Criswell Theological Review 7.1 (1993) 1-14

[Copyright 1993 by Criswell College, cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon and Criswell Colleges and elsewhere]










Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary

Cochrane, Alberta TOL OWO



The Book of Hosea is the written record of the prophecies that Ho-

sea son of Beeri1, gave to the nation of Israel in the eighth century B.C.

The book primarily denounces Israel for apostasy against God and

warns of a coming judgment, but it also contains promises of restora-

tion (e.g., 3:4-5; 14:4-72). The book is perhaps best known for the

story of Hosea's sad marriage to Gomer. In structure, the book is di-

vided into two major sections: (1) chaps. 1-3, which deal with Hosea's

marriage and lessons it provides for Israel, and (2) chaps. 4-14, a col-

lection of various prophecies concerning Israel.


The Prophet and His Times


Nothing is known of Hosea the man apart from the matter of his

marriage to Gomer. The metaphors in 7:4-8 hardly prove that he was

a baker.3 All we know is that he was a prophet to the northern kingdom

of Israel.4

A great deal more is known, however, about his times. He tells us

that he ministered "during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and

Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of

Jehoash king of Israel" (1:1, NIV). Jeroboam II, who reigned from about


1 Assuming that yrixeB;-NB, means that Beeri, otherwise unknown, was Hosea's father

rather than an ancestor.

2 Throughout this essay, verse numbers refer to the English versification except in

footnotes where Hebrew text is cited.

3 Contrary to some interpreters. See R K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testa-

ment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969) 859.

4 J. L. Mays, Hosea, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969) 2, observes that Hosea

was apparently a young man, of marriageable age, when he became a prophet.




790 to 750 B.C., came to power while Israel's two enemies to the north,

Syria and Assyria, were in a period of internal struggle and weakness.

He was able to extend the borders of Israel while restoring the pros-

perity of the nation (2 Kgs 14:25-26). This period is often described as

Israel's "Indian Summer." Amos and Hosea make clear, however, that

the prosperity was not spread equally among the Israelites. A two-class

system developed in which the tedium and poverty of the lower

class contrasted strongly with the oppressiveness and glut of the upper

class. On Jeroboam's death, Israel fell into near anarchy as almost every

king was assassinated by his successor. This, combined with the rise of

an invigorated Assyria under Tiglath Pileser III (745-727 B.C.) and his

successors Shalmanesar V (727-722 B.C.) and Sargon II (722-705 B.C.),

sealed the fate of Israel.

Internal evidence suggests that Hosea ministered during the lat-

ter part of Jeroboam's reign and for some years following (Hezekiah's

reign did not begin until about 715 B.C.). This would indicate that he

lived to see the fall of Israel (722 B.C.) although he does not speak of

it as a past event.

One cannot easily correlate any text in Hosea with any known

event of contemporary history. Some scholars assert that Hosea 5

reflects the period of the Syro-Ephraimite war (735-733 B.C.).5 The

suggestion is weak, however, because in Hosea Judah appears to be

the aggressor (5:10; contrast the situation described in Isaiah 7). An-

dersen and Freedman more plausibly suggest that this text refers to

border disputes in the reign of Uzziah of Judah.6 In general, Hosea de-

scribes the volatile political situation following the death of Jeroboam

II in which power changed hands rapidly (e.g., 7:3-7; 8:4). It is reason-

able, therefore, to suppose that most of Hosea's extant messages come

from the decades of 755 to 735 B.C.


The Authorship and Compilation of Hosea


Few scholars today doubt that the bulk of the book comes from

the messages of Hosea himself, but many attribute the actual commit-

ment of his words to writing not to the prophet but to a group of dis-

ciples.7 This outlook on the writing of the prophetic books is not

founded on solid evidence, however. Although we know from the ex-

ample of Jeremiah 36 that prophets employed scribes, that text also

informs us that the prophets had a direct hand in the process of pro-


5 For example, H. W Wolff, Hosea, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974) xxi.

6 E I. Andersen and D. N. Freedman, Hosea, AB (New York: Doubleday, 1980) 34-35.

7 Cf. Wolff, Hosea, xxix-xxxii, and Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 53.




ducing written versions of their proclamations. At any rate, there is no

reason to doubt that the messages of Hosea come from the prophet


A number of scholars, however, contend that the book has a fair

number of redactional interpolations. One opinion is that the refer-

ences to Judah are from two Judaic redactions of the book; the first

was a "pro-Judah" redaction designed to distance Judah from the con-

demnation pronounced against Israel (e.g., 1:7; 3:5). The second was a

redaction that took the condemnatory oracles originally delivered

against Israel and redirected them toward Judah (e.g., 5:5; 6:11).8 This

position, too, stems more from the current habits of scholarship than

from any real evidence. It is more likely that Hosea regarded the Da-

vidic king in Jerusalem the legitimate anointed of Yahweh and hoped

that Judah would reject the apostasy of Israel (e.g., 4:15), but that he

knew that difficult days lay ahead for Judah as well.

A few scholars maintain that the "optimistic" oracles do not stem

from Hosea, but this tendency to regard the prophets as incapable of

complex attitudes regarding the place of Israel before God is rightly

fallen out of favor. In Hosea's case, the sayings of condemnation and

the sayings of salvation are so thoroughly intertwined, and the style is

so evidently uniform, that any effort to treat the positive statements as

secondary should be abandoned.9


The Hebrew Text of Hosea


Second only to Job, Hosea contains probably the most difficult

Hebrew in the Bible. Problem texts abound. For this reason, scholars

of recent generations quickly resorted to emendation of the text or re-

garded the LXX as a better representation of the Urtext than the MT.

More recently, scholars have been hesitant to emend the MT or ac-

cept the LXX; advances in Hebrew linguistics have allowed for new

approaches to the interpretation of enigmatic texts.10 Even so, prob-

lem passages remain.


8 Cf. Wolff, Hosea, xxxi-xxxii, and W. H. Schmidt, Introduction to the Old Testa-

ment (London: SCM, 1979) 204.

9 Cf. G. Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968) 422.

10 Contrast the following assessments across the generations. W. R. Harper (Amos

and Hosea, ICC [New York: Charles Scribner's Son, 1905] clxxiii) writes that Hosea "is

one of the most corrupt [texts] in the 0.T., the number of passages which almost defy in-

terpretation being extremely large." Andersen and Freedman (Hosea, 60) write that there

are "more than enough oddities and peculiarities which can be defended, interpreted,

and explained to undermine the hypothesis of extensive corruption."





The text of 5:2a, for example, is especially difficult and an enor-

mous variety of interpretations and emendations have been pro-

posed.11 The two most common renditions today are, "The rebels are

deep in slaughter" (NIV) and "a pit dug deep in Shittim" (NRSV [REB

is similar]). The former is an attempt to translate the unemended text

but is a questionable rendition of the Hebrew.12 The second interpre-

tation involves two emendations13 but fits the context well. The last

two lines of v 1 speak of a "snare at Mizpah" and a "net spread on Ta-

bor." The proposed "pit" obviously parallels "snare" and "net" just as

the proposed "Shittim" parallels "Mizpah" and "Tabor," and "I will

punish all of them" (5:2b) could be taken to refer to Mizpah, Tabor, and

Shittim together.14 Both renditions are therefore defensible.15 The

LXX, by the way, is significantly different.16

Therefore, although scholars rightly hold the text of the MT in

higher regard now than they did some years ago, one cannot slavishly

assume that the MT is correct. Other examples of disputed texts where

emendation is possible or likely could easily be given.17

Another question is whether or not Hosea is written as poetry or

prose. Our knowledge of classical Hebrew scansion being as limited as

it is, one cannot answer this question definitively. Scholars therefore

tend to take the middle way of describing Hosea as prophetic dis-

course with strong affinities to poetry.18 Andersen and Freedman,

working with the criterion that the definite article, the relative pro-


11 See Harper, Amos and Hosea, 267-72.

12 The MT reads Uqymif;h, MyFiWe hFAHEwav;. The noun hvAHEwa occurs only here, but it

could be taken as a feminine noun from FHw and thus mean "slaughter." The word

MyFiWe might be translated "rebels" on the basis of the root FUW found in Ps 40:5 and the

word MyFise ("deeds that swerve [?]") in Ps 101:3; cf. also the root FUw "to turn aside." The

verb Uqymif;h, means, "they make deep," although it might be taken adverbially to mean

"they are in deep." Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 386-88, support this translation al-

though they admit that the text is "largely unintelligible in its present form."

13 One must read tHEwa, "pit," for hFAHEWa "Shittim," for MyfiWe. Wolff, Hosea,

94; Mays, Hosea, 79; and D. Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, WBC (Waco: Word, 1987) 88-89 support

the emendations.

14 The change from the second person in v 1 to the third person in v 2a, however,

is a problem for this emendation.

15 On balance, I prefer to emend to "pit" and "Shittim." Y. Mazor, "Hosea 5.1-3: Be-

tween Compositional Rhetoric and Rhetorical Composition," JSOT 45 (1989) 119-20,

shows that in the emended version of the text, 5:1c-2 has precisely the same rhetorical

structure as 5:1ab.

16 It reads, o{ oi[ a]greu<ontej th>n qh<ran kate<phcan ("which the pursuers of the hunt

held fast"). The use of hunting imagery, however, could be taken as a support for the


17Cf. C. S. Ehrlich, "The Text of Hosea 1:9," JBL 104:1 (1985) 13-19.

18 Wolff, Hosea, xxiv, for example, speaks of Hosea having "elevated prose" that

can easily shift into "stricter poetic forms."




noun, and the definite object marker are more rare in poetry than in

prose, have found that these particles are more frequent in chaps. 1-3

than in 4-14. While the exact numbers for each passage of the book

vary,19 they support the impression many readers have of the book,

namely, that chaps. 1-3 are a more prosaic introduction while chaps.

4-14 constitute the more poetic main body of the prophecies.

Sometimes Hosea is taken to be a representative of a northern, Is-

raelite dialect of Hebrew. This deduction is not surprising in light of

the difficulties in the language, but we do not possess enough data to

conclude that his language was typical of a northern dialect.


The Imagery and Style of Hosea


Hosea uses striking images; a typical condemnation of Israel be-

gins with the simile, "Ephraim is like a dove" (7:11). He then portrays

Ephraim like a senseless bird fluttering between Egypt and Assyria in

search of a place of safety and straying far from God. In 6:4, he de-

clares that Israel's love is like a morning mist that quickly disappears

in the heat of the day. In 9:16 Ephraim is a blighted, withered plant

that bears no good fruit, which in context apparently refers equally to

good deeds and to children. Sometimes his imagery turns on a Hebrew

word play.20

Wolff observes that Hosea uses a wide variety of metaphors for

Yahweh; some are quite surprising. In addition to the traditional hus-

band (2:2), father (11:1), and physician (14:4) images, Yahweh is also

a fowler21 (7:12), a lion or leopard (13:7), a bear (13:8), a dew (14:5), a

green tree (14:8), and even decay or infection22 (5:12).23 Hosea can use

non-traditional and even shocking language to get his point across to a

hard-hearted and perhaps jaded people.

Hosea can turn his images in unexpected directions. In 7:4-7, the

nation is likened to a hot oven with the meaning that Israel is hot with

debauchery and intrigue. In 7:8, however, Ephraim is like a flat cake


19 Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 60-66.

20 In 8:9, the image of Ephraim as a wild ass may have its origin in a word play on

Myirap;x, and xr,P,. In 9:16, the prophet states that Ephraim (Myirap;x,) yields no fruit (yriP;). For

further examples, see P. A. Kruger, "Prophetic Imagery: On Metaphors and Similes in

the Book of Hosea," J Northwest Semitic Languages 14 (1988) 143-51.

21 For further discussion of this metaphor, see P. A Kruger, "The Divine Net in Hosea

7:12," Eph Th L 68 (1992) 132-36.

22 The line hdAUhy; tybel; bqArAkAv; MyirAp;x,l; wfAkA ynixEva is generally rendered something

like, "I am like a moth to Ephraim, like rot to the people of Judah" (NIV). Wolff (Hosea, 104)

makes a good case for translating wfa as "pus." See also Stuart, Hosea, 105. Andersen and

Freedman (Hosea, 412) takes it to mean "maggots." Cf. NRSV.

23 Wolff, Hosea, xxiv.




not turned over; instead of being the oven that produces the heat, Israel

is dough in the oven and is sure to be burnt on the bottom. The mean-

ing is evidently that Israel's associating with the gentiles is sure to re-

sult in being "burnt," i.e., suffering loss.24

Hosea also brings penetrating pathos to his message through the

use of questions in the mouth of God. A particularly strong example is

11:8 (NIV): "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you

over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like

Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is

aroused." See also 6:4 and 8:5. Through the anthropomorphism of God

seeming to be at wit's end about his people's stubborn sinfulness, Ho-

sea transforms the abstraction of divine compassion into vivid reality.25

A difficulty in interpreting Hosea is his tendency to use short,

pithy declarations rather than longer prophetic discourse. Context is

of limited value in interpreting some passages because sometimes one

can scarcely be sure where one text breaks off and another begins.

This is not to say that it is impossible to demonstrate structure in a

larger text. On the basis of an analysis of 5:1-3 and 5:15, Y. Mazor sees

rhetorical unity in chap. 5;26 J. Lundbom, similarly, uses an inclusio

pattern to maintain the unity of 4:4b-9a.27 Even so, large scale rhetori-

cal structure is not nearly so obvious in Hosea as in some other pro-

phetic books.

At times, the sayings seem almost contradictory. In 13:14-16, for

example, the text promises that God will redeem Israel and then

abruptly declares that he will have no compassion28 on the nation and

that their children will be slain and their pregnant mothers ripped

open. The prophet obviously intends for the reader to take in each

short declaration in sequence, without transitions, so that the reader

might fully experience the jolting effect of these pronouncements.

Rather than distill his message down to a logically consistent whole,

he confronts the reader with diverse truths presented in the most


24 Thus C. E Keil, The Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.) 1:107.

25 On the other hand, these questions do not have the significance that J. G. Janzen

("Metaphor and Reality in Hosea 11," Semeia 24 [1982] 7-44) ascribes to them. Janzen is

operating in the framework of process theology and sees here evidence of existential de-

velopment in God.

26 Mazor, "Hosea 5.1-3," 115-26.

27 J. R Lundbom, "Contentious Priests and Contentious People in Hosea 4:1-10,"

VT 36 (1986) 52-70. See also Lundbom's analysis of 4:11-14, "Poetic Structure and Pro-

phetic Rhetoric in Hosea," VT 29 (1979) 300-308.

28 Although the meaning of MHano is not certain (it is a hapax legomenon), it proba-

bly means "compassion" here. Cf. NIV; NRSV; and REB. Andersen and Freedman (Ho-

sea, 625, 640) take it to mean "the cause of sorrow."




stark and unqualified possible form. This forces the reader to reckon

with the full impact of his words.


Form Criticism and Hosea


A number of scholars, principally Wolff, attempt to apply form

criticism to Hosea. Wolff observes that Hosea uses, for example, the

"prophetic speech," the "divine speech," the "lament," and the "exhor-

tation." The "disputation"29 is crucial to his analysis; the Book of Ho-

sea is at the same time Yahweh's legal indictment against Israel and

the prophet's dispute with his fellow Israelites. Wolff imagines Hosea

addressing the audience in short "kerygmatic units" between which

the audience may have responded with questions or objections. In this

way, Wolff accounts for the somewhat choppy, uneven style of Hosea

The analogy of the court dispute at the city gate is the backdrop for

Hosea. Wolff also believes that some addresses were given to small

circles of disciples rather than to larger, open crowds (e.g., 11:1-11).30

Other scholars are less certain about form criticism as applied to

Hosea. Stuart, for example, states that "typical prophetic formal com-

position characteristics are either so subtly combined or so artistically

modified in Hosea's oracles that one has to consider each oracle on an

ad hoc basis."31 This is tantamount to saying that traditional form criti-

cism is impossible in Hosea, since form criticism by definition is not ad

hoc but seeks to demonstrate repeated, meaningful patterns in the lit-

erature (e.g., the forms observable in the Psalms). Fohrer is specifically

skeptical about Wolff's reconstructed Sitzen im Leben for his "keryg-

matic units,"32 and Andersen and Freedman share that skepticism.33 In-

deed, Wolff's analyses are undermined by their very complexity as he

seeks to demonstrate which lines are original, which are redactional,

why the oration is so irregular, and how the whole fits into its pur-

ported setting.34 The best one can say is that although one may well

identify a number of motifs in Hosea, and that an atmosphere of legal

dispute is no doubt deliberately created in the book, true form critical

investigation has yet to yield convincing results.


29 Hebrew: byri.

30 Wolf, Hosea, xxiii-xxx. Wolff believes that larger prophetic orations are marked

by the naming of the addressee, the beginning of a new theme, and the absence of a


31 Stuart, Hosea, 8.

32 Fohrer, Introduction, 421-22.

33 Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 72, 127.

34 Cf. Wolff, Hosea, 74-76, as an example of this.




The Marriage to Gomer


The story of Hosea's marriage to Gomer is at the same time both

the dominant theological metaphor and the major interpretive prob-

lem of Hosea That the faithless wife is symbolic of Israel's apostasy is

beyond doubt; more questionable is the actual interpretation of chaps.

1 and 3. Although there is risk of oversimplification, common interpre-

tations of these texts may be set forth in the following schema.


I. Chapters 1-3 are a parable or allegory with no historical basis.

At least two variants of this interpretation are proposed.

A. The whole story is a vision and has no relationship to Ho-

sea's actual marriage and family life.35

B. Gomer was a real but faithful wife and chap. 1 is only in-

dicative of Israel's sin; in chap. 3, Hosea shows kindness to

a wretched prostitute (not his wife) as a prophetic symbol of

God's compassion on Israel.36

II. Chapters 1 and 3 are historical but refer to two different

women. Hosea first married the prostitute Gomer, at the begin-

ning of his prophetic ministry, to illustrate Israel's sin against

God. Later in his ministry he married a second woman, also a

prostitute, to illustrate God's compassion and the hope of salva-

tion.37 Interpretation I. B. above could also be considered a vari-

ant of this interpretation.

III. Chapters 1 and 3 are historical and refer to the same woman

(Gomer). At least three interpretations follow this reasoning.

A. God commanded Hosea to marry an immoral woman. He did

so, and she gave him one son but soon returned to her old

ways and bore him two children of doubtful paternity (1:2-

9). Hosea then apparently separated from her or was aban-

doned by her (2:2a). She fell into poverty and disgrace, and

eventually into slavery. Hosea bought her out of slavery

and restored her to the family (3:1-3).38

B. Essentially the same as III. A., a variant interpretation seeks

to avoid the scandal of God commanding Hosea to marry a

flagrantly immoral woman by asserting that the reference


35 Thus J. Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids:

Baker, n.d.) 1:43-45. Calvin misses the point when he argues that there is no reason it

could not have been a vision; the onus is on him to show that it was a vision.

36 R H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Harper and Brothers,

1941) 567-70.

37 Fohrer, Introduction, 420-21.

38 For example, J. Limburg, Hosea-Micah, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox,

1988) 8-15.




to Gomer's immorality in 1:2 is proleptic, or that when he

married her she had tendencies to immorality but had not

yet actually engaged in extramarital sex, or that Hosea did

not deliberately marry a wanton woman but only retrospec-

tively realized that his unhappy marriage was actually, in

the providence of God, a portrayal of God's relationship to


C. Chapters 1 and 3 are variant accounts of the same event;

no sequence is intended.40 Hosea was commanded to marry

a prostitute (1:2), he purchased Gomer from a slave market

(1:3; 3:1-3), and then had one child by her before she re-

turned to her immorality (1:3-9). The word "again" in 3:1

is an editorial insertion.


Which of these interpretations is preferable? First of all, the view

that the whole narrative is parabolic and non-historical must be re-

jected out of hand. Hosea could not have credibly proclaimed the story

of his wayward wife as the representation of Israel's spiritual harlotry

if at the same time he was living as a happily married man.41 More-

over, it is implausible that he would have presented his wife in the

terms of chap. 1 if in fact she was a woman of virtue.

The second major interpretation, that two separate women are in

view here, is also unlikely. While it is true that the Hebrew of 3:1 is

indefinite ("love a woman loved by another"42) and does not specifically

say, "your wife, context strongly suggests that Gomer is intended. An-

dersen and Freedman offer several reasons for believing that the same

woman is meant and that a sequence of events from chap. 1 to chap. 3

is intended. First, the woman of 3:1 is already an adulteress, which sug-

gests continuity with chap. 1. Second, the word "again" in 3:1 implies

continuity.43 Third, in chap. 1 he was to marry an immoral woman but

in 3:1 he was to love a wife already fallen. This, too, suggests develop-

ment. Fourth, 3:3 does not describe the training of a new wife but the

discipline of a wayward wife. This also goes against interpretation

III. C.44


39 Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 155-70. cf. G. Archer, A Survey of Old Testa-

ment Introduction (Chicago: Moody, 1974) 323.

40 Cf. the discussion in C. H. Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Pro-

phetic Books (Chicago: Moody, 1986) 91. Bullock cites R. Gordis (HUCA 25 [1954] 9-35)

as holding to this view.

41 Cf. J. A Soggin, Introduction to the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster,

1976) 249.

42 Translating fEre tbEhuxE hw.Axi-bhEc<.

43 This is true regardless of whether dOf is connected to j`le or rm,xyovE.

44 Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 293. They also give a fifth argument related to

their interpretation of 2:6 (MT = 2:8).




Interpretation III. C. is not persuasive for the reason given above

and also because it fails to serve as an adequate model for Hosea's

theological message. Hosea not only describes the covenant violation

and punishment of Israel, he also speaks of Israel's restoration and

healing. If one treats chap. 3 simply as a doublet of chap. 1, one loses

that sequence in the analogy. Also, the language of chap. 2 favors read-

ing chap. 3 as a subsequent development.

Interpretation III. A., in spite of (or perhaps because of) the

offenses it carries, is the most plausible explanation of the text. The ar-

gument that Hosea was told to marry a woman described "prolepti-

cally" as immoral or that she merely had promiscuous tendencies but

had not yet actually committed any immoral acts is meaningless. Apart

from the fact that there is no credible argument that the Hebrew of

1:2 means, "a woman who is going to commit fornication,"45 one must

recognize that in Hosea's actual situation the distinction would have

been immaterial. What could be worse than marrying a woman with

full knowledge that she would be faithless in years to come? In that

context, concern about what she may have done prior to the marriage

quickly loses relevance. One may of course argue that Hosea only ret-

rospectively saw the hand of God in the events of his unhappy mar-

riage, but that flies in the face of the most natural reading of 1:2-3,

that first he was told by God to marry an immoral woman and then he

did it. Finally, elements in the text imply that Gomer was in fact a


The marriage to Gomer was the most poignant, painful, and dra-

matic "prophetic speech-act" in the Old Testament.47 Other prophets also

did things that were strange, difficult, and even shameful in order to con-

vey their message to Israel. Isaiah walked about naked and barefoot for

three years as a sign of the coming exile of Egypt and Cush (Isa 20:3-5).

Ezekiel lay on his side before a representation of Jerusalem under siege

every day for over a year and during that time ate food cooked with ma-

nure (Ezekiel 4). Closer to Hosea's condition, he was also forbidden to

mourn when his wife died (24:15-18). Jeremiah, by contrast, was not al-

lowed to marry (Jer 16:2). In short, it was not unusual for the prophets


45 Although the phrase MyniUnz; tw,xe is unusual and its precise meaning is debated,

there is little reason to regard it as proleptic or as a description of a psychological ten-

dency. Indeed, Gomer may well have been a prostitute prior to the marriage, although

we cannot be certain.

46 Comparing ancient Near Eastern customs, P. A Kruger ("Israel, the Harlot,"

J Northwest Semitic Languages 11 [1983] 107-16) observes that 2:5b refers to the fee

paid a prostitute and that 2:2b may allude to ornaments worn by prostitutes.

47 Mays (Hosea, 24) who translates Hos 1:2a as, "The beginning of Yahweh's speak-

ing through Hosea," comments that the "marriage was not a way for Yahweh to speak to

Hosea but through him" (emphasis original).




to behave in a manner contrary to custom and normal human longing in

order to give their words dramatic force.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the history of Hosea's mar-

riage is that he would take Gomer back after she had been with other

men. Such a practice contradicts Deut 24:1-4. This does not refute the

interpretation of Hosea 1-3 proposed here but in a paradoxical man-

ner confirms it. From the standpoint of Israel's legal tradition, it was

unthinkable that a man would take back an unfaithful wife who had

been separated from him and living with other men.48 But when Ho-

sea bought her out of slavery and restored her to the family,49 he il-

lustrated in the most profound way possible the depth of God's grace.

Finally, evangelicals should know that feminist interpreters ap-

proach Hosea from a radically different direction, one in which Gomer

is more victim than villain. Some accuse Hos 2:3-6 of endorsing sexual

violence toward women.50 Dijk-Hemmes develops a more abstract but

more radical interpretation. She argues that Hosea gives us distorted

fragments of Gomer's love poetry-love songs that were analogous to

the woman's parts in Song of Songs. In this reconstruction, these love

songs extolled the erotic and nurturing power of the woman/goddess,

but Hosea misconstrued them in order to crush the religion of the

mother-goddess and establish patriarchal, oppressive religion.51


48 Although Hosea may not have been in technical violation of Deut 24:1-4 since,

as far as we can tell from the text, he did not give her a written certificate of divorce.

D. B. Wyrtzen ("The Theological Center of Hosea," BSac 141 [1984] 320-21) on the other

hand, argues that 2:2 represents an actual divorce rather than separation. Also, the act of

publicly stripping a woman taken in adultery was an outraged husband's ritual of di-

vorce elsewhere in the ancient Near East; cf. Kruger, "Israel, the Harlot," 111-12.

49The precise significance of j`yilAxe ynixE-Mgav; wyxil; yyih;ti xlov; ("and you shall not be for

a man but indeed I [shall be] to you") in 3:3 is widely debated. It would appear that a

period of isolation for Gomer is in view after which Hosea perhaps resumed marital re-

lations with her. Cf. Wolff, Hosea, 61-62; Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 301-5. It is of

course possible that he did not resume normal sexual relations with her.

50 Cf. R J. Weems, "Gomer: Victim of Violence or Victim of Metaphor?" Semeia 47

(1989) 87-104, and T D. Setel, "Prophets and Pornography: Female Sexual Imagery in

Hosea," in L. Russell, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster,

1985) 86-95. It is not sufficient to respond to this allegation by saying that Hosea 2 is

"only a metaphor" and therefore does not condone abuse of women. A meaningful evan-

gelical interpretation of Hosea 2 must come in the context of a fully developed theology

of family life.

51 E van Dijk-Hemmes, "The Imagination of Power and the Power of Imagination:

An Intertextual Analysis of Two Biblical Love Songs," JSOT 44 (1989) 75-88. Apart from

the fact that the representation of Gomer singing love-songs analogous to Song of Songs

is pure hypothesis, one should note that Song of Songs does not promote goddess religion

(see my volume on Song of Songs in the New American Commentary) and that Hosea is

not so much in a struggle against the goddess as he is in a contest against Baal, the meta-

phorical rival of Yahweh (2:16-17). Cf. Mays, Hosea, 11-12.




The Theology of Hosea


Readers understandably interpret Hosea through the metaphor of

the unfaithful wife as a representative of Israel. Childs explains the

message behind the marriage to Gomer as a metaphor that not only

addresses Hosea's generation of wayward Israelites but reaches back

to describe the entire history of the nation (including Judah).52 In

short, the story of his marriage retells the whole sad experience of the

covenant people. Ezekiel draws upon the marriage image and retells it

in Ezekiel 16 with Jerusalem playing the part of the unfaithful wife.

The importance of "faithfulness" in Hosea, as well as the metaphor of

the "lawsuit; naturally merge into the marriage metaphor.53 Israel

should have shown fidelity to the covenant just as a wife should show

fidelity to her marriage vows, and Israel now faces the indictment of

God just as an adulteress faces the charges brought by her husband.54

It would be incorrect, however, to assume that this is the whole of

Hosea's message. In chaps. 4-14, although the analogy of the wayward

wife never disappears entirely, Hosea does not dwell upon it but rather

uses other metaphors for Israel. In 11:1, for example, Israel is not a

wife but a son. In 5:13-6:3, the image of Israel and Judah as people

suffering from disease and wounds controls the text (cf. Isa 1 :5-6). It

would be a mistake to expound the whole of Hosea as if the picture of

the fallen wife dominated every passage, for clearly it does not.

Hosea's message contains, as one would expect, a great deal of

condemnation. He particularly abhors the degenerate priesthood of Is-

rael (e.g., 4:4-9). Indeed, he regards them as little better than a gang of

thugs (6:9). He also has little respect for Israel's kings and in 8:4 ap-

pears to allude to the rapid succession of kings after Jeroboam II. The

mention of only Jeroboam II in the title (1:1) may in fact imply that

Hosea considered him to be the last king of Israel with any shred of


At the same time, no other biblical text so vividly portrays the per-

sonal love of God. The vivid picture of God as a loving parent remem-

bering when he taught his now deviant child to walk (11:3) is

unsurpassed in tenderness and pathos.


52 B. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: For-

tress, 1979) 381.

53 Various forms of the root dsh ("faithfulness") occur in (Hebrew text) 2:21; 4:1;

6:4, 6; 10:12; 12:17. Various forms of the root byri ("lawsuit" or "contention") occur in 2:4;

4:1, 4; 12:3. 4:1 is especially significant in that it has both roots and is to some degree

programmatic for the whole of 4:1-14:9.

54 This metaphor does not occur elsewhere in the ancient Near East for the rela-

tionship between a god and his followers according to Kruger ("Israel, the Harlot," 107).



Hosea makes allusions to, and builds his theology upon, the Torah.

U. Cassuto points to many examples of parallels between Hosea and

the Pentateuch, and conclusively shows that Hosea was dependent on

the Law rather than the other way around.55 A number of scholars rec-

ognize Hos 12:1-6, where the prophet alludes to Genesis 25 and 32, as

an example of "inner" biblical exegesis that can serve as a guide in the

interpretation and application of Scripture.56 Stuart demonstrates that

not only Hosea but other prophets also looked back to the "curses and

blessings" of the covenant as a primary source for their messages.57

Also, when God curses the land and its inhabitants in Hos 4:3, he does

so in a sequence that is the reverse of the creation narrative of Genesis

1 and thus nullifies the blessings of creation.58 In short, Hosea shows

us that sound theology is based upon the Canon.

A remarkable feature of Hosea is that it ends with a wisdom saying

comparable to Prov 1:1; 30:4-6 and Eccl 12:13-14: "Who is wise? He

will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them.

The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the re-

bellious stumble in them" (Hos 14:9, NIV). In one sense this is not sur-

prising because Hosea's book is characterized by the pithy, aphoristic

statements common in wisdom. It is remarkable, however, for a

prophet to end with so obvious a wisdom statement. Scholars generally

regard the verse as redactional, but that conclusion is unnecessary.59

The self-conscious admission that the text is difficult to understand

refers to the paradoxical way in which it presents its truths. Gross


55 "The Prophet Hosea and the Books of the Pentateuch, reprinted in U. Cassuto,

Biblical and Oriental Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1973) 1:79-100. For further com-

ment, see D. A Garrett, Rethinking Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991) 54-55. Con-

trast J. Day, "Pre-Deuteronomic Allusions to the Covenant in Hosea and Psalm 78; VT

36 (1986) 1-12.

56 Not surprisingly, interpretations differ. W. J. Kaiser, Jr. ("Inner Biblical Exegesis

as a Model for Bridging the 'Then' and 'Now' Gap: Hos 12:1-6, JETS 28 [1985] 33-46)

develops an evangelical model. S. L. McKenzie ("The Jacob Tradition in Hosea 12:4-5;

VT 36 [1983] 311-22) operates in the documentary hypothesis framework but argues

that Hosea is giving a parody of a blessing that was pronounced at Bethel in order to

condemn the cult at the shrine and equate the people with the deceitfulness of Jacob

L. M. Eslinger ("Hosea 12:5a and Genesis 32:29: A Study in Inner Biblical Exegesis;

JSOT 18 [1980] 91-99) argues that the Hosea text is based on the Genesis text but has

radically reinterpreted it.

57 Stuart, Hosea, xxxi-xlii; 7-8; passim.

58 The sequence in Hosea is people, beasts, birds, and fish; contrast Gen 1:20-27. It

contains the verb Jsx, which is important in other creation reversal narratives (cf. Zeph

1:2-3 and Jer 8:13). See M. Deroche, "The Reversal of Creation in Hosea," VT 31 (1981)


59 Wolff (Hosea, 239) who regards the verse as redactional, nevertheless observes

that it contains the typical Hosean word "stumble" (lwk) used here and in 4:5; 5:5; 14:2.



infidelity leads to a divorce that, contrary to Law and custom, is re-

solved in reconciliation. Terrible judgment and unfailing compassion,

as well as promises of absolute destruction and of healing restoration,

are set side-by-side with no guide to how all of this is to work itself out.

Convoluted as it all may seem, the final verse assures the reader that

Yahweh's ways are in fact straight and urges that the true path to un-

derstanding and life is through submission and obedience.



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