Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10
The book of Hosea begins with a shocking command to the prophet, “Take a wife of znunim (whoredom/promiscuity/unfaithfulness) and have children of znunim.” God isn’t punishing Hosea. God is calling him to lengthy service as a communicator of God’s word and will. Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and the land to which they are inextricably bound, have committed znunim by “forsaking the Lord.” Hosea 1:2-11 does not specify the nature of Gomer’s znunim, but the rest of the book indicts Israel for many kinds of infidelity.
Carrying out these divinely commissioned sign acts would take many years, encompassing most or all of Hosea’s ministry.1 Yahweh’s words of judgment and promise in this pericope introduce the scope of the book’s message to its audience, including ancient Israel, Judah, and subsequent generations of God’s people. It wrestles with enduring theological questions about the extent and timing of God’s mercy and judgment.
Hosea’s sign actions introduce a metaphor of familial relationships to portray God’s grace, patience, judgment, mercy, and promise of restoration to Israel. To begin a marriage with a “wife of znunim” is appalling. Ezekiel 20:4-12 expounds on the astounding grace of God implied by this image, describing how God chose and delivered Israel from Egypt even though they did not forsake the idols they worshiped there. The husband and father as the head of the household may patiently withhold punishment, hoping for amendment of life. That same man may welcome back the unfaithful family member after discipline. Nehemiah 9:30-31 describes God’s similar treatment of Israel, minus the family metaphor.
Birth accounts in the Bible often include an interpretation of the child’s name. They typically express the parent’s testimony of faith in God (for example, Isaac in Genesis 21:5-6). God assigned a name to Isaiah’s son to convey a message about Assyria’s impending defeat of Aram and the northern kingdom (Isaiah 8:3-4). Hosea and Gomer’s children receive inauspicious names that epitomize Yahweh’s judgment on Israel.
Jezreel, “God sows,” has positive associations of abundant crops produced by the fertile land in the broad valley of that name in the northern kingdom. But God uses the name as an historical reference to the bloodshed there. Jehu began to establish his dynasty by killing King Joram and his mother Jezebel at Jezreel, a capital city of Israel (2 Kings 9) and completed his coup by killing everyone else from Ahab’s house, King Ahaziah of Judah and many of his relatives (2 Kings 10:1-17). For his violent excesses, Jehu’s own dynasty would end. Israel’s military power would be broken by Assyria. The positive potential inherent in the name Jezreel returns in 1:11.
There is no ambiguity in the second child’s name, lo ruhamah, “not pitied/not shown compassion.” The verb has the same root, rhm, as the noun rehem “womb.” This is the kind of mercy and compassion that a mother has for the fruit of her womb. God’s word interprets this negated passive verb in the active voice, “I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel…But I will have pity on the house of Judah…” (NRSV). The northern kingdom finally fell to Assyria in the eighth century BCE, but Judah survived and had an opportunity to repent. (Compare Jeremiah 3:6-10.)
Indictments of the northern kingdom fill most of the book of Hosea, supporting the charge of covenant breaking (8:1) and its consequences. The name given to the third child, lo ammi “not my people,” repudiates the covenant making formula, “You will be my people and I will be your God” (for example, Exodus 6:6-7).
The third child’s name will also be reversed from threat to promise. God’s promise of restoration applies to Israel the covenant people. They are descendants of Abraham and Jacob, to whom Yahweh promised offspring as numerous “as the sand of the sea” (Genesis 32:12). The promised new appellation for the people of Israel is more than a simple reversal of the covenant breaking name. They will be “the children of the Living God.”
The family as metaphor
Hosea’s audience, including the men who headed families, clans, and even the nation, find themselves represented in the metaphor as the children and wife “of znunim.” This accusation was meant to be profoundly offensive, to make them recognize the gravity of their betrayal so that they would repent.
Countless human societies have functioned with a male-headed family structure. Many still do. Recently many readers have found the assumption of the husband and father’s authority to punish his wife and children to be the most offensive feature of this familial metaphor.2 They have exposed the danger of portraying God as husband and father—it will tempt human husbands and fathers to think of themselves as gods to their families.
Hosea’s sign acts and explanatory oracles in chapter one have the opposite purpose. Israelite husbands and fathers are metaphorically children and wife. One can understand an image drawn from a different practice of family structure without duplicating that structure in one’s own life. The family metaphor is one way of making known God’s passionate attachment to God’s chosen people, how this attachment makes God vulnerable to the agony of their unfaithfulness, and that God’s love for them will nevertheless endure.
Hosea 1 provides a theological basis for a prayer like Psalm 85. God calls Hosea to a ministry that involves acting out a picture of Yahweh’s fidelity. Despite the rupture of the covenant relationship caused by Israel’s unfaithfulness, God’s motherly mercy will endure. The people’s faithfulness and the land itself will flourish.
- There may have been as many as four years between the births. Breastfeeding probably ended around age three.
- For example, Renita Weems. Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.