Jay S. Southwick
Hosea lived in the northern kingdom (Israel) just before the kingdom’s defeat by Assyria in 721 bce. The prophet confronted Israel’s unfaithfulness in its covenant relationship with God. Instead of trusting in God, Israel had turned to Assyria for trade, power, and protection. The Book of Hosea addresses Israel’s sins, provides hope, and promises restoration if the people repent and turn back to God.
Chapters 1–3 present the familiar "unfaithful marriage partner" metaphor. Hosea (God) is angry with Gomer (Israel) for her sexual infidelity and her failure to recognize how good he has been to her. He severely punishes and publicly dishonors her. Then, he is willing to take her back.
The description of this metaphor can be hard to handle if we do not remember that it clearly reflects the way it was at the time of its composition. In ancient Israel, the wife was almost always thought to be the offender in an adulterous affair. The ancient ideas of honor, inheritance, and lineage would be terribly upset by an unfaithful wife and illegitimate sons — as would the living and generational covenant relationship between God and an unfaithful Israel. Wives had no rights and were subservient to their husbands in everything. Hosea’s description of how he would treat Gomer was perfectly acceptable in his day — but, of course, it would be considered physical violence and spousal abuse today. Thus, God spoke to the Israelites in terms of the spiritual and social understanding of their time of living.
This unfaithful marriage metaphor provides the perspective for understanding Chapters 4–13, in which the sins of the Israelites, priesthood, and monarchy are set forth and their punishments are announced. Chapter 14 contains both a powerful call for repentance and the hope for restoration such repentance can bring.
Our task as twenty-first century readers is to hear this book speaking to us today. Moving beyond the harshness of the unfaithful marriage metaphor, we need to consider the issues with which Hosea deals — equality, trust, devotion, and intimacy. When a marriage or any covenant relationship is damaged or broken, trust is shattered and intimacy is betrayed. Understanding this helps us begin to sense how God feels when we damage or break the covenant relationship we have with God.
And what are the consequences of our actions when we stray? Instead of inflicting punishment, God allows the results of our actions to come back on us — in essence, letting us reap what we have sown. Even worse, our actions take away from God’s glory and presence in the world.
The ultimate message Hosea brings to modern readers is that our covenant relationship with God is just as important today as it was in the time of the book’s writing.