There are certain texts in the Bible that make modern Christ-followers cringe. One of the most difficult is Jesus’s statement about hating one’s father and mother in order to be his true disciple (Luke 14:26). The key to resolving this difficulty is hidden in the ancient meaning of the Hebrew word שנא (soneh) inaccurately translated as “hate.”

We read that God loved Jacob, but “hated” Esau (Malachi 1:3). However, we can see that God actually blessed Esau greatly (Gen 33:9), even warning the Israelites not to attack the sons of Esau or risk the withdrawal of His protection from them if they were to do so (Deut 2:4-6).

In fact, the Torah narrative is developed in such away that anyone hearing the story of the stolen blessing and Jacob’s deception of Isaac would sympathize with Esau instead of Jacob! There is no question that God loved Jacob with his covenantal love (a different kind of love and care than he had for Esau), but He did not “hate” him in the modern sense of the word. The translation also tells us that Jacob “hated” his first wife Leah. Upon closer reading, however, it becomes clear that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (see Gen 29:31). In these cases, שנא (soneh) means “loving someone/something less.”

In the Torah, God permits divorce based upon certain stringent circumstances that would make a marital relationship impossible to continue. In other words, God allows for divorce under some circumstances. When our translations say that God “hates” divorce (Mal 2:16), we must challenge our English renderings and demand a more nuanced (and accurate) interpretation. We all know that divorce is one of the most painful experiences that any human being can go through in life. But there is one thing that is even worse than divorce: an abusive marriage. Torah protected people from needing to continue in this ungodly bond. Naturally, divorce and remarriage (even on biblical grounds) is not ideal, but to translate Malachi 2:16 as “God hates divorce,” and to interpret it as blanket prohibition of marital separation, is a horrible misrepresentation of the loving God over our broken world.

How many other passages in the Bible have we misunderstood because we’ve failed to understand their Jewish background?

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272 COMMENTS

    • It means "to love less," as Dr. Eyzenberg explains. "He loved Jacob, but He loved Esau less" would be an adequate English translation. Translating languages, especially languages as removed from each other as English and Hebrew, is difficult. And, English has changed since the first translations from Latin into English more than 600 years ago. Did you know, for example, that "sorrow" to a sixteenth century English person meant pain more than it meant tears? "In Similarly, "naughty" and "evil" were synonyms, whereas today, "naughty" is how a small ,mischievous child might be described, but "evil" is premeditated harm.

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    • I think it would be safe as well to understand that God favored Jacob over ESAU as that while He loves His creation and creatures, He does favor. He also knew what the descendants of Esau would yield upon this world. Also remember though Paul said the Scripture is Theopneustos.

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    • That explanation is so wonderful and shows God's love. It also helps me understand the loving character of God more. Thank you.

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  1. This article is pandering to those who divorce and remarry. However, there is nothing more destructive to a young child or even the confidence of an adult than divorce. The problem is not divorce. It is the concept of marriage. Marriage is a legal agreement between two families. The parties to the marriage are part of that agreement, but they are not the only part. Erotic love is not part of the equation. Many psychologists say that erotic love in marriage disappears within the first 16 months. Then we need children to hold the marriage together.
    • Actually there are many things more destructive to a child than divorce. Living with a hateful, abusive parent is one of them. Another is the other extreme of a parent who is there but completely disengaged with the children. And the common view of marriage as just a legal agreement is one reason the divorce rate is so high. It is a covenant between two people, their families, and God. Legal agreements are easily broken. All you need is a good lawyer and a sympathetic judge. Covenants are more difficult, almost impossible to break off.

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    • erotic love is only lost due to loss i heart. I`ve seen and know couples that experience erotic love into their eighty and ninties because they didnt allow their heart to change toward each other. I Also know that an abusive relationship is harder and more heart rendering than divorce. Being unequally yoked is a very harsh life whether it comes from either one of the spouse or from both. Nonetheless both may wonder if there is no peace or love for them.

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    • Tolerance is the opposite of love. Pandering comment comes from a place of tolerance from one who does not understand God's love.

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    • a marriage in which one partner is being abused which was clearly addressed in the article is exponentially more destructive to a child than the abused victim escaping with the child and going someplace safe! Wake up the scriptures do not tell people who are being abused that they need
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  2. Luke 16:18 (NIV2) “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Maybe you can speculate about the word "hate", but you cannot speculate about the words "anyone", "whosoever" and "adultery". And then ask yourself question. Does God hate anyone/whosoever who commits adultery? Romans 1:18 (NIV2) The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness...
  3. Dr Eli it always amazes me how the miss translation of one word can almost create a culture of wrong thinking. Another case in point is the view the christian world has of Christmas and the LOWLY social status of Mary and Joseph. At sometime I would value your thought on that.
  4. So you mentioned everything that “soneh” *isn’t*, but never clarified what it actually means. With each of these contextual references in mind, might ‘soneh’ be better translated into modern English as a “lesser preference”?
  5. It is clear to me that the Bible, especially in Luke in 14:25-35, uses "love" and "hate" as a means of describing choice, often radical choice. Clearly the one who said "love your enemies," would not be the one who said "feel extreme animus toward father and mother." Rather, to follow Jesus is to make a radical choice of God's Kingdom over all other relationships, including our dearest relationships. This also includes our own lives (14:26-27) and our possessions (14:33).
  6. http://biblehub.com/hebrew/8130.htm enemy, foe, be hateful odious, utterly A primitive root; to hate (personally) -- enemy, foe, (be) hate(-ful, -r), odious, X utterly. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, Brown-Driver-Briggs, et. al. completely agree that the word is properly translated "hate". Your reasoning, "So the best I can tell in Biblical Hebrew soneh meant “loving someone/something less”, while charming, is on very weak ground.
    • Strong's Concordance doesn't give the first century contextual meaning of the word. It gives the present English translation. There can be substantial difference. But in the case of Esau, he was sleeping with two Moabite women to the despair of his parents, so he was hardly in good standing with Hashem, who therefore had good reason to "hate" Esau and "love" Jacob-- who got his wives from his cousin's family, as he was obliged to do according to the custom of the time among the descendants of Abraham.

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