Hosea: Loving God Erotically
Describing the Relationship between God and Israel as Husband and Wife
Much religious language is metaphorical. In the Bible, metaphors for God are drawn from a wide variety of areas: God may be a “rock,” a mother-bird hovering over its young, or a king. Some of these divine metaphors are derived from the realm of the family, where God is described as a parent, typically but not always a father, or as Israel’s husband (but never wife). This latter metaphor, which emphasizes the seemingly sexual intimacy between God and Israel, is central to the prophecies of Hosea, one of the earliest classical prophets, who was active in the northern kingdom of Israel around 730 BCE.
His use of this image has influenced countless generations following his time. Both Jeremiah (particularly in chaps. 2-4) and Ezekiel (16 and 23) pick up on this theme and develop it further; and presumably the inclusion of the erotically charged and seemingly secular Shir ha-Shirim (Song of Songs) in sacred scripture was made possible by an allegorical religious interpretation of its contents based on the marriage metaphor found in Hosea.
Hosea’s Relationship with His Wife and Children
Although Hosea is fourteen chapters long, scholarly attention has been focused inordinately on the first three chapters of the book, which tell of Hosea’s “relationship issues.” In chapter 1, Hosea is told to marry an unfaithful woman.
הושע א:ב …וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל הוֹשֵׁעַ לֵךְ קַח לְךָ אֵשֶׁת זְנוּנִים וְיַלְדֵי זְנוּנִים כִּי זָנֹה תִזְנֶה הָאָרֶץ מֵאַחֲרֵי יְהוָה:
Hosea 1:2 …YHWH said to Hosea, “Go, get yourself a wife of whoredom and children of whoredom; for the land will stray from following YHWH.”
He marries Gomer bat Divlayim, with whom he subsequently has three children, all of whom are given symbolic names.
- The first, a son, is named Jezreel (1:4), as a warning to Israel’s rulers, likely recalling the excessively violent extirpation of the ninth century BCE Omride dynasty of Israel in the Jezreel Valley by Jehu, who founded his own short-lived dynasty in its stead.
- The second child, a daughter, is named Lo-ruhamah (“Unloved” or “Unpitied”; Hosea 1:6), since God will no longer show pity to Israel.
- The third, another son, is named Lo-ammi (“Not-My-People” or “Not-My-Kin”; Hosea 1:9), perhaps indicative of doubts concerning his paternity. In its context, this name is used as the occasion for a statement severing the covenantal relationship between God and Israel: “for you are Not-My-People and I am not [your God]” (1:9b).
Are Hosea’s Wife and Children Real or Symbolic?
Are Gomer and the unnamed women of chapter 3 one and the same, or are they different women? To what extent are these two narratives factual and to what extent allegorical?
In other words, scholars have been obsessed with the chicken or egg question of whether it was Hosea’s unhappy relationships with women that gave rise to his influential metaphor of the dysfunctional sexual relationship between God and Israel, or whether his relationships arose out of a need to illustrate in a concrete manner his insights into the divine/human relationship.
Prophetic Sign Acts
It may, however, be preferable to view these accounts as prophetic sign acts, theatrical performances staged by prophets to convey their message and not necessarily reflections of the prophet’s daily reality. In other words, the naming of his children was likely delivered as staged theater, but he would not have used these names for his children in real life. We find many examples of such sign acts among the Major Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, all of whom engaged in seemingly bizarre behavior in order simultaneously to draw their audiences’ attention to them and to convey their messages through staged theater. For example,
- Walking naked – Isaiah walks naked through the streets of Jerusalem for three years to demonstrate that the Egyptians and Kushites will be taken as slaves (Isa 20).
- Wearing a yoke – Jeremiah appears wearing a yoke to demonstrate that Judah will be captured by Babylon, but the opposing prophet, Chananiah, breaks the yoke to demonstrate that God will not allow Judah to be taken by Babylon (Jer 28:10-11).
- Cooking on dung – Ezekiel is told by God to eat bread baked on human excrement to symbolize the unclean food that the Judeans will eat in exile. When he objects, he’s allowed to replace the excrement with cow’s dung (Ezek 4:12-15).
Giving Children Symbolic Names
It is more believable to assume that the terrible names mentioned in Hosea 1 were just sign acts and staged and not the actual names the parents used for their children. Would any parents have actually given names such as Unloved and Not-My-Kin to their children? Although it is possible to suggest that Hosea may have been idiosyncratic, it bears remembering that Isaiah of Jerusalem, a rough contemporary of Hosea’s, also supposedly gave unusual symbolic names to his children:
- Immanuel (“God-Is-with-Us”; Isaiah 7:14),
- Maher-shalal-hash-baz (“Hurry-Booty-Hasten-Plunder”; 8:1, 3),
- She’ar-Yashuv (“A-Remnant-Shall-Return”; 7:3).
While Immanuel (aka Emanuel) eventually became an accepted name in a Jewish context, possibly under the influence of its usage in Christianity, and She’ar-Yashuv has been revived in a contemporary Zionist context, Maher-shalel-hash-baz is sufficiently peculiar and negative never to have won acceptance as anything other than a onetime prophetic exemplar. Hence, it would appear that these names supposedly given by the prophets to their children more likely fall under the category of symbolic performance art than of reality.
Blurring the Distinction between Hosea’s Relationship and God’s: An Overview of Chapter 2
Hosea ch. 2 takes up the themes of the prophet’s unfaithful wife and her children from ch. 1 and depicts her faithlessness, punishment, and redemption in graphic but poetic language that blurs the distinction between Hosea and his wife and God and Israel. In spite of the restorative redemption that comes at the end of the chapter, the violence of the punishment visited upon the wife/Israel has been a source of consternation for modern feminist biblical interpreters, who decry the matter-of-fact depiction of the husband’s excessively violent chastisement of his wife in archetypal biblical literature.
After a brief introduction (vv. 1-3), the poem launches into a legalistic accusation of adultery brought against the wife, who is disowned by her husband, as are her children, and threatened to be stripped naked, as on the day of her birth, and left to die of thirst in the desert (vv. 4-6).
הושע ב:ד רִיבוּ בְאִמְּכֶם רִיבוּ כִּי הִיא לֹא אִשְׁתִּי וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אִישָׁהּ, וְתָסֵר זְנוּנֶיהָ מִפָּנֶיה וְנַאֲפוּפֶיהָ מִבֵּין שָׁדֶיהָ. ב:ה פֶּן אַפְשִׁיטֶנָּה עֲרֻמָּה וְהִצַּגְתִּיהָ כְּיוֹם הִוָּלְדָהּ, וְשַׂמְתִּיהָ כַמִּדְבָּר וְשַׁתִּהָ כְּאֶרֶץ צִיָּה וַהֲמִתִּיהָ בַּצָּמָא. ב:ו וְאֶת בָּנֶיהָ לֹא אֲרַחֵם, כִּי בְנֵי זְנוּנִים הֵמָּה:
Hosea 2:4 Rebuke your mother, rebuke her—for she is not My wife And I am not her husband—and let her put away her harlotry from her face and her adultery from between her breasts. 2:5 Else will I strip her naked and leave her as on the day she was born: and I will make her like a wilderness, render her like desert land, and let her die of thirst. 2:6 I will also disown her children; for they are now a harlot’s brood.
This is as punishment for her pursuit of her lovers, who have supplied her with fine clothing and the bounty of the land (v.7).
Vv. 8-15 detail the punishments that await the wife, who – it is now made clear – is Israel that pursued the gods of Canaan, in particular Baal, the head of the Canaanite pantheon. Israel has mistakenly attributed its bounty to gifts from Baal, whereas the poem claims that these gifts came from God. Once Israel has seen its mistake and repented (vv. 16-22), God will speak lovingly to her and the marriage vows between God and Israel will be renewed, at which point the haftarah ends.
הושע ב:כא וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם, וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. ב:כב וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה, וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת יְהוָה.:
Hos 2:21 And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, And with goodness and mercy, 2:22 And I will espouse you with faithfulness; Then you shall be devoted to YHWH.
The final verses of the poem speak of the restoration of the children. Unloved (Lo-ruhamah) becomes Loved (Ruhamah); and Not-My-Kin (Lo-ammi) becomes My-Kin (Ammi) as a sign of a restored relationship with God (v. 25).
Context: Baal Worship in the North
The polemic contained in this poem must be understood on the background of tensions between worshipers of Canaanite Baal and Israelite YHWH in the northern kingdom of Israel. Ancient Israel was a battleground between two competing cults, especially because Baal remained the high-god of its northern neighbors in the Phoenician city-states and the royal house of Israel oftentimes had close personal relationships with Phoenicia.
These tensions are reflected particularly in the Elijah and Elisha prophetic narratives in 1 and 2 Kings, as well as in the book of Hosea. As a storm and fertility god, Baal was considered by his worshipers to be the source of bounty in the world. And yet, Hosea argues, it is actually YHWH, the God of Israel, who is the source of fruitfulness in the world, which God apportions to those who are faithful to God.
The name of Baal is derived from a common noun meaning lord or master. As such, it may even serve in some biblical passages as an epithet of YHWH (e.g., 2 Samuel 5:20). However, its most common usage is as the most widely employed Hebrew word for husband, reflective of the relative social standing of husbands and wives in the patriarchal society of ancient Israel.
Removing the Word Ba’al from Our Vocabularies
Hosea was no feminist. Nonetheless, he looked forward to a day when the common noun ba’al, meaning husband, would disappear from Hebrew and be replaced by the word ish“man” (v. 18-19).
הושע ב:יח וְהָיָה בַיּוֹם הַהוּא נְאֻם יְהוָה תִּקְרְאִי אִישִׁי וְלֹא תִקְרְאִי לִי עוֹד בַּעְלִי. ב:יט וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת שְׁמוֹת הַבְּעָלִים מִפִּיהָ וְלֹא יִזָּכְרוּ עוֹד בִּשְׁמָם.
Hos 2:18 And in that day —declares YHWH— You will call [Me] Ishi, And no more will you call Me Baali. 2:19 For I will remove the names of the Baalim from her mouth, And they shall nevermore be mentioned by name.
His motivation for this unrealized wish was the desire to root out the last vestiges of potential Baal worship from Israel. His failure in this regard is reflected in the fact that ba’al continues to be the common Hebrew designation for a husband, albeit not for God.
Erotic Love of God
Although the first three chapters of Hosea are deeply problematic in how they view women, when viewed in their cultural and historical context, their central theme is a reminder that love of God, in its most visceral sense, is a central component of biblical religion, an element that would remain important to Judaism as it developed over time. But what is the nature of this love? Western thought typically distinguishes between several types of love, most especially between eros—erotic love, and agape—platonic love. (Both “eros” and “agape” are loan words from Greek.)
This distinction was especially important in early Christianity, since the New Testament often uses agape, but never eros in its description of the relationship between the nascent Christian community and God or Jesus. Given Hosea’s sexually charged depiction of the relationship between God and Israel, it is evident that here the Tanakh and later Judaism differ from the Christianity reflected in the New Testament, in that they can view the love of God as erotic.
As has been demonstrated by scholars such as Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, erotic love, oreros, is basic to a Jewish understanding of divine love, while platonic love, or agape, which plays such an important role in Christian theology as the higher form of love, is less central to the Jewish understanding. It is Hosea’s use of erotic love that has make these chapters so powerful and enduring throughout the ages, since this type of love speaks to the most basic and visceral experience of the human condition.
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October 6, 2016
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Prof. Carl S. Ehrlich (Ph.D. Harvard ’91) is University Professor of History and Humanities and former Director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. Among his more recent publications are the (co-)edited collections From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature (2009), Purity, Holiness, and Identity in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Memory of Susan Haber (2013), and Israel and the Diaspora: Jewish Connectivity in a Changing World (2022).
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