Issues Surrounding Mal. 2:16

George Athas gathas at
Thu Jun 17 18:29:02 EDT 1999

Edgar, I'd like to give a few comments on your queries.

> (1) In Smith's discussion of Mal. 2:15, 16, the following questions are
> posed: "Does "marrying the daughter of a foreign god" mean marrying a
> foreign woman, or does it mean worshiping a female deity (idol)?

An interesting question which I've grappled with too. I have to appeal to the context of this
statement in order to figure it out. The passage is about how the Judahite men had divorced or were
about to divorce their own wives whom they had married years before. It seems the reason for this
is because each man had married "bat-el nekar". If this refers to a deity of some kind, then it
seems odd that the word for 'married' here is B(L. This suggests a position of mastery or ownership
over something. I don't think this meaning could be adequately assigned to the relationship of a
worshipper over a deity. It would be the other way around. That is, the men would not "B(L" a
goddess, the goddess would "B(L" the men. Thus, I think we must find a human reason for the divorce
of the wives. The best reason is that the men had taken or were taking foreign women as their wives
and divorcing their previous wives. In the 5th century BCE, this was a big no-no for the Judahite
aristocracy as Ezra demonstrates. Certainly one of the reasons for foreign women being taboo is
that they introduced new cults which compromised Yahwism. The Baal of Peor incident highlights this
in the Pentateuch.

> Does
> divorcing the wife of one's youth refer to husbands divorcing their
> wives or does it refer to Israel's unfaithfulness to the covenant
> religion?" (Smith 32:322. Word Series Commentary).

I think the former, but with the connotation of the latter. The men were divorcing their wives and
in so doing, were being unfaithful to their Yahwistic covenant.

> After raising these questions, he then references the 1898 JBL article
> by CC Torrey who suggests a cultic interpretation for Mal. 2:16. Torrey
> writes that Mal. 2:16 is neither castigating marriages with foreign
> women nor divorce from one's wife: "The rebuke is rather directed
> against the encroachment of some foreign cult in Israel. The
> unfaithfulness of a part of the people threatens to forfeit for all the
> covenant of the fathers (v 10). Judah has dealt falsely with the wife
> of his youth, the covenant religion, and is wedding a strange cult"
> (Torrey, JBL 17 [1898] 4-5).

I agree that this is the yolk of the passage, but I do not think it is the outer shell. The cultic
unfaithfulness is an implication arising out of the divorce situation.

> To sum matters up, Torrey would say that "There is one, and only one,
> admissible interpretation of the passage; namely that which recognizes
> the fact that the prophet is using figurative language. Judah, the
> faithless husband, has betrayed the wife of his youth, the covenant
> religion, by espousing the daughter of a strange god" (Torrey 9-10).

Problem is, though, that Judah (and Israel) is never portrayed as the husband in the relationship
with Yahweh. Yahweh is always the husband and Judah is bound to him by covenant. It seems an
extreme reversal to put Judah in the husband's role and substitute Yahweh with the "covenant" in
the role of the wife. I think this undermines completely the Yahwistic covenant. Notice that Yahweh
hates divorce in this passage. This is seemingly a comment that although Yahweh can divorce Judah,
he does not because he is a faithful deity. In this way, the men of Judah are contrasted with
Yahweh because they occupy a similar role - covenant initiators. Yahweh initiates covenant with
Judah and the men of Judah initiate covenant with Judahite women.

Best regards.
 Dept of Semitic Studies,
 University of Sydney
Tel Dan Inscription Website is at

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