Hosea is the second of the eighth‐century BCE prophets whose messages became a separate book (see also Amos, The Book of).
The first three chapters tell the story of the prophet and his family. Hosea was instructed by God to marry a woman who is described as adulterous, either because she was already immoral or in anticipation of her unfaithfulness. The three children carry the same stigma (1.2; 2.4), and they are given bizarre names to symbolize their degraded status (chap. 1).
The similarity between Hosea's experience with his wife and Yahweh's experience with Israel is worked out in the book in all its dimensions—heartbreak, enraged rejection, efforts at reconciliation. All these are interwoven in an allegory in chap. 2. The stories are really the same, because the sin of Gomer against Hosea is identical with Israel's sin against Yahweh: unfaithfulness to the covenanted relationship by resorting to the cult of Baal, the god of the Canaanites (2.8, 13). This rival religion provided sexual activity as part of its ritual (4.10–19), at once literal and spiritual adultery.
In spite of the hopeless situation, which called for the most drastic discipline and even for the death penalty for both the mother (2.3) and the children (2.12b; 9.12–16), the Lord was quite unwilling to give up the covenant relationship (11.8). Strenuous efforts were made to renew the marriage, to begin all over again (2.14–23).
The story and the allegory are fairly clear in chaps. 1–3, where Hosea's concerns are uppermost. The rest of the book (chaps. 4–14) deals with Yahweh and Israel. It contains prophetic discourses composed in the language of cult poetry. This language is dense, compact, often opaque. Most translations are clearer than the original due to a considerable amount of guesswork and interpretation. This is unavoidable, because the text of Hosea is notoriously difficult, perhaps the most obscure and problematic in the entire Bible. Its difficulties have been attributed to the peculiar dialect of the northern kingdom, but this has never been demonstrated. Again, the text, because of its great age, is suspected of having suffered much damage in transmission, and numerous attempts have been made to repair these supposed corruptions by textual emendations. Doubtless the surviving text is blemished from such causes, but it is more likely that most of our perplexity arises from our failure to understand the author's use of intricate poetic patterns and sophisticated rhetorical devices.
Even when the words are familiar and the grammar seems to be correct, the discussion is often oblique and enigmatic. There are references to a priest (4.4), a prophet (4.5), a mother (4.5), a king (7.3). Priests are implicated in a murder (6.9) and in other crimes (4.1–2). But no one is named, and none of the events referred to in the book can be connected with historical facts known from other sources.
None of the oracles is dated, so we cannot attach them to the political developments of the period. The military activity described briefly in 5.8–12 has been identified as one of the Assyrian invasions, but it could be one of the many wars between the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
The clue provided by the title (1.1) is curiously lopsided. The four kings of Judah cover most of the eighth century BCE, but only one king of Israel is named. The prophecy predicts judgment on Bethel and Samaria with death or exile for the king (10.7), but it does not show any awareness of the fulfillment of these threats, notably in the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE. Many of the criticisms of the religious life of Israel could have been made at most times in its history; but the deterioration of the situation fits well with the third quarter of the eighth century, when the northern kingdom went into a rapid decline after the death of Jeroboam II (745 BCE), whom Hosea evidently regarded as the last real king of the north. The discourses reflect the chaos and lawlessness that marked the last two decades of the Samarian regime, the anarchy that set in after the death of Jeroboam II in which many of his successors lost their lives through assassination or revolution.
The international scene is dominated by Assyria and Egypt, who are frequently mentioned together throughout the book. Many of the references to these countries reveal diplomatic moves by both Israel and Judah to seek security (“healing,” 5.13) through alliance with the great powers (7.11; 8.9). All too often, the little countries in the buffer zone between the two imperial nations tried to play one off against the other, with even more disastrous results. Such moves were roundly condemned by the prophets as apostasy from Yahweh, their true and only Lord. Their new protectors became their captors (9.3).
The northern kingdom is consistently called Ephraim, new terminology not found in Amos a generation earlier. It probably represents the contraction of the territory ruled from Samaria to a region corresponding to the traditional homeland of that tribe, due to loss of the eastern and northern provinces to the Assyrians and through civil war.
Hosea's messages mostly attack the northern kingdom (1.4), but Judah is frequently mentioned side by side with Ephraim and similarly condemned, especially in the all‐important chaps. 4–8. Some scholars wish to delete the references to Judah as secondary additions, but such a revision would seriously injure the fabric of the whole book. The references to Jacob in the latter part of the book secure a complementary historical perspective that shows a concern for all Israel as the covenant people. It reaches deeply into the past, and Judah could hardly be excluded from Jacob's descendants. The reference to David in 3.5 likewise recalls the original unity of the people, and looks forward to its future restoration.
The prophecy anticipates wholesale destruction of the state and the deportation of the population. Assyria will be the prime agent of this development. Conquest by Assyria is identified as punishment by God.
Beyond that the prophet anticipates a return from exile (11.11) and reconstitution of the old regime (3.5). With the benefit of hindsight, we connect such statements with the later history of the people, the dispersal first of Israel, then of Judah, and the revival of national life after the exile. And because the promises of a return seem to fit these later developments, some scholars suspect them of being added after the fact. Unless we recover a manuscript of Hosea of preexilic date, we shall never be able to settle such a point with certainty. But the forecasts are general, even vague, and do not betray actual knowledge of what would eventually take place. It cannot even be shown that the book has been edited with a Judean perspective of later times. It betrays no awareness of the differing fate of Judah or of the later importance of Babylon. It does not feature Jerusalem, let alone the Zion mystique that begins to emerge already in Hosea's younger contemporaries, Micah and Isaiah.
Hosea's vision of the future sometimes breaks out into an almost apocalyptic scenario, with echoes of the serenity and bliss of the original paradise (2.16–23; 14.4–8). Some scholars believe that such ideas did not develop in Israel until after the exile, but they are deeply woven into the fabric of the book, and any attempt to remove them would spoil the total structure.
Hosea is a book of conflicting passions. Extremes of rage alternate with the most moving expressions of tenderness and compassion. Its themes are the goodness and the severity of God. In passages of unexceeded savagery, Yahweh describes his execution and mutilation of his sinful partner (5.14; 6.5; 9.15; 13.7–8). In other places, the unquenchable affection of God for his people is expressed as grief over their loss, and as the yearning of a father for a beloved child (11.1), or of a husband for an estranged wife (chap. 3). The prophecy reveals the heart of God torn by powerful emotions: justice demands retribution; but grace cries out for forgiveness. How can both of these divine impulses be satisfied?
Hosea presents a radical solution to this problem. We do not know the outcome of his private tragedy and his heroic measures to recover his wife. He buys Gomer back (3.2), but we are not told how she responded. In God's parallel dealings with Israel, the book everywhere threatens and announces death as the inevitable punishment for sin (2.3, 12; 4.5, 9; 5.12; 7.2; 8.10; 9.9; 10.10; 11.6; 13.7–8, 16). But that will not be the end; once God's anger has been vented, the way of return is open. They may repent (14.1–2); then there will be healing and renewed love (14.4–8). Nothing less than resurrection from the dead can achieve this, and this is what is promised (13.14).
The story and the prophecy operate on several different levels at once, and it is impossible to separate the strands. The oracles have multiple meanings, personal and individual, national and historical. The figures of estrangement/reconciliation, sickness/recovery, death/resurrection are both literal and symbolic, realistic and fantastic. Beginning with one man's private tragedy and agony, the presentation expands to an analysis of Israel's past history and future destiny, reaching from the ancestors (chap. 12) to the eschaton (2.21–23). As one whose love was nurtured by the love of God, and whose experience then threw more light of understanding back into the love of God, Hosea reveals the Lord as both stern and sensitive, just and compassionate. He desires kindness (Hebr. ḥesed) rather than sacrifice (6.6), because kindness is an attribute in God even deeper than his justice.
Francis I. Andersen