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?