Malachi’s Diatribe: Recentering Justice by Decentering Understanding

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:5).

The book of Malachi functions as a sort of diatribe between God and the post-exilic Jewish civil-religious establishment, mediated by Malachi, a sort of non-entity, a name which is not a name, literally my messenger. The opening of chapter 3—“Behold I send my messenger (ma’lachi), and he will prepare the way before me. … But who can endure the day of his coming…”—emphasizes the ambiguity of the label’s multiple, sliding identities: mal’achi-as-prophet/mal’achi-as-messiah.

In this sliding the function of each is revealed: the prophet interrupts and negates what is; the messiah irrupts and posits what has not yet been. Jesus as prophet-messiah (the ultimate mal’achi?) participates in the Malachic message, even paraphrasing it in eschatological terms in Luke 13 as one episode of a series of accounts presenting a critique of various forms of authority. There, Jesus offers the image of a closed door within a dialogue:

“When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ (Luke 13:25-27).

In short, the message is a negation: “You believe you do good, but in fact you do ill.” This message is familiar enough in the writings of the prophets, but what provides momentum to the book of Malachi is its dialogic performance of it. The rhetorical environment of the diatribe allows the book to reach a more complex conclusion than the result of a simple reversal. For God’s indictment through Malachi is dual: “Not only do you believe you do good when in fact you do ill, but through your myopia you have become cynical and resentful in your (self-)righteousness; you act ill and you interpret (yourselves, the external world) ill.” In short, the Malachic message aims to decenter religious and moral self-understanding; doing so reveals—to us as well as to the Jewish civil-religious authorities—the inextricable link between justice toward God and justice toward neighbor.

The Malachic diatribe is characterized by sudden slides in subject (matter), moving between a series of fulcrums, rhetorical reversals that propel the message in new directions, leveraging moral surprise for its movement. The dialogue progresses through a series of theses proceeding from either divine speech reported by Malachi or from Malachi herself/himself. Each thesis is followed by a sort of “but” question from the Jewish audience, a rhetorical rebuttal reminiscent of the diatribe:

Thesis: “I have loved you,” says the Lord.
Response: But you say, “How have you loved us?”

Thesis: “If I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name.”
Response: But you say, “How have we despised your name?”

Thesis: “You cover the Lord’s altar with tears… because he [God] no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand” (Malachi).
Response: But you say, “Why does he not?”

There are a series of such thesis/response fulcrum points in the middle of the book which together build to a kind of moral climax, illuminating the book’s central indictment of the civil-religious establishment.

Before this climax, the subject matter is the prophet’s accusation of unholiness in sacrifice:

“When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts” (v. 8).

The movement of the prophetic theses is important, for, beginning with the unholiness of the priestly service, a subsequent claim is that the civil-religious authority thus corrupts its teaching, “causing many to stumble by your instruction” and showing “partiality in your instruction” (2:8, 9). The nature of this corruption will be revealed to be ethical-religious cynicism; but before reaching that thesis, we come to the first rhetorical fulcrum, in the words of the prophet:

Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to each other, profaning the covenant of our fathers (v. 10)?

This sudden shift from the second-person (“you”) to the first-person plural (“we”) combines with the surprising turn from the priest-God relation to the social relation. The corruption of the civil-religious authority is shown to be interconnected with the corruption of social justice. This connection is reinforced in the following thesis:

And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from you hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant (vv. 13-14).

The unity of God-the-Creator, the oneness of his faithfulness, is despised in the fragmentation of justice beginning in the religious cynicism of the priestly authority, and then in the marriage couple, the basic social unit; we may infer here a fragmentation of justice in gender relations, tied as this thesis is to the “we” of the passage’s prelude.

The religious cynicism leading to social fragmentation leads to the next section of the central series of moral-rhetorical fulcrums:

You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (v. 17).

This thesis describes an ethical cynicism that follows from the previous civil-religious corruptions. The verses that follow, illustrating the coming of the messenger-messiah “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (3:2), describe God’s anger at the civil-religious authority’s hypocrisy, whose cynicism has given it the gall to corrupt its worship and its teaching and then to weep at the absence of social justice; it refuses to examine its own complicity in and reproduction of injustice. The height of the civil-religious authority’s cynicism is reserved for the last thesis:

“Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape'” (vv. 13-15).

Myopia enables this externalized attribution. Rather than examining whether it is the corruption of religion and ethics which has produced injustice and disfavor, the view is turned to look outside of the self, even toward the object of worship.

Note that the last thesis is delivered from the first-person divine point of view. This shift occurs in the center of the diatribe and at its climax describing the coming messenger-messiah. In a parallel to the course of the overall diatribe’s course from addressing religious and then social cynicism and unrighteousness, so the prophetic course moves from purifying the priesthood to drawing near to judge the broader social injustices which that religious corruption has implicitly or explicitly propagated:

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (v. 5).

Until this point, the details of the prophetic allegations have been aimed squarely at “you,” the civil-religious authority of the post-exilic Jewish community. But this passage notably broadens, taking in “those who…” of the wider community, revealing the former theses’ connection to broader social injustices. It is another of a series of shifts in perspective and course: the religious, ethical and social injustices arise when spoken, always unsuspected, unseen because of the plank in the eye of those to whom it is an advantage to remain conveniently oblivious. One recalls the proverb:

Save those who are taken to death,
and from those stumbling to slaughter do not hold back.
Should you say, “Why, we did not know of this.”
Will not the Weigher of Hearts discern,
and the Watcher of your life not know,
and pay back a man by his deeds? (Proverbs 24:11-12, Robert Alter)

The specific items against which judgment is prophesied can be taken together as forms of injustice that take advantage of power imbalances to “get one over” on somebody else. These specific indictments are striking because they are so clearly social in character, when up to this point the dialogue has given the impression that it is a strictly civil-religious set of issues at stake.

It is instructive, then, to consider these social injustices as interlinked with religious injustice, and to consider their implications for the exercise of civil-religious power in our own historical context.


At base, kesheph (sorcery) is a form of religious deception and idolatry, understood as leading the people of God away from truth (e.g., 2 Chronicles 33:6), but unlike idolatry per se, sorcery is a practice peculiar to spheres of political power. The OT text demonstrates that kesheph is ever in service of power, invited to favorably interpret the kings’ dreams (Daniel 2:2), to justify the dispossession of the powerless (Nahum 3:4) and, relevant to the accusations laid at the feet of Malachi’s audience, to confirm power’s own political opinions of itself and the state of society (e.g., Jeremiah 27:9). These practices are interpretative in nature; kesheph can thus be seen as a form of speech (the root has to do with whispering or muttering spells or prayers) which casts spells of narrative, or rather, (re)casts an understanding of reality in order that it may align with the interests of its ward.


The judgment against adulterers recalls the marital unfaithfulness attributed specifically to Judah’s men earlier in the book (2:13-16). The prophet observes in the practice of divorce, which privileged men as the owners of wives, an index of a religious fragmentation which, as with the sacrifices, despises the aspect of the divine which inheres in the most basic, genetic social union. But male-instigated adultery and divorce in this context is enabled by the power imbalance between men and women. Divorce is a right of men, as owners of women, to put them away, subjecting them to shame and economic precarity. Against such exploitation God is staunchly opposed: “For the man who hates and divorces his wife, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts” (v. 16). Thus we see here a criticism of the violence endemic to misogynistic forms of power.

“Those who swear falsely”

At first glance, it would be easy to gloss this phrase as meaning, broadly, “deceitfulness” or “lying.” But we can see here an expression of the corrupt exercise of power if we remember that shaba (to swear) has to do with completion: it is literally “to seven,” that is, to make complete just as the numeral seven was understood to signify utter completion. Thus to swear falsely here is to cheat the dependent by not completing what one has “sevened.” The word for “falsely” in the ESV is actually the noun, sheqer, carrying the meaning of a lie, a fraud, or a sham; the verb, shaqar, from which sheqer is derived, has the denotation of “to cheat.” We could imagine that it is not so much those who swear without power to complete it (cf. Matthew 5:33-37), as in what J.L. Austin would call an “unhappy” performative utterance; rather, it is those who swear, having the power to complete it, but who choose not to. (A translation truer to the grammatical forms of the word might be “those who swear fraud.”) This leaves the dependent in a state of precarity, in an echo of the judgment against adultery.

(Interestingly, in ancient Ethiopian, according to Gesenius, the equivalent verb “to seven” was associated with enchanters, “as this number was also reckoned sacred in magical rites.” Hence, swearing fraud in this sense hearkens back to our explication of sorcery.)

“Those who oppress…”

The last two items in the indictment proceed to even broader social injustices. It is the objects of oppression that are most striking upon a first reading: the wage worker (sakar-sakiyr), the widow (almanah) and the orphan (yathom). These three roles are defined in no small part by their economic dependence, which God observes is subjected to struggle. Translated here as “oppress” and elsewhere as “defraud” and “extort,” ashaq could here be summarized in more familiar language in the term exploit. These dependents, economically and politically powerless, are not only denied their dues but are further exploited in their dependency for the gain of the powerful. Its similarity to the present situation of neoliberal capitalism, with its insistent rejection of social welfare for these very populations (the poor and the needy) and its compulsion toward more and more individuated economic exploitation (to say nothing of its agreement with old-school factory exploitation in sweatshops too distant from the Western consumer to be of much concern) is rightly unavoidable, especially since this situation is so gratuitously underwritten (at least in the United States) by a civil-religious authority racked by hypocrisy and corruption. This indictment rings with echoes from the Torah, which repeatedly lays down social protections for the needy and the powerless (Exodus 22:21-27; Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 24:17-21). A passage from Deuteronomy well echoes such an injunction while moving our attention to the last category of indictment:

You shall not oppress (‘ashaq) a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns (Deuteronomy 24:14).

“Those who thrust aside the sojourner”

The infraction against hospitality to the displaced foreigner (ger) evokes, at best, a partiality that denies the Torah’s protection of the sojourner, to say nothing of the cultural obligation to hospitality. As the Torah strongly implies, to deny the ger is to deny Israel’s own past:

You shall not wrong a sojourner (ger, a displaced foreigner) or oppress him, for you were sojourners (gerim) in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21).

And again,

You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart (nephesh) of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (23:9).

This latter reminder seems to unify the Israelite with the sojourner on the level of Being, of nephesh, that which constitutes life-as-such: You know what it is to live the life of one whose life is constituted by its displacement, therefore,

“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

Within the accusation against the post-exilic Jewish civil-religious authority is this trace, this voice speaking up for the sojourner, stretching back to Egypt—even to Abram—along the contours of all Israel’s displacements. And more contemporaneously, the words of the prophet would ring true as recently as the Jews’ captivity as forced gerim in Persia. So then, to turn aside the foreigner now is an abuse of power which, by a movement one could call sorcery, the past is denied and the existing balance of power is cast as somehow eternal.

Decentering Power’s Understanding

The indictment is capped by something of an adverbial, having declared that God will judge those who do this and that “and do not fear me.” There is no singularity, no ground zero of causality; whether social injustice is the root of religious injustice or whether religious corruption leads to social inequities is irrelevant to the prophet’s message, for both are fundamentally intertwined. To fail in social justice is to fail in godly religion. On the one hand, the prophet’s audience chooses not to observe the social aspect of their religious choices; on the other, it chooses not to understand itself as making religious choices at all: each myopia develops with and underwrites the other.

Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?” (Malachi 3:7b)

“How shall we return, when we are right here? Are we not in Jerusalem, the Holy City? Do we not offer sacrifices? Are we not priests of Levi? Are we not Israelites, God’s chosen people?” This is religion which carries out its service in all the proper forms but in substance falls short, saying, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,” but does not know that it is wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

The fundamental operation which Malachi uncovers is the operation of faith to conceal injustice by enforcing a certain self-understanding, an understanding not merely that one is righteous, but that one is thereby unjustly treated and accused. This is a faith which does not respond to criticism except with counter-criticism: “How have you loved us?” “Where is the God of justice?” The fundamental condition for this operation to take place is the accumulation of social, economic, and/or cultural power. For it is power, both the acquisition of it and the desire for it, that provides the need for a religious self-preservation that ultimately wields faith for the benefit of itself (and the detriment of others). Malachi demonstrates that where such power-hermeneutics are in place, the counter-force must seek to decenter understanding in order to open the way for justice.


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