Today my students will study the prophet Hosea in my course, “The Minor Prophets.” When I teach Hosea, my students spend a whole quarter going chapter by chapter and verse by verse through the book of Hosea. I do so because this great prophet of the Northern Kingdom had a message to the people of Israel that, I believe, it is still relevant for today’s modern day syncretistic society in which we live. Today, however, we will study Hosea only in this class. I still have ten more minor prophets to cover before the quarter is over.
The prophet Hosea is recognized as one of the greatest prophets of the eighth century B.C., along with Amos, Micah, and Isaiah. He was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom during and after the reign of Jeroboam II.
According to the introduction to his book, Hosea was the son of Beeri. However, nothing is known about his family, the place where he was born, nor the place where he preached. Hosea was the only classical prophet from the Northern Kingdom. He probably preached in the capital city of Samaria and maybe also at Bethel.
The superscription to Hosea’s book indicates that the prophet preached in the days of Uzziah, King of Judah (783-742) and in the days of Jeroboam II, King of Israel (786-746). Although we do not know the precise dates of Hosea’s ministry, the possible reference to the Syro-Ephraimite War in 5:8-14 would place Hosea in Samaria around 733 B.C. Hosea ministered during the chaotic last days of Israel before the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C.
Hosea came to his vocation through a tragic experience in his life. This experience gave Hosea’s message its characteristic shape. Whenever one studies the book of Hosea, one is fascinated by the events related to his marriage to Gomer. Hosea and Gomer had three children; two sons and one daughter were born out of their marriage.
Although it is impossible for me in this post to provide a detailed study of Hosea, his time, and message, I will review some of the problems related to the interpretation of his marriage and some of the views proposed by scholars to understand God’s command to Hosea.
According to the book, God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute. The New Jerusalem Bible reads:
“Yahweh said to Hosea, ‘Go, marry a whore, and get children with a whore; for the country itself has become nothing but a whore by abandoning Yahweh’” (Hos. 1:2 NJB).
Scholars are divided on how to interpret God’s words to Hosea. The issue is whether the narrative describing God’s command to his servant Hosea should be understood as Hosea’s actual experience or a story composed to illustrate a spiritual truth.
Those who give a spiritual meaning to the story do so in order to avoid the moral problem of God commanding a prophet to marry a prostitute. As John Calvin said, “How could he expect to be received on coming abroad before the public, after having on himself such a disgrace.”
Many evangelical Christians do not accept the literal interpretation of the text because they find it morally objectionable that God would command Hosea to marry a prostitute who would be unfaithful to him and then command Hosea to remarry the same woman after she became an adulterous woman.
Those who accept the narrative as the actual experience of the prophet do so because it is consistent with the prophet’s message to Israel and the actual condition of the nation.
Three views have been proposed which are compromises to the actual, historical view.
1. The Proleptic View
This view seeks to avoid the moral problem the marriage would have created for Hosea. This view says that God told Hosea to marry Gomer. Gomer was a pure woman before marriage. After her marriage to Hosea she became a prostitute. Thus, looking back, when God told Hosea to marry Gomer, he realized that God was asking him to marry a prostitute.
2. The Spiritual Harlotry View
This view proposes that the harlotry of Gomer was spiritual, that is, Gomer was an idol worshiper. This view says that God commanded Hosea to marry a woman who worshiped idols.
3. The Cultic Functionary View
This view proposes that God commanded Hosea to marry one of the women who served as a Baal priestess in the temple. Gomer would be a woman who served among the cultic prostitutes but was not a common prostitute.
Proposed Views on the Marriage of Hosea
The following are some views proposed by scholars in order to deal with the moral issues raised by Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute. Although several scholars will be named, for the sake of space, a full bibliography will not be provided at this time.
Gerhard von Rad. Von Rad says that the prophetic symbolism behind the marriage makes reconstruction impossible.
Walter Harrelson. Harrelson says that Gomer lapsed into prostitution after marriage.
T. H. Robinson. Robinson believes that Hosea married a sacred prostitute.
Robert Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer believes that Gomer’s harlotry was spiritual unfaithfulness to God, that is, idolatry.
Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas believes that Gomer was not Hosea’s wife, only a concubine.
Hugo Gressman. Gressman believes that Hosea’s marriage was only a literary device to convey a message.
E. W. Hengstenberg. Hengstenberg believes that this marriage never occurred. The marriage was only a vision or a dream of the prophet.
Jerome and John Calvin. Both Jerome and Calvin believe that Hosea’s marriage is only a parable to illustrate the sins of Israel.
Jewish Rabbis. Many Jewish Rabbis believed that the marriage is only an allegory invented by Hosea to illustrate the love of God.
Yehezkel Kaufmann. Kaufmann believes that the marriage of Hosea was a stage play.
James Newsome and C. Hassel Bullock. Both scholars believe that the marriage was an actual experience in the life of the prophet, that is, Gomer was a prostitute before marriage.
In his book The Prophets, Abraham Heschel provides several reasons why all these interpretations, except the literal view, should be rejected because the biblical text portrays an actual event in the life of Hosea. Heschel defends the literal reading of Hosea’s marriage for the following reasons:
1. “What is morally and religiously objectionable in actual practice becomes no more defensible by being presented as vision or parable.”
2. “No indication is given by the prophet that this is a vision or a parable and not fact.”
3. “The name Gomer bath Diblaim yields no symbolic significance.”
4. “The literal view suits the realism of early prophecy better than the supposition that it is a product of literary imagination.”
5. “It would be strange for Hosea to tell such a story of his wife if false or, if he were unmarried about himself.”
6. “A real experience such as this furnishes the best explanation of Hosea’s message—it was the outcome of the suffering of his own heart.”
I agree with Newsome and Bullock that the marriage was an actual experience in the life of the prophet, that is, Gomer was a prostitute before marriage. The fact is, as it is stated in Hosea’s own words, at the command of God, Hosea married a common prostitute and fathered three children with her. Each child was given a symbolic name to illustrate the depths of Israel’s sin and rebellion.
Many Christians reject this interpretation because they cannot believe that God would actually command his servant to marry a woman of ill repute, a prostitute. Such an act would be repugnant to many people. It is for this reason that scholars have proposed different ways to understand God’s command to Hosea. However, as Newsome wrote: “It was precisely the shocking nature of Hosea’s action, when matched to the shocking nature of his words, which caused his oracles to be remembered and preserved.”
I do not know how my students will react today in class to the shocking nature of Hosea’s marriage, but I know we will have a good discussion on this interesting topic.
How do you interpret Hosea’s marriage? Leave a comment and let me know your views.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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