Hosea 4-10: Pictures at an Exhibition

Rick Johnson  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 36 - Fall 1993

The eighth-century prophets are justly famous as foremost representatives of the institution of prophecy in ancient Israel and Judah. Hosea’s standing in this company is well-deserved for many reasons. First, he carried on the legacy of Elijah as he championed the worship of Yahweh against Baalism. Second, his marriage to Gomer expressed this message in a startling and unforgettable way. Lastly, his frequent and vivid imagery gave his book a powerful appeal.

The multitude of metaphors and similes found in Hosea has elicited comment from many scholars.[1]Hans Walter Wolff, Hosea, trans. Gary Stansell, ed. Paul D. Hanson, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), xxiv, xxvii-xxviii; James Luther Mays, Hosea, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 9-10; G. I. Davies, Hosea, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerd­ mans for Marshall Pickering, 1992), 34; Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew-Bible-A Socio-Literary Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 359-60; P. A. Kruger, “Prophetic Imagery: On Metaphors and Similes in the Book Hosea,” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 14 (1988): 143. Indeed, a thorough treatment of all of these items would practically amount to a commentary on the whole book. For this reason, a study of the metaphors and similes in Hosea 4-10 provides a way to summarize many of the major emphases in these chapters.

Although the text of Hosea is notoriously difficult to interpret,[2]It may be the worst preserved text in the Old Testament. Mays, 5; Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 375. the basic thrust of his preaching is rarely in doubt. Like an impressionistic painting, the details are often blurred, but the point of Hosea’s picture is obvious. The resulting book presents a hall of portraits in a clearly recognizable style with an overwhelming emotional and spiritual impact.

Since many of Hosea’s images derive from the same fields of observation, it will be helpful to treat all of the passages using related metaphors and similes together. The conclusion will offer observations on the theological significance of Hosea’s imagery.


The Broken Family

Much of the language of Hosea 4-14 grows out of God’s command to Hosea to take a “wife of harlotries” or “wife of fornications” (‘esheth zenunim, 1:2).[3]On the problems of understanding Hosea 1and 3, see the arti­cle by Boo Heflin in this issue. The position taken here is that Hosea’s marriage was a prophetic sign involving a woman who had participated in the sexual rites of Baalism, but see below. Family relationships provide many of the symbols in the book. Yahweh is the husband and Israel is the wife, or Yahweh is the father and Israel is the son. The father-son metaphor is not important in Hosea 4-10, but the vocabulary of marriage appears in many ways. The basic message is that Israel has been unfaithful to Yahweh and has gone after Baal. Judgment must follow.

Woman. The initial surprise in the accusation that Israel is an unfaithful wife is the mere identification of the nation as a woman.[4]Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Verse and Reverse: The Transformation of the Woman, Israel, in Hosea 1-3,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, ed. Peggy L. Day (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 97-98. The religious heritage of the people named them for their patriarchal ancestor Jacob, except that it used the new name given him by God. The name Israel represented a relationship with God associated with the covenant with Abraham. Since the central ritual of the covenant was circumcision, women had a secondary status as members of the community. The Pentateuchal traditions only required the males to attend the yearly feasts (Exod. 23:17; 34:23; Deut. 16:16). Ancient treaty curses threatened violators with the fate of becoming women and prostitutes.[5]For examples, see ibid., 98, 106 n. 16. Hosea may have symbolized Israel as a woman to call in question their status as a covenant partner with God.

Against this interpretation, one could point out that Hosea pictures the restoration of the nation in terms of Yahweh wooing back the wayward wife (2:14-20). If the symbol of womanhood per se raises doubts about their covenant relationship with God, Hosea’s prophecy of future reunion might seem ill-conceived. Yet it provides a frontal attack on fertility religion by asking if their husband is Baal or Yahweh. In a book so filled with metaphor, it should not be thought strange if some conflict of images occurs.[6]Leith handled this problem by saying Hosea “changes the rules, so to speak.” Leith, 104.

Harlotry/Fornication. More serious than the accusation of womanhood is Hosea’s frequent depiction of Israel as a whore or woman guilty of fornication. Since Israel is Yahweh’s bride, any turning aside to other gods is pictured as sexual immorality. Although the violation of the marriage vow would most naturally be ex­ pressed by the term “adultery” (n ‘p), Hosea usually used the broader term “harlotry/ fornication” (znh). The verb zanah refers to any sexual contact between people who are not married to each other.[7]S. Erlandsson, “zanah, in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testa­ment, eds. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. David E. Green (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), 4:100; Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Hosea, Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1980), 160. It is best expressed by the English words “fornicate” or “be promiscuous,” since they are broad enough to include in their meaning the activities of both the harlot and the adulteress.

Hosea used the term in several ways both literal and figurative. His primary charge against Israel was that they had turned away from Yahweh. Their apostasy was spiritual fornication/harlotry.

They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply; because they have forsaken the Lord to devote themselves to whoredom….For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God.[8]Hos. 4:10-12. Cf. 5:3-4; 6:10; 9:1. Quotations will be taken from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

Although the passage condemns the people for their participation in the Canaanite fertility cult, certain details of this picture are disputed.

It is widely held that the worship of Baal in Canaan involved copulation at the sanctuaries to secure the blessings of rain and the fertility of the soil and herds.[9]See, for example, Andersen and Freedman, 362; Mays, 25, 71-72.

It is thought that the acts were a type of sympathetic magic intended to influence the gods to perform in a similar fashion, which would bring prosperity to an agricultural economy.[10]Andersen and Freedman, 157-58. Against this, recent discussion has questioned whether intercourse was part of fertility rituals in antiquity.[11]Karel van der Toorn, “Cultic Prostitution,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman et al. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:510-13 (hereafter referred to as ABD). Whatever happened in the cult, Hosea considered worship of anyone besides Yahweh to be harlotry.

In attacking this kind of religion, Hosea asserted that Yahweh would punish the people by withholding the very material blessings which they thought Baal provided.[12]2:5-13; 9:1-2. In 4:10, quoted above, the eating may refer to ritual feasts. The verb “play the whore” is the causative stem of znh. It may mean the men subject their daughters to cultic prostitution,[13]Suggested by Davies, 121. or it may mean the men practice fornication.[14]Wolff, 82. The Revised English Bible translates 4:lOa as fol­ lows: “They will eat but never be satisfied, resort to prostitutes and never have children, …”. The verb translated “multiply” means literally “break out” and apparently refers to giving birth. The priests or the people thought cultic feasts and sex would bring crops and children, but Hosea promised barrenness.

Another intriguing use of the term znh is in the phrase “spirit of harlotry/fornication” (ruah zenunim). Both of the Hebrew words are ambiguous. Ruah may mean wind, spirit, or attitude. The context in 4:12 involves pagan di­vining practices. “My people consult a piece of wood, and their divining rod gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God.” In 5:4 the emphasis is on the actions and disposition of the people. “Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of whoredom is with­ in them, and they do not know the Lord.”

In both verses, Hosea may have mean that the people had an attitude completely dominated by their pursuit of Baal. In this case, “spirit” denotes their internal disposition.[15]See Davies, 124. Another possibility views “spirit” as designating a power external to the people. It may refer to the priests as leaders of the people.[16]Wolff, 85. The latter cannot find their way when the ones responsible for teaching them are so corrupt. Lastly, the spirit could be a pejorative reference to the goddess consort of Baal.[17]Andersen and Freedman, 363, 366, 391. Hosea would be ascribing to her a role (harlotry) not recognized by the devotees of Canaanite mythology.

The interpretation that the spirit refers to the influence of the priests does not seem to be clearly indicated in the text. Either Hosea referred to their promiscuous attitude, or he spoke of the goddess as leading them astray. It may not be proper to limit him to one meaning.

Harlot’s fee. If the pursuit of Baal was theological prostitution, the agricultural rewards must be understood as the payment to the harlot. This is the import of Hosea’s words in 9:1- 2.

…you have played the whore, departing from your God. You have loved a prostitute’s pay on all threshing floors. Threshing floor and wine vat shall not feed them, and the new wine shall fail them.

The fee on the threshing floors is the grain. Cultic rites may have taken place there (2 Samuel 24). Once again Hosea condemned the people for thinking harvests were payment for worship.[18]For a different view, see Andersen and Freedman, 523. Seeking God’s gifts and not God himself prostitutes religion, worship, and prayer.

A less important use of the fee metaphor appears in 8:9-10: “For they have gone up to Assyria,…Ephraim has bargained for lovers. Though they bargain with the nations, I will now gather them up.” In this passage Hosea switched the identity of the rival of Yahweh from Baal to the foreign nations. The picture is that of a prostitute paying her clients instead of the other way around.[19]Wolff, 143; Andersen and Freedman, 505-6. The historical situation behind the text may be the payment of tribute to Assyria by either Menahem or Hoshea (2 Kings 15:19-20, 29; 17:3).

Knowledge of God. The verb “to know” served as a common Hebrew metaphor for the sexual relationship between a man and a woman.[20]Gen. 4:1, 17, 25; 19:8; 24:16; 38:26; Num. 31:17-18, 35; 1 Sam. 1:19. Hosea prized the knowledge of God above sacrifices.

Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel; for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land (4:1).
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (6:6).

For Hosea, this knowledge involved not only the intellect but also the will and moral character. John L. McKenzie has shown the close connection between knowledge (da ‘at) and torah, both of which the priests were responsible for teaching the people.[21]John L. McKenzie, “Knowledge of God in Hosea,” Journal of Biblical Literature 74 (March 1955): 24-27. It included both ritual and moral instruction. The exhortation to know God in 6:3 shows the necessity of making a conscious effort: “Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.”[22]Davies, 88. For the present point, it makes no difference whether this verse contains Hosea’s exhortation to the people or an ironic mimicry of their false repentance. In sum, the knowledge of God refers to the loving relationship with him that results from commitment of one’s entire being to his revelation. It is close to faithfulness (hesed) if not identical with it (6:6).[23]C. L. Seow, “Hosea, Book of,” in ABD, 3:296; James D. Smart, “Hosea (Man and Book),” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick, et al. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 2:652.

Hosea granted that the people thought they knew God. They cried, “My God, we-Israel­ know you!” (8:2). But he said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6; see also 4:14; 5:4). In the time of salvation, however, when God has won back his bride, this lack would be supplied. “I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (2:20 [H 22]). This verse shows clearly the double meaning the word has in Hosea. His call to the people was for literal knowledge of God, but the marriage metaphor drew this word into its picture because of the sexual dimension it has in that context.

Adultery. As noted above, Hosea usually de­scribed the unfaithfulness of Israel as harlotry, but he does use the word adultery on occasion. The woman he was commanded to love is called an adulteress in 3:1. The clearest metaphorical use occurs in 2:2, where the word apparently represents the articles worn by a woman involved in some kind of prostitution, whether sacred or common.[24]William Rainey Harper, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1905), clxxiii-clxxvii, 227; Douglas Stuart, Hosea- Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 47. The children are exhorted to tell their mother to put away “her adultery from between her breasts.” The woman is Israel, and the adultery is again their involvement in the fertility cult.

Hosea also used the term to describe the conspirators who constantly plotted to over­throw the king. “By their wickedness they make the king glad, and the officials by their treachery. They are all adulterers; they are like a heated oven,…” (7:3-4a). Here their unfaithfulness is to the king. Hosea viewed the stream of assassinations in Israel as evidence of the lack of fidelity in the covenant community.[25]Walter Brueggemann, Tradition for Crisis: A Study in Hosea (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1968), 41-42.

The rest of Hosea’s references to adultery are primarily literal, but some have metaphorical overtones in them. For example, in 4:2 he cried, “Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed.” This verse appears to refer to the Decalogue, in which case the crimes would likely be literal. M. O’Connor, however, finds a reference to apostasy here also.[26]Michael P. O’Connor, “The Deceptions of Hosea,” The Bible Today 20 (May 1982), 154-55.

The range of images drawn from the broken family expresses almost the entire message of the book of Hosea, from the apostasy of the priests and the people and the corruption of the monarchy to their expected judgment and restoration. It presents Yahweh as a God who must punish but who desires to save. A similar point is made with the language of medicine.


Sickness and Healing

In several passages Hosea pictured the nation as wounded and needing a physician. He said Yahweh wanted to heal them but could not because of their corruption.

When I would restore the fortunes of my people, when I would heal Israel, the corruption of Ephraim is revealed, and the wicked deeds of Samaria; for they deal falsely, the thief breaks in, and the bandits raid outside (6:11b-7:1).

The metaphor builds upon a play on the name Ephraim (‘prym). The root of the word “to heal” is rp’.[27]The pun also occurs in 5:13 and 11:3 and may lie behind 6:1. Kruger, 145. This type of word play was a favorite device of the prophets.[28]See also, Amos 8:1-2: summer fruit (gaysis) and end (ges); Isa. 5:7: justice (mishpat), bloodshed (mispah), righteousness (sedagah), and cry (se’agah); Jer. 1:11-12: almond tree (shaged) and watching (shoged).

In one surprising passage Hosea used medical imagery, presenting God as both the dis­ease and the cure.

Therefore I am like maggots to Ephraim, and like rottenness to the house of Judah. When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound (5:12-13).

The older translation of the word “maggots” (‘ash) is “moth.”[29]Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 799. It might be more properly translated “pus/putrefaction”[30]G. R. Driver, “Difficult Words in the Hebrew Prophets,” Stud­ies in Old Testament Prophecy, ed. H. H. Rowley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1950), 66-67; Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libras (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1958), 743. This view was accepted by Wolff and Mays. Wolff, 104, 115; Mays, 85. or “larvae/maggots,” which infect open wounds.[31]Andersen and Freedman, 411-12. The word translated as “rottenness” (ragab) likely refers to bone rot. Hosea here described Yahweh as one who caused disease.

The historical context of this passage (5:8-15) is very likely the Syro-Ephraimite War, in which Israel and Judah fought each other in response to the Assyrian crisis. The metaphor of infection or open wounds and bone rot aptly characterizes a time when the people thought their real threats were external political ones. Hosea knew that Yahweh would work in their midst to bring about sickness and ruin. They appealed to Assyria for healing (v. 13), but the real physician was God.


The Exodus and Wilderness Wandering

As a consequence of Israel’s apostasy, Hosea foresaw a reversal of their salvation his­tory. Although he predicted a deportation to Assyria (9:3; 10:6; 11:5; see also 11:11), he often referred to the coming judgment as a return to Egypt. He said Yahweh “will remember their iniquity, and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt” (8:13). In 9:3 he added, “They shall not remain in the land of the Lord; but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and in Assyria they shall eat unclean food.”[32]See also, 9:6; 11:5; and the prediction of a return from Egypt in 11:11. Although the Masoretic Text of 11:5 says they will not go to Egypt, the prediction of a return from there in 11:11 strongly sup­ ports a reinterpretation of the verse. See RSV, NRSV, Jerusalem Bible, Revised English Bible, Harper, 366-67; Wolff, 191-92; Davies, 258, and Andersen and Freedman, 574, 583-84.

The wilderness wandering also served as a pattern for future expectations. “I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; I will make you live in tents again, as in the days of the appointed festival” (12:9). The first meaning of this verse is that God will remove them from the promised land, which is punishment. But the words also recall the earlier promise in 2:14-15 to bring the bride back to the place of the honeymoon.

The threat of a return to Egypt should not be understood as only a metaphor for Assyria. The warning that Memphis would bury them (9:6) shows Hosea expected a literal exile there. He viewed this prospect, however, in terms of their earlier history. Yahweh would bring them back to the place of beginning.[33]Werner H. Schmidt, Old Testament Introduction, trans. Mat­ thew J. O’Connell (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 207-8; James M. Ward, “Hosea,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supple­mentary Volume, ed. Keith Crim, et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), 421-22 (hereafter referred to as JDBS). Once more, Hosea’s imagery portrayed both judgment and salvation.


The Bakery

One of Israel’s most serious problems during Hosea’s ministry was the instability of the monarchy. Of the last six kings, only two inherited the throne, and only three reigned more than two years. Hosea characterized this period in terms of the baker and his oven.

By their wickedness they make the king glad,…. They are like a heated oven, whose baker does not need to stir the fire, from the kneading of the dough until it is leavened …he stretched out his hand with mockers. For they are kindled like an oven, their heart burns within them; all night their anger smolders; in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire. All of them are hot as an oven, and they devour their rulers. All their kings have fallen; none of them calls upon me (7:3- 7).

This type of oven was made of clay. The baker would build a fire inside and allow it to die down while he prepared the dough and let it rise. In the morning he would stir the fire. Cakes would be laid on the sides of the oven and on the coals.[34]Mays, 105-6.

Hosea compared the secret plotting to the fire in the oven, which was left alone until the right moment. They humored the king until they were ready to strike. Then the heat of their conspiracy would burst forth.

Out of this picture Hosea derived another image for Israel’s foolish foreign policies. “Ephraim mixes himself with the peoples; Ephraim is a cake not turned” (7:8). Just as a baker mixes oil with the flour, so Israel had become enmeshed in the other nations. If the baker did not turn the cake over, it could burn on one side and remain undone on the other. Hosea may have meant that Israel had not returned to Yahweh,[35]Wolff, 126. or that they had almost been destroyed,[36]T. K. Cheyne, Hosea, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1884), 83. or that they were useless and had not fulfilled their purpose.[37]Mays, 108.


The Animal World

In the varied animal kingdom Hosea found likenesses of Yahweh and Israel. In 4:16 Israel is a heifer instead of a lamb: “Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn; can the Lord now feed them like a lamb in a broad pasture?” The recalcitrance of the people thwarted God’s desire to be their shepherd.

Hosea changed the picture of the heifer in 10:11: “Ephraim was a trained heifer that loved to thresh, and I spared her fair neck; but I will make Ephraim break the ground; Judah must plow; Jacob must harrow for himself.” Here the animal is allowed to thresh without a sledge. It ate as it worked (Deut. 25:4). It is not clear whether Hosea had in mind the time before or after Israel settled in Canaan,[38]Kruger, 147-48. and translation difficulties make it unclear whether Yahweh spared the yoke in the beginning or applied it when he first found the animal.[39]See the differences in treatment by Mays, Wolff, and Davies Mays, 144-45; Wolff, 179, 185; Davies, 245. If Hosea was referring to the time after entering Canaan, he may have been describing Israel’s enjoyment of the fertility found there. They were like an animal accustomed to the work. But Yahweh decided to appropriate them for his purposes in election. The exhortation to “sow for yourselves righteousness” in verse 12 shows Yahweh yoked Israel in order to establish a community life in harmony with the covenant.[40]Wolff, 185-86.

With the imagery of a dove Hosea showed both the inconsistency of the nation and the intention of Yahweh to catch them with a fowler’s net. “Ephraim has become like a dove, silly and without sense; they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria. As they go, I will cast my net over them” (7:11-12). Israel’s vacillating foreign policy resembled an inexperienced dove that lacked a proper sense of direction. They did not trust God.

The pictures of Yahweh drawn from the animal world show him as a predator, even as the fowler is a hunter of birds. The lion is the most frequent example.

For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah, I myself will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue. I will return again to my place until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face. In their distress they will beg my favor (5:14-15).[41]See also, 13:7-8.

After the predator has killed, he will return to his lair to await the repentance of the people. In a double metaphor, Hosea used the withdrawal of the lion here to allude to the absent god motif in Canaanite mythology.[42]Kruger, 149. Instead of crying for Baal as they did yearly, Hosea said they would have to plead for Yahweh’s return. Then he will roar, and the people will return trembling from Egypt and Assyria (11:10-11). Hosea also compared Yahweh’s wrath to a leopard (13:7) and a bear robbed of her cubs (13:8).

Just as the fowler’s net metaphor came from the animal sphere, so also may the trap image derive from catching animals. Here this, O priests! Give heed, O house of Israel! Listen, O house of the king! For the judgment pertains to you; for you have been a snare at Mizpah, and a net spread upon Tabor, and a pit dug deep in Shittim; but I will punish all of them (5:1-2).

The snare (pah) was used for birds, the net (resheth) for birds and lions, and the pit (shahath) for many different animals.[43]On the reading shahath and the different kinds of traps, see Wolff, 94, 98. Hosea may have been condemning the leaders for luring the people into corrupt worship.[44]Davies, 139-40. In another passage, the trap for birds symbolized the opposition of the people to himself. “The prophet is a sentinel for my God over Ephraim, yet a fowler’s snare is on all his ways, and hostility in the house of his God” (9:8).


The Plant World

The world of botany provides a final group of images for the relationship between Yahweh and Israel. In the first, Hosea compared Israel to grapes and figs to highlight the delight and later disappointment the people brought to God.

Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season, I saw your ancestors. But they came to Baal-peor, and consecrated themselves to a thing of shame, and became detestable like the thing they loved (9:10).

Grapes would be a pleasant surprise to a desert traveler. The first ripe figs appear before summer on the shoots of the previous growing season. They are a special treat (Isa. 28:4).[45]Mays, 132; Wolff, 163-64. In this passage Hosea represented the beginning of Israel’s history in favorable terms. Yahweh rejoiced to find them. He was quickly dismayed when they departed from him in the apostasy at Baal-peor (Num. 25).

The metaphor of Israel as a vine shows the way they had misused their advantages. “Israel is a luxuriant vine, that yields its fruit. The more his fruit increased the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars” (10:1). The abundant produce of this vine signified the fertility blessings which Hosea saw Israel had received from Yahweh. The pillars were regularly set up in sanctuaries in Canaan. They are often thought to have been associated with the male god,[46]Harper, 221. Mays mentioned the possibility. Mays, 58. but they may have been intended to stand in for absent worshipers.[47]Carl Graesser, Jr., “Pillar,” in IDBS, 668-69. Instead of using the produce of the land to serve their Lord, Israel proliferated sanctuaries for fertility rites. This verse may give the reason for the punishment described two verses earlier: “Ephraim is stricken, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit” (9:16). In view of the multiple uses of earlier groups of images, it is not surprising that Hosea found pictures of Yahweh and Israel in the plant world to describe the time of salvation in 14:4-8.


The Significance of Hosea’s Images

Although it was impossible to treat all of Hosea’s metaphors and similes in this essay, the general tenor of his figurative language has been made clear. Yahweh intended both to punish and to restore. The husband had to put the wife away for a while, but he wanted her back. Yahweh had to be infection, but he wanted to heal. He wanted to shepherd them in a broad pasture, but at the moment he had to tear like a predator. The plant would dry up, but the vine would flourish again. The regular use of different fields of imagery to express God’s desire to bless his people supports the claim that Hosea himself held a hope for Israel’s future after destruction. It was not simply added to his prophecies later.

So effective was Hosea that many of his images appear in later prophetic writings and the New Testament. Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of the people as Yahweh’s unfaithful wife who played the harlot (Jer. 2:2; 20; Ezekiel 23). The New Testament idea of the church as the bride of Christ must be seen as a later development of this idea.

The image of the nation as a vine was reused by Jeremiah (Jer. 2:21; 6:9; 8:13) and Ezekiel (19:10-14) and was modified in Isaiah’s song of the vineyard (Isa. 5:1-7). In the New Testament, Jesus claimed to be the true vine (John 15:1).

Lastly, Jeremiah and Ezekiel may have taken the idea of the prophet as a watchman from Hosea. Even if Hosea 9:8 does not make this identification, Hosea presented his message in the form of a watchman’s cry in 5:8 and 8:1.

Finally, Hosea’s use of metaphor and simile has a forceful theological effect. Canaanite mythology viewed the coming of the rain and the fruitfulness of the soil as the result of the marriage of Baal and his consort. By using the realms of marriage and nature to describe Yahweh’s relationship to Israel, Hosea stripped Baalism of the attractions it had for the people and asserted Yahweh’s sovereignty over the natural world.[48]Mays, 8-10. He said judgment and salvation would be reflected in the distress and later blessings of the physical order. These events would come about through the control of Yahweh.

In another contrast with Baalism, the marriage metaphor taught that Israel was the true wife, not the land. God’s primary concern was for relationship with his people. The use of animal and plant images carried this message further. Hosea thereby matched literary form with religious content.

At the same time, he was careful to avoid the Canaanite mistake of identifying the deity too closely with the forces of nature. The fact that he presented God in natural images is surprising, but he guarded against the dangers of this tactic by using similes when he compared God with something from nature.[49]Kruger, 149. He could say, “Israel is a luxuriant vine.” But God is only like pus, or a lion, or dew. Even in his speech about God, Hosea honored his sovereignty and transcendence. Speaking in the divine first person he preached, “O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?” (14:8). From his marriage to Gomer to the words of his mouth, Hosea embodied his message to Israel.


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