Friday, May 29, 2009

The Message of Malachi

Over at New Leaven, TC posted about an interesting translation issue with Malachi 4:6 (Hebrew 3:24). Is it the "hearts of fathers to their children" (NLT) or the "hearts of parents to their children" (TNIV)? Does it matter? Which one did Malachi have in mind? The translation problem centers around translating gender. Should it be inclusive or masculine? I commented there that I prefer "fathers":
because I don’t see “abot” being used generically in Hebrew to mean “father and mother” in the same way that “adelphoi” is often “brothers and sisters” in the NT. Of course, I haven’t looked for all the possible examples yet. It would be useful to see if the OT ever refers to “parents” as a unit. The only examples I could think of referred individually to “father and mother” and don’t use “abot” to refer to both.
I also suggested that Malachi's emphasis on the covenant might be a helpful context to consider if one is trying to determine what he had in mind. TC didn't (and maybe still doesn't) believe me that covenant language is part of the background of Malachi 4:6, so this post is my attempt to "establish covenant language at 4:6".

Malachi follows a typical prophetic structure of accusation-judgment-salvation. The accusation calls Israel to account for their failure to keep the covenant (chs. 1-2). The accusation seems to focus particularly on improper sacrifice and the failure of the priests to do their jobs correctly. (See Mal. 2:4-10 for a specific example.)

The judgement is pronounced in ch. 3, looking ahead to the day of the LORD (when God himself comes to set things right). The immediate context leading up to ch. 4 is concerned specifically with covenant - e.g., Mal. 3:12-18.

Then chapter 4 ends with the oracle of hope looking ahead to future salvation for the righteous and punishment for the wicked. 4:1 continues the judgment, and then 4:2-3 intertwine hope and judgement. It ends with 4:4-6 as the final statement looking forward to salvation for those who will finally turn back to the covenant.

So, the concept of covenant seems to be endemic to the entire book of Malachi. It's central to Malachi's message. Of course, we still have to figure out whether it's accurate to translate abot as "parents" though. I'm not so sure that it is.


  1. Doug, thanks for this post. I do agree that the book is quite covenantal.

    But what are the practical elements of this covenant in regard to his people? I suggest things like the family (2:13-16), tithing (3:8-11), and so on.

    So I do not think it strange that abot should be rendered "parent" at 4:6.

  2. TC,

    I'd left an earlier comment at your post that hasn't shown up that brought up that question - practically, is there a difference between "fathers" and "parents." Here's part of that earlier comment:

    The coventant context "still doesn't settle the translation issue since women were part of the group standing at Sinai who consented to the covenant just as much as the men were. But I wonder if their consent would have been considered necessary or legally binding in Israelite society. I don't know what evidence there is to help answer that question, and even if it's correct, it doesn't necessarily mean we should translate that way. I'm trying to decide whether using "fathers" specifically carries some valuable added nuance for the covenant context or not."

    I guess the issue is - what was the role and responsibility of Israelite women toward the covenant? Much of the what the Torah has to say about women's legal status in society makes them need the legal consent of their husband or father.

    I'm not saying that's ethically correct or that it should be preserved in translation. It's just part of the cultural background of the Bible that gender-accurate translations are trying to move away from as no longer relevant to modern Western society. I don't have a problem with the translation "parents." Translators have to make a choice, and "parents" is a legitimate choice.

  3. Doug, I quite agree with factoring the legal necessities of the covenant.

    I'm rethinking this whole thing now. Let me dig some more.

  4. good discussion. i think it's significant that mal 4:6 echoes mal 1:6 ("a son honors his father . . . where is My honor?"). honoring one's father (and both parents, exod 20) is covenantal requirement. honoring YHWH is a major goal and purpose of covenant stipulations, like law, and testimony before the nations (1:11, 14).

    my personal opinion here is that mal 1:6 and 4:6 are not verses where rendering "father(s)" literally is very offensive. it's accurate and quite vanilla as far as offensive language goes. i would leave it literal, but i understand where others are coming from (sort of).

    like i said, good discussion

  5. Mike, thanks for commenting. I agree that 1:6 and 4:6 seem to be echoing each other somehow.

    You know you have a pretty famous name for someone interested in Hebrew Bible. For a brief second, I thought maybe my soon-to-be advisor, Michael V. Fox, had started reading my blog.

    Appreciate your input though.