How do you explain Hosea 1:2-3 and Hosea 3:1-3? Did Hosea really carry out what is described there?


We read in Hosea 1:2-3 that God told the prophet Hosea to “take yourself a wife of harlotry” and that Hosea did so and married “Gomer the daughter of Diblaim” and that she had children with him. In Hosea 3:1-3, God commanded Hosea to “love a woman who is loved by a lover and is committing adultery,” and that Hosea bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and one and one-half homers of barley, but that he had no sexual relationship with her.

The question in this Q&A is whether these passages are to be understood literally, even though, in any case, they represent God’s relationship with Israel.

Commentaries are divided on the issue.

To begin with Hosea 1:2-3, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible states that Hosea was to take as a wife “one who up to that time had again and again been guilty of that sin” and that her children “shared the disgrace of their mother, although born in lawful marriage.”

The Life Application Bible also proposes the literal understanding of the passage. It states:

“Did God really order his prophet to marry a woman who would commit adultery? Some who find it difficult to believe God could make such a request view this story as an illustration, not an historical event. Many, however, think the story is historical… Hosea knew ahead of time that his wife would be unfaithful and that their married life would become a living object lesson to the adulterous northern kingdom… It is difficult to imagine Hosea’s feelings when God told him to marry a woman who would be unfaithful to him. He may not have wanted to do it, but he obeyed.”

This rationale is very difficult to accept. It is hard to believe that God would order one of His prophets to commit an act which would be in blatant defiance of His law, and have the prophet actually carry out that act. Some refer to God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but this was only a test and God PREVENTED Abraham from carrying out the act. There are other incidents when God commanded His people to commit certain acts seemingly in contradiction to His law, but these occurrences appeared in vision, not literally. We might think of Peter’s vision when God commanded Him to eat unclean meat, to show him that no man was unclean in God’s sight. But even in that vision, Peter did not carry out the act of eating unclean meat.

It is for some of these reasons that several commentators feel that Gomer’s conduct did not constitute physical fornication, but that it describes her spiritual separation from God.

For instance, Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible applies the sinful conduct of Gomer and her children in a spiritual way. He states that Gomer was  “a wife from among the Israelites, who were remarkable for spiritual fornication, or idolatry. God calls himself the husband of Israel; and this chosen nation owed him the fidelity of a wife… He therefore says, with indignation, Go join thyself in marriage to one of those who have committed fornication against me, and raise up children who, by the power of example, will themselves swerve to idolatry.”

However, this explanation poses another problem. It would require that Hosea—a righteous prophet—would marry an idolatrous woman. This would violate God’s command in the Old and the New Testament, not to marry an ungodly person. In light of this difficulty, the Soncino commentary adds the following thoughts:

“Ibn Ezra repudiates the suggestion that the command is to be understood literally. The chapter is, according to him, the record of a vision which is to be interpreted allegorically. Some Talmudic authorities held it to be a command which Hosea literally obeyed, to impress his contemporaries with the heinousness of their infidelity… Most moderns explain the words as meaning ‘a woman who would lapse into harlotry,’ not that she was a harlot at the time of marriage… It was only on reflection, when Gomer’s character had become manifest, that Hosea saw how this divinely ordered marriage was the symbol of Israel’s apostasy from God, and his own love for the erring wife was the prophecy of God’s unfailing compassion to Israel… Modern commentaries find support for the historicity of the marriage in the fact that these names (“Gomer the daughter of Diblaim”) bear no allegorical meaning…  the paternity of the first child was not in doubt, but after his birth Gomer became unfaithful to her husband…”

However, these explanations do not explain the problem that God would have ordered the prophet to commit acts in violation of His Law, and that He would have ORDERED him to get married to someone whom He knew would be (or become) unfaithful. The reference to a name (“Gomer”) is not sufficient ground to insist that the passage must be literal. In a parable or a vision, fictitious names can be easily attached to invented or real persons. For instance, Christ told a parable about Lazarus and the rich man, but it is not to be necessarily concluded that this was a literal account about living people. Christ was simply explaining the fate of those in the first and the third resurrection.

As a consequence, some commentators feel that God’s command to Hosea was not to be understood and carried out literally at all. Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible proposes that none of it really happened:

“Some think this was really done; that the prophet took a whore, and cohabited with her… but this seems not likely… It seems best therefore to understand the whole as a parable, and that the prophet, in a parabolical way, is bid to represent the treachery, unfaithfulness, and spiritual adultery of the people of Israel, under the feigned name of an unchaste woman, and of children begotten in fornication; and to show unto them that their case was as if he had taken a woman out of the stews, and her bastards with her; or as if a wife married by him had defiled his bed, and brought him a spurious brood of children…”

The Geneva Study Bible seems to agree with that interpretation, stating: “… not that the Prophet did this thing in effect, but he saw this in a vision, or else was commanded by God to set forth under this parable or figure the idolatry… of the people.”

The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary reaches the same conclusion that this was “not externally acted, but internally and in vision, as a pictorial illustration of Israel’s unfaithfulness… the loathsomeness of such a marriage, if an external act,… would require years for the birth of three children, which would weaken the symbol… ‘children of whoredoms’ means that the children, like their mother, fell into spiritual fornication… Being children of a spiritual whore, they naturally fell into her whorish ways.”

This seems to be the correct view. Hosea is telling a parable, relating what he saw in a vision, to impress on the people in what horrible spiritual state they were. This understanding has of course consequences for the correct interpretation of the “events” in Hosea 3:1-3. Since the passage in Hosea 1:2-3 has been judged to be allegorical or fictitious, the same must be true for the continuation of the story in Hosea 3.

When addressing Hosea 3:1-3, we find, of course, that the same difference of opinion prevails in commentaries as to the literal or figurative understanding of this passage.

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible states that the woman mentioned in that chapter “is the same Gomer, whom the prophet had before been bidden to take, and whom, (it appears from this verse) had forsaken him, and was living in adultery with another man. The ‘friend’ is the husband himself, the prophet. The word ‘friend’ expresses, that the husband of Gomer treated her, not harshly, but mildly and tenderly so that her faithlessness was the more aggravated sin… Gomer is called ‘a woman,’ in order to describe the state of separation, in which she was living. Yet God bids the prophet to ‘love her’…  He is now bidden to buy her back, with the price and allowance of food, as of a worthless slave, and so to keep her apart, on coarse food, abstaining from her former sins, but without the privileges of marriage, yet with the hope of being, in the end, restored to be altogether his wife. This prophecy is a sequel to the former, and so relates to Israel, after the coming of Christ, in which the former prophecy ends.”

The Broadman Bible commentary disagrees in regard to the value of the price, even though it also takes the passage quite literally, stating: “Such specification [of the amount] underscores the historicity of the passage. The varied items and measures suggest that Hosea was probably hard pressed to raise the purchase price for his wife, having to resort to both silver and grain as opposed to all of one or the other. There is no way to determine the precise amount which Hosea paid for Gomer, but the price of a slave was generally reckoned at 30 shekels of silver… It was at considerable price, but for a poor man of the eighth century, that Hosea redeemed his wife. He expended his accumulated possessions in exchange for one who had despised him publically. Only a love like that of God could so prompt a man to forgive and redeem.”

Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, which understands Hosea 1:2-3 in a strictly spiritual sense, as describing spiritual idolatry and not physical adultery, continues to point out the following regarding Hosea 3:1-3:

“This is a different command from that mentioned in the first chapter. That denoted the infidelity of the kingdom of Israel, and God’s divorce of them. He gave them up to their enemies, and caused them to be carried into captivity. The woman mentioned here represents one who was a lawful wife joining herself to a paramour; then divorced by her husband; afterwards repenting, and desirous to be joined to her spouse; ceasing from her adulterous commerce, but not yet reconciled to him. This was the state and disposition of the Jews under the Babylonish captivity. Though separated from their own idols, they continued separated from their God. He is still represented as having affectionate feelings towards them; awaiting their full repentance and contrition, in order to renew the marriage covenant. These things are pointed out by the symbolical actions of the prophet.”

Most would disagree that Hosea 3 describes a different woman than the one in Hosea 1. It appears that the same woman is described in both passages. Therefore, Clarke’s reference to the “Jews under Babylonish captivity” misses the point. Hosea was a prophet sent to the house of Israel, prior to their captivity through the Assyrians. The Jews—the house of Judah—would be captured much later through the Babylonians. Hosea addresses the same woman in both chapters, referring to the house of Israel in both cases.

In light of this confusion, the following comments by Soncino are more convincing in this context. It points out some problems with the concept of taking this passage literally, stating that “at the bidding of God, Hosea gives his wife, who had left him for another man, a chance to retrieve herself… Although Gomer had betrayed him, he was to take her back as the wife he had formerly loved… The Torah (Deuteronomy 24:1 ff.) forbade the return of a divorced wife after she had lived with another man.”

Therefore, it would be difficult to understand this passage in a literal way, rather than as a vision and a parable with spiritual applications.

The Jamieson Fausset and Brown commentary, which had understood Hosea 1:2-3 as a vision, states pertaining to Hosea 3:1:

“The prophet is to take back his wife, though unfaithful, as foretold in [Hosea] 1:2. He purchases her from her paramour, stipulating she should wait for a long period before she should be restored to her conjugal rights… at last she shall acknowledge Messiah, and know [God’s] goodness restored to her.”

Again, it seems to be the correct understanding that Hosea did not carry out literally, what is described in Hosea 3:1-3, but that he received God’s words in a vision to tell in a parable that Jesus Christ—the YHWH of the Old Testament–would marry spiritual Israel at the time of His return, after His Old Testament unfaithful “wife” had repented and obtained forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit at the time of baptism, thereby becoming spiritual Israel. God will marry her after “His wife has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7-9).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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