Questions & Answers

Written by Drew on June 4th, 2007

“Please explain the ESV’s translation of Malachi 2:16.”

Technically speaking, this is the hardest question I’ve ever been asked. In truth, it was asked sometime late last year, and I have put it off until now because I didn’t really know how to answer it.

Since the English Standard Version of the Bible was published in 2001, preachers, elders, and Bible class teachers have been comparing it to their translation of choice. Some, such as myself, have even chosen to make the ESV their default translation for preaching and writing. As it is the case with all translations, the ESV has its strong points and weak points.

But I may never understand why it decided to break from every other major translation in its rendering of Malachi 2:16. Here is the verse, as the ESV translates it, within its context.

…the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by convenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yoruselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. For the man who hates and divorces, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless (emphasis has been added to the wording in question, D.K.).

A comparison with other translations (e.g. KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, and NIV) shows that the ESV separated itself from the herd by ascribing hatred to the man who divorces his wife; the rest ascribe hatred to God towards divorce. While this is a significant difference, it should be pointed out that none of the translations casts divorce in a positive light. Thus, I can detect no ulterior motives on the part of the ESV translation committee.

The problem is that Malachi 2:15-16 is very difficult to translate. Without getting too complicated, the subject for the verb “hate” is not named in the original. And it appears to be in the third person, although the statement is attributed to the Lord, making the translation “I hate” grammatically awkward. The ESV was evidently shooting for a clean rendering, complete with subject-verb agreement by assigning the hatred to the man who divorces.

A defense of this wording can be found in the footnotes. The Septuagint, and early Greek translation of the Old Testament, is mentioned. Like the ESV it connects the hatred in Malachi 2:16 to the husband. Rendered in English, it reads, “But if thou shouldest hate thy wife and put her away, saith the Lord God of Israel, then ungodliness shall cover thy thoughts.”

The footnotes also allude to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the classic Old Testament text on divorce, where Moses permits the Israelites to issue a certificate of divorce (cf. Mt. 19:3-9). In that text “hatred” is used in connection with the husband who divorces his wife.

It appears that the ESV translators felt that these two ancient witnesses built a strong case for making a departure from centuries of English translation. This is strange, because the ESV prides itself as being a word-for-word, literal translation of the inspired Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. As I have pointed out before on Truth and Repose, there have been times when the ESV has refused to lean on the Septuagint and other biblical passages. Why, then, does it choose to do so here at the expense of breaking a centuries-long translational tradition?

Since most authorities render the passage “I hate divorce,” ascribing the hatred to God, that is the best translation in my judgment. If the concept of hatred seems incompatible with a loving and merciful God to some, they should know that there are many abominations of the Lord (cf. Lev. 18:22; Prov. 6:16-19). The capacity to love deeply necessitates a capacity to hate that which threatens the objects of one’s affection. There are two sides to every coin.

I still prefer the ESV to other English Bibles because of its devotion to a word-for-word translation, its readability, and the dignity of its style. If there is a lesson to be learned out of this discussion, it is that all translations are from man and that we should keep several versions on hand for study, so that we can know we are discerning God’s will for our lives.


8 Comments so far ↓

  1. Dale's Spot says:

    Very good and very balanced study and work Drew. Thanks.

  2. Matthew says:

    Glad to see you got a blog. Cool. Saw you at FHU. Check out mine some time.

  3. Kim says:

    Thank you for the time you spend posting on your blog. You are encouraging people everywhere:)

    I would also like to tell you that your daughter is such a joy and SMART!! I loved having her in my class Wednesday night.

  4. Eloquorius says:

    What about how Jeremiah 3:8 and Ezra 10:3, might fit in? The Bible itself is the biggest key to what the Bible means. It seems that divorce motivated by hatred (as in Mal. 2:16 in the LXX) is the abomination, not divorce motivated by cause (which was the cause to which the Lord appealed in Jer. 3:8). When version, then, is more likely? Does God, who is divorced, really hate divorce itself, or does he condemn the divorce as an act of hatred with which as man covers himself with violence? Personally,

    A number of forces — from tradition-keeping to limited manuscript availability — drove the preservation of the old translation of Mal. 2:16. People get really touchy with perceptions of “changing the Bible” (e.g., KJV-onlyism), especially on a hot-button moral issue like divorce. Centuries or even decades ago such a change would have been jumped on immediately, regardless of any evidence.

    If the LXX translators understood it to mean something closer to the LXX, well, that means more to me than what we (a couple millennium later) think it meant.

    …just my non-Hebrew-speaking two cents.

  5. Drew Kizer says:

    Good insight, Eloquorius. I hadn’t thought about Jeremiah 3:8.

    Did we get your whole comment? It looks like some of it was cut out at “Personally.”

  6. Eloquorius says:

    The ancient manuscript and early church writing evidence weighs entirely on the side of the pre-KJV translation, similar to the ESV and HCSB.

    First, none of the early church writing reflects the KJV-style rendering. Even in passages such as 1 Cor 7 where divorce is disucuess, not such mention of God’s hated of divorce appears in commentary. An excellent resource for this is the “Ancient Commentary on the Scriptures” by InterVarsity Press.

    Second, the historical manuscript evidence:

    Septuagint (LXX): “But if having hated you divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and iniquity will cover your thoughts (his garments), says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not forsake.”

    Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel (Second temple era Aramaic translation of the OT prophets): “But if you hate her, divorce her, says the LORD God of Israel, and do not conceal sin in your garment, says the LORD of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not act deceitfully.”

    Vulgate: “If you hate, divorce, says the Lord God of Israel, but iniquity will cover his garment, says the Lord of hosts; guard your spirit and do not despise.”

    Luther Bible (1545): “Indeed, he who bears her ill will and repudiates her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with iniquity, says the LORD of Hosts. Therefore in this way watch over your spirit, and do not despise her.”

    Calvin: “If you hate (anyone hates), let him divorce (his wife), says Jehovah, the God of Israel; and he conceals (or, weaves) violence under his garment, says Jehovah of hosts: therefore be guarded in your spirit lest you defraud.” (from “Zechariah and Malachi” Baker, 1979 [reprint of Calvin Translation Society ET, 1849], pg. 559.)

    The early English versions, including the Coverdale translation (1535), the Great Bible (1540) and the Geneva Bible (1560) all followed Calvin’s reading: “if he hate her, put her away”.

    Not until the KJV in 1611 did the “I hate divorce” version appear, a move that ESV scholar C. John Collins calls “an innovation in the history of interpretation” since the AV implements a sort of double translation of key constructs.

    With the then-new KJV departing from the historic manuscript and commentary evidence, the Westminster Assembly’s annotations on the passage give both options (“That he hateth putting away” or, “if he hate her, put her away”) but expresses no preference.

    In the 20th century, the American Translation (1935, rare), NEB (1970) and updated REB (1989), Holman Christian Standard Bible (1994) and ESV all avoid the “I hate divorce” rendering of the AV1611.

    The bottom line is that the “I hate divorce, says God…” rendition didn’t even exist prior to the 1611. None of the early Greek or Aramaic translators (LXX or Targum respectively) or any of the pre-AV1611 translations of the Reformers ever held to the peculiar double-translation of the initial particle in Hebrew.

    For more information documenting what’s above, see the full 25 page annotated explanation from ESV scholar C. John Collins at:

    PS: I was going to write something beginning with “Personally,” but decided against posting it (just being careful there).

  7. Drew Kizer says:

    Wow, great research. I wish I had seen the Collins article before I posted my thoughts.

    Thanks, Eloquorius, for your research.

  8. Eloquorius says:

    You’re quite welcome, Drew. People still Google this verse and may get hits on your site and this post, so can I ask you a favor? If you have now come to an new understanding of that very important verse, would you consider modifying your original post… either re-writing it or at least adding an update regarding the information brought to light in our discussion thread?

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