Criswell Theological Review 2.1 (1987) 63-72

[Copyright © 1987 by Criswell College, cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon and Criswell Colleges and elsewhere]




MALACHI 2:1-16




New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

New Orleans, LA 70126


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 Mt. Sinai with the tablets containing

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,



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

found in Num 3:5-13. After reminding Israel of the special sanctity of

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 3:40). 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 3:41, 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 Israel. He offers incense before you and whole

burnt offerings upon your altar (Deut 33:8-10, NIV).


An analysis of the blessing of Moses leads to a better under-

standing of the priestly role in Israel. John D. W. Watts points to the

three features: "Levi is given a place of spiritual leadership with the

functions of determining God's will, teaching the law, and serving at

the altar."1

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 Israel's formal

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

20:12, RSV).

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.



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 13:33). The curtailing of these

benefits would be disastrous.

Another interpretation of the divine threat to curse the priestly

blessings involves the benediction (Num 6:24-26). Aaron and his sons

were empowered to pronounce a blessing upon the people of Israel: "So

shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them"

(Num 6:27, RSV). If this privilege is revoked, the priestly prayers are

worthless. Balaam discovered that the Lord could turn his intended

curses into blessings for Israel (Num 23:7-12). Does the Lord propose

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



5 See J. G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-

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 2:27-34). 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 3:12-13, 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 4:11; 16:27).

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:




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 3:19, RSV).  He

judged the people in a circuit including Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah

(1 Sam 7:15-16). His prayers were powerful, both in war and peace

(1 Sam 7:8-9; 12:17-18). 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

of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the

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 7:10). 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 4:18, RSV).


II. Transgressions of the Family Covenant (Mal 2:10-16)


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

Israel as his people gave them a new existence, a new relationship to

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).


9 Miles Bennett, "Malachi," Broadman Bible Commentary (12 vols; Nashville:

1972) 7.384.



Is there a specific historical antecedent for the "covenant of our

fathers?" At what point in the early history of Israel was there a

binding relationship established between God and the people, as well

as among the families of Israel?

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

twelve tribes of Israel were constructed and sacrifices were offered.

Moses presided over a ceremony in which "the book of the covenant"

was central:

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).


Judah's Abomination 2:11

The particular transgression condemned in this verse has been

interpreted from two very different points of view. First, it may be an

indictment of individuals within Judah who have married foreign

women. Second, it could refer to a national cultic involvement with a

female deity.

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

themselves from their foreign wives (Ezra 9-10). Baldwin comments:

"Narrowing now from the general to the particular, the prophet turns

to a practice which through the centuries had undermined spiritual



life in Israel, namely marriage into a family of a different religious and

cultural background."10

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 Judah's first two sons by this marriage were

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 Judah and some people that

does not worship Yahweh through the common celebration of such



The experience of Israel at Baal-peor illustrates the tragic conse-

quences of involvement with cultic marriage. The Moabites invited

the people of Israel to their sacrifices. "So Israel yoked himself to Baal

of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel" (Num

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

cultic implications: "Judah has broken faith. A detestable thing has

been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the

sanctuary the Lord loves, by marrying the daughter of a foreign god"

(2:11, NIV).

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.



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; 19:14; 31:10).

Baldwin comments:

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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