Hosea 1:2-10 introduces the metaphor that occupies chapters 1-2 and that resonates throughout the book -- a bad marriage that is saved by the loving forgiveness of the faithful partner.
The metaphor is full of both possibilities and problems. On the one hand, it communicates poignantly the consequences of infidelity, as well as the gracious, merciful, unfailingly loving character of God. On the other hand, it derives from a patriarchal context in which men were in charge, while women and children were subjugated. Thus, if not interpreted very carefully, the text may appear to authorize patriarchy and even to sanction the mistreatment of women and children.
Extreme caution is necessary, and some interpreters conclude that even the most sensitive exercise of caution is not sufficient to address the dangerous implications of the marriage metaphor in our social context. Katherine Sakenfeld articulates a mediating position: "Perhaps we need not abandon this metaphor; but we need to be more explicit about which aspects of the comparison are significant and which we should discount or reject as inappropriate."1
Hosea lived the metaphor (verses 2-3), although exactly what happened with "the historical Hosea" and his family life remains unclear. What we have in Hosea 1 is an interpretive retelling, not a biography. In any case, Gomer's infidelity represents Israel's unfaithfulness (see "whoredom" in verse 2). The traditional take on Hosea is that he called eighth-century Israel to repentance and reform in the religious sphere -- that is, away from the worship of Baal and the fertility rites that allegedly accompanied such idolatry -- whereas Amos, Hosea's contemporary, called Israel to repentance and reform in the social arena. But the contrast is overdrawn. As Ellen Davis points out, right religion and social justice belonged together in ancient Israel (and they still should).
In particular, the participation by priests (see Hosea 4) and the royal bureaucracy in the Baalistic system had the effect of promoting agricultural productivity -- that is, fertility -- to a position of ultimate importance. The Israelite shrines became centers of economic activity and excess, benefitting the priests and the royal house at the expense of ordinary Israelite farmers. Hosea's opposition to Baal was grounded as much in what we would call economics as it was in theology. Davis contends that Amos and Hosea "were probably the world's first agrarian writers," and she concludes, "Hosea is as much a prophet of social justice as is Amos, and he is equally concerned with the separation of farm families from their land."2
The result of Israel's theological/economic unfaithfulness was the rupture of the covenant bond between the people and God. The matter was not that God was punishing Israel, but rather that Israel had abandoned God. The reality of broken covenant is captured in the names of Gomer and Hosea's children (verses 4-9). The name "Jezreel" although pleasant-sounding enough ("he sows"), virtually drips blood. Not only was it the site of "Jehu's purge" (see 2 Kings 9-10), which is alluded to in verse 4 (and which involved the deaths of both the kings of Israel and Judah), but it was also the site of Naboth's vineyard (and Naboth was killed as a result of King Ahab's excessive desire for more land -- see 1 Kings 21 and above). To be sure, Jehu had the support of the prophet Elisha, but apparently, the prophet Hosea had seen enough of the violent consequences of royal oppression. He announced that divine sanction had been withdrawn.
The name of the daughter involves nothing short of what we would call child abuse. "Lo-ruhamah" is often translated "Not Pitied" (see "pity" twice in verses 6-7); but this is much too nice a translation. The Hebrew root in its noun form means "womb," so the name connotes something like "Not Motherly Loved," or perhaps even something like "Neglected" or "Abused." It is shocking, matched only perhaps by Israel's shocking rejection of God and God's will. Verse 7 seems to be a Judean redaction of an earlier formulation.
The third child's name, "Not My People," is an explicit reversal of the covenant formula (see "my people" in Exodus 3:7, 10; 6:7). The explanation of the name in verse 9 is more literally, "for you are not my people; and as for me, not 'I am' to you" -- thus another poignant allusion to the Exodus (see Exodus 3:14) and an indication of the rupture of the covenant relationship.
But immediately, bad news is followed by good news in 1:10. The effect is not to cancel the consequences articulated in verse 4-9, as if to say that grace is cheap. After all, the northern kingdom was destroyed in 722 BCE. Rather, the juxtaposition of judgment and promise is testimony to the character of God. The God of Israel does not will to punish, but rather to restore, because God is essentially gracious, merciful, and loving. The "punishment" amounts to the destructive consequences of Israel's unfaithful choices. It should be noted that the juxtaposition of judgment and promise is characteristic not only of the book of Hosea (see the same pattern in chapters 2 and 3, and note additional expressions of hope in chapters 11 and 14, following blocks of judgment in chapters 4-10 and 12-13), but also of virtually all the prophetic books in their final forms.
There are no Baal worshipers among us, but there are plenty of people devoted to economic "progress" that is yielding a decadent excess in the United States, while billions of people around the world (including some in the United States) are hungry and malnourished, and while "the land" (verse 2) -- that is, the environment -- is suffering mightily (see Hosea 4:1-3). Despite the unsustainability of this situation, many people persist in interpreting the excess as God's "blessing." Hosea would recognize what is happening among us, and he would not be pleased. Neither is God pleased with such unsustainability. Through the ancient words of Hosea, God continues to speak.
1Just Wives? Stories of Power and Survival in the Old Testament and Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 106.
2Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 120, 131.