Hosea 1-3: Love Triumphant

Boo Heflin  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 36 - Fall 1993

Introduction

Three major themes are reflected in the book of Hosea: First, that God suffers exceedingly because of human rebellion against him; second, that God loves unconditionally; and third, that God forgives completely. It is apparent that the prophet Hosea learned these timeless truths out of the fire of personal experience. It was his tragic lot in life to have an unfaithful wife and a broken home. While Hosea was too modest to give us a detailed ac­count of his personal struggle, he shared enough to let us know that in the profound tragedy of his broken marriage, his message took on flesh and life. His theology found meaning and understanding. Surely our best theology is not that of the head, but rather of the heart.

The little that Hosea does tell us of his personal crisis is found in chapters 1-3 of his book. These chapters are generally recognized by Old Testament scholarship to constitute the first major division of the book. Here Hosea describes-sometimes in rather veiled fashion-his marital crisis and its analogy with the marriage relationship of God and Israel. There is little doubt that in the context of the book Hosea’s major emphasis is on the God/Israel relationship, but his own personal struggle underlies the message. Thus, the two marriages – God/Israel and Hosea/Gomer – are interwoven in the fabric of the prophet’s proclamation.

 

Hosea 1:1-The Divine/Human Word
in Tumultuous Times

The book of Hosea begins with an introductory formula common to other books of the minor prophets (see Joel 1:1; Mic. 1:1; Zeph. 1:1). This introduction or title gives information about the book’s author, his family, and the date of his prophetic activity.

The Authorship of the Book

We are not left guessing as to the book’s author. The first phrase of the title declares: “The Word of Yahweh that came to Hosea.” In other words, while the human writer was Hosea, the ultimate author is Yahweh himself. The word, the message, the great theological themes of the book are from God. Certainly the prophet perceived his proclamation as divine word.

However, Hosea’s own role in the matter should not be negated. Though he was to be Yahweh’s messenger, he was not a programmed robot. In fact, as mentioned above, it was through Hosea’s own living experience with Gomer and with God that his message was clarified and shaped. The Hebrew word translated “came” is perhaps better understood in this context by translations such as “happened” or   “experienced.” The Word “happened” to Hosea; he “experienced” the Word as the living reality of God’s presence.

The title thus verifies that the book of Hosea is a product of divine revelation through human instrumentality. It is both Word of God and word of man. The human factor in the prophetic word in no way denies the book’s authority, which comes from God alone.

The Father of Hosea

The only member of Hosea’s family mentioned in the title is his father Beeri. We know absolutely nothing about this man. No mention of him is made outside this verse in the entire Bible.[1]Another man named Beeri is mentioned in Gen. 26:34. He lived several centuries earlier than Hosea’s father. His name comes from a root meaning “a well,” but if there is any significance to this, we are ignorant of it today. Jewish tradition recognized Beeri as a prophet, but there is no evidence to verify this view. Some identify him with the Reubenite leader Beerah mentioned in 1 Chron. 5:6. Though the two men lived in the same century, there is nothing to link them. Perhaps Beeri was a man of faith because he named his son Hosea, which means “salvation.” That, too, is speculation. The truth of the matter is that Beeri is one of the real mystery figures of the Old Testament.

The Date of Hosea’s Ministry

The final part of the title places Hosea’s ministry within the reigns of five kings-Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah in Judah and Jeroboam II in Israel. The latter reigned from 786-746 B.C.; Uzziah’s reign began in 783 B.C., while Hezekiah’s ended in 686 B.C. Therefore, Hosea’s ministry is placed in the period from 786-686 B.C. We can be rather certain he did not preach that entire century. Clues in the book would indicate that his ministry started in the last years of Jeroboam’s reign-most scholars suggest 750 B.C. as an approximate date. There is some evidence that he was still preaching in the turbulent final years of the northern kingdom.[2]Hoshea, the last Israelite king, was captured by the Assyrian Shalrnaneser V in 724 B.C. Even though they then had no king, the people of Samaria continued to fight the Assyrian invaders for two years until they were defeated. Hos. 13:10 seems to reflect the time when there was no king in Israel, while Hos. 13:16 appears to antic­ipate the imminent fall of Samaria. If Hos. 13:10 and 13:16 have been correctly interpreted, it is safe to conclude that Hosea was still preaching as late as 724—722 B.c. (There is no evidence that he preached after Samaria’s fall.) It should be noted, however, that not all scholars agree with this view. Thus, the internal evidence from the book allows us to date Hosea’s ministry from 750-722 B.C.

These decades constitute the most chaotic period in the history of the northern kingdom. The prosperity and stability of Jeroboam’s reign was replaced with hardship and instability. Internal political unrest became a fact of life. The threat of Assyria increased with every passing day until finally Israel was destroyed. It was during these tumultuous times-as Israel suffered in its death throes-that Hosea, called by God, proclaimed the divine Word.[3]There are some curious problems in the final section of the ti­tle. Why, for example, are the kings of Judah mentioned before the Israelite king Jeroboam when it is evident that Hosea’s ministry was in Israel? Why are the six Israelite kings (Zachariah, Shallum, Menaham, Pekahiah, Pekah, Hoshea) who reigned after Jeroboam not mentioned, while the Judean kings of the same period are included? Why is Hezekiah mentioned when there is no evidence Hosea preached during his reign? Did Hosea escape to Judah after 722 B.c. and continue his ministry there?

There are no final answers to these questions. The author of the title-be it Hosea himself or a later editor as most scholars be­lieve–simply gave us the “facts.” It is left to the modern commen­tator to interpret-and much of what we say is purely speculative It is a common conclusion that the Judean kings were placed first because the book was finalized for the canon in Judah after Israel’s fall. Perhaps Hezekiah was mentioned to show readers in Judah that Hosea was a contemporary of the great Judean prophet Isaiah (compare Isa. 1:1 with Hos. 1:1). However, beyond these brief suggestions, there is little we can say, nothing with certainty.

 

Hosea 1:2-2:1-Two Marriages in Trouble

This section of the book sets the stage for the remainder. Here we are informed of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and the subsequent problems which develop. Yet one does not read far without realizing that more is involved than the prophet’s marital crisis. At issue also is Yahweh’s marriage to Israel and the nation’s infidelity. Two marriages are in trouble because two wives are unfaithful. As Hosea tells the story, he shifts back and forth between the two marriages with the primary emphasis placed on the God/ Israel relationship. Yet all is not lost; there is hope. The passage ends on a positive note.

 

Hosea 1:2-3a-The Marriage
of Hosea and Gomer

God’s initial instruction to Hosea is given in verse 2. The Hebrew literally reads: “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredoms.” Few Old Testament passages have demanded the attention of scholars more than this one; few passages have caused as much consternation for modern readers. How could the holy God ask a prophet to marry a prostitute? How do we interpret the marriage of Hosea and Gomer?

As Brevard Childs says, there is actually a “nest of problems” involved in the interpretation of this difficult issue.[4]Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 374. First, what is the nature of the story in chapter 1 and in chapter 3, the companion passage? Is it an allegory, or is it to be taken literally, or is a proleptic approach better? Second, what was the character of Gomer? Was she a cult prostitute, a common streetwalker, or a wife who had an extra­ marital affair? Third, how do the accounts in Hosea 1 and 3 relate to each other? Is chapter 3 the sequel to chapter 1? Or, do the two chapters tell of Hosea’s marriages to two different women? We will examine the third issue when we discuss chapter 3. For the moment, we need to turn our attention to the first two questions.

The Nature of the Story

After reading literally dozens of discussions by both ancient and modern interpreters, one realizes there is no consensus of opinion on this issue and probably never will be.[5]For an excellent discussion of the issue see H. H. Rowley, “The Marriage of Hosea,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 39 (1956—57): 200-33. The article was reprinted in H. H. Rowley, Men of God (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1963), 66-97. The myriad numbers of interpretations break down into two basic approaches: (1) the allegorical approach, that is, there was no actual marriage between Hosea and a prostitute, and (2) the literal approach, that is, there was an actual marriage. The second approach divides based on whether the interpreter thought Gomer guilty of immoral acts before her marriage to Hosea or after the marriage. Those who think she was guilty before marriage divide yet again into two camps, some sang she was guilty of adultery and others saying she was guilty of idolatry. Thus, one needs to consider the debate under four headings: (1) the allegorical approach; (2) the literal approach: adultery; (3) the literal approach: idolatry; and (4) the literal approach: a proleptic view.

The Allegorical Approach. The idea of God instructing a prophet to marry an immoral woman is at best distressing, if not impossible, to many. In order to avoid the moral dilemma presented by such a view, numerous interpreters have concluded that the story is an allegory or parable. In like fashion, others call it a dream or a vision. In other words, this approach declares no such marriage ever occurred; the Hosea/Gomer story is but a literary device to show the God/Israel relationship.

But there are some strong objections to this view. First, etymological studies of the names Gomer and Diblaim (Gomer’s father mentioned in verse 3) reveal no hidden or allegorical meanings. The name Gomer evidently comes from a verbal root which means “to accomplish” and thus is an expression of thanks for Yahweh’s (or Baal’s) guidance in the successful accomplishment of Gomer’s birth. “Yahweh (or Baal) has accomplished it” would be the meaning of the name.[6]Hans Walter Wolff, Hosea (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 16-17. The name Diblaim is thought by some to mean “fig-cake”;[7]James Luther Mays, Hosea: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), 26-7. if so, it may have some cultic connection with the pagan religions of the day.[8]See the later discussion of Hos. 3:1 in this article. Others believe it is a corrupted form of the personal name Debalyam, which contains the name of the Canaanite god Yam.[9]Mays, 27. Though some commentators have tried to find allegorical meanings for both Gomer and Diblaim, their search has been futile. The names are the real names of real persons. If Hosea had intended symbolic meanings for these names, as Tom Bennett rightly said, “he would have indicated it just as he did in the case of his children.”[10]T. Miles Bennett, Hosea: Prophet of God’s Love (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 31.

A second objection to the allegorical approach is that it ruins the God /Israel and Hosea / Gomer parallel, because God and Israel really were united. Third, this approach is totally unfair to Hosea’s real wife if his real wife were not in fact Gomer. A fourth objection, voiced eloquently by H. H. Rowley:

is the fact that it is said that it was by the word of the Lord that Hosea married Gomer. The prophets did not lightly bandy the word of the Lord about, and if all that was meant was that the Lord commanded Hosea to speak a parable, it is improbable that more than this would have been said.[11]Rowley, Men of God, 81.

And one final objection to the allegorical approach: Does it really remove the moral dilemma? Is it not “just as derogatory to God and one of his prophets to ascribe such action to them in parable as in actual fact”?[12]Bennett, 19.

The Literal Approach: Adultery. This view says that Hosea actually married an immoral woman at the command of God. It is argued that a straight-forward reading of the narrative allows no other conclusion. Though this approach troubles many, it perhaps has merit, especially if Gomer’s immorality is connected to Baal worship. By Hosea’s day, Canaanite religion and Yahwaism had become so fused in the northern kingdom that the distinctives of the latter were gone. The Israelites even went so far as to call Yahweh “Baal” (Hos. 2:16)! Baalism was evidently the religion of the masses. As is well known, this religion involved a fertility emphasis. In cultic activity, the worshipers would engage in sexual inter­ course with each other. Since such practice was the order of the day, could Hosea have even found a wife not tainted by involvement? Were there any in Israel not participating in these licentious rituals? The book of Hosea leaves the impression that the northern kingdom had gone the way of the Baal gods.

Yet the opponents of this view are many and the objections strong. It was indicated above that numerous interpreters opt for the allegorical approach to the Hosea/Gomer story primarily because the literal approach is so distasteful. Many feel that a marriage by Hosea to an immoral woman would simply have been too great a handicap for the prophet’s ministry. Representing this school of thought, Edward J. Young said such a marriage would “have destroyed the effectiveness” of Hosea’s ministry; that if “he had actually married such a woman,” the people would “have refused to listen to him.”[13]Edward J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1960), 269. Is this objection voiced by Young and others valid? Is he speaking here strictly from our modern perspective? Would the same attitude have been reflected by people living in the Israelite/ Canaanite Baal culture of the eighth century B.C.?

The Literal Approach: Idolatry. This view is similar to the one just discussed, that is, they both stress that God commanded the prophet to marry an evil woman. But, whereas the former view sees the woman’s evil as sexual sin, this one tries to “soften” the matter by accusing her of idolatry. It is pointed out that the word translated “whoredoms” is used to characterize the idolatrous practice of Israel and therefore ought to be so interpreted when applied to Gomer.

This approach has always caused trouble for this writer. In the first place, it fails to take seriously the rampant immorality connected with the Baal fertility cult practiced in Israel. But even more important, it seems to make sexual sin more devastating than idolatry. One realizes that sin is sin period, but is there anything worse than worshiping the wrong God? Is it not significant that “you shall have no other gods before me” is the first commandment?

The Literal Approach: A Proleptic View. This view says that Hosea wrote his book by taking a backward look at his life. When he married Gomer he did not know what she was to become; at the time of the wedding, she was innocent. But, with the passing of time, she proved to be unfaithful; out of his unhappy experience he learned some marvelous truths about God; thus, he interpreted the experience of chapter 1 as God’s will for his life.

The only major objection to this view is that it is strictly an interpretation; Hosea never tells us that he is writing from the backward view. However, there are two clues in the book which may support this approach. First, in Hos. 1:2, when God gave the initial instruction to Hosea, he said: “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms.” This statement taken alone would seem to indicate that Gomer brought children into her marriage with Hosea (and some commentators believe that to be the case). However, the development of the account in Hos. 1:2-9 would seem to emphasize that Gomer came to the marriage childless, that children were born to her in the passing of time. Thus, the phrase “children of whoredoms” in verse 2 would have been written from the perspective of Hosea looking back, having lived through the experience, having seen children born out of Gomer’s unfaithfulness.

A second strength of the proleptic approach is found when one remembers that Hosea used his marriage as an analogy of the God/Israel relationship. In that light, this approach emphasizes Comer’s innocence at the time of her wedding; her rebellion came later. Likewise, Hosea clearly understood Israel as innocent at the beginning of the nation’s relationship with God, the nation’s infidelity coming later. Hos. 9:10 reads:

When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved (NIV).

Conclusion. Is there any way to resolve the debate concerning the marriage of Hosea and Gomer? I think not. The issues are too complicated; the numerous approaches-which have been simplified in this article-are “bewildering.”[14]Rowley, Men of God, 66; Mays, 23. Too much of the discussion is based on interpretation-and the interpreters are many.

Personally, the proleptic view is comfortable. In looking back on past experiences, God’s presence has been affirmed in those moments when this writer was not so capable of seeing him. We live by faith in the present moment; it is by looking back that we are able to see where we have actually been with God, or better, where he has actually been with us. This writer is comfortable that is the way it was for Hosea.

While opting for the proleptic view, this writer must confess not having the problem with the first literal view that some have. It seems that a gracious God often accommodates himself to this fallen world. In that light one is struck by comments made by Roy Honeycutt, one of the most perceptive biblical scholars of our day. He said: “It appears the better part of wisdom …to take the passage quite literally, despite difficulties which this may precipitate for one’s view of the nature of God.”[15]Roy L. Honeycutt, Hosea and His Message (Nashville: Broad­man Press, 1975), 7. And then Honeycutt continues with a moving paragraph:

On one occasion a student protested vigorously such an interpretation of the Lord’s command to Hosea that he marry Gomer. “How,” he asked, “could God ever command a prophet to marry a prostitute or one who had participated in sexual rites related to Baal?” Yet, what greater demonstration is there of the reality of a love that transcends our own than that Hosea should do precisely this: respond with genuine love and affection to such a young woman and, m accord with his understanding of the will of God, marry her? Is not this so very much like the love of God for us “while we were yet sinners?” The command to marry a harlot is a revelation of that quality of unmerited love which is characteristic of God’s love.[16]Ibid., 7-8.

The Character of Gomer

The nature of Gomer’s immorality – or the character of Gomer – is the second major issue in the “nest of problems” revolving around the interpretation of Hosea’s marriage. In Hos. 1:2, Gomer is identified as “a wife of whoredoms.” What exactly does that mean?

The debate among Old Testament scholars has been intense. Again, as was the case with the nature of the story, no consensus has emerged. Some believe the phrase “wife of whoredoms” should be viewed as proleptic, that is, it describes Gomer in terms of what she became after the wedding-an unfaithful wife, involved in adulterous liaisons with one or more men. James Mays suggests that the phrase is “a symbolic description designating Gomer as a member of an apostate people.”[17]Mays, 23. Still others identify Gomer as a streetwalker, a common prostitute. As mentioned above, however, it may be more accurate to see Gomer’s “whoredoms” as somehow related to Canaanite fertility practice and sacred prostitution. In another article, this writer stated:

There seem to have been two groups of women involved in sacred prostitution. On one hand were the permanent, professional prostitutes hired for the cult; on the other hand were the young Canaanite women who lost their virginity in a one­time “bridal” ritual at the place of worship. Because Baal was the god of fertility, it was believed that the opening of a woman’s womb in the sanctuary would bring the ability for procreation. Thus each young virgin went to the cult center for sexual union with a stranger to insure her ability to bear children.[18]Boo Heflin, “The World of Hosea,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 18 (Fall, 1975): 17.

The God/Israel Analogy

As already mentioned, it is obvious that Hosea used his marriage to Gomer as an analogy for the God/Israel relationship. The latter is the primary emphasis of the book. Thus, it is not surprising to see in this first major section the first reference to the analogy. In Hos. 1:2, as Hosea reports God’s initial instruction that he was to marry “a wife of whoredoms,” the prophet concludes with the words “because surely the land whores away from Yahweh.”[19]The translation is that of the author, as are others in the article if not attributed to another source. In other words, Israel was unfaithful to her mate Yahweh. The infidelity Hosea will suffer from Gomer’s actions is what God already suffers from the nation’s actions. Thus, from the outset, we are aware that Hosea is describing two unfaithful wives, two marriages that are in trouble.

 

Hosea 1:3b-9-The Children of Gomer

The analogy of the two marriages in trouble is readily apparent in this section of the book. Here Hosea describes the birth of three children to Gomer. Each is given a symbolic name by God. Not surprisingly, the explanations of these names emphasize the problems in the God/Israel relationship. Any application of the symbolic names to the Hosea/Gomer marriage is left to the interpreter.

The Birth of Jezreel (1:3b-5)

Gomer’s first child was a son, clearly the offspring of Hosea (“and bore to him a son”). The boy was given the symbolic name Jezreel by God. Jezreel is the name of the city located on the foot of Mount Gilboa; it is also the name of Israel’s most famous valley, located be­ tween the mountains of Galilee and Samaria. Both the city and the valley are mentioned in this section.

As applied here to Hosea’s son, the name has both negative and positive connotations. The word “Jezreel” is translated “God scatters,” and from that perspective, is negative. It refers to the fact that the northern kingdom will be scattered by the judgment of God.

Likewise, from the negative perspective, the name is interpreted to mean “the beginning of the end.” This interpretation is not based on the word’s etymology, but rather on an event in Israelite history associated with the city of Jezreel. Hosea refers to the event in verse 4.

By way of explanation, the northern kingdom of Israel was ruled in the mid-ninth century B.C. by the House of Omri. The members of this family were notorious worshipers of Baal. Consequently, they stirred the righteous indignation of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Influenced by the prophetic proclamation, Jehu, a military commander, rebelled against the royal family. In 842 B.C., he overthrew the Omride dynasty. In the city of Jezreel, Jehu assassinated the entire royal family and all those connected to the court, including Queen Jezebel (see 2 Kings 9-10). But Jehu himself proved no better than the ones he had slaughtered. Therefore, sometime later, the writer of 2 Kings 10:32 declared: “in those days [the days of Jehu] Yahweh began to cut off from Israel.” In other words, with Jehu and the bloody events at Jezreel, God began to separate himself from the northern kingdom. The name of Hosea’s son was thereby a vivid re­ minder, a symbol, reflecting the beginning of the end of God’s relationship with Israel. As the symbolic name declared, the time was fast approaching when God would judge the royal house (“I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel”), destroy the Israelite monarchy (“I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel”), and crush the nation itself (“I will break Israel’s bow in the Valley of Jezreel”).[20]These quotes are from the NIV.

Another negative interpretation of the name Jezreel is “treachery.” This interpretation is also based on event rather than etymology. Though Jehu’s slaughter of the Omride Dynasty was accepted at the time it happened,[21]Remember that Jehu was anointed king by the action of the prophet Elisha. See 2 Kings 9:1-13. it later became a source of embarrassment to Hosea and others in Israel. Jehu, a trusted officer, was “treacherous” in his relationship to the House of Omri.

Hosea did not relate the symbolic meanings of “Jezreel” to his own marital crisis. His main concern was Israel’s relationship with God. But we know that behind that marriage is the prophet’s own. Thus, with great caution, recognizing that one is reading between the lines and moving into the area of subjective interpretation, permit this writer to make the application. It would seem possible that with the first pregnancy of Gomer, Hosea began to sense “the beginning of the end” in their marriage; he began to sense “treachery” in their relationship; he began to realize they would soon “scatter” or separate, probably by Gomer’s willful desertion of husband and home.

But, interestingly enough, the name “Jezreel” also has a positive connotation. Another valid, literal translation of the word is “God sows.” So translated, the name stands as a flash of hope, a flash of love triumphant. It predicts that love in the end will be victorious. God will again “sow” Israel in her land; Hosea will restore the broken relationship with Gomer.

The Birth of Lo-Ruhamah (1:6-7)

An unspecified time passed and Gomer again gave birth. The second child was a girl. There is no clear indication that Hosea was the father. The phrase “bore to him” (verse 3) used with the birth of Jezreel is missing at this point. Many scholars believe the lack of this phrase is a definite sign that this child was the offspring of another man. Others disagree, concluding that the omission is not significant. Perhaps it is best to conclude that the terse birth announcement reflects something of Hosea’s own doubts and suspicions at the time. Was this daughter his or had Gomer been unfaithful to him? At this point Hosea was uncertain.

The child was given the name Lo-Ruhamah, a tragic Hebrew phrase with a variety of translation possibilities: “not loved,” “not pitied,” “no mercy,” or as Mays suggests, “uncared for.”[22]Mays, 28. The verbal form in this name relates to the noun rehem, “womb,” and therefore emphasizes the concept of “mother-love.”[23]George A. F. Knight, Hosea (London: SCM Press, 1960), 45. In other words, God had loved Israel as a mother loves her children, but no longer. The name’s symbolic significance carried God’s negative message to Israel a step further. With the naming of Jezreel in verse 4, imminent judgment against the nation was announced, but now Lo-Ruhamah’s name indicated that God no longer loved Israel; the people could no longer expect his mercy; nothing would stop the announced judgment from coming. We have here a definite, negative progression in God’s relationship with the northern kingdom.

Though God was not going to save Israel, Hosea indicated in verse 7 that there was still hope for Judah. The prophet did not mean Judah would never fall; he rather meant that in his day Judah would be spared whereas Israel would not. The southern kingdom’s salvation would come by God’s means, not by military might. The reference fits well Sennacherib’s failed invasion of Judah in 701 B.C. (see 2 Kings 18:1-19:37).[24]Many scholars feel that verse 7 is a later addition to the text made by a Judean editor. It is true that the passage seems in one sense out of context, but then again the comment is appropriate to Judah’s history in Hosea’s day.

It is rather difficult to apply the symbolism of Lo-Ruhamah to the Hosea/Gomer story. Again the prophet did not make the application. Some believe it meant that Hosea no longer loved Gomer (the most natural analogy), while others believe he no longer loved either Gomer or the children. A few would re­verse the analogy at this point and say Gomer no longer loved her own children. While it is impossible to make a dogmatic application, it seems safe to say that the continuing deterioration and increasing breakdown of the Hosea/Gomer marriage relationship were well represented in a family where “not loved” lived.

The Birth of Lo-Ammi (1:8-9)

A third child was later born to Gomer, a second son. As with the birth announcement of Lo-Ruhamah, the phrase “bore to him” indicating Hosea’s paternity is absent. While some scholars again call the omission insignificant, another factor here makes a strong case for Gomer’s unfaithfulness. This time, the child not specifically born “to him” is named Lo­ Ammi. Literally translated “not my people,” this phrase can be paraphrased “no kin of mine,” “not mine,”[25]Fred M. Wood, Hosea: Prophet of Reconciliation (Nashville: Con­vention Press, 1975), 24. “not my son,” or “none of mine.”[26]Fred M. Wood, Yesterday’s Voices for Today’s World (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1967), 80. Obviously, by this time, Hosea’s greatest fears were confirmed. The prophet was now convinced of Gomer’s infidelity. He knew this boy was not his own.

Once again the symbolic application of the name is made specifically to the marriage of God and Israel. The name “not my people” represented, according to John Taylor, “the final breakdown of the covenant relationship.”[27]John B. Taylor, The Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970), 4. With the naming of each child, Hosea’s message of doom had grown more intense: from the warning of imminent judgment (Jezreel), to the cessation of God’s love (Lo-Ruhamah), and now to the tragic pronouncement that Israel no longer belonged to God (Lo-Ammi). The nation by its rebellion had broken the covenant and become “a foreign people.”[28]Bennett, 32. Billy K. Smith concludes:

The name of the third child, “not my people,” is covenant terminology. “You are my people and I am your God” is the usual way God’s relation to Israel in the covenant is stated (see Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12; Deut. 21:12-18). However, the sentence interpreting the child’s name announces that the covenant is no longer in force. Covenant vocabulary is turned into a formula of divorce. The word for God in the final line is the same word Moses learned in his call experience (Exod. 3:14). The full formula here is “You are not my people and I am not your ‘I am’.”…Only in this final threat is direct ad­ dress used. The prophet’s family became a walking witness against Israel, God’s family. They symbolized God’s rejection of Israel.[29]Billy K. Smith, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Layman’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1982), 17.

 

Hosea 1:10-2:1-The Word of Hope

In this brief paragraph,[30]This paragraph is numbered 2:1-3 in the Hebrew text. Hosea moves from the negative to the positive. In the section just discussed, he had described God’s rejection of Israel.[31]While the previous section described two marriages in trou­ble, there is no mention of the Hosea/ Gomer marriage in this brief paragraph. An announcement of divorce had been made. But now Hosea promises hope for the future. There will be reconciliation, restoration, remarriage between God and Israel. Love will be triumphant in the end.

Rober Chisholm suggests that judgment/salvation in alternating fashion is the structured pattern of the book of Hosea. He contends the book is divided into “five panels, each of which moves from judgment to salvation.”[32]Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., Interpreting the Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), 22. In his structured analysis, the first of the five panels is 1:2-2:1, with 1:2-9 the section on judgment and 1:10-2:1 the section on salvation.

In Hos. 1:2-9, the names of Gomer’s children symbolized the negative: imminent judgment (Jezreel); a people not loved (Lo-Ruhamah); a people foreign to God (Lo-Ammi). But now, the symbolic meanings of the names are reversed; they become names of honor. In Hosea’s vision of the future, “great will be the day of Jezreel” (NIV); God will again “sow” the people in the land; the population will be so numerous it cannot be counted;[33]Remember the promises to the patriarchs in Gen. 13:16; 15:5; 22:17; 26:24; 28:14; 32:12. the people will be called “sons of the living God”;[34]Hosea alone uses this expression in the Old Testament. the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel will be re­ united;[35]The promises in this section reverse conditions that actually existed in Hosea’s day. one “head” will lead them.[36]Interestingly, this figure is not called a “king” or a “prince,” which is probably Hosea’s implicit indictment of the monarchy in his day. Who is the future “head”? Though many see this as a ref­erence to the Messiah, there is a problem. Notice that verse 11 states that the people will appoint their leader (“and they will appoint for themselves one head”). Is not the Messiah always re­ferred to as God’s appointed? Whereas they had been Lo-Ammi, “not my people,” they will now be Ammi, “my people”; whereas they had been Lo-Ruhamah,”not loved,” they will now be Ruhamah, “loved.”

 

Hosea: 2:2-23-God’s Reconciliation with
Israel and the Implication for Hosea

This section of the book of Hosea deals exclusively with the God/Israel relationship; however, just beneath the surface, one feels Hosea struggling with his own broken marriage. It has even been suggested by Tom Bennett that “Gomer’s life-style”   provided Hosea “with ample material” for his “vivid description of Israel’s ‘harlotry'” in this chapter.[37]Bennett, 34.

Though Hosea’s marriage is not specifically mentioned in chapter 2 as it is in both chapters 1 and 3, it would seem the chapter’s location is significant for our understanding of the prophet’s relationship with Gomer. In chapter 1, Hosea’s marriage is clearly seen as troubled and broken, even as is God’s marriage with Israel. Chapter 2, which again describes Israel’s infidelity, climaxes with a remarkable picture of God’s love and reconciliation with Israel. The implication is that Hosea, like God, should offer Gomer another chance. Such an understanding of chapter 2’s placement in the book leads to chapter 3, where just such an offer is made.

Chapter 2 divides into two major sections:

  1. “The Infidelity of Israel” (verses 2-13) and
  2. “The Love of God” (verses 14-23). Again, the alternating pattern of negative/ positive, judgment/ salvation is seen.

 

Hosea 2:2-13-The Infidelity of Israel

Israel’s unfaithfulness is described in these verses primarily within the context of Baal worship. Some references are obvious: for ex­ ample, in verse 8, Hosea notes that God gave Israel gold and silver, which they in turn “made for Baal,” perhaps an allusion to the making of idols; likewise, Israel “burned incense to the Baals” (verse 13; NIV). Other references require knowledge of Canaanite religion.[38]For numerous examples of Canaanite religious practice in Hosea, see Heflin, 17-20. Consider, for example, the phrase “her harlotry from her face and her adultery from between her breasts” in verse 2. Most scholars believe the “harlotry” and the “adultery” were “objects such as veils, belts, headbands, necklaces, earrings, or rings worn by women in cultic prostitution.”[39]Ibid., 17. Another Canaanite worship practice was a ritual procession which appears to be behind Hosea’s comments in verse 13.

In the processions, the worshipers followed some cultic object or symbol of the god held by a priest. The procession moved around the shrine and finally into it for the licentious activities of the “sacred marriage,” that is, the union of the worshiper with the sacred prostitute. It seems quite likely that this procession and its related activities are reflected by the statement that Israel “decked herself with her earrings and her jewels, and went after her lovers” (2:13).[40]Ibid., 18.

Though Israel’s infidelity was demonstrated in Baal cultic practice, the real problem was another matter. In verse 13, Yahweh declares: “but me she forgot” (NIV). It is noteworthy that the pronoun “me” is placed before the verb in the Hebrew original. In Hebrew, the word with the greatest emphasis is given the initial place in a sentence. The root of Israel’s infidelity was that Yahweh had been forgotten.[41]Consider the warning of Moses centuries earlier in Deut. 6:12.

Though this section is basically negative, reflections of grace are to be found. Hosea indicated that God had taken steps to encourage Israel’s return to him. For example, Israel attributed the good gifts she received from God to Baal; consequently, God took away the gifts to enable her to recognize the true giver (verses 8-9). Likewise, he blocked the nation’s wrongful paths (verse 6). He also allowed her sinful practices to produce futility, thus leading her to see her need to return to him (verse 7).

But, Hosea confirms, if the gracious acts did not accomplish God’s purpose, he would finalize his divorce from Israel. Verse 3a reads: “I will strip her naked and make her as bare as on the day she was born” (NIV). Describing ancient divorce proceedings, Jabob Myers writes:

The procedure outlined here was well established in the middle of the second millennium B.C. The wife was compelled to leave everything in the house of the husband because it belonged to him; even her clothes belonged to him because he had provided them. The wife was a possession of the husband and he owned everything she would normally have…. Hence to be divorced by him meant utter dispossession, with nothing left but the naked body.[42]Jacob M. Myers, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, The Lay­man’s Bible Commentary (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1959), 14.

 

Hosea 2:14-23-The Love of God

This passage is one of the most beautiful in the Bible, a love song par excellence. John Sawyer calls it “Hosea’s most eloquent statement of faith in God’s love for his wayward people.”[43]John F. A. Sawyer, Prophecy and the Prophets of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 108. God, the wronged husband, announces his plan to court his wayward wife. She has forgotten him (2:13), but he has not forgotten her. “Therefore” (verse 14), it is his purpose to woo her, to win her again.

In order to do so, he will “allure her” (NIV), or “persuade her irresistibly” to return with him to “the desert.” The desert recalls the early years of their relationship after he brought the nation from Egyptian bondage into the wilderness. That was their honeymoon experience. God is now offering Israel a second honeymoon in which he will “speak tenderly to her” (NIV), literally “speak to her heart,” make love to her.

To his reconciled wife, God makes promises of love. First, he will remove the names of the Baal gods from her vocabulary (verses 16-17). In other words, in their renewed, future relationship, Israel’s loyalty will be to God and to God alone. Second, he will make a covenant that will return the creation to its pre-fall harmony (verse 18). Third, he will make their relationship a “forever” marriage in which Israel will know him intimately (verses 19-20). Fourth, he will restore her land agriculturally, calling her by the new name Jezreel (verses 21- 22). Earlier, as we have seen, that name had negative connotations, but now its positive meaning, “God sows,” will prevail as a word of promise. Fifth, he will reverse the symbolic meanings of the names of Gomer’s children (verse 23); they had been symbols of judgment, but now they will symbolize the new marriage relationship of God and Israel.[44]The reader clearly sees the names Lo-Ruhamah and Lo-Ammi in this verse. But Jezreel is likewise present. Note that the initial phrase “I will plant” (NIV) is the same verb from which is derived the name Jezreel. This verse is similar to Hos. 1:10-2:1.

D. David Garland concludes:

Thus, in this section, the Book of Hosea proclaims the truth that the overwhelming desire of Yahweh is not for the destruction of those who reject or turn from Him, but for their redemption and restoration, and to enhance those possibilities, Yahweh had embarked upon an endless quest to win them to Himself.[45]D. David Garland, Hosea: A Study Guide Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), 30.

 

Hosea 3:1-5-Hosea’s Reconciliation with
Gomer and the Application to Israel

It was said earlier in the article that a “nest of problems” revolves around the interpretation of the Hosea/ Gomer marriage. At that point, the nature of the story and the character of Gomer were discussed. It is now time to deal with the final problem, that is, the relationship of the accounts in Hosea 1 and 3.

Chapter 1 is biographical; it speaks of Hosea in the third person. Chapter 3, on the other hand, is autobiographical; Hosea speaks of himself in the first person. In both chapters, we are told of Hosea’s relationship with a woman; in chapter 1, the woman is identified by name as Gomer; in chapter 3, the woman is not named.

What is the relationship of these two accounts? Some scholars believe the woman Hosea is instructed to love in chapter 3 is not Gomer, but an unidentified second woman. Others believe that chapter 3 is Hosea’s autobiographical account of the same events de­scribed in chapter 1 by the prophet’s biographer. The majority, however, contend that chapter 3 is the sequel to chapter 1, showing how Gomer is restored to Hosea after the break­down of their marriage.

The latter position is accepted for several significant reasons. First, in Hos. 3:1 the prophet is instructed by God to “show your love to your wife again” (NIV); the use of the word “again” would seem to refer to the same woman, to be loved a second time following the couple’s marital crisis.[46]Opponents of this view say that “again” refers to Hosea enter­ing a marriage relationship for a second time. Second, in Hos. 1:2, Hosea is instructed to “take” a wife, that is, to marry; in Hos. 3:1, he is instructed to “love” wife. The relationship of the two phrases seems to demand a new commitment within a marriage relationship already established. Third, chapter 3 is the conclusion of the first major section of the book and would appear to serve as the climax of the story. Fourth, the analogy of Hosea restoring Gomer parallels the story of God and Israel, for God re­ stores Israel both historically and in the predictions of the prophet (see Hos. 2:14-23; 11:1-14:9).

Hosea 3:1-3-The Reconciliation
of Hosea and Gomer

The relationship of Hosea and Gomer faded from view following the birth of Gomer’s three children in Hos. 1:2-9. In fact, even there, the God/Israel marriage was the real focus, with the symbolic names of the children being applied to God’s relationship with Israel rather than to Hosea’s relationship with Gomer. Nonetheless, the suggestion was made that the name of the third child, Lo-Ammi (“not my people” or “not my son”), revealed Hosea’s awareness of Gomer’s unfaithfulness to him.

We do not know what happened in their marriage at that point. Evidently they separated. Some believe Hosea forced Gomer from the home. It seems more likely that she deserted him in pursuit of her lovers. Be that as it may, time has passed when one comes to the conclusion of the story in chapter 3. Gomer was now a slave. Her lovers no longer had use for her. She was obviously being sold, perhaps at an auction. Hosea concludes the story for us at that point. He had learned through his experience of God’s love for his wayward wife and the divine effort at reconciliation. If God could so respond to Israel, then so should Hosea respond to Gomer.

The passage begins with God’s instruction to Hosea: “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is…an adulteress” (verse 1; NIV). In Hos. 1:2, Hosea had been instructed to “take” a wife, that is to enter into a legal relationship of marriage. But now, in the midst of all that Gomer had done to break his heart, Hosea was being asked to return to her and love her. He was being asked to make a more demanding commitment to her than ever be­ fore. Gomer was now an adulteress, but he was to love her and offer her a second chance to make their marriage work.

Why did God ask Hosea to love Gomer again? It was because God was responding to Israel with just such a love. Israel too was an adulteress, turning “to other gods” and loving “sacred raisin-cakes” (NIV) or, as the latter is sometimes translated, “flagons of wine” (KJV). The phrase is obscure in the Hebrew Bible and, consequently, difficult to translate. Either idea, however, is appropriate to the context. Both wine and fruit cakes were used in the cultic practices of fertility religions.[47]As mentioned earlier, the name of Comer’s father, Diblaim, if translated “fig-cake,” may reflect his identification with Baal wor­ship. Israel was a worshiper of the Baal gods, yet God loved Israel nonetheless and was willing to offer the nation a new relationship. If God was willing to do that for Israel, then his prophet must be willing to respond accordingly to Gomer.

What did Hosea do? “So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley” (verse 2; NIV). The price of a slave was thirty shekels of silver (see Exod. 21:32). This passage seems to indicate that Hosea was a poor man. He did not have thirty pieces of silver. But with his fifteen, he also offered several bushels of barley. Whether the barley equaled fifteen shekels of silver in value we do not know. However, it satisfied the seller, and Hosea thus paid the price to purchase Gomer.

In verse 3, the prophet told his wayward wife that for “many days” (an indefinite period), she was to live with him. She was not to have a sexual relationship with any man during this time. He in turn would wait for her; the Hebrew literally reads: “and also I to you.” In other words, Hosea seemed to be saying: “Gomer, I bought you, but I cannot force you to have a relationship with me. I cannot force you to love me. So, I will wait for you, many days if necessary, until you want to make a new commitment of yourself to me. You can­ not have another man, but neither will I force myself on you. I will wait for you to respond.”

What did Gomer do? Being a romantic at heart, this writer would like to believe she responded positively to Hosea’s offer of reconciliation and they then lived happily ever after. But this is not known. Hosea never mentions himself and Gomer after this verse. Gomer may have come back to the prophet, but then again, she may have rejected his offer of love and a second chance.

 

Hosea 3:4-5-The Application to Israel

A brief paragraph concludes the first major section of the book. Here Hosea specifically applies his new involvement with Gomer to the God/ Israel relationship. We were told in verse 3 that Hosea deprived Gomer of her lovers; she was not to have sexual relationships with any man. In like fashion in verse 4, God took away from Israel her lovers, or those things such as the monarchy and the rituals of worship in which she put her faith. As Hosea would give Gomer a waiting period in which to respond to him, so God would give Israel “many days.” Though we are not told Comer’s response to Hosea, we are informed of Israel’s response to God. In time “the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days” (verse 5; NIV).

 

Conclusion

These three remarkable chapters describe in terms of the God/Israel and the Hosea / Gomer marriages love triumphant. They leave us with a song of praise on our hearts: “Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”[48]Walter Himes Sims, ed., Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Conven­tion Press, 1956), 99.

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