< July 28, 2019 >

Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10

 

In Hosea 1, God commands the prophet Hosea to marry a promiscuous woman named Gomer, whose unfaithfulness will become a living metaphor for the Israelites’ religious apostasy.

Hosea is further told to give his children symbolic names that communicate God’s displeasure with the people of Israel.

At the end of the chapter, however, those names are reversed to show the restoration of the people to God’s favor. (The lectionary reading only includes part of the reversal, which continues in Hosea 1:11--2:1 in most English Bible translations; the chapter division comes one verse earlier in the Hebrew Bible.) Hosea 2 and 3 also present Hosea’s family life as an analogy for God’s relationship to Israel, although the exact relationship among the three chapters remains debated.

For some readers of the Bible, these chapters tell a deeply moving story about a God whose mercy cannot be exhausted by human unfaithfulness and rejection. For other readers, however, they depict an abusive marriage, with children caught helplessly in the middle, and then horrifically suggest that God behaves similarly when dealing with humans. The preacher who would address this text must exercise great caution and sensitivity.

What about Gomer?

Hosea’s wife is named only once in the text: “Gomer, daughter of Diblaim” (verse 3). Yet many interpreters have constructed elaborate, even lurid backstories for her. It was commonly proposed in twentieth-century commentaries that she was a temple prostitute who had sex with priests of the god Baal as part of a fertility ritual. Not only does this have no basis in the text, but more recent scholarship has widely concluded that temple prostitution was never part of ancient Syro-Palestinian religion in the first place. The Hebrew text of Hosea 1:2 doesn’t even call Gomer a prostitute. “Promiscuous woman” is a more accurate translation than “wife of whoredom.”

The fact is, we learn almost nothing about Gomer in this text—and that’s the problem! As the mother of three children whose symbolic names make them living prophecies, she plays a central role in the story, yet we have no access to her perspective. (In Isaiah 8:1, by contrast, the mother of Isaiah’s child is called a prophet in her own right.) How does Gomer feel about marrying Hosea? How would she respond to the label “promiscuous”? Does she assent to naming her daughter Lo-Ruhamah (“Not-Loved”)? To preach responsibly about Hosea 1, one should acknowledge which voices are heard in this text, and which voices aren’t. This could encourage further reflection on who gets to speak for themselves in our society, and who has their identify defined for them without getting to weigh in.

Hosea 1 employs a literary motif that biblical scholars call the “prophetic marriage metaphor” (see also Isaiah 1; Jeremiah 2-4; Ezekiel 16, 23). This metaphor represents God as a husband and God’s people as an unfaithful wife. It criticizes the worship of other deities as spiritual adultery, while emphasizing God’s mercy in restoring the broken relationship. The metaphor assumes a hierarchical view of marriage, in which the husband has considerable power over the wife.1 As many feminist biblical interpreters observe, it promotes harmful views of women by associating maleness with God and femaleness with sin. In many cases, the metaphor implicitly endorses domestic violence; the cycle of harsh punishment followed by tender reconciliation disturbingly echoes behavior associated with abusive husbands or partners. Such associations aren’t prominent in Hosea 1, but they come to the fore in Hosea 2, which is included in the Year B lectionary cycle. Although the marriage metaphor offers emotionally poignant language for thinking about the divine-human relationship, contemporary interpreters should consider what different metaphors might better help us imagine God’s love and mercy.

War crimes at Jezreel

The names of Gomer’s last two children, Lo-Ruhamah (“Not-Loved”) and Lo-Ammi (“Not-My-People”), articulate God’s rejection of Israel for worshiping other deities. But the name of her first child, Jezreel, has a different offense in view. It commemorates the place where a military official named Jehu usurped the throne of Israel by assassinating members of the previous ruling family and slaughtering their descendants (see 2 Kings 9-10). Set nearly a century later, during the reign of Jehu’s great-grandson Jeroboam II, Hosea 1:4 threatens that “the house of Jehu” will be held accountable for “the blood of Jezreel.” Later readers would have associated this prophecy both with the end of Jehu’s dynasty, when Jeroboam’s son Zechariah was assassinated, and with the conquest of Israel by Assyria a few decades later.

Hosea’s critique of Jehu’s political violence is especially striking because, according to 2 Kings, it was sanctioned by God and authorized by the prophet Elisha. The coup ended the state-sponsored Baal worship introduced by Ahab and Jezebel, and it avenged their murder of Naboth, which also took place at Jezreel (see 1 Kings 21). Given the antipathy toward Baal worship expressed throughout the book of Hosea, one might have expected its editors to view Jehu’s actions positively. Instead, they unequivocally condemn the bloodshed with which his dynasty began. The ends don’t always justify the means!

As acts of religious and political violence increase in our own time, these texts offer an opportunity to reflect upon the complex relationship between violence and justice. Hosea 1 claims that God condemns indiscriminate violence, even when it’s in the service of an otherwise just cause. On the other hand, 2 Kings reminds us that, in an imperfect world, justice can sometimes only be (partially) achieved by violence. And both texts recognize that acts of violence continue to have profound societal effects decades or even centuries after they were committed. For the preacher who wishes to avoid some of the more ethically problematic aspects of the marriage metaphor, this topic offers another direction for preaching and teaching about Hosea 1.


Notes:

  1. Julia O’Brien, Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 31-48.