Criswell Theological Review 2.1 (1987) 63-72
[Copyright © 1987 by
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COVENANT UNFAITHFULNESS IN
GEORGE W. HARRISON
Multiple transgressions of the covenant are enumerated in Mal
2:1-16. The initial criticism centers upon the failure of the contempo-
rary priests to preserve the ideals of the covenant with Levi, vv 1-9.
The latter indictment features problems related to the family struc-
ture vv 10-16. In addition to the obvious abuse of the marriage
covenant, charges are brought against the forsaking of "the covenant
of our fathers" (v 10).
I. Transgressions of the Covenant of Levi (Mal 2:1-9)
The central concept and unifying theme of Mal 2:1-9 is the
violation of the Lord's covenant with Levi. What is the historical
setting for such a covenant? There may be found at least two occa-
sions in the Pentateuch for a special covenant relationship with the
When Moses descended from
the Ten Commandments, he confronted a corrupted congregation
(Exod 32:7-24). But when Moses issued the challenge for volunteer
executioners, all the sons of Levi came forward. The instructions were
terse and dreadful: "Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh,
and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every
man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neigh-
bor" (Exod 32:27, NASB). The toll of casualties was about 3000.
Because of the unsparing zeal of the Levites, Moses announced:
"You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your
own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day" (Exod 32:29,
64 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
NIV). Perhaps this event is the historical basis for the covenant
referred to in Malachi.
Another possible setting for the exclusive covenant with Levi is
Num 3:5-13. After reminding
the first offspring based upon the Passover event, the Lord com-
manded Moses to number all the firstborn males among the Levites
(Num 3:15). A second census was taken of the first male offspring
among the other tribes (Num ). The two totals were nearly
Then a momentous decision was announced: "Take the Levites
for me in place of all the firstborn of the Israelites, and the livestock
of the Levites in place of all the firstborn of the livestock of the
Israelites. I am the Lord" (Num , NIV). Instead of disrupting the
family solidarity of Israelite society, the Levites could serve the Lord
as proxy firstborn. The support of the Levitical priesthood with tithes
and offerings--surely must have been accepted more readily because of
this explanation. Each Hebrew family unit could declare, "We have a
son in the ministry of worship."
Valuable insights into the ideal character and conduct of the
Levitical priesthood are provided by the blessing of Moses in Deut
33:8-11. After very brief statements concerning Reuben and Judah, a
bountiful blessing is pronounced upon Levi:
Your Thummin and Urim belong to the man you favored. You tested
him at Massah, you contended with him at the waters of Meribah. He
said of his father and mother, 'I have no regard for them.' He did not
recognize his brothers or acknowledge his own children, but he watched
over your word and guarded your covenant. He teaches your precepts to
Jacob and your law to
burnt offerings upon your altar (Deut 33:8-10, NIV).
An analysis of the blessing of Moses leads to a better under-
the priestly role in
three features: "Levi is given a place of spiritual leadership with the
functions of determining God's will, teaching the law, and serving at
P. C. Craigie provides a helpful summary:
The blessing then indicates the three principal duties that were to be
assigned to the tribe of Levi on the basis of their past actions and
dedication to divine service. (i) They were to be responsible for the
1 J. D. W. Watts, "Deuteronomy," Broadman Bible Commentary (12 vols; Nash-
ville: Broadman, 1970) 2.293.
Thummim and Urim (v 8), by which the Lord's will would be made
known to the people in matters where decision was difficult to make. (ii)
They were to have an educational role in teaching the Israelites the law
of God (v 10a). (iii) They were to be responsible for
system of worship (v 10b). The blessing of the tribe of Levi consists in
the strength they would be given for these tasks and protection from
their enemies which God would grant to them (v 11).2
Commandment, Curse, and Covenant 2:1-4
Commandment. The first question facing the interpreter of this
passage is the meaning of the expression, “And now, this command-
ment is for you, O priests" (2:1, NASB). Is there a specific command
issued, or does the prophet refer to all of the instructions contained in
F. C. Eiselen is representative of the latter position:
No command of any sort is found in these verses, not even an exhorta-
tion to repentance, though such exhortation is implied in verse 2; hence
the word cannot be understood in the narrow sense of commandment,
but as meaning purpose or decree. The divine decree, shown by the
succeeding verses to be one of destruction, is for the priests.3
Typical of those commentators who favor a specific command-
is J. M. P. Smith:
There is no express 'command' in the immediate context. On the other
hand, the arraignment in the preceding verses charges that the accused
have failed to honour Yahweh fittingly, which is their just and lawful
service. Likewise, in the following verses stress is laid upon the necessity
of glorifying Yahweh. Hence the 'command' is most easily explained as
the behest to honour Y ahwehwhich lies behind the whole context.4
Earlier Malachi introduced the concept of God as father: “A son
honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is
the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?"
(1:6, NIV). Reference here is apparently to the fifth commandment of
the Decalogue, "Honor your father and your mother, that your days
may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you" (Exod
The meaning of «honor" or «glory" in Hebrew includes weight,
worthiness and dignity. A son honors his father by remembering that
2 P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) 396.
3 C. Eiselen, The Minor Prophets (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1907) 716.
4 J. M. P. Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Malachi
(ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912) 35.
66 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
all his deeds and words reflect upon the father whose name he bears.
He must strive to be a good representative of his parent.
Curse. Unless the priests respond with total and prompt obedi-
ence to the urgent command of God, a terrible curse is ready to be
invoked. The double imperative warns the priests not only to "listen"
but to "lay it to heart." The glory due to God's great name had been
clouded by unworthy representatives, the priests.
The combination of cursing and blessing occurs frequently in the
OT, but the most imposing array of these contrasts may be found in
Deuteronomy 28. The list of blessings (vv 1-14) is followed by an
exhaustive category of curses (vv 15-68). Surely no more vivid illus-
tration of "cursing your blessings" could be produced. Did Malachi
expect the priests to recall this ancient threat?
The "blessings" of the priests may be understood in at least two
ways.5 Material benefits from the tithes and offerings were brought to
the Levites because of their service at the sanctuary (Num 18:1-31).
Since no tribal territory was assigned to them, they were dependent
upon the gifts of the other tribes (Josh ). The curtailing of these
benefits would be disastrous.
Another interpretation of the divine threat to curse the priestly
blessings involves the benediction (Num -26). Aaron and his sons
empowered to pronounce a blessing upon the people of
put my name upon the people of
(Num 6:27, RSV). If this privilege is revoked, the priestly prayers are
worthless. Balaam discovered that the Lord could turn his intended
to reverse the process, and convert the priestly benedictions into
The curse continues into v 3 with the double threat to "rebuke
your seed" and to defile the priests with the refuse of their own festive
offerings. The precise meaning of both of these threats is difficult to
obtain. Translations vary widely at this point.
A literal rendering of the MT is: "Behold, I am rebuking for you
the seed." The question then arises concerning the literal or figurative
meaning of "seed." If the reference is to the seed, such as barley and
wheat, the punishment intended is a diminishing of the produce from
which the tithe is brought (Lev 27:30). Haggai reminded the people,
"You have sown much, and harvested little" (Hag 1:6a). A drought or
a blight could cause the crops to fail, thus serving as a rebuke to the
J. G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (
Varsity, 1972) 232-33.
The metaphorical understanding of "seed" as offspring is pre-
ferred by most translations (NASB, NIV, RSV). Since the priesthood
is hereditary, the rebuking or rejecting of the descendants would be a
threat most dreadful. A dramatic demonstration of the power of the
Lord to terminate a priesthood is found in the case of Eli and his
unworthy sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1 Sam -34). Not only was
the oracle pronounced directly to Eli, but reinforced in a revelation to
Samuel: "On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken
concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I tell him that I am
about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity which he knew,
because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain
them" (1 Sam -13, RSV).
Some valuable insights into the LXX rendering of the threat
against the priests are provided by J. M. Kennedy. In an article
appearing in the March, 1987, issue of the Journal of Biblical Litera-
ture Kennedy writes:
Instead of ga'ar the LXX presupposes the root gd' ("cut off") and
instead of zera' ("seed"), that is, descendants, presupposes zeroa'
("arm"). This gives the reading, "I will cut off your arm" in the place of
"I will 'rebuke' your seed." The meaning would be that the priests will
be rendered helpless and unfit for priestly duty. In reality, the text may
remain as it is and still suggest the same meaning as that of the LXX.
Here ga'ar designates activity that results in the inability of the priests'
descendants to carryon the work of the priesthood. This does not mean
that ga'ar means "to make unfit for service as a priest," but it does point
to some kind of activity that produces this result. That activity is men-
tioned in the next line, namely, "and I will spread dung on your faces."
Although ga'ar cannot also be defined as "spreading dung," this activity
forces the priesthood into a situation of uncleanness and so renders them
unfit to serve.6
The climactic conclusion of the curse sentences the priests to the
most humiliating treatment possible. Not only are they to be defiled
with the excrement of the sacrificial animals, but men will carry them
off as refuse. They will be dumped outside the camp (Exod 29:14;
Lev ; ).
Covenant. The closing verse of this passage calls upon the priests
to heed the commandment and thus preserve the threatened cove-
nant: "Then you will know that I have sent this commandment to you,
that my covenant may continue with Levi" (2:4, NASB). J. Baldwin
6 J. M. Kennedy, "The Root G'R in the Light of Semantic Analysis," JBL 106:
68 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
argues that the command was meant to lead to repentance and so
make possible the continuation of the covenant.7 This would be
in keeping with other prophetic warnings. Eiselen affirms: "All that
Jehovah will do or has threatened to do is for the purpose of main-
taining the covenant made in ancient times with Levi, which de-
manded of the priests holiness and assigned to them an importtant
place in the working out of the divine plan of redemption."8
Covenant Ideals Clarified 2:5-7
This passage contains some of the loftiest ideals of religious
leadership to be found in Scripture. Life, peace, deep reverence, true
instruction, and an upright walk with the Lord are featured. Nothing
false came from the lips of such a priest as this. "He walked with me
in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin" (2:6b, NIV).
Where does one find such a priestly model of perfection in
Scripture? Perhaps Samuel portrays more of these qualities than any
other individual: "and Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and
let none of his words fall to the ground" (1 Sam , RSV). He
people in a circuit including
(1 Sam 7:15-16). His prayers were powerful, both in war and peace
(1 Sam 7:8-9; -18). The people responded with great fear toward
the Lord and Samuel. Men sought direction from him for a variety of
needs. The servant of Saul observed: "Behold, there is a man of God
in this city, and he is a man that is held in honor; all that he says
comes true" (1 Sam 9:6, RSV).
However, Samuel was not merely a priest. It was in his prophetic
role that he functioned most frequently.
Ezra may have served as a more recent reminder of the priestly
ideals. His genealogy is traced all the way back to Aaron (Ezra 7:1-5).
"He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses which the Lord the God
hand of the Lord his God was upon him" (Ezra 7:6, RSV). He
personified the threefold ideal of studying the law of the Lord, prac-
ticing it, and teaching it (Ezra ). His prayers could persuade an
entire assembly to renew the covenant (Ezra 10:1-5). When the walls
built under Nehemiah's direction were dedicated, Ezra led in the
public reading of the law (Neh 8:1-8).
Probably no one individual was envisioned by Malachi, but a
composite figure of all that the Lord intended the priests to represent.
7 Baldwin, Malachi, 233.
8 Eiselen, Minor Prophets, 717.
Such nobility of character and conduct surpassed the achievements
even of Samuel and Ezra.
Covenant Ideals Corrupted 2:8-9
From the mountain peaks of idealism Malachi descends to the
dark valley of reality. The priests of his day present a revolting
contrast: "But you have turned from the way and by your teaching
have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with
Levi" (2:8, NIV). Instead of turning others from evil, they have
swerved from the straight way. Rather than teaching the truth, they
have led others into their own perverted lifestyle. Far from preserving
the covenant with Levi, they have corrupted it.
The ultimate fate of men who have betrayed a position of sacred
trust is announced: "So I have caused you to be despised and humili-
ated before all the people because you have not followed my ways
but have shown partiality in matters of the law" (2:9, NIV). The
hypocrisy of compromise and partiality produced contempt and deri-
sion. The words of Jeremiah are appropriate: "Your ways and your
doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom, and it is bitter;
it has reached your very heart" (Jer , RSV).
II. Transgressions of the Family Covenant (Mal -16)
This entire passage is the subject of another article within this
issue of CTR, dealing especially with the problem of divorce. It may
be possible to treat separately vv 10-12, interpreting these verses as
providing the broader foundation for the solidarity of the family unit.
Covenant of Our Fathers 2:10
The priority of God as father is established first: "Do we not all
have one father? Has not one God created us?" Any uncertainty as to
the identity of "one father" is clarified by the parallel construction,
"one God created us." T. Miles Bennett comments: "God's creating
one another a new unity. Therefore any offense of one man against
another was a violation of his relation to God, in whom as their
common Father their unity was grounded."9
Building upon the foundation of unity, Malachi addresses the
problem of disunity: "Why do we deal treacherously each against his
brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers?" (NASB).
Bennett, "Malachi," Broadman
Bible Commentary (12 vols;
70 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Is there a specific historical antecedent for the "covenant of our
At what point in the early history of
binding relationship established between God and the people, as well
among the families of
After the divine proclamation of the Ten Commandments
(Exodus 20) but before the two engraved tablets were presented to
Moses (chap. 32), specific ordinances were set before the people
(chaps. 21-23). These statutes appear to be designed primarily to
govern the relationships among the Hebrew people. At the conclusion
of this recital, representatives of the people were summoned by the
Lord to respond: "Moses came and told the people all the words of
the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one
voice, and said 'all the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.'
And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord" (Exod 24:3-4a, RSV).
Following the erection of an altar, twelve pillars representing the
Moses presided over a ceremony in which "the book of the covenant"
Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the
people; and they said, 'All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we
will be obedient.' And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the
people, and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has
made with you in accordance with all these words'" (Exod 24:7-8,
Surely this impressive ancient ceremony could constitute the
foundation for a sacred "covenant of our fathers." Sealed with the
sprinkling of blood and affirmed by the assembly, its binding power
should be timeless. (See Heb 9:18-20).
The particular transgression condemned in this verse has been
interpreted from two very different points of view. First, it may be an
women. Second, it could refer to a national cultic involvement with a
Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of the former position is
the existence of this abuse in the post-exilic community. Ezra vigor-
ously condemned the practice, and demanded that the men separate
their foreign wives (Ezra 9-10).
"Narrowing now from the general to the particular, the prophet turns
to a practice which through the centuries had undermined spiritual
It is interesting to note that the original Judah, son of Jacob,
married the daughter of a Canaanite (Gen 38:2). No cultic implica-
tions are suggested, but
executed by the Lord (Gen 38:7, 10).
R. Smith presents a helpful summary of the evidence supporting
a cultic or typological interpretation of "marrying the daughter of a
foreign god."11 J. M. P. Smith argued:
The use of the singular number seems to render it difficult to under-
stand this as referring primarily to literal marriages between the men of
Judah and idolatrous women, though such marriages undoubtedly took
place. . . . It is more natural to interpret the statement as meaning that an
alliance has practically been made between
does not worship Yahweh through the common celebration of such
The experience of
quences of involvement with cultic marriage. The Moabites invited
of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against
25:3, RSV). The plague consumed 24,000, and was halted when
Phinehas plunged a spear into the bodies of an Israelite man and a
Midianite woman (Num 25:7-8). The location of the sacrilege was
"the tent" (NIV) or "the inner room" (RSV).
With this background, Malachi's charge seems to assume some
sanctuary the Lord loves, by marrying the daughter of a foreign god"
The final verdict pronounced against any and all persons guilty of
such flagrant desecration was to be "cut off from the tents of Jacob"
(v 12). This should discourage others from following the practice,
whatever its exact nature may have been.
Transgression of the Covenant of Marriage 2:13-16
Since another article within this issue of CTR provides an in-
depth exploration of marriage and divorce, only a brief summary will
be attempted here.
10 Baldwin, Malachi, 238.
11 R. L. Smith, Micah-Malachi (Waco: Word, 1984) 322.
12 R. P. Smith, Malachi, 49.
72 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
The concept of a marriage covenant with God as witness provides
an eternal dimension to the relationship (v 14). The precise formula-
tion of marriage vows is not contained in the records of the OT. In
the brief narratives of weddings, little emphasis is placed on the
ceremony itself. This argument from silence must not be interpreted
to mean that there was not a religious element in the nuptial cele-
brations. A people in covenant relationship with the Lord viewed
marriage as a divine endowment. (See Prov 18:22; ; 31:10).
This spiritual dimension should have contributed to the stability of home
life. The loyalty of each partner to the covenant God was a uniting bond
which created a lasting companionship between the partners. . . Malachi
is a quiet witness to a mutually satisfying marriage relationship which,
though begun in youth, does not become jaded with the passing of
13 Baldwin, Malachi, 2.39-40.
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