce. They do not. Only Jeremiah’s writ comment should be seen as a commentary on Hosea, since they do speak of the same events (Hosea in anticipation; Jeremiah in evaluation). While Jeremiah may have wrongly typified the facts about the Northern Kingdom’s judgment by speaking of divorce writ it is not acceptable summarily to dismiss Jeremiah’s commentary on the basis of Isaiah. Let us first consider the possibility that Jeremiah wrongly typified the events, then we shall return to a more complicated attempt to dismiss Jeremiah on the basis of Isaiah.

Did Hosea Divorce Gomer?

If Jeremiah inappropriately identified the judgment of the Northern Kingdom as a divorce complete with a writ, then we should be able to draw that conclusion from Hosea itself. In that regard, first note that Hosea does not deny that the casting away of the Northern Kingdom was an official and complete divorce. Second, note that the language by which God is represented as relating to His people is a direct denial of the language of the covenant (“You are not my people and I am not your God”).

To facilitate that attempt let us look at the opinion of D.H. Small.167 Small, a sociologists primarily concerned with counseling those facing possible divorce, focuses his comments on the picture of God’s judgment: Hosea’s relationship to his wife. Small offers no less than ten reasons to doubt that Hosea actually and officially divorced Gomer. Let us look at each in turn.

1. The structure of the passage is two-fold, not three-fold as would be required were Hosea to have 1) married, 2) divorced, and 3) remarried. The actions God requires are demarcated by the formula “Go … ” There are only two such: “Go, take [a wife]” and “Go, love [her again].” There is no “Go, divorce.” Further, the second command is not “Go take … a wife,” which we should expect if a remarriage were in view.

This structural analysis is impressive mostly because Small leaves out other interactions between God and Hosea that occur between the “Go” statements. Included in those interactions are those which are thought to imply a divorcement. If we were to jump from “Go” to “Go”, we cannot explain the need for the second “Go.” The second “Go” says “love again.” Obviously there has been a hiatus of love in the love by the husband that has occurred between the “Go”s, and not merely some action which caused it on the part of the wife. Small obviously does not want to interpret that hiatus as a divorce. He wants to stress the difference in language as showing that the two “Go”s are different. But the inclusion of the word “again” in the second “Go” ties the “Go” statements together. The absence of “love” in the first “Go” should no more imply that there was no love in the initial marriage, than an absence of “take” in the second should imply that there was no need for an official remarriage.

2. The prophet’s subsequent message denies an official divorce, when God “How can I give you up, O Israel? … “I will not destroy Ephraim again”(10:8-9). Small argues that Hosea thus perceives that the Northern Kingdom’s judgment, and therefore Hosea’s marital relations as a picture of it, as not a final statement about the relationship(s). Surely so, but irrelevant. Ultimate restoration does not preclude an intermediate, complete divorcement. After all, Hosea has God saying that once He destroyed Ephraim. When was that? With the divorcement and subsequent withdrawal of support.

3. The implications of the Deuteronomy divorce law precludes the acknowledged remarriage. Small argues that Deut. 24:1-4 will not allow the remarriage of Gomer to Hosea. Neither would it allow the remarriage of Israel to Yahweh. Small pounds the pulpit by saying that Deut. 24 is “explicit” in this regard. As already argued, Deut. 24 is not meant to deal with situations such as that of Gomer. Hosea is not divorcing Gomer for flimsy reasons, but for adultery. God is not divorcing Ephraim for burning the covenantal soup, but for unfaithfulness to the promises they took upon themselves by oath after the Exodus.

4. Adherence to Levitical Law would not permit remarriage of Hosea to Gomer—a remarriage which the text affirms. While priests were not allowed to marry prostitutes, Small admits (as do all others) that Gomer is represented in the text as having prostituted herself. It is also admitted by Small that Hosea is not a priest, but is a prophet. Since that law does not apply to him, it is non sequitur to introduce it as argument as to why we cannot interpret Hosea as having divorced Gomer. Small’s logic is very loose in this section—the argument is vague.

5. Divorce would imply a negation of the Covenant for judgment’s sake, and God does not want the ultimate end of the covenant. Small contends that the judgment in Hosea, is not final dissolution, but rather a temporary suspension. He asks, “Does it contain future possibilities of restoration?”168 Small cites authorities which assert that the language employed by Hosea is divorce language, but rejects them because he believes that it was spoken to bring about restoration, not to end the relationship. Also emphasized is the fact that Hosea threatens to sanction Gomer by the withdrawal of support, and Small feels that this is inappropriate if a divorce is already obtained by the words, “she is not my wife and I am not her husband” (v. 2). This is similar to an objection made by Anderson in his Hosea commentary to the effect that a man who has divorced his erring wife has no right to treat her as Hosea intends. Indeed, Anderson further objects that if we see Gomer as having become married to another (cf. Jer. 3:1), her relationships would no longer be adultery against Hosea. The original husband would have no grounds for disciplining her or for unmasking her lovers. This is the main obstacle in the way of identifying the statement in 2:4a as an act of divorce. That would be the end of the story. There would be no basis for all that follows. But in 2:6-15 the lovers remain “lovers.” Hosea 2:9 suggests that the “first husband” [2:7] was still her husband. She had deserted him, but he had not renounced her. Her amours continue to be adultery against him; 2:4-15 treats her as an adulterous wife, not simply as a promiscuous woman.169

This sounds impressive, but there is more thunder than rain here. The fact is that God did divorce the Northern Kingdom and did continue His claims on her. Some other explanation needs to be found. Several possible solutions present themselves. Either the fact that she is the guilty party makes the difference,170 or the “adversity” mentioned in Hosea 2:6-15 is another way to speak of the implications of the act of divorcement. We prefer the latter, that is, that 2:6-15 is simply a way of speaking of the social and economic results of divorce. This is to say, by legally divorcing her (2:2) he now has the legal right to take back the clothing he has given her (2:3, 10) and the materials of his field by which she can make more clothing (2:9), to disinherit her children (2:4), to block her out of his house (2:6), to cut her off from the food and drink that she shares in his house (2:9) as well as the crops from which she could get sustenance (2:12),171 and in general to cut her off from the way of life that she enjoys—that he has made possible. Thus, when she comes to realize that she has been simply used by her lovers, who will not be impressed by her without those husband-provided luxuries (2:7, 10), she will repent and return.

All this parallels exactly the facts of God and Israel. When God ceased to support Israel, “she” lost all “she” had and was no longer treated “respectfully” by “her” lovers. The loss of the husband-provided goods was, in that case, mediated by the hand of the “lovers” (e.g., Babylonia), but that fact is not detrimental to our solution. We simply need to point out that after the divorcement (the time of Hosea) there were social and economic losses (the deportation) and that a similar experience of divorce and loss apparently occurred in the life of Gomer. It was not so much that God pursued Israel in Babylon, but that he abandoned Israel to Babylon, and, that while “she” was there, he spoke kindly to “her” and called “her” to return. The same can be said for Gomer. Hosea divorced her, abandoned her to her own insufficient devices, and then allured her back to himself.

As to Small, his dilemmas are all false. As stated before, full divorce does not preclude restoration. Divorce is a discipline. If it works, the wayward Gomer can return, the vows renewed and the marriage restored. To state divorce, and note the pending consequences is fully realistic. Small complains that to threaten consequences is not the same as to take action, which one would expect if this were a real divorce. But that is to press the issue too hard. What inhibits a divorcer from threatening action before he actually takes it? Isn’t that exactly what we would expect someone who is divorcing for the purpose of discipline? First he threatens, then he takes action if the threat does not succeed. Hosea has given the formula for divorce. Action is expected to follow, and will, unless Gomer comes to her senses. Alas it does not, the support is withdrawn, she falls into slavery as a result of the withdrawn support, then comes to her senses, and finally Hosea buys her out of slavery and restores the marriage! Those are reasonable facts drawn from the text.

6. Gomer is said to return to her “first” husband. Small argues that an assumption of a second marriage on the part of commentators is hasty, and if true, would preclude remarriage to Hosea. Rather, says Small, the “first” simply identifies Hosea as the one to whom she returns, an action “impossible had there been a divorce.”172 This is confused thinking. Not even the irrelevant Deut. 24 passage prohibited a divorced-but-not-remarried woman from returning to her husband. Small, after all, doesn’t think she actually remarried, because to do so implies that she had a divorce, and Small wants to avoid that conclusion at all costs. What Small seems unwilling to face is the total irrelevance of the word “first” if she has not been at least divorced. The text would simply say, “I shall return to my husband.” If no remarriage and/or divorce, the “first” is superfluous. Small’s comment that “first” could be supplied “in case any should wonder” is disingenuous. Rather than clarify to whom she is returning, such an inclusion confuses her audience by introducing the possibility of more than a “first.”

7. Hosea was threatening a lesser punishment, stripping Gomer, rather than divorce. Again, after amassing authorities who associate stripping with divorce (de Vaux, Gaster, and Gordis), Small elusively cites the context of Hosea as teaching that the stripping threatened here argues against interpretation of divorce, apparently on the authority of Gordis.173 But Small offers nothing from the context which proves this, and the probability that the stripping threatened is one of the anticipated consequences of the casting out is far stronger.

8. The use of the words: “love again” instead of “remarry” implies that there never was a divorce, only a separation. The restoration is from “slave-concubinage.” This return to the structural language adds little to argument 1. First, it is incredible that a full wife could even end up in slave-concubinage, presumably to another man! Second, Old Testament law prescribes redemption from slave-concubinage only when the relation was not consummated (Ex. 21:8). Second, insofar as “love again” is immediately followed by “a woman who is loved by her husband,” it must be understood that the “love again” signifies something other than subjective relation. During the separation, Hosea has not ceased personally to be concerned for Gomer. What then? “Go, love again” must be comparable to the first “Go, take … ” And, since the first “Go” clearly involved a marriage, so too, the second, like unto the first, strongly implies a remarriage. Small’s further consideration of the term “husband,” especially citing Jer. 3 does nothing to help his case, since in that passage a clearly divorced Ephraim (and not the still married Judah) is said to be loved by Someone Who is said to have divorced her!

But a question now arises as to whether it is proper to speak of Gomer as an adulteress, loved by her husband, if Hosea has freed her by divorce? In fact, what are we to make of the same sort of idea found in a number of places? For example, Isaiah 54:5 says, “For your husband is your maker … For the Lord has called you, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, even like a wife of one’s youth when she is rejected.” Or again, there is the NIV rendering of Jeremiah 3:14, which says that God is still a “husband” to the Northern Kingdom that He has just divorced (v. 8). In each of these instances divorce is more or less certain, but the language of existing covenant is employed. How can this be?

Similar language is found in Isaiah 54:5-6. But there, the text is a prophetic projection into the time of the return, when covenant people will have been remarried to Yahweh. Thus it is appropriate to use the language of existing covenant. But it is not possible to use this sort of argument for Hosea. One possibility is that the text is employing a figure of speech (i.e., heterosis), where sense of the English present tense is employed, though the severance is complete, to emphasize the offense to the legal covenant then sundered and past. But this is not the most sophisticated way to understand the text. In fact, Hosea 3:1 is more complex than the translations reveal. First, the words for “wife” and “husband” are ambiguous. “Wife” may simply be “woman,” and the term used for “husband” is actually more commonly translated “friend.” Additionally, the friend is not identified as “her” friend, but only as “a” friend. Thus, the text may be saying nothing more than, “Go love a woman loved by a friend.” This rendering would hardly imply an existing marital relation. The fact that the text does say that she is an “adulteress” complicates this analysis, but does not ultimately defeat it. We should also remember that an unrepentant offender is still known by his or her offense-term, even if not continually practicing the offense at a later time.174

The Jeremiah 3:14 text, which also speaks of God as a husband to previously divorced Israel (3:8) is more difficult to translate than most Bibles reveal. The term the NIV renders “husband” (and the KJV renders “am married”) is actually the verb al. Though this word can be translated that way, it could also be translated less related to marriage, and more to politics, e.g., “have dominion.” Additionally, it is the preterite perfect, a form used of this verb only here and in Jeremiah 31:32. Such a form is not clear as to time. The dominion is completed action, but that dominion may or may not extend to the present. In Jeremiah 31, the presumption is that it does not. In Jeremiah 3 the translators have chosen to translate the exact same word as if the dominion does continue in the present. Should we take 31:32 as meaning that Israel broke the covenant while bound to the Lord (as they still are), or chapter 3 as meaning that God calls the apostate sons back to himself—reminding them that they initially went astray while he had legal rights over them (though that dominion is now technically removed by the divorce writ of the same chapter)? As for the grammar itself, we can only be sure that dominion once existed.175

Recall, too, that in neither case (31 nor 3) are we assured that the “dominion” in view is connected with the marital metaphor. After all, the Israelites had a son-slave relationship to the Lord before they even ratified the Mosaic covenant—that covenant bearing the weight of the marital metaphor. Could it be that the Ba-a-li and related words have predominately political rather than marital overtones in the Prophets? For example, in Hosea 2:16, where the noun form is used, the context before and after strongly implies that marriage does not exist when Israel calls God its master. In 1:9 God says Israel is not his people. In 2:19 he tells Israel that he will betroth them in some future day. Ba-a-li rests chronologically between these passages.176 Thus, subsequent to the divorce, Israel is not considered the marriage partner of God, but merely a runaway slave. They revert back to the position of Israel before Sinai—a people redeemed out of Egypt with a strong arm.177

In any case it is ill advised to base a theology of marriage upon the words and verb tenses of these questioned passages. Their significance to this subject remains moot. It seems preferable to follow Hosea 2:2, which denies in strong terms that a marital relation exists past the divorce. The Hebrew there employs the terms of factual negation (10), which rules out the existence of the condition under discussion (i.e., marriage).178 Hosea is saying that he no longer considers Gomer to be “his” (possessive suffix) “woman” or “wife” (standard term for a full partner).

9. Since Gomer is said to be restored by a purchase, she cannot have been divorced. To explain this point, Small asserts that the price Hosea paid for Gomer could not be a bride-price but must be a slave-redemption. To make an argument of this, we have to supply the premise that such a slave-redemption is logically incompatibly with a previous divorce and subsequent remarriage. Instead, Small argues that his paying the redemption implies that Gomer was not “living in freedom.”179 It is hard to see what this proves. Further, the verses which Small forthwith cites to show that it is appropriate to redeem a woman from slavery-concubinage, are odd to say the least. They seem to have come from some sort of concordance study of “30 shekels of silver”, rather than from detailed consideration of the topic. The first verse cited, Exodus 21:7-11 and 32, would seem to preclude redemption of a slave whose concubinage has been consummated (though in the latter verse a killed slave woman is said to have the value Hosea paid), the second, Zechariah 11:12, has nothing to do with the redemption of a woman at all, but only of a shepherd’s wages. The last, Leviticus 27:4, has to do with redeeming a servant woman who the master has previously devoted to the Lord.

Contrariwise it would be most irregular for a wife to be able to sell herself into slavery, and clearly immoral/illegal for her to do so if it involved concubinage. Recalling that a husband had the right to veto a wife’s vow to the Lord (Num. 30:6-8), is it likely that Hebrew society, much less Hosea, would stand by silently while a married woman sold herself into slavery. Would the Hebrew law allow two sexual covenants for the same woman at the same time? Certainly not. The very fact that Gomer was in slavery implies that she was legally free from her marriage to Hosea. And the only divorce legislation in the text about divorce speaks of a divorce writ (i.e., Deut. 24:1-4). While it is true that the divorce writ in that instance is for the protection of a treacherously divorced woman, and an adulteress like Gomer would not deserve such protection, it may be assumed that, in the face of inoperative execution laws, the righteous husband, himself deserved the writ to insure that he would not be held legally responsible for the debts of an adulterous wife. The text of Hosea does not imply that Hosea is obligated to redeem Gomer, but rather that he chooses to do so.

10. When Hosea says he intends to “betroth” Gomer, he means to reaffirm his troth. Small’s introduction of “betroth” into the arguments is an unmitigated disaster. It completely undercuts his point, though he seems oblivious to it. How odd it would be for a man already married to say that he was going to betroth his own wife! I know of no instance of a married man saying he wanted to betroth his wife, and Small offers none. Simply, the statement of intention to betroth unquestionably implies that no marital relation exists.

In conclusion, none of these arguments is convincing, either alone or in combination. And, frankly, nothing in Hosea itself inclines us to believe that Gomer was not fully divorced from Hosea. Though Hosea does not record the issuance of a writ, there is no reason to assume that none was given. There is nothing in Hosea which is incompatibly with Jeremiah’s representation of God’s divorce with a writ of the Northern Kingdom.

Did Isaiah Deny That Judah Received A Writ Of Divorce?

The compatibility of Hosea with Jeremiah as to the divorce of the Northern Kingdom relaxes the critical tension between Hosea and the other prophets. But we still have to ask whether Isaiah’s understanding of divorce (speaking of the Southern Kingdom) is logically compatible with the Jeremiah-Hosea understanding of divorce as a discipline (when it speaks of the Northern Kingdom). There is also the matter of Jeremiah’s oracle which threatens divorce to the Southern Kingdom. Specifically, does Isaiah represent God as rejecting divorce as a way of dealing with a wayward covenant partner, whereas Jeremiah and Hosea represent God as using divorce as a proper divine discipline of such a partner? I do not think that it will do to suggest that God arbitrarily deals with one kingdom in a way different than he does another. So what may we say to resolve this logical dilemma? Nor do I believe that it is necessary to conclude just yet that Jeremiah and Isaiah represent two contradictory schools of thought regarding discipline of an unfaithful spouse.

I believe the solution rests in realizing that Isaiah 50:1 does not necessarily deny, but may rather affirm, the divorcement of Judah. Consider again Isaiah 50:1. Adding the latter part of the verse to the part quoted earlier we have:

A: “Where is the certificate of divorce,
By which I have sent your mother away?

B: Or to whom of My creditors did I sell you?

b: Behold, you were sold for your iniquities,

a: And for your transgressions
Your mother was sent away.”

A couple of things are clear from the second part of this verse. First, the nation was “sent away” and the individuals sold into bondage. Second, the fault for this predicament lies with the sinful Israelites, not with Yahweh. Whatever conclusions we draw about this verse must not ignore those two primary facts. Note too, that this agrees with Jeremiah, through whom God says, “ … for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away … ” (3:8).

But let us not be short-sighted. Let us consider the broader context of Isaiah’s oracle. His statement is in the midst of a section where God pledges some day to restore soon-to-be-punished Judah to Himself. Chapter 49 presents the Servant of Yahweh as the Savior of His people. Judah is presented as a child feeling abandoned, and God as the Mother rushing to the child’s aid (49:14-15). Nations who will have devastated Judah will honor her (49:22-23). Again, Judah is pictured as prey, as captives temporarily held by a might man/tyrant (49:24 ff.) The text asks rhetorically, is God able to free His people from captivity to such strong nations? The answer is a rhetorical “Yes.”

It is at this point that the questioned verses arise, preceding the famous section of the Suffering Servant who will redeem Judah. After all those kind statements about what God intends for the good of His people, it must not be forgotten that they are in the mess that they are in because of their own evil, and that their salvation will be at the cost of the Righteous Savior. Thus the fiftieth chapter begins prolepticly with the assertion that they have committed adultery and have been sent away. They have committed iniquity and have been sold. And while it is not true that they have been sold to make up for God’s bad debt, they are (will be) sold none-the-less. Whatever may be the case with regard to a divorce writ, the nation will be sent away, like the cast off, adulterous wife that she is.

The text says that, in spite of the adulteries that have placed Judah in this position, there is hope. And what is that position? It is the position of a divorced wife of an enslaved child. God stands ready to save. But Judah needs (will need) to acknowledge their guilt and admit to their plight. They need (will need) to bring out the bill of divorcement once given and it will be rescinded. They need to identify the tyrants to whom they have been justly sold, and God will deliver Judah from them.

Too much emphasis should not be placed upon the “creditor” and the “or.” We all know that God owes no debts, even if He pays ransoms. We all know that He rescinds judgment, when there is repentance. These phrases have the effect of saying, “Does the fact of a divorce writ once justly given, or the slavery justly experienced, stand forever in the way of restoration? Certainly not! Turn in the writ. Admit to the fact that you are in slavery as a punishment by God. God will withdraw the rejection (judgment) and ransom the slave. Like Israel Judah will be divorced, they will be enslaved, but God will call them back on His terms. He is not an unjust divorcer (like the man of Deut. 24:1). He is a discipliner. How quickly will Judah learn her lesson?

But what we must not do is say that because God has no debtors, He gave no divorce, or that the “or” must mean that because He did not sell them for a bad debt, He cannot have once given them a valid divorce. By the same token, it is wrong to assume that because God will restore a repentant Judah, He must not have ever given a valid divorce to unrepentant Israel or Judah. Restoration does not imply no divorce ever took place … only that the separation has ended.

This understanding of the text allows 1) for a normal meaning of “sent away” in the second part of the verse. It is difficult to see how “sent away” could mean anything other than divorce, except to a people such as ourselves who have a concept of legal separation from “bed and board” without a complete cessation of the legal relationship.180 2) It also allows for a normal understanding of the rhetorical thrust of both questions in the first part of the verse. Finally, please note the poetic structure again. The questions preceded by a capital letter to designate the structure and answered by the small letters. Just as the question of whether they were sold is answered “Yes”. So too the question as to whether “she” was divorced is to be answered “Yes.” The omission of the word “certificate of divorce” in the “answer” section should not be a problem. It is mere figure of speech … and ellipses, implied by what is repeated: “sent away”.

In conclusion, it may be said that there is nothing that prohibits us from seeing Isaiah as teaching that Judah was divorced. And the text in all likelihood implies it. At worst, it might be argued that Judah was divorced without benefit of a divorce writ.181 That is possible, but not likely. I shall have more to say about this shortly.

Does Jeremiah Recount the Divorce of Judah?

What, then, may we learn from the prophetic books of Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah? We learn that divorce is used metaphorically of God’s discipline of Israel for their adulterous activities against the covenant. The linguistic thread that links the use of God to the husband and Israel to the wife is the idea of “adultery”—an adultery that, in the case of God and Israel, is sexual only metaphorically but actually an instance of unfaithfulness to the covenant. In other words, adultery is at root, or in principle, not essentially a sexual term, though it connotes sexual infidelity. Its essential definition is “breach of covenant, unfaithfulness, treachery, infidelity.” A definition such as this shows how the idea of sexual infidelity on the part of the wife, in an Old Testament marriage, parallels the breach of covenant on the part of a husband who fails to keep his pledge to provide for his wife. There will be further discussion about this relationship at the end of this section, but first we must look at another prophetic treatment of the wife’s infidelity to her husband: the intermarriage between Israelites and the women of the land in the days of Ezra the scribe.

Divorce as an Ultimate Solution for Adultery

(Ezra 9 and 10)

The harlotry of Israel brings forth yet another and different treatment of the divorce issue in the Book of Ezra. In the ninth and tenth chapters, we read of Ezra’s discovery of marriages between the returned Israelites and the women of the land (Samaritans?). The text tells how some of the princes approached Ezra and told him of this intermarriage (9:1) and of the extent to which the evil had gone-even the princes and rulers were involved (9:2).182 Heth argues oddly that, “Ezra’s prayer seems to indicate further that ‘intermarriage’ had not yet actually taken place (compare Ezra 9:2 with 9:14).” In fact, we are later informed that even the sons of the priests had gone into apostasy in this manner (10:18). The fact that the people brought the matter up to Ezra shows their sensitivity to the teachings of the Law on this matter, a sensitivity that preceded any evident reading of the Law to the people by Ezra.183

Much of what we are considering now is supportive of what we have already seen in this chapter regarding the non-sexual aspects of the meaning of the word adultery. The unfaithfulness of Ezra’s time only seems more sexual than that spoken of in the time of the pre-exilic prophets, in that marriage, which involves sexual relations, was a part of the facts of the case. But to stress the physical side of the unfaithfulness unduly is to miss the center of the passage. For it is the idea of covenanting with the “enemy” rather than simply coupling with them that is the problem. Or, to be more precise, the problem is that, in establishing legal marital relations with the women of the land, they had broken their “marriage” covenant with God. It would not have been unfaithfulness for them to have married Jewish girls, or even to have taken women of the land as concubines; sex with a human being was not the issue. It was the breaking of one of the rules of the Mosaic covenant wherein lay the offense. There is also in this account a reaffirmation of the important point that divorce, though a substitute for the Mosaic corrective of execution, is a necessary and acceptable means of discipline. For first the people (10:3) and then the prophet (10:11) understand separation/divorce as being “God’s” way for the matter to be resolved. “But,” one may properly ask, “was this really God’s will, or only their own thought?” After all, neither of these statements is presented as an oracle. But that is only an academic point.

First, it is clear that the prophet thought it was consonant with revealed truth. This should not be minimized. Remember that it was a grave offense for a prophet to speak as from the Lord something that God had not said (Deut. 18:20-22).184 For God’s prophet to have advised immorality in God’s name and not have been corrected by God is difficult to accept.

Second, in those passages where preventive separation (i.e., antecedent separation from the Gentiles) had been enjoined upon Israel, the principle that evil must be removed from the land (e.g., Deut. 7:5) is also taught. The putting away of heathen wives is a rather plain and reasonable application of that principle. The historical incident of the covenant with Gibeon (Josh. 9) shows that the people of Israel were able to apply the principle to instances of covenants with people of the land—in that case, however, the culpable negligence of the people in making the covenant in the first place called forth God’s requirement of them to retain the covenantal relation, as a sort of punishment. The case of the people in Ezra’s time differs from the Gibeonite case in that the marriages in Ezra involved rebellion rather than ignorance. Thus, I believe that the correct understanding of a basic principle was what led to the valid application of it suggested by the people and Ezra in their day.

Third, I hasten to mention, as well, that Israel’s past times of apostasy had often been ended by days of repentance and revival, in which God blessed Israel for their putting away the things of evil to which they had clung. Read, for example, 2 Kings 18:1-7 or 2 Kings 23, which recount national renewal that sounds strikingly like that recorded in Ezra 9 and 10, since both the Kings materials and Ezra use the language of “making” or renewing the covenant. There are also a number of other prophetic passages that explicitly call the Israelites to “remove” evil deeds from among them. Since intermarriage is an evil deed, to remove it would be to divorce the heathen women (cf., e.g., Isa. 1:16).

The major difference between the Ezra incident and prior applications (viz., Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah) of the principle of divorce as discipline is that the other prophets all apply the principle that divorce is a discipline for adultery by speaking of the putting away of the adulterous spouse, whereas in the Ezra case it is the spouse of the adulterer that is to be put away. But our discussion of the history of divorce as a discipline in previous revelation reveals that this “new” application is really clearer in the (older) Law (as contrasted with the Prophets) than the application of divorce as a punishment for the offender. Actually, the putting away of the offender (Isaiah/Hosea/Jeremiah) was similar in net effect to the putting away of the spouse of the offender (Ezra), in that in all cases the putting away had a strong chastising effect. It brought sorrow to the offender. In the former case it deprived the sinner of the blessings of covenant with the spouse (God) and led to the abandonment of the sinner by the partner in crime (the nations); in the latter case it deprived the sinners (the men of Israel) of their partners in crime (the women of die land) and led to the abandonment of the pleasures with those partners.185

Thus, we conclude that there is nothing really new or unusual in the treatment of the apostates in Ezra’s day. The admonition to divorce the women as a “fruit of repentance” was implicitly set forth in the Law and the prior Prophets. As an instance of correcting an “adulterous marriage,” it set a precedent for dealing with later similar cases (Neh. 13) and anticipated the judgment by John the Baptist of Herod (Matt. 14:3).186 As an example of Jesus’ implication that there were some who were not joined together by God (Matt. 19:6b), it gave rise to the question of whether or not new believers should divorce their wives (cf. 1 Cor. 7:12 ff.).The question, then, is not whether the Ezra corrective is unique,187 but, rather, since it is not unique, but a strongly grounded moral principle of correction, whether it is to be applied in a similar way today. Some commentators contend that it should not be so applied. Laney, for example, cites three reasons for rejecting it:

1. Ezra was concerned for the preservation of the Jewish people as a separate and distinct nation … God does not seem to be similarly concerned to preserve the racial or ethnic purity of Gentile peoples during an age of grace (cf. Gal. 3:28).

2. In the Old Testament period we see that intermarriage would lead to idolatry … No such consequences are stated in the case of a mixed marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian … The presence of the believer in the home sets it apart …

3. … to make application … to modern marriages … would contradict the clear teaching of Paul in 1 Cor. 7:12-13.188

These points, however, fail to convince. Ezra may have thought of ethnic purity, but the text makes it clear that his chief concern was with the spiritual apostasy that the interfaith marriages implied. Indeed, it is the interfaith not the interracial aspects that are the clear concern of the Old Testament. Was not Rahab in the Lord’s line? She was a woman of the land. But she was a proselyte; her faith in Yahweh made the difference. It is still the case in the New Testament that moral/spiritual purity proscribes intentional interfaith marriages (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14).189 It would be presumptuous to suggest that when the principle of separation is restated in the non-ethnic realm, the principle of correction should be considered obsolete. One would expect moral continuity unless there was specific New Testament annulment of it.

Laney and others break this hermeneutical rule by presuming discontinuity.190 In short, intentional interfaith marriage yields just as spiritually damaging consequences in the believer’s life today as in Old Testament times. And though it is true that the “believer sanctifies” the unbelieving spouse, it must be remembered that Paul’s context was Corinthian intermarriage, which was not a species of apostasy but the result of conversion. This latter point enables us to see the error of Laney’s third argument: Paul is dealing with a different sort of inter faith marriage. But I will reserve full comment on Paul’s teaching till a more fitting place in the discussion.

I conclude, then, that the principle set forth in Ezra—that divorce is a morally proper corrective for apostasy—abides, unless evidence can be found in further revelation for its abrogation. I believe that none such can be found.

The Adultery of Divorce

(Malachi 2)

One of the first passages appealed to by popular writers on the subject of divorce is Malachi 2:16. The verse often functions as a sort of absolute veto, and the appeal to it is thought to summarily end the discussion. What could be clearer than the express statement of Scripture: “For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel”? Paul E. Steele and Charles C. Ryrie call this text “one of the most profound texts in the Scripture on the subject of marriage permanence” and move quickly to the conclusion that God despises divorce.191 Laney tells us that “God’s attitude toward divorce” is summed up by his statement here.192

The essential argument of these men is apparently as follows: since in the clause quoted divorce is rejected with no qualification at all, we should reject divorce absolutely. This argument is risky, to say the least. Though I would admit that the burden of proof rests with those who argue for an acceptable kind of divorce, we should surely wish to be allowed to consider context, near and far, in deciding the issue. Indeed, one does not have to go far to see that Malachi’s oracle is spoken with only a certain kind of divorce in mind. This fact, tied to our previous discussions of proper divorce, places the burden of proof back upon those who would argue against all divorce. They still lack a text.

I hold, with most scholars, that the problem facing Malachi was a complex one.193 First, there were some people who had broken God’s covenant (presumably the Mosaic at Deut. 7:3) by marrying women of the land (2:12).194 This is a repetition of the sin mentioned in Ezra and Nehemiah, though we do not know the exact relation in time of the Malachi events to those in the other books. Second, some of the Israelites had divorced their wives (2:14-16). It is not stated that only those who had married the foreign women had done this, and it is a bit unexpected to find the charges in the order they are presented in the text. We would have thought that the order of offenses would have been reversed: they divorced and then remarried. Probably, the prophet knew of cases of men who had married who had not divorced Hebrew wives, and of some who had divorced Hebrew wives who had not remarried foreigners. As stated, the oracle catches all classes of sinners!

In any case, some had divorced their wives, and the association of the two complaints suggests that they had intended to marry women of the land — doubly offensive. Indeed, the difficult verse 15 probably intends for us to draw this connection by alluding to Abraham’s refusal to divorce Sarah in order to take Hagar, a woman of the land, as his concubine.195 In other words, the people of Malachi’s day have not been faithful to God as Abraham was; though he sinned by seeking to gain holy seed (Isaac) by the bondwoman (Hagar) he nonetheless remained true to God’s law by not putting away his lawful spouse (Sarah). By contrast, men of Malachi’s day had put away their legal wives in order to marry women prohibited by God’s law (Deut. 7:3).196

In view of the context, namely, the unjustified divorce of legal wives, is it proper to suggest that all divorces are some species of treachery? Certainly not! Simply put, if divorce per se is treachery, then God is treacherous and Hosea is treacherous when they divorce their “wives” according to the biblical record! It is not that God hates divorce because it is treacherous but that he hates treacherous divorce. And the sort of divorce that is treacherous is, for instance, divorce grounded upon nothing more than the desire to be monogamously devoted to another woman.

Laney suggests that the oracular statement that such men have “covered their garments with wrong” may be a colorful way of underscoring the treachery of these divorces. He points out that in Ruth 3:9 and in Ezekiel 16:8, the prospective husband spreads his garment over the woman to show his intention to protect her.197 To say that his divorce has covered his garment with wrong may mean that, whereas he was to cover the woman with his (unstained) garment, he has instead covered his garment with the stains of violence, the divorce being a violation of the woman’s basic rights and a sundering of the covenant.

It is at this point that we find our previous discussion of the man’s obligations in marriage underscored. Recall that I argued earlier that for a man to fail to provide for his wife was for him to rend the covenant. What is groundless divorce but the same rending of the covenant, albeit with the trappings of legality and the illusion of morality? To deprive a woman of her right to bodily support while keeping the marriage a legal entity is a sin. To divorce her is a legal sin. Both are treachery. Both negate the obligation of the man to live up to his vows. God hates all such treachery, and He has made provision for the women in such case: remarriage, preferably to the offender, who comes to his senses as a result of the oracle of the Lord, but to another man if he does not. To argue that she does not have the right to remarry has the burden of proof, insofar as the right to remarry is clearly stated earlier in the case of a woman deprived of what a husband should provide in marriage. Exodus 21:10 f., 26 f. state that right (Exod. 21:11).198 Recall also that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 provided for the woman’s well-being by allowing her (the victim of divorce on insufficient grounds by a hardhearted husband) to marry another.

Though the text does not explicitly say so, it certainly implies that such divorce is adulterous. It is called treachery, and since it is treachery against the covenant partner, it may be presumed to be a form of adultery, as is any breach of the marital covenant.199 The man promised to continuously care for this woman, and now he has, by legal writ and without legal grounds (i.e., his wife’s sexual adultery), declared that he will no longer do so. He has been unfaithful, and adultery is marital unfaithfulness.200

Finally, we note that semantic confusion is once again possible in these verses because some translators have chosen to speak of the treacherously divorced woman as a companion and covenant partner, in spite of the clear fact of prior divorce. This gives the impression that, after legal divorce, some legal relationship or existing covenant continues. This in turn gives rise to the idea that marriage continues in spite of divorce. A careful look at Malachi 2:14, however, reveals that those who translate 2:14 “though she is your companion and your wife by covenant,” have not rendered the Hebrew in the preferred way. First, remember that in Hebrew verbs are not so much concerned with point of time as with completeness of action. Second, as in Greek, it was common for the writer to omit verbs altogether when the action had the effect of the English present tense. Though they had a particle that could convey the idea of the present, they more often than not omitted it and expected the reader to supply it. Third, supplying the present tense in a verbless clause is inappropriate if the previous clauses convey the sense of another tense. Fourth, the Hebrew “perfect” (i.e., completed action) is as close to the English “past” as one could expect. Though the action could have ongoing implications, the stress is on the fact that the action is finished.

Combining these grammatical elements and applying them to the text of Malachi 2:14, we note that “is your companion and your wife” is a verb-less clause, without the particle, but in the context of a prior perfect (i.e., “you have dealt treacherously”). Thus, the translation of choice would be “though she was your companion and your wife.” This matches quite nicely with the concept of relation subsequent to divorce in Hosea 2:2: “she is not my wife, and I am not her husband.”201 Divorce ends the legal relation; hence it is not strictly correct to speak of the former partner as still one’s companion or wife.202 Divorce (whether morally grounded or not) signals the end of the covenant.203

Who is the One Who Hates?

The above adopts the traditional interpretation that God is the One Who hated the divorce discussed in this passage. However, some scholars argue that the Hebrew here actually identifies the divorcing husband as the one who hates. What he hates is obviously not the putting away, because he is the one who does it. Rather, he hates his wife, and puts her away for that reason. Westbrook argues that the text discloses a subjective reason for the divorce as contrasted with one which was based in Law. On this view the passage does not say “I am God, I hate divorce”. Rather it should translate the two finite verbs literally: “For he has hated, divorced … and covered his garment in injustice.” Westbrook goes on to argue that not all divorce is condemned by this, but only unjust divorce based in hatred of the wife. (193a)

Personally I favor this translation. Note that it retains the Divine rejection of treacherous divorce, while even more explicitly identifying the nature of the divorce which is rejected as treacherous and unjust. It fits nicely with our prior explanation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, insofar as the man has not legal ground. Erwat debar is here clarified as hate—rejection which is not founded on adultery. This passage also leads into Jesus’ teaching identifying the man who ends his marriage without porneia as hard-hearted (Matthew 19:8). And, since the sin in question relates only to the divorce without grounds, and not to remarriage, it leads in to our view that all of Jesus’ teaching is directed to the same point. The remarriage may be a consequence of or even the reason for the unjust divorce, but the sexual act of such a new marriage is no more a sin in itself, than would have been that of an Israelite marrying a second wife in the days of Malachi.


149   Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, pp. 48 f.

150   It is probably not proper to see in God’s response to David’s adultery with Bathsheba a relaxation of the adultery penalties per se, for that event was an unusual case. David could only be executed by a government official beneath himself in the hierarchy. This would probably lead to anarchy or some form of temporary chaos in the kingdom; therefore, God punished him by taking the life of his son by Bathsheba.

151   This, of course, ignores the interpretation of the Song of Solomon as an allegory of such a relation. At this point I do not wish to deny that but only to set forth the case without dependence upon such a questioned interpretation.

152   For a similar analogy with a different starting point, read Ezek. 16:1 ff., where Yahweh is said to have married Israel, whom he had raised from an abandoned child of immoral parents. The betrothal theme in Ezekiel seems to speak of God’s relation to Israel dating from the entry into the land, rather than from the Exodus, but in the end, the main strands of the analogy are the same.

153   I hold that Deut 6-11 is a comment in the stipulations section of the general obligation to be loyal to God. Cf. Kaufman, “Structure,” pp. 120 ff.

154   Supportive here are a number of verses that speak of God as a “jealous God”: Exod. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 4:24; 5:9; 6:15, Josh 24:19, etc. The discussion of marital jealousy was, of course, a matter of law itself in Num. 5.

155   I shall have more to say about this interesting story and the principles it holds for the divorce discussion, momentarily. Interestingly, Laney, who admitted to me personally that he had not completely read this book in its first edition before he reviewed it in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society discovered the relevance of the incident of the Gibeonites from a student (Jim Boyle. “Biblical Principles on Marriage, Divorce & Remarriage”, n.d.) between the writing of Myth and Laney’s contribution to Divorce and Remarriage; Four Christian Perspectives (so p. 27 and note 20 on page 52). Neither seem aware of the differences between Joshua and Ezra (and 1 Cor. 7).

156   1 Chron. 1:25. We know not the exact time of the writing of the 106th Psalm, but it reflects the same sentiment in its thirty-ninth verse It could have been penned at anytime from the days of David to the deportation of Judah though the latter is preferred in view of the clearer touch-points with captivity mentioned in the last two verses.

157   It is not clear from the Hebrew exactly what went on in the restoration. I prefer the interpretation that Gomer, no longer under the protection of Hosea’s financial responsibility (cf. Num. 30), had fallen on economically hard tunes and had to sell herself into slavery to continue to support herself (cf. Exod. 21). Hosea, in turn, purchased her for himself off the slave block. This seems to make the most sense of 2:16, which has the husband telling the woman that, in the day when she is restored, she will call me “Ishi” rather than “Baali.” Since baali means “master” as of a slave being purchased, we can see now his immediate freeing of her to become his covenant companion (again) would result in his referring to himself, the same day, as her “Ishi,” or husband-companion.

158   Francis I. Anderson, Hosea, vol. 24, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980), p. 220. Heth persists in holding this interpretation in his contribution to Four Christian Perspectives (p. 76). However, he offers no more proof of Anderson’s paraphrase than does Anderson. Simply, the Hebrew does not say “not living together.” It bluntly says, “She is not my wife, I am not her husband.” Anderson are engaged in eisegesis.

159   Ibid., p. 221.

160   Ibid, p 222.

161   So John Walton of Wheaton College, personal conversation 1/23/96.

162   “The Prophet Hosea: God’s Alternative to Divorce for the Reason of Infidelity,” Journal of Psychology and Theology, Summer 1979, p. 133-34. Hereafter “Alternative.” He, in turn, is followed by the Feinbergs, Ethics, 457, note 447.

163   Westerman, C. Isaiah. Westminster 1969. p. 223.

164   Though it these oracles were probably written down in Judah after the fall of Samaria. See the NIV Study Bible, p. 1321.

165   NIV Study Bible notes, p. 1014. Remember that the dates before Christ are higher the further away from Christ that you get.

166   NIV Study Bible, p. 115.

167   “Alternative” pp 136-39.

168   Anderson, Hosea, 137.

169 Ibid, 222.

170   Anderson here appeals to Deut 24:1-4, which, I have suggested and argued earlier, refers to an innocent woman being put away.

171   Note here that the text simply says that she attributes those fields to her lovers, whereas 2:8 has already served us notice that these things came from her husband, without her knowing it!

172   Ibid., p. 138.

173   Ibid.

174   Thus if a man murders another, he is known as a murderer subsequent to the crime, though he may not murder someone every day (or ever again). In a similar manner it is proper to speak of a divorced woman as an adulteress (if that was the grounds), though she actually bears no legal relationship to her former husband subsequent to the divorce.

175   The reader should remember that Hebrew verbs do not, strictly speaking, express time/tense, but rather complete or incomplete action. The Hebrew “perfect” is close to our past tense, but could express action continuing into the present See the comment on Mal. 2:14 later in this chapter.

176   When, I argue, the parallel story of Gomer speaks of her as being bought back as a slave by Hosea (cf. 3:2). It was subsequent to the buying back that Hosea restored her to her position as wife.

177   Against this view, apparently Joel 1:8, where Judah is identified as a young woman who weeps for her husband—ba’al—though it is possible to see that book as being written subsequent to the onset of exile but before the ratification of the “new covenant” referred to by Jer. 31. If the later date of writing is presumed, then, again, the term might be taken to refer to the master of a slave girl who has been left desolate by the death of her master, i.e., Israel left by God, the offended Master, to her own devices. The Yahweh/Israel husband/wife analogy is made more difficult yet by the fact that Yahweh had with the sons of Abraham a higher covenant (the Abrahamic) that also bound Him unilaterally to union with the children of the “child of promise”—Isaac. Such a dual covenant has no exact parallel in the human marriage-divorce discussion, even though the Eph. 5 passage ties the husband to his wife by analogy to Christ’s relationship to the Church, which latter relation arises out of the Abrahamic covenant. In this latter case, there is no second covenant, and the stated analogy is entirely silent with regard to the matter of divorce, whereas in the Mosaic covenant with Israel—as we have noted amply earlier—the correspondence with divorce is explicit.

178 TWOT, lo„,” Vol. 2, p 463.

179   Small, “Alternative”, p. 139.

180   The separation theme is, of course, real elsewhere in Isaiah: 34:5 ff. speak of Israel being forsaken only “for a brief moment” Note that the situation in Isa. 34:3 reverses the clear facts presented in all the prophets and seemingly speaks of Israel as an innocent bride forsaken by a hard-hearted husband. Such is not, of course, the case; God is only trying to create sympathy on our part for the restored one, and to emphasize the happiness of the restoration. But that is not to deny that the forsaking was real and that it merited the metaphor of a full divorce. Remember that that “moment” was the seventy years of captivity! The moment was in God’s time, in which a “thousand years are but as a day.”

181   It is interesting that only Jeremiah 3:8 gives us evidence that an adulterous woman received a divorce writ. Certainly such a woman didn’t receive one before she was executed (when the law of execution was followed). One wonders why a writ was granted to a guilty wife when execution was no longer practiced, and finally when the Hebrews no longer had a right to execute (for being under foreign occupation). I have suggested above that the purpose of a divorce writ was not to protect the guilty wife, but to protect the innocent husband from claims that the relationship had not really ended.

182   Heth (Divorce & Remarriage, p. 90) argues oddly that, “Ezra’s prayer seems to indicate further that ‘intermarriage’ had not yet actually taken place (compare Ezra 9:2 with 9:14).” This is most unconvincing. Ezra says, “Shall we again break your commands and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor?” But he also goes on to say a breath later: “Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.” If they had not intermarried, they would not have guilt! Ezra simply employs figurative language which expresses his incredulity at what the people have already been doing. Consider the comment of a father to a son who has just been caught doing what he has been punished for before: “I just punished you for lying last week! Are you going to stand here and do it again?” Who would suggest that his words seem to indicate” that the lying had not yet taken place? If you need more proof that marriages had already taken place, consider the fact that Ezra 10:18 ff. state the names of priests who had intermarried. The list culminates in 10:44, which states: “All these had married foreign women and some of them had children by these wives.” No matter what term for “married” is used, it seems rather obvious that these relationships, some of which produced children, were real marriages. I believe that Heth’s sort of argument shows to what extent some scholars will go to make a text amenable to their preconceptions.

183   There is some doubt as to the exact relation in time of the “separation” in Ezra 9 and 10 to that spoken of in Neh. 8, but I see no reason to deviate from the view that the Ezra passages predate Neh. 8 by some twenty years Cf., for example, John Walton’s Chronological Charts of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), p. 71; or Keil and Delitzsch on Ezra f Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint, 1973), p. 135. If this is correct, then we may presume that the Israelites who had preceded Ezra to Palestine already knew the Law requiring separation from the women of the land (Deut. 7:3 ff ). This is quite significant in that it shows that those who had intermarried had done so as an act of unfaithfulness, not simply out of ignorance.

Indeed “unfaithfulness” was precisely the charge brought by the peers of those who intermarried (Ezra 9:2). It will be crucial to understand this in order to properly analyze Paul’s admonition in 1 Cor. 7, which is often pictured as countermanding the position set forth by Ezra.

184   Although it is true that this passage is most specifically referring to “fore-telling,” I feel that “forth-telling” would also be included under the heading of speaking “presumptuously” a word in God’s name.

185  The sadness was real, and the trauma of losing a loved but illicit spouse and the incumbent problems involving the children of that illicit union are tragic. But God means business with regard to sin. The sadness was caused by the apostates’ sin, not by God’s righteous correction.

186   Some have raised the question of whether or not the “marriages” spoken of in these chapters are real marriages. Heth/Wenham (1) suggest that Ezra’s language implies that he did not see real marriage as having occurred by 9:14; they agree with George Rawlinson that these relations were mere “illicit connections” (“Jesus and Divorce, in manuscript, p. 163—Heth resurrects this point in Divorce and Remarriage; Four Christian Perspectives, p. 89 f.) (2) ask how “could these Israelites have made a covenant with God (Ezra 10:3) to put away their legal ‘wives’ if it is true that Scripture portrays marriage as a covenant made between husband and wife in the presence of God? And finally, (3) suggest that Ezra’s prayer (9:5-15) indicates that the marriages had not yet taken place.

To this I respond (1) though the terms used by Ezra are not the normal ones for marriage and divorce, the terms do convey those ideas; and (2) there is no contradiction between the covenant to put away and the covenant to be faithful to their foreign wives, precisely because the marriages were not recognized by God. However, Heth/Wenham miss the mark completely by suggesting that because the “marriages” would be considered “invalid” in the religious sense, they were not marriages in a significant, legal sense. Ezra must have considered them “real” marriages because he speaks of the sin of the people as breaking covenant with God and of intermarriage with the people of the land (9:14). It is true that the main body of the Jews had not yet done as the apostates had, but what is the sin of the apostates that is identified? “Intermarriage.” He is asking if the people as a whole are going to make a practice of apostasy. Finally, (3) I see nothing in the prayer (9:6-15) that indicates that intermarriage had not yet taken place. Indeed, Ezra says that “we have forsaken thy covenant” (v. 10). These words are in the context of returned exiles (v. 9). In v. 14 Ezra is not saying that no one yet has intermarried, but asking if the rest of the body of the returned exiles are going to follow in the step of the intermarrying apostates. I do not see that Heth and Wenham have made their case.

Let us simply say that there were in the time of Ezra legally authorized marriages, that is, legal according to the prevailing legal codes that were illicit according to the Mosaic Law. The extent to which they were recognized by the people of the land was the very extent to which they should be ended according to the same law, because these “legal” unions were “illicit” in the eyes of God’s Law.

187   Cf. the conclusion of Laney in his Myth, p. 42.

188   Laney, Myth, pp. 40-41.

189   Laney makes note of this fact, but makes no significant use of it in drawing his conclusions (Myth, p. 41).

190   This tendency on their part is one of the more aberrant implications of the “Old Dispensational School” of C. I. Schofield and L. S. Chafer There are newer and better forms of Dispensationalism. Cf. C. C. Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today (Chicago Moody, 1959).

191   Steele and Ryrie, Meant, p. 67.

192   Laney, Myth, p. 48. I believe that God’s attitude toward improper divorce is summed up here, but, of course, Laney is referring to any divorce.

193   One of the best treatments of many issues on this passage is that offered by Beth Glazier-McDonald in her “Intermarriage, Divorce, and the bat-’el nekar” JBL Vol. 106, No. 4 (December 1987), pp 603-611.

194   The text is somewhat open to interpretation on the question, Does “has married the daughter of a foreign god” necessarily refer to real marriages? It is usually granted that this was the case, because of that sin being deal with by Ezra who lived around that time. But Malachi could have been written a bit earlier. Andrew E. Hill (Malachi: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. AB 25D. New York: Doubleday, 1998) places it a closer to 500 (thought without any real strong evidence). If Hill is right, then perhaps Malachi’s oracle was a warning unheeded.

195   I prefer this translation to one that makes Adam the object of the allusion—so Laney (Myth, pp. 47,48), since the appeal to Adam would have been far less convincing than an allusion to Abraham, the Father of Israel. Herbert Wolf, in his commentary Haggai and Malachi (Chicago: Moody, 1976), pp 93,94, agrees with me. Joyce Baldwin, in her Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, disagrees, but notes that the one I accept is the preferred interpretation of the Jewish interpreters ([Downers Grove, 111. Inter-Varsity, 1972], p. 240). John Walton, of Wheaton College, has pointed out to me that the Hebrew that stands for “that one” is used of Abraham in Isa. 51:2 and Ezek. 33:24. I cannot understand Baldwin’s comment that to think of Abraham as the referent weakens the prophet’s “main case” (Baldwin, p. 240), except to suggest that she has herself missed the prophet’s main argument at this point. She has the prophet arguing for the sanctity of the initial family. I see the prophet as arguing for national purity respecting covenantal faithfulness, i.e., husband-wife loyalty.

196   It is also likely that these men were taking the women as full wives, not as slave/wives as Abraham did. I have already suggested this as a way to harmonize several apparently divergent Mosaic laws—cf. chap. 2.

197   Laney, Myth, p. 48.

198   We shall see that the principle involved here is properly expanded by the Apostle Paul to cover desertion (1 Cor. 7:15).

199   See the more detailed consideration of this subject in Appendix D.

200   I do not wish to quibble over semantics. Adultery is most properly a term that implies the unfaithfulness and treachery to a wife’s vows. But I feel that I have adequately shown that men who break their covenantal vows to their “husband:” Yahweh, deserve the term adulterer. A man who vows before God that he will provide for his wife, and then breaks that vow, is justly considered an adulterer toward God, and it is but a small jump to calling him an adulterer toward his wife. But I admit that the text of the Old Testament does not explicitly so identify the sin of a man who unjustly divorces his wife. I believe that our Lord does that in his great Sermon on the Mount. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

201   See the comments on that passage in this chapter.

202   It has been suggested that the Hosea and Malachi cases differ in that the former speaks of a well-grounded divorce, whereas the latter speaks of a groundless divorce. The inference drawn from this is that groundless divorces do not really end the marriage, and well-grounded ones do. But I find that unconvincing. Remember that the Law did allow a treacherously divorced woman to remarry (Deut 24:1-4). It surely would not have done so if she were still considered a bound woman. Sexual relations between bound women and men other than their husbands were always clearly identified as adultery, and the punishment was always clearly execution. (See chap 3.)

203   I do not mean by this that the divorce ends moral obligation to repent and reconcile But the moral obligation that requires the guilty to repent rests, not in the covenant of marriage itself, but in the deeper obligations of morality at large-for the Israelite, stated in the Mosaic Law. Hence it is proper for the guilty party to be identified as an adulterer or adulteress after the divorce and to say that they have in their, continuing adultery, broken the covenant with their God (e.g., Prov. 2:17). See my comments on the three levels of obligation in marriage at the end of Chapter 2.

I will also mention here an article by Westbrook, which I have not yet received, which, I am told, argues that the phrase “I hate divorce” is really a colloquial saying for “unjust divorce.” If Westbook is correct in this, my point is made stronger: Malachi speaks not of all divorces, but of treacherous ones only, when he speaks his oracle against Israel’s divorce practices in the Post-exilic period.

Related Topics: Marriage, Divorce, Prophets, Adultery, Discipline