Hosea is about betrayal and death, and about new life and hope. It is among the most mystical of books of the Old Testament, but also among the most socially and politically conscious. It is difficult, complex poetry which combines lyrical beauty with unbearable horror.
The book of Hosea is the first of the Minor Prophets, which many scholars consider to have originated as a single deliberately edited scroll. It introduces the drama that leads through destruction and exile to restoration and the promise of the coming of Elijah (Mal 3:23).
The book is named after the prophet whose words it contains, identified in the opening verse as “Hosea son of Beeri.”
Hosea consists of three parts: chapters 1–3, 4–11, and 12–14.
The first part tells of Hosea’s scandalous marriage, at God’s command, to a promiscuous woman. They have three children, Jezreel, Lo-Ruhamah (Uncompassioned), and Lo-Ammi (Not-my-people). These children represent the fate of Israel, which has gone whoring after other gods. YHWH punishes Israel by exposing her to her lovers, but relents and woos her, recalling their love in the wilderness.
The second part focuses on the political and social collapse of the northern kingdom of Israel in the latter half of the 8th century. Attention switches from sordid priests to corrupt judges, fratricidal conflict, and the conspiratorial court, portraying degeneration which will result in deportation and death.
The third part begins with a review of Israel’s troubled history, which culminates in the fall of Samaria. Then in the last chapter, Israel returns to God, the world is renewed as in springtime, and the wise will achieve understanding.
Date and authorship
Hosea is set in the northern kingdom of Israel in the second half of the 8th century, an era dominated by the rise of Assyria. In 733-732 BCE Israel engaged in a war with Judah, and in 722 BCE the capital, Samaria, was destroyed by the Assyrians and the kingdom of Israel brought to an end. Both of these events are reflected in the book.
Most scholars think that the book is an authentic 8th-century composition. However, references to Judah and to the restoration of Israel to Davidic rule suggest that it was supplemented by a Judean editor or editors. A minority of scholars attribute the entire book to Persian era Jerusalem and consider the Hosean authorship to be a fiction. One may also note the view, represented by Yehezkel Kaufmann and Harold Louis Ginsberg, that the first three chapters, with their polemic against Baal, date to the 9th century BCE.
The dominant metaphor in the book is the sexual relationship of God and Israel. Israel, as God’s bride, entered the land of Canaan, but misattributed its fertility to the indigenous deity, Baal. Through deprivation, Israel will come to recognize that its gifts came from YHWH and will return to her former husband. She will re-enact the journey in the wilderness, and YHWH will institute an era of non-violence and great joy.
The sexual metaphor continues throughout the book, for instance in a prediction of sterility and bereavement (9:10-17), climaxing in possible allusions to the goddesses Asherah and Anat at its very end (14:9). It is augmented, however, by parental imagery, evoking YHWH’s care for Israel in the wilderness (11:1-4).
Like all prophetic books, Hosea is concerned with death, both personal and national. The fundamental issue is whether death or YHWH is ultimate, a question posed most dramatically in 13:15.
Like other prophets, Hosea condemns social injustice and has a gift for satire. Especially noteworthy is the extended metaphor of the baker’s oven through which he describes the seething and self-destructive politics of Samaria in 7:3-7.
In Jewish tradition Hosea is a model of repentance. For instance, chapter 14 is read on the Sabbath of Repentance. In Christian tradition, the most noteworthy reference is Paul’s quotation of Hos 13:15 in 1 Cor 15:55-56, which celebrates Christ’s triumph over death. Recently, Hosea has been the focus of feminist critique, because of its images of sexual exposure and humiliation
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Sherwood, Yvonne. The Prostitute and the Prophet: Hosea’s Marriage in Literary-Theoretical Perspective. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 212. Gender, Culture, Theory 2. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.