No one reads in a vacuum. Everyone brings to the Bible their own bias and prejudice. I am no exception. As I read Hosea, I read it, first of all, as a woman. The first three chapters of the book are a love story gone awry and I am initially drawn to the character of Gomer. She is called a whore by none other than God himself. No, that’s not quite right, God instructs Hosea to marry a whore. Hosea chooses Gomer as a wife.
Now according to “the law” a good Jewish (read Israelite) boy was expected to marry a virgin. (Deut 22:15) And he had legal recourse to divorce her if she was not chaste upon entering the marriage bed. She could even be stoned if she was deemed impure. (Deut 22:20) So there are some commentaries that argue that Gomer was a whore only proleptically. That is, she was a virgin at the time of marriage but God knew she would stray and leave Hosea’s bed. So God’s instructions were to go marry a women who has the propensity to sleep around.
Women, then as now, normally do not choose to be prostitutes. In a society, such as that of ancient Israel, where there was little opportunity for work outside the home, a woman needing food and a roof over her head often engaged in the world’s oldest profession. A kid from the flock would be considered good payment for one engagement of service rendered. (Gen 38:11) However in Hosea’s day, there was another order of prostitution, approved by society and even sanctioned by the church. They were the Temple prostitutes. Worship of the fertility god, Ba’al, involved sexual activities at his temple to ensure a prosperous growing season.
Then, there is the possibility that Hosea actually fell in love with Gomer. But if she were already a temple prostitute, according to the law, he would be forbidden to marriage her. So God steps in and allows Hosea to follow his heart, knowing the inevitable results of such action.
There is no way of knowing which of these scenarios, if any, Gomer fits into. All we know is Hosea’s side of the story. Following his marriage, he had reason to doubt her faithfulness, and the names given to his children were a public indictment of her adulterous relationship. But then again, the names were not Hosea’s choice either. God told Hosea what to call his offspring. Why, one wonders, would a compassionate God, subject innocent children to such ridicule?
There, of course, is no way of knowing whether this “naming game” was biographical and literal or if it were merely a case of a prophetic pronouncement. Using children as prophetic symbols was the order of the day, such as when Isaiah named his son, Maher-Shalai-Hash-Baz “the spoil speeds the prey hastens” or when Eli’s grandson was called Ichabod, “no glory”. (l Sam 4:19-22) (Is 8:7). Most women I know would be rightly peeved should their husbands take it upon themselves to invest their children with such monikers. And then on top of it make the claim, God told me to do it. But in those days children, as well as wives, were the property of men to do with as they chose.
After the divorce, Hosea is instructed by God to go and buy his wife back from another man who, according to the record, may have actually loved her. (3:1) Again, this action would run counter to the law of Moses which forbid a disgraced wife from returning to her first husband’s home. (Deut 24:1-4) For Gomer, having endured an embarrassing divorce that involved being publically exposed, literally, to the community, then having to return as a purchased commodity, would be a galling prospect, especially if she were forced to leave behind a home where she may have found some modicum of security and affection. One can only wonder about her reception among the other women of the community. As she drew water from the public well, did the other women commensurate with her situation or shun her.
As I said, I read the story from my own frame of reference and my first impression of God wasn’t all that favorable. I found little sympathy for a deity who would use people as object lessons. Fortunately for God, the story does bear further reading and a closer look at the details. Even Hosea comes across more humane upon a closer investigation.
My own hermeneutic for reading the Old Testament comes from my Adventist background. The unfolding of God’s ways and revealing of his character was an ongoing process. Following the flood the knowledge of God was almost lost on this earth. Thus God would initiate a process to restore this knowledge beginning with his call of a pagan, idol worshiper called Abram. For me the Old Testament is not a univocal document but rather the story of God’s gradual self revelation to a chosen people that finds culmination in the life of Jesus.
That said, the primary reason for inclusion of Hosea in the cannon is the wonderful and magnificent depiction of God as a passionate lover and his desire for an intimate relationship with his children. In this book, for the first time in canonical history, God’s relationship with Israel is described in terms of a marriage arrangement. And such a story could only be penned by an author, who himself was capable of intense and passionate love. Having endured the painful experience of a spouse who deserted him, taking action to publically divorce her, Hosea repents of his actions and continues to care and provide for her. This experience gave Hosea the emotional background to envision Israel from God’s perspective. Buying her freedom and seeking to woo her affections all over again, gives Hosea the spiritual insight and prophetic motivation that God needed to convey his own intentions toward Israel.
The “ah ha” that came to Hosea as he sensed the connection between his own deep emotions regarding Gomer and his realization that God must feel the same way regarding his people, inspired him to go public with his story. His role as a prophet, to call people back into covenant relationship with God took on a new dynamic as he wove his own personal experience into his message of impending judgment and his call for repentance.
God was able to take Hosea’s disastrous marital situation and from it bring a message of hope and encouragement to his faithless people. He inspired Hosea to recast his personal experience into an allegorical format, allowing Hosea to preach with persuasive power and eloquence that spoke to both the minds and hearts of his people.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5206