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All the fundamental hermeneutic problems of the prophetic books come to the fore in Hosea. It is set in the same period as Amos, Micah and Isaiah (mid-eighth century bce), but the book seems to be in two parts, 1–3 relate to the prophet's experience of marriage, while 4–14 consist of the more characteristic anthology of prophetic oracles and sayings. The relationship of the two parts, like the nature and status of the prophet's marriages, is much debated. The links between the two parts of the book may be the focus on sex: ‘As for Ephraim, their glory shall fly away like a bird, from the...
All the fundamental hermeneutic problems of the prophetic books come to the fore in Hosea. It is set in the same period as Amos, Micah and Isaiah (mid-eighth century bce), but the book seems to be in two parts, 1–3 relate to the prophet's experience of marriage, while 4–14 consist of the more characteristic anthology of prophetic oracles and sayings. The relationship of the two parts, like the nature and status of the prophet's marriages, is much debated. The links between the two parts of the book may be the focus on sex: ‘As for Ephraim, their glory shall fly away like a bird, from the birth, and from the womb, and from the conception. Though they bring up their children, yet will I bereave them, that there shall not be a man left…Give them, O Lord: what wilt thou give? give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts’ (9: 11–12, 14). Throughout the anthology part of the book Ephraim (Israel) is berated for its sexual behaviour and its disloyalty to YHWH. Sexual metaphors are one of the dominant tropes in the Hebrew Bible: because the relationship between Israel (people, city or land) and YHWH is represented frequently in the Bible in terms of marriage (or covenant loyalty), any breaches of such a relationship, whether with other gods or by means of political alliances with other nations, are described in terms of infidelity, adultery, or whoring (after other gods). It can therefore be a very difficult task to determine whether biblical texts are speaking of actual sexual acts or are metaphorically describing religio-political activities, when such sexual language is used. For example, Hos. 4: 12–14 runs: ‘My people ask counsel at their stocks, and their staff declareth unto them: for the spirit of whoredoms hath caused them to err, and they have gone a whoring from under their God. They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burn incense upon the hills, under oaks and poplars and elms, because the shadow thereof is good: therefore your daughters shall commit whoredom, and your spouses shall commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they commit whoredom, nor your spouses when they commit adultery: for themselves are separated with whores, and they sacrifice with harlots: therefore the people that doth not understand shall fall.’ Is this diatribe about sexual acts or religious apostasy? Can one separate the two different kinds of activity in Hosea? To what degree is this rhetorical abuse of opponents? Questions multiply further in Hos. 1–3. Hosea is instructed to marry ‘a woman of whoredoms’ (or prostitute) and to beget ‘children of whoredoms’ because ‘the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the Lord’ (1: 2). Clearly this is symbolic discourse, but are we also to take literally (as an ‘acted metaphor’) that, by divine command, Hosea married a prostitute, and had with her children who represented dramatic or parabolic features of the prophet's teaching? The eldest is a son, Jezreel, representing an attack on the dynasty of Jehu (of the house of Omri), the second child is a daughter, Lo-ruhamah (meaning ‘No Mercy’), standing for the destruction of Israel without mercy. At the same time a note (v. 7) contrasts Judah with Israel by asserting divine mercy on Judah. The third child and second son, Lo-ammi (‘Not my people’), symbolizes YHWH's rejection of Israel. Then the chapter ends by reversing these symbolic acts. This technique of assertion and counter-assertion has led many modern commentators to propose heavy secondary editing of the text. 2 modifies the symbolic acts of 1, showing the two children, Ammi (‘My people’) and Ruhamah (‘Mercy’), persuading their mother to give up her adulteries and return to her husband (Hosea and/or YHWH). 3 looks very much like a brief account of a second marriage by Hosea: Gomer, an adulteress—either the former lover of Hosea's friend (taken away by Hosea?) or Hosea's wife who had had an affair with his friend—is bought by Hosea and kept without other men for many days. This act represents Israel's return to YHWH after a period without social institutions (3: 4–5). Perhaps not surprisingly, pious commentators have had great difficulty with a divine command to marry a prostitute, and ordinary commentators have had no less trouble deciding which are actual and which symbolic actions.
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