Biblical Word Play

cat cluase paws


I first saw this Grammarly post on FaceBook, a few weeks ago. I love it!

I love word plays…always have. I come by it honest.  My father used to write poems that read like nonsense until the reader discovered the key to the hidden play on words.

Word plays are amusing. They can also be very effective communication tools.  We often see word plays used in advertising, where a product name is used in a double-meaning context.

However, word plays do not translate well to other languages. Language translation is all about effective communication of the original writer’s intent, and the double-meaning nuance of a play on words is almost impossible to effectively convey in another language.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that Malachi 2:16 was originally written to include a play on words that made perfect sense in the original text, but is largely missed by the language translators.

As rendered in the King James Version (KJV), this text reads,

“For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the Lord of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.”

Noncontextual application of this verse is the sole biblical source of the popular phrase “God hates divorce,” as well as the basis of an entire false doctrine founded in the notion that divorce is inherently sinful and always repugnant to God.

One doesn’t have to be a linguist to realize that this verse is worded very awkwardly. What’s all this about putting away and covering garments?  Are we discussing divorce, treachery, or washing laundry?

Reading the commentaries and translation notes indicates that the original text is also very awkwardly worded with an unusual sentence structure. Consequently, this verse is among the most difficult to accurately translate…because the translators, themselves, are unsure of the exact meaning.

It is clear, however, that the KJV translators have been unfaithful to the grammar of the original Hebrew/Chaldean text in at least two places.

The first translation infidelity is in the opening clause, “For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away…” The most reputable translators are in agreement that the verb hates is being acted on by the masculine third-personal pronoun he rather than by the speaker, God.  In other words, it’s not God doing the hating, but rather the person being spoken of by God.

The second translation infidelity is in the second clause, “…for one covereth violence with his garment…” The most reputable translators are in agreement that the verb covereth is acting on the garment, so that it is the garment being covered with violence, rather than violence being covered with the garment.  The KJV translators most likely transposed the object and subject of the verb covereth due to unfamiliarity.  There are many instances of Old Testament phrases regarding covering violence with a garment, but this phrase about covering a garment with violence is very unusual.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) holds more true to the grammar of the original Hebrew text, and is likely closer to the original intent:

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

So, why all the confusion with the odd sentence structure obscuring meaning?

I’m no linguist, nor am I fluent in ancient Hebrew. However, I do know a few things about word plays, and I suspect that Malachi was making a play on words when he wrote this verse.  A word play would explain the odd sentence structure and obscure meaning.  For example, “A cat has claws at the end of its paws, while a comma is the pause at the end of a clause,” makes perfect sense as an amusing play on English words, but would be impossible to effectively translate to another language.

This second chapter of Malachi focuses primarily on treachery against a covenant partner.

Verses 1-9 rebuke the priests for violating God’s covenant with their ancestor Levi, “…But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by the instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says the Lord of hosts (Malachi 2:8).

Verse 10 rebukes treachery against fellow Israelites, “Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers?

Verses 11-12 address the treachery of worshipping false gods, “Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord which He loves and has married the daughter of a foreign god” (Malachi 2:11)

Verses 13-16 continue the indictment against treacherous violation of covenant vows in speaking of the marriage covenant, “…Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (Malachi 2:14).

Now, that word treacherously is the English translation of the Hebrew word bagad, which Strongs concordance defines as: properly to cover (whence covering, garment); hence to act covertly, fraudulently, perfidiously. (For verbs of covering, hiding are often applied to fraud and perfidy).

So, knowing that the Hebrew word for treacherously carries a literal reference to deceitfully covering injustice with a garment, we can better understand why Malachi would say,

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

The awkward wording is a Hebrew play on words. The men being addressed were guilty of treacherously violating covenant vows…of deceitfully treating covenant partners unjustly.  And God, speaking through the prophet Malachi, was telling them that in hating and divorcing their wives they were exposing their own treachery.

Injustice that began as treacherous abuse (deceitfully covering injustice with a garment) was exposed for all to see (he covers his garment with injustice).

Or so it seems to this lover of word plays…

Regardless of whether or not I am correctly perceiving the play on words, it is clear that this passage is an indictment against treacherous abuse of covenant vows…not against just divorce.

What do you think?


[Linked to Messy Marriage, Unforced Rythms, Wellspring ]


26 thoughts on “Biblical Word Play

  1. The previous translation from King James that has been taught leaves us with an understanding of following the cold letter of the law. It leaves us with perceiving a heartless God who cares more that we follow His rules regardless of how any one of those who made the vow may use it for abusive purposes.
    However, the HCSB translation gives more of a picture of what would be the heart of God. It expresses a sense that God is very sensitive of how to respect sacred vows 2 people made before Him especially in reference to marriage. Those two words; vow and love are significant to the Lord and when either one of those are taken out of balance in the context of marriage, there is a serious security breach in the “covenant relationship” made.
    Thank you so much for all the time and effort you spent to research this sensitive subject! I for one, greatly appreciate it!

    • You hit the nail on the head, Singing Eagle. The HCSB gives us a more accurate picture of God. There is a reason why the KJV-only crowd are often hard-hearted.

    • Yes, you’ve expressed it very well, Singing Eagle!

      The first clause of the KJV comes across as very legalistic and inflexible, and the remainder of the verse is so confusing people tend to neglect it completely.

      Read in context of the overall chapter, one can still catch the overall intent of God’s indictment against treacherous abuse of covenant vows, even in the KJV.

      However, too often, rather than reading in context, the KJV verse is abbreviated even further to the popular phrase “God hates divorce.”

      The result is that a passage which should be very encouraging to targets of abuse is, instead, used to keep them enslaved in an abusive marriage, living in constant fear of God’s wrath if they were to divorce.

      It really does all come down to better understanding the heart of God.

      Thank you, for sharing this perspective!

  2. I love words, too. Then I married into a family who loved word plays. I have to watch what I say now. ha.

    But you’re right that they don’t usually translate well between languages. I realize the KJV is still the most popular translation out there, but I do wish people would at least understand it’s not as accurate to the original texts as some of the more modern translations.

    I agree with you that the bigger issue in this text is treacherously violating covenant vows, of any kind. You always enlighten me here, Joe. Thanks.

    • “I realize the KJV is still the most popular translation out there, but I do wish people would at least understand it’s not as accurate to the original texts as some of the more modern translations.”

      Yes, many Christians, today, do understand this and are willing to weigh and consider multiple translations in trying to understand the intent of a difficult passage.

      It’s amazing, though, how many refuse to even read or listen to a different translation from the KJV.

      My hope is that they will, at the very least, read the KJV in the context of the full chapter, rather than reducing a 36 word verse in a 17 verse chapter to a 3-word catch phrase applied indiscriminantly to every marital situation…

      Thank you, for sharing, Lisa!

  3. The more I learn about original Hebrew and that culture and the way all the scriptures work together, the more I am convinced that we truly understand a VERY small portion of all the richness in them. I fear, almost, that a large part of it is lost in translation and that the “word play” doesn’t affect us as it should. So I’m grateful for articles like this that help give new insight on such things. Thank you for linking at Unforced Rhythms.

    • I agree, Beth! Even writing this post made me wonder anew how much I might miss by not reading and understanding scripture in its original language.

      Even in English, we have many nuances that would likely be completely missed by a reader fluent in English as a non-native language.

      Thanks for sharing!

  4. I’m not sure I completely follow the word-play thread here, but I don’t think it’s needed in the end anyway. Like you I love word play and there very well could be many places in the Bible where word play is used. I’ve often found that the same people who will look down and demean those of us who have suffered divorce cannot see word play. They often do not see humor in things, but rather take everything literally.

    • “I’ve often found that the same people who will look down and demean those of us who have suffered divorce cannot see word play.”

      Good point, Dan!

      …cannot see word play…cannot consider contextual relevance…cannot comprehend that a different translation might better express the intent of the original text…cannot fathom that the biblical understanding imparted to them by the age of 12 might be anything less than a 100% complete picture of God…

      I’m being a little facitious…certainly not everyone who accepts the Divorce Mythology is as dogmatic as I’ve described in the above paragraph. But…we’ve all known some who were…

      Thanks for adding this perspective to the discussion!

  5. Hi Joe … just dropped in from Beth’s. Welcome to the hop! I hope you’ll meet some really fine readers and writers as you do this thing!

    What a super community is ours online! God is good …

    Warmest blessings!

    • Thank you, Linda! I appreciate you featuring Beth @MessyMarriage in your blog-hop, as well as Beth featuring me in hers.

      When I first started this blogging venture, I had no idea the number of on-line friends God would bring into my life.

      You are all truly a treasure!

  6. This singular phrase is fingernails down the chalkboard to me…mostly because when I’ve heard it spoken the speaker has a Pharisaical accent. I want to reply “Is that ALL our Holy God has said within the whole teaching of His Word?…That’s it?”

    I once heard a thought-provoking concept that has really stuck with me. We must be careful in how we apply scripture lest we make an argument that the bible says, “Judas hanged himself…go and do likewise.” While these are two actual scripture verses, these two passages are quite obviously not meant to be used together. While the topic at hand has more to do with actual translation, there is a common problem of people taking a verse out of context. We must approach our knowledge of God with reverent fear.

    • I completely agree, Valerie!

      All translation issues aside, the phrase “God hates divorce” is three words lifted individually out of a 36 word verse in a 17 verse chapter, rearranged out of their proper order, and placed together to form a popular phrase completely devoid of contextual meaning…used as the sole basis of a shaky doctrine and applied indiscriminantly to all marital situations…enslaving God’s beloved children in abusive marriages out of fear of God’s wrath if they should seek to escape.

      This noncontextual misapplication of God’s word effectively renders the opposite effect from the intent of the contextual reading of the passage. Rather than granting liberty and justice to those in covenants of treacherous abuse, it is used instead to keep them enslaved to their treacherous abusers.

      Thank you for adding this perspective to the discussion!

  7. Okay, very deeply theological and you’ve explained a troubling translation of this scripture in a new and fresh way for me, Joe. I feel like I’m sitting in one of my seminary classes (from years ago, of course), when I read some of your posts. You have take such an in-depth examination of these poorly translated passages. There may be other bloggers like you who do this, but you’re the only one I’m familiar with. Kudos to you for the hard work and diligence in “showing yourself to be approved by God,” my friend!

    • “…you’ve explained a troubling translation of this scripture in a new and fresh way for me…”

      This statement means a lot to me, Beth.

      When I feel God has given me fresh insight on a given topic, I want to share it…but the sharing is sometimes a bit intimidating. As you know, it’s not an easy thing trying to illustrate a fresh perspective in anything close to the length of a normal blog post.

      When someone lets me know they caught a glimpse of the perspective I was attempting to share, I do a fist-pump. Yes! Communication has occurred! 🙂

      Thank you, so much!

  8. Wow Joe, this is a great interpretation of Malachi and hopefully helps those who only want to pull out the words, “God hates divorce” more clearly understand the meaning of it.

    When I finally took the giant step to divorce my ex after 20 years of abuse I had those three words thrown in my face over and over.
    I finally was tired of hearing it and decided I needed to read that passage for myself and see exactly what was being said.

    And in my simple thinking, and certainly not that of a bible scholar, I realized after reading Malachi 2:10-16 there was much more going on than just God hating divorce. To me it speaks of God being troubled by the fact that men were “putting away” their wives so they could marry pagan women, He was angered over not only how treacherously the men were treating their wives by breaking faith with them and breaking the marriage covenant, but by the fact that they wore their violence as they would a garment.
    Not sure that makes sense — sounded better in my head! LOL
    But basically, what I would tell anyone who felt the need to let me know how much God hates divorce, is God hates a lot of things and most of all He hates men using violence in their marriages therefore breaking the marriage covenant.
    Usually there was no more response from the other person.

    I’m glad I found your blog…yours is a voice needed in the Christian community.


    • Welcome to the blog, Amy!

      Yes, those words in Malachi take on a completely different meaning when read in context of the full chapter. Even without studying translation issues and root words of original text…even taking the KJV or NASV translations at face value…reading the whole chapter, it is very clear that God is condemning treachery against a covenant partner, NOT escape from a treacherous spouse.

      Thank you, so much, for sharing part of your story, here.

      I LOVED your comments on the other blog, yesterday. I felt as though I had reluctantly drawn my sword expecting a weary battle and suddenly found a lithe ninja warrior fighting beside me.

      Blessings to you, Amy!

      • Thanks, Joe. I look forward to being part of your community here. It’s refreshing to read another blog who does not believe there is only black or white, but focuses instead on the Grace of God through all circumstances, including divorce.

        It was nice to have someone beside me also yesterday. I’m always leery of commenting over there because usually I’m a lone voice so I tend to lurk more than voice my opinion. 😉

    • For this specific passage the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) seems to have the best translation, and is also a good translation just in general.

      My personal preference, for overall personal Bible study is the New American Standard Bible (NASB). However, I do not like the NASB translation of this specific passage…they seem to have fallen into the trap of following the KJV.

  9. Thanks for elaborating on this, Joe.

    What is stunning is how frequently we hear pastors, teachers and our fellow believers toss out “God hates divorce,” without any context or analysis of the literal translation. Those of us who have actually studied the meaning and context of this portion of Scripture and now comprehend its powerful truth must do what we can to educate others. Too many (me included) have been – and are – held captive to abusive or ungodly marriages as a result of this twisted teaching.

    • Thank you, Cindy!

      Yes…this phrase has to be one of the most commonly contextually abused phrases in scripture.

      Three words (hate, divorce and God) lifted out of a 36 word verse in a 17 verse chapter in a 4 chapter book…completely stripped of their contextual meaning…rearranged out of their proper order…to form a popular phrase…used as the basis for an unbiblical doctrine…rigidly applied as a legalistic law to all marriages in all situations…

      So wrong! So destructive! So far from the heart of God as revealed in the Bible!

      Thank you, Cindy, for your continued message of grace and love!
      joe recently posted…The Lord is My HorsemanMy Profile

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