HOSEA , or, in Hebrew, Hosheʿa (mid-eighth century bce), was a Hebrew prophet whose words are recorded in the biblical Book of Hosea. Hosea prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II of the northern kingdom of Israel (787/6–747/6 bce), which was a period of economic prosperity and political stability. There are, however, a number of allusions in the book to either war (5:8ff.) or political anarchy (7:1ff., 10:3, 13:10–11), which may suggest that Hosea continued to prophesy until the fall of Samaria in 722. This fits well with the superscription's list of the Judahite kings (Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah) during whose reigns Hosea prophesied. Hosea's prophetic emphasis is mainly on domestic affairs, especially the cultic situation.
Hosea's Marriage and His Prophetic Message
The information on Hosea's background is minimal. There is information, however, about a unique personal experience in his life, a peculiar marital episode. God had commanded Hosea to marry a harlot, one Gomer, daughter of Diblaim (1:3), who bore him two sons and one daughter. This marriage and its consequences, interpreted in religio-theological terms, form the major theme of chapters 1–3. The story of the marriage is told twice. The first account (chap. 1) is in the third person, while the second (chap. 3) is reported directly by Hosea. The significance of Hosea's marriage to a harlot and the text's repetition of the story of this marriage have been major issues in research on Hosea. Should God's order to "go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry" (1:2) be read literally or only as a metaphor for the nation's religious attitude, with Hosea the faithful husband representing God, and Gomer the unfaithful wife representing Israel? Is a "harlot" defined as a professional prostitute or as a sacred prostitute (cf. Amos 2:7)? There are no clear answers to these questions. One should not ignore, however, the prophets' tendency to dramatize events literally (e.g., Is. 20:2, Jer. 28:10, Am. 8:1–3) and therefore the possibility that Hosea married a harlot (professional or sacred) to symbolize the content of his message. The root znh ("harlotry") appears no fewer than nineteen times in his prophecy, always in key passages. Hosea's personal experience is thus the paradigm of his prophetic message that Israel has betrayed God. The relationship between God and Israel is like that between man and woman, husband and wife, where Israel is the unfaithful wife and God the loving and forgiving husband, who calls to his wife to repent and come back to him (see 2:14ff. [Masoretic text 2:16ff.]). The names of Hosea's three children, dictated to him by God, further express his prophetic message. The elder son is called Jezreel because "I will punish the House of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel" (see 1 Kgs. 19:15–17; 2 Kgs. 9–10) and "I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel" (Hos. 1:4). His daughter is named Loʾ-ruḥamah ("not pitied"), "for I will no more have pity on the house of Israel" (1:6), and the younger son is called Loʾ-ʿammi ("not my people"), "for you are not my people and I am not your God" (1:8).
No other prophet has portrayed the relationship between God and the people of Israel in such rich images of harlotry and vivid descriptions of the unfaithful wife. Indeed, the key words of Hosea's message are words that connote "fidelity" (ḥesed; 4:4, 6:4, 6:6), an emotional relationship with God (daʿat Elohim ; 4:1, 6:6) and repentance (shuvah; 6:1, 6:11, 7:10, 12:7).
Hosea's protestations against the unfaithful marriage also raise questions as to the nature of the Israelite religion of this time, because the Hebrew word for "husband," baʿal, also connotes the chief Canaanite god. Thus, a renewed relationship of fidelity between God and Israel will be expressed in new terms for marital relationships: "And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me 'my man' [ʾishi ], and no longer will you call me 'my husband' [baʿali ]" (2:16 [MT 2:18]). Scholars call attention to the possibility of religious syncretism that may have taken place in Israel. Archaeological findings in Kuntillet ʿAjrud in Sinai may indicate that a cult of Yahveh, with Baal as either an alternative name or a co-god, existed toward the end of the ninth century bce. Hosea may thus have been protesting against a cult of fertility that involved sacred harlots and was practiced in his own agricultural society. Hosea also called to renew the berit between Israel and God. Many scholars translate berit as "covenant" and reject the existence of the concept of formal covenant between God and Israel prior to the later appearance of the Deuteronomistic school. Nevertheless, berit occurs in Hosea at least five times (see especially 6:7 and 8:1) and may be understood in terms of faithful marriage, as the context of Hosea's prophecy suggests.
Hosea and Earlier Tradition
Hosea is opposed to fundamental institutions of his society. He criticizes the priests (4:4–10) as well as the political leaders and even the monarchs of his kingdom.
Where now is your king, to save you;
where are all your princes, to defend you—
those of whom you said, "Give me a king and princes"?
I have given you kings in my anger,
and I have taken them away in my wrath. (13:10–11, RSV)
He is the only prophet to anchor his reservations about kings in ancient antimonarchical traditions (see 1 Sm. 8:5ff.). Hosea's disappointment in the kings of Israel may also mirror the political situation that followed the death of Jeroboam II. Jeroboam's son Zechariah ruled for six months and was assassinated by Shallum, who governed for just one month and was killed by Menahem (2 Kgs. 15:8ff.). Two other Israelite kings were also assassinated before the fall of the kingdom, for a total of four out of six kings murdered within approximately twenty-five years.
Hosea does not see himself as an innovator. He speaks for and identifies himself with the long prophetic tradition that started with Moses (12:13 [MT 12:14]; see also 6:5, 9:7, 12:10 [MT 12:11]). He has no illusions about the effect of his address, as he points out in 9:7: "The prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad." But he does not withdraw, regarding himself as "the watchman of Ephraim" (9:8), following prophetic tradition (cf. 3:17ff.). (In Hosea this tribe's name is often used for the entire northern kingdom.) He is familiar with traditions about the patriarch Jacob—his birth (Hos. 12:3 [MT 12:4]), his struggle with the angel (12:4 [12:5]), his devotion to his beloved wife Rachel, and his flight from the land of Aram (12:12 [12:13]). He refers to the period of the Exodus (2:15 [2:17], 11:1, 13:4); to Moses, the prophet who brought Israel up from Egypt (12:13 [12:14]); and to Israel's unfaithful behavior in the desert at Baʿal-peʿor (9:10; see Nm. 25:1–18), when God punished the people by means of a plague for committing cultic-sexual sins. Hosea even refers to a certain version of the Decalogue (4:2; cf. Jer. 7:9). But he also emphasizes God's care of the Israelite people in the desert (13:5). Thus he shows that Israel's relationship with God has a long history, yet the people have ignored the ancient traditions that demonstrate God's devotion and commitment. For him, fulfillment of the moral commandments is the ultimate condition for the survival of the land and its people (4:3), for this constitutes faithfulness to this relationship with God.
Language, Structure, and Authorship
Hosea's identification with the prophetic tradition as well as certain linguistic affinities with Deuteronomy suggest that his ideas and language influenced the Deuteronomic ideology and terminology. It may be that after the fall of Samaria, either Hosea himself or his disciples moved to Jerusalem, where his speeches were collected and preserved. Hosea's portrayal of God and Israel as husband and wife is also reflected in the prophecy of Jeremiah (cf. Jer. 2:17ff., 3:1ff.), who was very familiar with the style of the Deuteronomist.
Hosea was a great poet, a master of language; his verses in 11:8–9 are among the most moving lines in the prophetic literature. His language is a mixture of prose and poetry. His verses are longer than is typical and often break the symmetrical pattern of parallelism, enabling the isolation and emphasis of a specific idea through the device of climax.
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud, like
the dew that goes early away.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. (6:4–6, RSV)
No other prophet employs so many figures of speech, especially simile, as Hosea. He may use a series of similes to create a single long poetic image, as in developing the figure of the oven in 7:4ff. He refers to God as a lion (5:14), a leopard (13:7), and a bear (13:8), images that illustrate his effort to attract his audience's attention in an unconventional way and to deliver his message as effectively as possible.
Hosea 's language is complicated, however, and every study of the book struggles with the difficulties of the text. The language, especially beginning with chapter 4, is very often puzzling. Perhaps the text has been poorly transmitted, or, as some scholars suggest, perhaps Hosea speaks in a northern dialect, which may sound odd to the modern reader of the Hebrew Bible, who is used to the Judahite style.
The Book of Hosea is divided into two major parts: chapters 1–3 and 4–14. The first part includes three literary genres: biography (chap. 1), autobiography (chap. 3), and prophetic speech (chap. 2). There have been discussions concerning the chronological order of these chapters, with some scholars suggesting that chapter 3 precedes chapter 1, so that the biography (chap. 1), which develops the theme of the marriage, elaborates Hosea's personal account. Others, who attempt to preserve the present order, point to the words "Go again, love a woman" (3:1), which may indicate that chapter 3 refers to a second marriage and not to Gomer.
Chapters 4–14 are a compilation of poetic orations, and determining each prophetic speech unit is sometimes difficult. In light of the stylistic differences and the personal approach of chapters 1–3, it has been suggested that two different books composed by two prophets were combined. However, the intense imagery of harlotry, the motif of repentance, and the return of the wife to her husband dominate the second part of the book as well and thus suggest that the entire book is Hosea's composition.
In contrast to many other prophetic books, most of the material in Hosea has been assigned by scholars to Hosea himself or to his close disciples, except verses such as 1:7 and 3:5, which may reflect a redaction in terms of a Judahite salvation eschatology. The various historical allusions (which are not always readily obvious), such as the Syro-Ephraimite war (5:8ff.), and 13:9–16, which may refer to a military occupation toward the end of the existence of the northern kingdom, may suggest that the book was edited into chronological order.
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Mays, James Luther. Hosea: A Commentary. Philadelphia, 1969.
Ward, James M. Hosea: A Theological Commentary. New York, 1966.
Wolff, Hans Walter. Hosea. Edited by Paul D. Hanson and translated by Gary Stansell. Philadelphia, 1974.
Macintosh, Andrew Alexander. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Hosea. Edinburgh, 1997.
Mondini, Umberto. Introduction to the Minor Prophets. Rome, 2000.
Nwaoru, Emmanuel O. Imagery in the Prophecy of Hosea. Wiesbaden, 1999.
Oestreich, Bernhard. Metaphors and Similes for Yahweh in Hosea, 14:2–9 (1–8): A Study of Hoseanic Pictorial Language. Frankfurt am Main and New York, 1998.
Teornkvist, Rut. The Use and Abuse of Female Sexual Imagery in the Book of Hosea: A Feminist Critical Approach to Hos 1–3. Uppsala, 1998.
Yehoshua Gitay (1987)
Hosea (active 750-722 B.C.) was a prophet of the kingdom of Israel. He called on Israel to repent its sins of apostasy and warned of the judgment to come from God. His writings form the first of the Old Testament books of the Minor Prophets.
Hosea was the son of Beeri and apparently belonged to the upper classes. Judging from his elegant style, he was highly cultured. Hosea married Gomer, daughter of Diblaim, who bore him two sons, the older of whom he called Yezreel, meaning "God sows." This name may have been intended to signify the replanting of Israel back on its own soil after it had been dispersed in exile. The second son was called Lo Ami, meaning "not my people, " to indicate God's rejection of Israel as His people because of its faithlessness. Hosea's daughter by Gomer was metaphorically named Lo-ruhamah, meaning "the unpitied one." Since Gomer after her marriage became an unfaithful "wife of harlotry, " it is possible that Lo-ruhamah and perhaps her brothers were illegitimate children. Scholars have speculated whether the prophet's tragic marital experience was real or merely an allegory to stress the infidelity of Israel.
The prophet recalled God's affection for Israel, from the days of its infancy, when He taught it how to walk and led it through the perils of the desert to the Promised Land. But Israel's goodness is as evanescent "as a morning cloud and the dew that early passeth away"; it must therefore suffer dire punishment and divine wrath. Because it "sows the wind, it shall reap the whirlwind." Hosea, however, does not leave his people without hope; he conceives the God of Israel in the loftiest terms as a God of Love. Israel will yet repent and return to its God.
Hosea's times were confused. Economically a great change had taken place in the reign of Jeroboam II (785-745 B.C.). The cities had grown in wealth and fostered a small class of rich landowners, merchants, and creditors. However, the vast majority of the urban population was made up of poor artisans, craftsmen, and laborers who were frequently exploited or even enslaved by the rich. In the country indigent farmers were often compelled to sell their holdings to the rich and migrate to the cities. The upper classes were favored by the rulers and judges; they readily adopted the ways of their neighbors and worshiped their heathen gods in place of the God of Israel, who "demanded mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings." For this reason Hosea denounced idolatry as the "spirit of harlotry, " which leads to moral degeneration, sin, and corruption.
Politically, too, the times were turbulent. Tiglathpileser III threatened the Northern kingdom as well as other nations. Internally, vast dynastic changes were taking place, despite the external danger. In 2 decades, six kings—four of them regicides—ascended the throne of Israel. In this state of political chaos the rulers of Israel and Judea made alliances, at times with Assyria and at other times with its powerful rival, Egypt. Hosea ridicules the diplomacy of princes who do not know which way to turn and describes Ephraim "as a silly dove, without understanding." He saw the alliances as useless, for Ephraim must be punished for his vices and moral degeneracy; his sins shall be purged in exile. In 722 B.C. the Northern Kingdom of Israel came to an end and passed out of history.
The Book of Hosea consists of two sections. The first 3 chapters may be autobiographical. The subsequent 11 chapters deal with the religious and social collapse that called for God's punishment of His people. The book concludes with a plea to the people to return to God, who in His abiding love will be reconciled with them. The people that were "not loved" (Lo-ruhamah) would be loved once again, and "not my people" (Lo-ami) would be reunited with their God again, in a new spiritual betrothal.
The Book of Hosea has been annotated and commented upon in such works as Abraham Cohen, ed., The Twelve Prophets: Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary (1948), and George A. Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter's Bible (12 vols., 1951-1957). The chapter on Hosea in Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (1962), provides an understanding of the prophet and his times. □