Introductory Issues in Hosea
Perhaps the most difficult issue to deal with when interpreting Prophet to the northern kingdom who married a prostitute to show God’s relationship to a faithless Israel is the issue of divine violence. The book of Hosea portrays God as one who will exercise judgment on Israel by means of military defeat and national destruction. While the book does promise that God will remain faithful both in the midst of and on the other side of the violence, this assurance does not erase the impression that God seems to find violence an appropriate means of judgment.
Perhaps the most puzzling and controversial issue regarding the book of Hosea has to do with his wife Gomer, who is called “a wife/woman of whoredom.” In tradition, this was normally interpreted to conclude that Gomer was a “cultic prostitute”–a woman who engaged in sexual relationships with men as part of a fertility cult, with the idea that sexual activity between two humans on earth as a part of divine worship would stimulate the gods in heaven to bless the earth with agricultural fertility. However, it is not even certain if sexual acts were part of the Canaanite religion or if there were cultic prostitutes in ancient Israel or its neighbors. A second interpretation that has been popular is to view Gomer as a common prostitute, one who earns a living by means of sexual activity, but whose activities have no religious content. An interpretation that is gaining wide acceptance is that Gomer was not a prostitute at all, but a “promiscuous woman,” one who was unfaithful to her husband.
Hosea’s family life
What can we know of Hosea’s personal life? Are the narratives of chapters 1 and 3 meant to be taken as historical descriptions, or are they metaphorical? If historical, do the two chapters simply describe the same event, using different words? Or do the two chapters tell of two different events involving the same woman? Or are the women of the two chapters actually two different women? Hosea 1-2 suggest that Gomer bore three children, but it is unclear if Hosea was the biological father of the children; the fact that he gave the children names suggests that he was at least their legal father. But was Hosea the biological father of Gomer’s children? Or are chapters 1-3 meant to be interpreted metaphorically and not as historical reports? Many commentators have thought so, believing that God would not order a prophet to marry a prostitute.
The marriage metaphor
Similar to and connected with the issue of divine violence is the issue of marriage as a metaphor for both God’s faithfulness and human unfaithfulness. One basic problem is that when God is seen as the faithful husband and Israel as the unfaithful bride, some interpreters have drawn very bad conclusions about the nature of marriage and about the nature of women in marriage. Because the book of Hosea shows “God the husband” disciplining “Israel the wife” by violent means, some misguided and sexist interpreters have concluded that the book of Hosea seems to endorse the physical abuse of women and children within marriage. This is such a large problem, that some recent interpreters have questioned whether people of faith should even study Hosea 2, in which the problem is most difficult. A second basic problem has to do with the metaphor of the unfaithful wife as a primary image for human unfaithfulness. Because women are so often the victims of abuse and unfaithfulness on the part of men, to draw on the metaphor of the unfaithful wife as a primary image for human infidelity can lead to the false conclusion that women are more unfaithful or sinful than men.
Hosea began to prophesy during a time of relative peace and prosperity. The Egyptian Empire (to the southwest) and the Assyrian Empire (to the northeast) were at lower ebb as Hosea began his ministry, but that soon changed as Assyrian power grew and its dominance began. It is likely that Hosea lived to know the destruction of the The Northern Kingdom consisted of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel and lasted for 200 years until it was destroyed by Assyria in 721 B.C.E. In the northern kingdom the kings were evil. Prophets like Elijah and Amos railed against them and their evildoing..
Hosea is a book made up of messages once spoken by the prophet Hosea, but he is not the “author” of the book. Most of the speeches in Hosea were once spoken by the prophet, but they were most likely collected by other people–probably followers or disciples of Hosea–and gathered into a book by these people. The editors shaped the book into sections (1-3; 4-11; 12-14), which evidence a pattern: each section ends with the promise of restoration on the other side of judgment. It is also likely that the editors shaped the individual prophetic messages of the book in subtle ways; the handiwork of the editors cannot be untangled from the words of the original prophet.
Use of the historical tradition
Hosea is aware of the history of Israel and draws on that history to condemn the people. He refers to traditions from the wilderness (see chapters 2-3), the Ten Commandments (4:1-3), and traditions of Israel’s election by God (11:1-2). One point that this use of history scores is that God’s judgment of the people is not at odds with the history of God’s dealings with the people, but consistent with it and an ongoing part of that relationship.
Use of the legal/moral tradition
Hosea does not preach a new social morality, but calls Israel to faithfulness to the Law of God (4:1-3). Some interpreters in the past have seen the prophets as presenting a new ethical system or advancing the moral reflection of Israel. But like the other prophets of the eighth century B.C.E., Hosea does not present a new moral system; he calls the people to faithfulness to God’s law.