Major Motifs of Hosea

Ralph L. Smith  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 18 - Fall 1975

How does one identify the major motifs of a book or of the preaching of a prophet? Does he count the number of times each word is used and select the words which occur most often? Or does he make a value judgment about the significance of words used and choose the most important ones? Or does he pick out the terms which seem to have had the most influence on subsequent generations? Perhaps all of these criteria should be used in determining the major motifs of Hosea. Admittedly the selection of the major motifs of any book is highly subjective. The motifs chosen will depend largely on the interests and background of the selector.



The most prominent concept in the early part of the book of Hosea is harlotry.[1]Cf. James Luther Mays, Hosea (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), p. 25; and Walter Brueggemann, Tradition for Crisis (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1968), p. 51.

The word zanah occurs in either noun or verb form a total of twenty-one times (1:2 four times; 2:2, 4, 5; 3:3; 4: 10, 11, 12 twice, 13, 14 twice, 15, 18; 5:3, 4; 6: 10; 9: 1). The root na’aph, “adultery,” occurs six times (2:2; 3:1; 4:2, 13, 14; 7:4). The fact that these two terms denoting sexual promiscuity are used twenty-seven times in the first nine chapters of Hosea suggests that Hosea’s time was a sex-saturated age. Sexual conduct had become uncontrolled, prostituted, and perverted.

One of the causes of the abnormal emphasis on and use of sex was the influence of the pagan cult of Baal. Baalism was essentially a fertility cult, a type of nature worship. Its primary goal was the guarantee of a good harvest and the renewal of all of nature. Therefore, Baal worshippers emphasized the sensual and material sides of nature.

Hosea’s time was syncretistic. Some Israelites probably became full blown devotees of Baal. However, the majority worshipped in the name of Yahweh but in the spirit of Baal. The prophet said:

Wine and new wine

take away the understanding.

My people inquire of a thing of wood,

and their staff gives them oracles.

For a spirit of harlotry has led them astray,

and they have left their God to play the harlot.

They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains,

and make offerings upon the hills,

under oak, poplar, and terebinth,

because their shade is good.

Therefore your daughters play the harlot,

and your brides commit adultery.


for the men themselves go aside with harlots,

and sacrifice with cult prostitutes,

and a people without understanding

shall come to ruin.

(4:11-14)[2]All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.

Was this Prostitution and adultery real or is Hosea’s language only metaphorical? Does it refer only to the spiritual adultery of Israel m the worship of Baal? These questions have been debated for centuries. Undoubtedly much of Israel’s sexual misconduct was carried on in the context of religious festivals, and there certainly was a religious “spirit of whoredom” which carried away the hearts of the people from Yahweh. Nevertheless, Israel’s harlotry was actual. James Ward says that eroticism seduced Israel through the cult. “This eroticism included engaging in overt sexual acts, but it included other forms of sensuality as well.”[3]James M. Ward, “The Message of the Prophet Hosea,” Interpretation 23 (October 1969):393. In another place Ward suggests that the chief perversion of the cult as Hosea saw it was “the idolatrous preoccupation with economic goals and sensual experiences.”[4]James M. Ward,Hosea: A Theological Commentary (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 28. Corrupted by the sexual theology of popular religion, Israel’s worship became occasions for sexual license in both its subtler and grosser forms.[5]Ibid.

As evidence that harlotry is a major motif in Hosea, we may note other related terms which the prophet used. Six times he speaks of Israel’s “lovers” to refer to passionate extramarital love affairs (cf. 2:5, 7, 10, 12, 13; 8:9). The form is a piel participle and is used in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel only of adulterous lovers.[6]Hans Walter Wolff, Hosea, trans. Gary Stansell and ed. Paul D. Hanson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), p. 35. Twice Hosea refers to a harlot’s hire (2:12; 9:1). Hosea refers to cult prostitutes in 4: 14. Wolff comments that nothing can better denote the degeneration of the worship service in Israel than the word “cult prostitute.”[7]Ibid. Three other terms in Hosea may refer to sexual perversion: villainy or “lewdness” (6:9); “a horrible thing” (6:10); and “they have deeply corrupted themselves” (9:9). One can readily see that the vocabulary of Hosea is permeated with terms for sexual irregularities.

The idea of whoredom not only dominated Hosea’s language; it also overshadowed a central event in his life. The Lord told Hosea to go marry a woman of harlotry (1:2). Does this mean that Gomer was a harlot, or did she have the spirit of harlotry? Or is this parabolic language suggesting that the marriage never occurred? Each of these views has had its defender. I prefer the literal view which suggests that Gomer was already a harlot before her marriage to Hosea.[8]Roy Lee Honeycutt, “Hosea,” Broadman Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Nashville: Broadman   Press), 7:3. David Alan Hubbard, President of Fuller Seminary, says that

Some scholars theorize that the relationship of Hosea and Gomer must have been pure at first, just as Israel’s relationship with God was pure in the Exodus experiences: . . . It should be pointed out, however, that Hosea’s marriage with Gomer was not meant to recapitulate God’s dealings with Israel but to thrust into sharp relief Israel’s present degeneracy. Its purpose was to highlight the bleakness of the times, to testify against the degradation of the hour in which he was living. How could this be done more effectively and dramatically than by a marriage between a prophet and a wicked woman?[9]David Alan Hubbard, With Bands of Love (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), p. 52.

If Gomer was not already a prostitute, she became one if the woman in chapter 3 is Gomer. Being married to a prostitute might not be a problem for a “pimp,” but it would be a burden and a cross for a prophet. One can clearly see God’s problem with Israel through Hosea’s experience with Gomer.

One further piece of evidence that harlotry is a major motif of Hosea can be seen in the fact that the first example of lessons from Israel’s history is a reference to Baal-peor (9:10). Baal-peor was the place where the children of Israel first came in contact with the culture of Canaan. It was there that many men in Israel committed adultery with the women of Midian (Num. 25:1-18). Baal-peor seems to have been a proto-type of Israel’s problems. Hosea must have felt at times that he was at Baal-peor all over again.

Hosea saw the destructive force of the misuse of sex. The old Yahwistic laws of sexual purity were being fiercely challenged by the rising tides of paganism. Normative family bonds were being dis­ solved. Men and women were being dehumanized and the fabric of society was being torn apart.

In the New Testament the process was reversed. Instead of the community of faith being invaded by a sexually perverted culture, the church under the leadership of the Apostle Paul invaded Corinth, the stronghold of sexual promiscuity and perversions. He wrote to the Corinthians about prostitution:

The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.” But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6: 13b-20)[10]Cf. L. D. Johnson, Israel’s Wisdom: Learn and Live (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1975), pp. 42-44.

Perhaps our situation is more like Hosea’s than Paul’s. Our “Christian culture” is being invaded and fiercely challenged by paganistic hedonism. It may be time to reverse the process and, like Paul, let the community of faith launch a vast offensive in the name of Christ for sexual purity and marital fidelity.



A second major motif of Hosea is love. Hosea has often been called the prophet of love. But if the reader takes that expression to mean that all is sweet and serene in Hosea, he has a false impression. Hosea did speak much about love, but he also spoke about sin wrath, and judgment.

There is a rich vocabulary of love in Hosea. He uses four main terms to speak about love: ‘ahab, hesed, raham, and naham. ‘ahab is the most general word for love in Hebrew. Wolff believes that it is an onomatopoetic word meaning “to breathe after,” “to pant.”[11]Wolff, Hosea, p. 35. It signifies emotion and strong desire. This word occurs in some form a total of nineteen times in Hosea. In only five cases does it refer to the love of God (3:1; 9:15; 11:1, 4; 14:4). Otherwise it refers to Israel’s love to oppress (12:8); love of a harlot’s hire (9:1); love of shame (4:18); love of cakes of raisins (3:1); love to thresh (10: 11); and love of immorality (9:10).

A second word in Hosea’s vocabulary of love is raham. This root is translated “pity” seven times in the RSV (1:6 twice, 7; 2:1, 4, 23 twice). Twice it is translated “mercy” (2: 19; 14:3). The basic root idea is found in the noun form in 9: 14 where it is translated “womb.” Raham refers basically to the warm tender love of a mother for the child of her womb. The English word “pity” fails to communicate this idea to the modern reader. Raham refers to the innermost being. God 1s pictured m 11:8 as being torn emotionally by Israel’s sinfulness and his enactment of judgment upon her. Hosea captured the feelings and passions of God as did no other prophet.

Another word Hosea used for love is very close in meaning to the preceding one. This word is naham and basically means “comfort” or “compassion.” This word is used twice by Hosea to describe God’s love. In 11:8 he says, “my compassion grows warm and tender.” In 13:14 he says almost the opposite, “Compassion is hid from my eyes.”

The greatest word in Hosea’s vocabulary of love is hesed. Hesed is a great covenant word and means faithfulness, steadfastness, or loyalty to a covenant relationship. It combines two ideas: strength and love. Norman Snaith makes the distinction between ‘ahab and hesed as that of election love and covenant love.[12]Norman H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (London: Epworth Press, 1944), pp. 94-142. Hosea spoke of election love (‘ahab) in 11:1:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called [elected] my son.

In 6:6 he spoke of covenant love:

For I desire steadfast love [hesed] and not sacrifice,

the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.

Hosea used the word hesed six times. The RSV translates it “kindness” in 4:1; “love” in 6:4; 12:6; and “steadfast love” in 2: 19; 6:6; 10:12. In 4:1 Hosea says that there is no “kindness” or covenant love in Israel. In 6:4 he says that Israel’s “love” or covenant love has lost its steadfastness and is like a morning cloud. One of the central truths of Hosea is captured by the use of hesed in 6:6. Here Hosea contrasts covenant love, which represents the commitment of one’s loyalty to God, with the external offering of sacrifices.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of

God, rather than burnt offerings.

If we require any other evidence that this verse presents the heart of the biblical faith, we need only look at Matthew 9:13 and 12:7 where Jesus commends this verse to his opponents.

The motif of love in Hosea is not exhausted simply with a study of its vocabulary. The whole concept of courtship, betrothal, and marriage in Hosea is bound up with love. There is an interesting courtship scene depicted in 2: 14-15. The Lord says:

Therefore, behold, I will allure her,

and bring her into the wilderness,

and speak tenderly to her.

And there I will give her her vineyards,

and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.

And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth.

Wolff believes that the word translated “allure” means “to treat one as easily seduced.”[13]Wolff, Hosea, p. 41. The word basically means “to be open,” “gullible,” “foolish,” “easily persuaded.” The same root word is used of Israel in 7: 11, where she is called “a silly dove without sense.” Wolff says that Yahweh is represented here in a crudely anthropomorphic picture as a “seducer” who allures a young woman with many other suitors (cf. Ex. 22: 15-16).[14]Ibid. Harper in the ICC says, however that the word “allure” does not necessarily have a bad meaning.[15]William Rainey Harper, Amos and Hosea, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1905), p. 239. Perhaps Hosea does think of Israel as the object of God’s overpowering persuasion just as Jeremiah felt that God had taken unfair advantage of him (Jer. 20:7).

The words “speak tenderly to her heart” belong to the language of love. Shechem spoke tenderly to the heart of Dinah because his soul was drawn to her and he loved her (Gen. 34:3). Ruth was amazed that Boaz spoke to her heart (2:13). The Levite spoke to the heart of his wife, who had gone back to her father, to persuade her to come back home (Judg. 19:3). Wolff says that the reason for speaking to the heart is love and the awareness of belonging together; its object is to overcome sorrow and resentment, obstinacy and estrangement.[16]Wolff, Hosea, p. 42; cf. Mays, Hosea, p. 44.

Two chapters of Hosea might be considered chapters on love. Chapter 3 can be understood under the title “How Love Works” or “Love Will Find a Way.” Love is difficult to define. One way to understand it, however, is to see it in action. Chapter 3 of Hosea says that love reaches out to the unlovely. Gomer may have been a beautiful young woman when Hosea married her. But if chapter 3 speaks about her after a life of prostitution, she was anything but lovely. However, love works not just toward the lovely, but in behalf of the broken, maimed, bleeding, and suffering wrecks of humanity. Again chapter 3 says that love is costly. Hosea was probably not a rich man. It may be that the fifteen shekels of silver and the homer and lethech of barley represented the extent of his possessions.[17]Honeycutt, “Hosea,” p. 18. Love is demanding and disciplining. Hosea ransomed his wife from a life of slavery and required that she undergo a period of cleansing, after wh1eh she would be his and his alone. Love is unselfish. Hosea was not vindictive or exploitative. He was very patient. He voluntarily submitted to the same restrictions he had placed on his wife. James Mays points out the strange tactics of love: love that imprisons to set free; love that destroys false love for the sake of true love· and love that punishes in order to redeem.[18]Mays, Hosea, p. 58. The last thing we see of how love works m chapter 3 is that it is victorious (3:5). We are not told whether Gomer returned to Hosea, but the prophet is confident that Israel will return to God.

Perhaps the greatest chapter on the love of God in the Old Testament is chapter 11 of Hosea. In many ways it approaches the New Testament’s understanding of the nature of God. A brief outline of this chapter can be given as: electing love (11:1); rejected love (11:2); protecting love (11:3-4); disciplining love (11:5-7); suffering love (11:8-9); and redeeming love (11: 10-11). B. W. Anderson says that here Hosea “strains all the resources of language m the attempt to plumb the incomprehensible depth of God’s holy love, the love which includes both judgment and mercy.”[19]B. W. Anderson, “The Book of Hosea,” Interpretation 8 July 1954):301.


The Knowledge of God

Another major motif of Hosea is “the knowledge of Gd.” Knowledge in the Old Testament is not intellectual or theoretical knowledge primarily but rather experiential knowledge. Four times Hosea charges that Israel has forgotten God (2: 13; 4:6; 8: 14; 13:6). Twice God says that he knows Israel. Once God knows Israel’s sins (5:3; cf. 13:12). Once God says he knew Israel in the wilderness in a beneficent way (13:5). But the main passage in Hosea that explicates the meaning of the knowledge of God is in 6:6. Here “the knowledge of God” is parallel with hesed, “steadfast love.” Perhaps G. Ernst Wright has captured the meaning of this concept best. Wright said, “To know the Lord is to acknowledge that he is sovereign, that he is the Ruler who claims, and has the right to claim, our obedience because of all that he is and has done.”[20]G. Ernest Wright, The Rule of God (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1960),p. 52. Israel’s sin was basically a refusal to recognize God’s sovereignty in government and personal living. The people rejected knowledge and the law (4:6; 8:1). They made their own governments (8:4) and gods (8:4-5). Price (5:5; 7: 10) and a spirit of harlotry (unfaithfulness) within would not let Israel repent and acknowledge God’s sovereignty (5:4).



Hosea lived in a very evil age. Every conceivable manner of wickedness was being practiced in Israel just before the fall of his nation in 722 B.C. Harlotry (see above), drunkenness (4: 11, 18; 7:5), murder (4:2; 6:8, 9), lying (4:2; 7:3, 13; 10:13; 11:12; 12:1), stealing (4:2; 6:9; 7:1), deceit (11:12), treachery (7:3), conspiracy (7:7,16), scoffing (7:5), insolence or cursing (7:16) characterized the lifestyle of Hosea’s people. It was a violent (12: 1), lawless (4:6; 8: 12), permissive (4:8, 9), oppressive (12:7), unjust (10:13) age.

The people had rebelled against God (7:13, 14; 9:15; 13:16). They had spurned the good (8:3), rejected the law (4:6; 8:12), and dealt faithlessly with God (5:7; 6:7; 14:4). They had become defiled (5:2; 6:10; 9:4), guilty (4:15; 5:5, 15; 10:2; 12:8; 13:1, 16), and corrupt (7:1; 9:9). They had strayed (7:13) and stumbled (4:5; 5:5; 14:1, 9).

Hosea uses all the major Hebrew words for sin: hata’, pesha’, and ‘awon. Hata’, “sin,” is used primarily in relationship with the cult (4:7,8; 8:11,13; 9:9; 10:8,9; 13:2,12). Pesha’ “rebellion,” is used only once (7:13). ‘awon, “iniquity” or “guilt,” is used in 4:8; 5:5; 7:1, 9; 8: 13; 9:7, 9; 10:10; 12:8,11; 13:12; 14:1, 2. Two words in Hosea can be translated “wickedness,” “iniquity,” or “evil.” They are raslia’ (10:13) and several forms of ra’ (7:1, 2, 3, 15; 9:15; 10:15). Two passages graphically portray the rampant wickedness in Hosea’s time.

Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel;

for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants

of the land.

There is no faithfulness or kindness,

and no knowledge of God in the land;

there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and

committing adultery;

they break all bounds and murder follows murder.



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 without.

But they do not consider

that I remember all their evil works.

Now their deeds encompass them,

they are before my face.

By their wickedness they make the king glad,

and the princes by their treachery.

They are all adulterers.


Israel’s wickedness centered in her licentious worship and power politics. Conspiracy, drunkenness, immorality, and scoffing were in the highest echelons of government (7:3-7). Her kings spoke hypocritical words and false oaths (10:4), making alliances with one super power and then another (7:11), none of whom could help Israel (5:13) because her basic problem was moral and theological, not political.



Judgment is one of the leading motifs of Hosea and of all the prophets. Clyde T. Francisco says,

The dire consequences of sinning against Yahweh became a major theme of the eighth century prophets. Although renowned for his stress upon divine love, Hosea paints the coming woe more graphically than any other. In the light of love, evil is exposed in all of its ugliness.[21]Clyde T. Francisco, “Evil and Suffering in the Book of Hosea,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 5 (April 1963):33.

Hosea says:

. . .judgment springs up like poisonous weeds in the furrows of the field. (10:4b)

In fact, the Lord says that the main reason he sent the prophets was to announce his judgment upon his people. He says:

Your love is like a morning cloud,

like the dew that goes early away.

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,

I have slain them by the words of my mouth,

and my judgment goes forth as the light.


The majority of Hosea’s oracles consist of accusations and judgments. Every chapter in the book (except 14) is crammed with words of judgment. Chapter 1 tells of the imminent end of the kingdom (1:4). Chapter 2 says that God will take away the grain, wine, oil, and flax which Israel thought were gifts of Baal. Chapter 3 speaks of a time when the sons of Israel will dwell without a king, prince, pillar, sacrifice, ephod, or teraphim (3:4).

Judgment in the latter part of Hosea (chaps. 4-13) takes many forms. It comes in the form of a storm (4:19; 10:15), of drought (4:3; 9:16; 13:15), of war (5:8-10; 7:16; 8:1, 14; 9:13; 10:10, 13b-15; 13:16). God will be to them like a moth (5:12), a lion (5:14; 13:7), a leopard (13:7), a she-bear robed of her cubs (13:7). He will spread his net over them (7:12); he will pour out his wrath upon them like water (5:10) and his anger like fire (8:5). God will drive them out of his house (9:15), and they shall go into exile to Egypt or Assyria (7:16; 8: 14; 9:3, 6; 10:5-6). Judgment for Israel will be a harvest of all the evil they have sown.

For they sow the wind,

and they shall reap the whirlwind.



You have plowed iniquity,

you have reaped injustice,

you have eaten the fruit of lies.



“Judgment is now,” said Hosea.

The days of punishment have come,

the days of recompense have come;

Israel shall know it.



And when it comes

. . . they shall say to the mountains,

Cover us,

and to the hills, Fall upon us.




Undeniably there are gleams of hope in the book of Hosea (cf. 1:10-2:l; 2:14-23; 3:5; 10:12; 11:1-11; 12:6; 14:1-8). The question is: Did Hosea speak these words, or did someone else add them? Even those who believe that Hosea spoke these words of hope do not agree on the time that he spoke them. For example, George Adam Smith believes that the messages of hope are the work of Hosea but that they come from the early part of his ministry. The final word of Hosea according to G. A. Smith was not hope, but destruction. Smith dates chapter 14 earlier than 13 and makes the book end “with that final, hopeless proclamation in chap. xiii.”[22]George Adam Smith, “The Book of the Twelve Prophets,” An Exposition of the Bible, 6 vols. (Hartford, Conn.: S.S. Scranton Co., 1904), 4:519.

James Ward believes that there are some genuine messages of hope in Hosea which are the work of the prophet. However, he think that the hope is not that the state will be saved but that through the destruction of the state the obstacles to a new life would be removed and a transformation of the hearts of the people would take place.[23]Ward , Hosea: A Theological Commentary, pp. 17-19.

Did Hosea call on his people to repent and return to the Lord? If so, did he have any hope that they would do so? Since the oracles of Hosea are undated, it is extremely difficult to know at what period of his ministry he said certain things. However, in 10:12 he said:

Sow for yourselves righteousness,

reap the fruit of steadfast love;

break up your fallow ground,

for it is time to seek the Lord,

that he may come and rain salvation upon you.

Hosea believed that God wanted to forgive and heal Israel.

I will return again to my place,

until they acknowledge their guilt

and seek my face,

and in their distress they seek me.


Again, the Lord said:

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.


There is some evidence that Israel did go through the motions of repentance. They visited all the old sanctuaries (4:15b). They recited the liturgy of repentance (6:1-3; 8:2). They multiplied altars, pillars, and sacrifices (4:7; 8:11; 10:1). In one place, Hosea refers to the example of the ancestor Jacob seeking God’s favor with tears (12:4) and then exhorts his hearers:

So you, by the help of your God, return,

hold fast to love and justice,

and wait continually for your God.


However, Hosea was a realist. He knew the power of sin. It seems that Hosea thought that Israel had gone beyond the point of no return.

Ephraim is joined to idols,

let him alone.


Their deeds do not permit them to

return to their God.

For the spirit of harlotry is within them,

and they know not the Lord.


Hosea was a realist. He knew the power of sin. But he also was a prophet He knew the power of God’s love. So, although Israel could not return to God on her own, she could return with God’s help (12:6), and she would.

They shall go after the Lord,

he will roar like a lion;

yea, he will roar,

and his sons shall come trembling . . .


“Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king; and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days” (3:5).

The last chapter of Hosea is the description of a bright, beautiful tomorrow when Israel will come to the Lord in repentance and faith and when the Lord will heal them and love them and bless them beyond measure.


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