The Complete Book of Hosea

It's a Mixed Marriage. He's a Prophet. She's a Prostitute.
What's really in the Good Book.
Feb. 15 2007 5:45 PM

The Complete Book of Hosea

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Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The Book of Hosea

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

I'm finally finished with the Big Three prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—so it's time to move on to the minor ones. There are a dozen minors, and I've heard of maybe four of them. Zephaniah? Nope. Haggai? Uh-Uh. Nahum? Gesundheit!

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And I suspect I'm not alone in my ignorance. Let's have a show of hands: Who has ever read the Book of Habakkuk? Be honest!

Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
God's first instruction to Hosea is: Go find yourself a whore and marry her. (Yes, again with the prostitutes!) He picks up a streetwalker named Gomer—the ancient Hebrew for "Candee," I guess. They quickly have a son, whom Hosea names Jezreel. (As you may remember from 1 Kings, Chapter 21, Jezreel is where King Ahab and Queen Jezebel committed one of the Bible's most loathsome crimes.) He names their other kids "Not-Accepted" and "Not-My-People," to symbolize God's rejection of the Israelites. (Why couldn't he name them Jacob and Madison like everyone else?) But we're picking up a theme here: Hosea's family embodies Israel's disgrace.

The hooker wife, of course, represents the faithlessness of the Israelites. It may be theologically illuminating to have a metaphor for a spouse, but I imagine it makes life around the house unbearable. In Chapter 2, for example, Hosea unloads on Gomer for her harlotry and vile behavior, then threatens to leave her in the wilderness, let her die of thirst, and disown her children. The squabble between Hosea and his wife is a reprise of Ezekiel, Chapter 16, when God has the same fight with His wife, Jerusalem. But I find this Hosea version much more unpleasant. The Ezekiel fight is just a metaphor. In this fight, the wife is the real prostitute Gomer, and the husband is the real prophet Hosea, giving it a tinge of genuine domestic horror that the Ezekiel story lacks.

Chapter 3
A similar story, but with a happier ending. Hosea befriends a woman who cheats on her boyfriend. Hosea pays her to stop seeing other men: So, too, will the Israelites stop cheating on the Lord and return to Him.

Chapter 4
Hosea, like Ezekiel, alternates between parables in prose and wild flights of poetry. But Hosea isn't nearly as interesting. I shouldn't condemn all 12 minor prophets based on a few chapters of Hosea, but I'm guessing the reason that they are so obscure is that they're inferior books. Hosea feels clumsy and passionless compared with the Big Three.

Chapter 5 through Chapter 7
Hosea lives beforeIsaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, and before Israel and Judea are sacked. While the Big Three are most concerned with Judah's crimes and the Babylonian invasion, Hosea directs his particular rage at Ephraim, one of the leading Israelite tribes. In these chapters, Hosea rants and raves against Ephraim for betraying the Lord by seeking help from Assyria and Egypt, rather than from Him.

There's a curious proto-Christian moment at the beginning of Chapter 6: Hosea instructs the Israelites to return to the Lord, telling them that, "on the third day He will raise us up, and we shall be whole by His favor." Am I crazy to think this has resurrection-of-Christ overtones?

Verse 7 is beautiful, and I believe it's famous. (A quick Google search confirms this suspicion.) Yet I'm embarrassed to say that I don't understand it. Hosea says of the faithless Israelites: "For they sow wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind." I get "reap the whirlwind"—the Israelites will be swept up by chaos. But "sow the wind" baffles me. Help, please?

That metaphor is so nice, he uses it twice. Hosea plagiarizes his own whirlwind line: "You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped iniquity."

In Ezekiel, God falls in love with Jerusalem when she is a girl and then marries her, only to have her cuckold Him. Here in Hosea, God falls in love with Israel when he is a boy, then adopts him as a son, only to have him betray his father. As I argued back in Ezekiel 16, "bad marriage" is a more powerful metaphor for God's disillusionment with us than "prodigal son" is. The jealousy and rage that chase failed relationships are much more threatening than the disappointment a father might feel about a son.

Chapter 12
This chapter bored me so much that I didn't take a single note as I was reading it. Not one word. Congratulations, Chapter 12! You're the winner! I've now read almost 500 Bible chapters, and taken notes on every one but you.

Chapter 13
God complains that He looked after us in the desert, rescued us from Egypt, put us through med school, raised the kids while we did our residency, took out loans so we could afford that extra  year of plastic surgery specialization—and now we've left Him for Baal! (And that Baal is such a cow.)

Chapter 14
It's already the last chapter. That was a quickie. Feeling merciful again, the Lord agrees to forgive Israel its sins. He promises to "take [the Israelites] back in love." The closing lines of Hosea are the best in the whole book.

"He who is wise will consider these words, He who is prudent will take note of them, For the paths of the Lord are smooth; The righteous can walk on them, while sinners stumble on them."

Why do I like this passage so much? Its measured tone is what impresses me. Hosea sounds like a prosecutor calmly summing up his case. There is none of the maniac rage of Jeremiah here, none of the trying-too-hard threats of Deuteronomy. Hosea is speaking from a position of quiet confidence: If you're smart, you'll listen to me. This straightforward appeal to rational self-interest—as opposed to love, fear, hate, anxiety—is rare in the Bible, and surprisingly refreshing. 

Addendum, February 16: Several readers tweaked me for overlooking that the harlot in Chapter 3 is Hosea's own wife, Gomer, whom he had married back in Chapter 1. If the Chapter 3 woman—who gets redeemed by Hosea and God—is the same as the wife, that softens and sweetens the brutal message of the first two chapters, which savage Gomer. Some translations explicitly state that the Chapter 3 woman is Gomer. But in my defense, neither translation I read (The JPS Tanakh and the New Revised Standard Version) says or implies that. My translations indicate that the Chapter 3 woman is a different person. This is a case where my readers and I may both be right.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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