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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Metaphor of Marriage

The attractiveness of Hosea's prophecy springs from his use of metaphor and symbol, especially imagery drawn from human relationships. His most fundamental metaphor is that of marriage. The book opens with one of the most bizarre commands in all the Bible, “Go, take a harlot wife.…” It may be that the woman, Gomer, was not a harlot when she married, and that the command anticipates her later behavior. There is an alternative view, however, held by many scholars, which sees the choice of a harlot wife as a deliberate symbolic act on the part of the prophet (compare the bizarre symbolic acts in Isaiah 20 and Ezekiel 4 ). Some scholars think that Gomer was not only a prostitute but a cult prostitute, devoted to the worship of the pagan god Baal. By marrying such a person, Hosea would have attracted considerable attention, and dramatized his message that “the land gives itself to harlotry” ( 1, 2 ). In any case, the prophet uses the experience of infidelity in marriage, all too familiar to his audience, to convey an understanding of Israel's behavior toward the Lord, the God of Israel. The metaphor was appropriate for several reasons:

  • 1. It is a fundamental presupposition of Hosea that Israel is bound to God by the covenant given to Moses. A covenant is a contractual arrangement, like a marriage. The relationship can be expressed in the declarations “You are my people” and “My God” ( 2, 25 ) on the analogy of the standard marriage formula “she is my wife, he is my husband.”

  • 2. One of the major problems addressed by Hosea was idolatry, specifically the cult of the Canaanite god Baal. The word baal was used in Hebrew as the common word for husband. Moreover, Baal was attractive to the people because he was a fertility god who was supposed to guarantee the productivity of land, animals, and people. Some scholars have supposed that the worship of Baal involved sexual acts with sacred prostitutes. This is now viewed as unlikely, but the imagery of prostitution and fornication is often used to symbolize idolatry. Hosea was contrasting the covenant with the Lord, understood as a marriage, with the cult of Baal, understood as prostitution. The prophet's wife exemplified the behavior of Israel, by straying from the marital relationship.

  • 3. Hosea's whole understanding of God is based on the assumption that God is like the best in human nature, only more so. Since marriage is the culmination of love between man and woman, it is appropriate that it should also provide the analogy for understanding the love between the Lord and Israel.

The fact that the prophet uses the most intimate aspect of his own life to convey his message is indicative of his total involvement in his prophecy. The involvement extends to his children, who are given such symbolic names as “not pitied” (Lo‐ruhama, 1, 6 ) and “not my people” (Lo‐ammi, 1, 8 ). There is no concern for private, personal life. The prophet and his family are at the disposal of God for the welfare of the people.

The Lord and Baal

In the great poem in chapter 2 , Hosea argues that the people are mistaken when they credit Baal with providing the grain, the wine, and the oil. It is the Lord who really controls fertility. What is involved here is not simply a matter of knowing the most appropriate name for the God of nature. To acknowledge the Lord as lord is to accept the Sinai covenant, with its code of ethics for society. Israel's infidelity in worshipping Baal is the symptom of a pervasive disease. Hosea's grievance against the people is summed up in 4, 1–3 :

There is no fidelity, no mercy, no knowledge of God in the land. False swearing, lying, murder, stealing and adultery! in their lawlessness, bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns.…

The list of offenses closely follows the Ten Commandments, but the point is not just that specific laws are broken. It is a question of fundamental attitude. Infidelity manifests itself in sexual behavior, in idolatry, in the repeated assassination of rulers, in wavering political alliances. This lack of constancy certainly had an effect on the political fortunes of the nation. Hosea believed that it also had an effect on the land itself. He may have been right insofar as the rulers neglected the proper care of the land because of intrigue and opportunism.

Land and Desert

In the poem in Hosea 2 , the prophet plays on the rich associations of the promised land. The foundation of Israel's identity was the story of the Exodus. The escape from Egypt had been followed by forty years of wandering in the desert. After that experience, Israel had indeed looked like “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Now the prophet threatened to take all that away: “I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land.” To appreciate the full force of this threat we must remember that for ancient Israel the gift of the land was the primary expression of salvation. There was no belief among Israelites of that time in a blessed hereafter. To reduce the land to a desert would be, in effect, to undo the Exodus. In fact, the devastation of the Assyrian invasion might well be said to do that, some years after Hosea spoke.

The desert, however, was not only a place of death. It was also a place of hope. Israel wandered in the desert in “the days of her youth.” Hosea changes his metaphor in 2, 16 and plays on the positive connotations of the desert, as a place where a man might take a young woman in privacy, away from the town, to court her. What he is suggesting is that the destruction at the hands of Assyria is not the end. It is rather a transitional stage, necessary to clear away the cult of Baal and the other abuses in Israel. When Israel has been stripped down, so to speak, by the Assyrians, a new beginning will be possible, in effect a new Exodus.

The motif of a new Exodus, introduced here for the first time, would later be important for Second Isaiah (Is 40–55 ) after the Babylonian exile. It would be taken up again by the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, shortly before the time of Christ, and it is implied in the career of John the Baptist (Mk 1, 2f ).

Criticism of the Cult

The cult of Baal was attractive in part because it was a matter of ritual rather than of ethical conduct. The Israelites were also willing to perform rituals for the Lord. Hosea complains at the facile way in which they professed repentance, only to have the sentiment vanish as soon as they left the Temple ( 6, 1–4 ). In the course of this passage the Israelites say: “He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up.” This reference to raising up on the third day has often been related to the resurrection of Christ. In its context, however, it simply expresses the hope that God would restore the fortunes of the people after a short time.

Hosea goes on to enunciate one of the classic formulations of biblical religion in 6, 6 : “It is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts.” Sacrifice was not bad in itself, but it was only as good as the attitude it represented. Without the love that expressed itself in ethical conduct, sacrifice was meaningless, no matter what it cost. The inadequacy of sacrifice without the practice of justice is one of the major themes that runs through the prophetic corpus.

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