Up until a few days ago (as I write this), David Petraeus had a life that many would envy, and that many more looked up to. He had retired from the U.S. Army as a four star General after a stellar career that included over thirty-seven years of distinguished service, culminating in some of the highest postings in the Army. Upon retiring from military service, Petraeus took up a new position as head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), having been nominated for that position by President Barack Obama and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate.
In his younger years, shortly after he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Petraeus married a highly intelligent and capable young woman named Holly Knowlton, daughter of Army General William A. Knowlton. The two of them have now been married for thirty-eight years. Holly Petraeus has become known as an advocate for military families. She is currently serving as director of the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the recently formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). David and Holly Petraeus have two adult children, Stephen and Anne.
The picture-book quality of this story of a highly distinguished general with a long and spotless career, and his long and fruitful marriage to a distinguished and capable wife, came to an abrupt end on November 8, 2012.
How the mighty has fallen
That was the day Petraeus offered his resignation as CIA chief to President Obama—a resignation that Obama accepted the next day. In his resignation letter to CIA employees, Petraeus stated his reason for resigning: “After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.”
The woman with whom he had the affair was Paula Broadwell, an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves and co-author of a laudatory biography of David Petraeus titled, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Broadwell had become close to the general in Afghanistan, where she was embedded with Petraeus and his staff and soldiers for a year, following his career and spending many hours interviewing him for the biography. Broadwell is herself married and has two young children.
Both Petraeus and Broadwell now face public scandal and humiliation in the wake of the affair. Both must also go through the much more personal repercussions of their adultery as they face their own spouses and families. And of course, due to their actions their families must also bear the burden of public shame.
Why did these two successful, disciplined, and apparently happily married people do such a thing? We may never know. But I found one woman’s sage advice, based on personal experience, to be very practical. You can read about it here: “The Truth Is… Hanging Out Alone A Lot With Someone You Find Attractive Is Asking For Trouble.”
To Petraeus’s credit, he has admitted that what he did was wrong, taken full responsibility for his actions, and done the honorable thing by resigning from his prominent position.
The evils of divorce?
If, in the wake of the affair, Petraeus’s wife or Broadwell’s husband decided to seek a divorce, would they be condemned by society? Would they be condemned by Christians?
Even in today’s laissez-faire social climate, it is widely agreed that when one partner in a marriage commits adultery, the other partner is justified in obtaining a divorce should she or he decide to do so. Marriage is built on faithfulness and trust. Adultery is the very definition of unfaithfulness. It violates the commitment and destroys the trust that are at the core of marriage.
The principle that adultery is a legitimate cause for divorce is also solidly embedded in Christian scriptures, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. No Christian minister could reasonably object if someone whose husband or wife had committed adultery decided to file for divorce.
And yet, we hear this statement bandied about:
“God hates divorce.”
It is based on Malachi 2:16, which says, “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord.”
This passage has been badly misinterpreted and misused by many Christians and Christian ministers to condemn both divorce itself and people who are divorced or are seeking a divorce.
But the real target of the passage is not divorce—and it is certainly not divorcées. It is the unfaithfulness, deceit, and violence that commonly lead to divorce.
If we read the whole passage in Malachi 2:10–16, we find that it is speaking figuratively of “Judah”—meaning the ancient Jewish people who formed the Biblical kingdom of Judah—breaking their covenant with God by being faithless to one another.
However, the passage can also be read as applying to literal marriages between individual human beings. If we read it this way, we find that:
Malachi 2:13–16 is admonishing men not to be faithless, deceitful, and violent to their wives.
The Hebrew in this passage is somewhat difficult to clearly understand and translate. But as is shown in various translations that do their best to interpret its meaning, it is speaking to men and chiding them for cheating, lying, and dealing “treacherously” or violently with the wives they married when they were young.
In other words, the passage is not only about adultery, but about all the other ways men are unfaithful to their wives and to the vows of marriage.
What leads faithful wives to seek divorce from their husbands? Adultery, violence, abuse, deceitful lies, abandonment, and many other things that men do in violation of the sacred vows that they made to their wives on their wedding day. These are all evils, and they all involve unfaithfulness to the “wife of one’s youth.” Adultery is not the only way that men are unfaithful to their wives. And of course, though the Malachi passage speaks to men, the same principles apply to women as well.
Here is what the Malachi passage focuses on: the faithless and destructive things men and women do that destroy marriage and lead to divorce. Divorce itself is the result, not the cause of these things. The Bible, as usual, focuses on the causes behind the pain and suffering we humans endure—including the pain and suffering that regularly accompanies divorce.
In other words, divorce is not the true evil. The true evil is all of the faithless and abusive actions by husbands, and also by wives, that lead to divorce.
Another thing we find if we read the passage carefully is that:
Malachi 2:16 says, “I hate divorce.” It doesn’t say, “I hate divorcées, people getting a divorce, and people thinking about getting a divorce.”
God loves all people, including those who have been, are now, or will in the future be caught in the tangles of divorce.
Who loves divorce? Divorce is awful. God hates divorce because it is a horrible thing for anyone to have to go through. But sometimes we do have to go through it. See 2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
God keeps right on loving divorced and divorcing people, while hating just as much as they do the fact that they have to suffer through the terrible, heart-wrenching experience of divorce.
As for David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, I hope they are both truly sorry and repentant for the unfaithfulness they engaged in, and that they commit themselves to remaining faithful to their spouses in every way for the rest of their lives. It will be up to their spouses to decide whether they wish to remain in their respective marriages or file for divorce. If either of them chooses the latter, the real issue will still be the faithlessness of their spouse, not the divorce sought as a consequence of that faithlessness.
What Malachi 2:10–16 is really about
In short: Malachi 2:10–16 is not about the evils of divorce. And it is certainly not about the supposed evils of getting a divorce or being divorced. It is about the faithlessness, deceit, treachery, and violence that causes divorce. That is what God truly hates.