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 ]