Bible Review 20:1, February 2004

How Hosea Transformed the Lord of the Realm into a Temperamental Spouse

By Katharine Doob Sakenfeld

The prophet Hosea introduced a radical change in the way people understood their relationship to God. Before Hosea, God was generally seen as an omnipotent king and Israel as God’s lowly subject. Hosea introduced a much more personal metaphor: He described the human-divine relationship as a marriage, and he used his own rocky relationship with his wife, Gomer, as an example of just what could go wrong—and how it could be made right again.

In this way Hosea helped his hearers to realize that the deity was indeed one with whom a close relationship of love and trust, and also betrayal and forgiveness, was possible. The husband and wife of Hosea’s metaphor are never equals, because Hosea based his portrait of God and Israel on Israel’s pervasive—and potentially damaging—understanding of marriage, in which husbands held power, wives were expected to obey, and wives generally were thought (by men, at least) to be the cause of marital troubles (see box).

Hosea delivered his message in the late eighth century B.C.E., according to Hosea 1:1, right before Israel fell to the Assyrians. He is said to have introduced the marriage metaphor because his book is the earliest biblical text in which it is included. Today, the Book of Hosea is considered one of the most difficult Old Testament texts to interpret and translate, partly because it includes many rare words, unique grammatical constructions and ambiguous poetic phrases.

The first three chapters are devoted to the relationship between Hosea and his wife and, by analogy, that between God and Israel; the rest of the book (chapters 4–14) focuses on Israel’s downfall because of its idolatry and on God’s promises of eventual restoration.

Hosea’s marriage is unusual from the start. In the first chapter, which is written as a third-person biographical account, God commands Hosea to marry a woman who does not fit Israel’s standards of sexual purity. “The Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord’” (Hosea 1:2). According to the text, Hosea complied and married a sexually active woman named Gomer, “and she conceived and bore him a son” (Hosea 1:3). Though Gomer will be a player throughout the first three chapters, this is the only time her name is ever mentioned in the entire book.

After they are married, Gomer bears three children, whom Hosea names at God’s command. The eldest son is called Jezreel (Jezreel, which literally means “God sows,” is also the name of the valley that witnessed King Jehu of Israel’s bloody coup; in naming this child, God promises to “put an end” to Jehu’s dynasty [Hosea 1:4]). Next, a daughter named Lo-ruhamah (“Not pitied”) is born, and finally a son called Lo-ammi (“Not my people”). God explains to Hosea that each name symbolizes an aspect of the estranged relationship between God and Israel.

The next chapter, Hosea 2, is a complex poetic speech by God. God speaks metaphorically as a husband addressing first his children about their mother and then other people about his wife and children. Throughout, God is really talking about his relationship with Israel. God tells the children he will deal harshly with his wife if her whoring does not stop. Their relationship will be over, he threatens: “Plead with your mother, plead,” he tells the children, “for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts, or I will strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born” (Hosea 2:2–3). He describes the wife’s “shameful” pursuit of other lovers, and describes the consequences he will impose in order to bring her back to him: “I will hedge up her way with thorns; and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers, but not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now’” (Hosea 2:6–7).

God complains about his wife’s failure to appreciate his gifts (“She did not know it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold,” v. 8) and again stipulates the punishment she will receive because of her unfaithfulness.

Throughout God’s speech, the infidelity of God’s metaphorical wife Israel is associated with idolatry. God warns, “I will put an end to all her mirth, her festivals, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all her appointed festivals ... I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals [Canaanite deities] when she offered incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewelry and went after her lovers and forgot me” (Hosea 2:11, 13).

God then describes how he, as the husband, will woo Israel/Gomer back to him (Hosea 2:14–15) and will establish a new covenant with a renewed marriage relationship in which the wife will remain faithful:

I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her ... She shall respond as in the days of her youth, as the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. On that day, says the Lord, you will call me “My husband,” and no longer will you call me “My Baal.” For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth and they shall be mentioned by name no more ... I will make for you a covenant on that day ... and I will take you for my wife forever.

(Hosea 2:14–16, 19)

In chapter 3, Hosea then provides his own, brief, first-person account of the story. Like God in the preceding chapter, he too uses Gomer’s adultery as a metaphor for idolatry. Hosea reports God’s instruction to him to “love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes [offerings made to other gods]” (Hosea 3:1). He purchases Gomer for 15 shekels, a homer (amount uncertain, perhaps about 10 bushels) of barley and a measure of wine; and he keeps her without sexual relations for a long period of time (Hosea 3:2–3). Why? Because “the Israelites shall remain many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim”—that is, in a sort of quarantine, without the bad rulers and religious practices that were offensive to God. This period appears to symbolize a period of exile for Israel, before the people finally return to God and experience God’s goodness. After chapter 3, Hosea’s marriage is not mentioned again.

Scholars have long debated whether Gomer and her children were real, historical people or whether Hosea’s marriage was only an allegory, with Gomer’s infidelity representing Israel’s idolatry.

Those who believe the story is an allegory, and Gomer a fictional character, argue that God would not be so unreasonable to require a good man to marry an immoral woman just to make a point to Israel. God did, however, require other prophets to do culturally unacceptable things, such as walk naked in the streets (Isaiah 20:3), never marry and not attend funerals (Jeremiah 16:2, 5). So it’s not completely out of character for God to ask Hosea to marry an unchaste woman. I, therefore, assume Gomer was real, although of course we can never know for sure.

Scholars have also debated the nature of Gomer’s sexual activity. Was she a prostitute or not? The Hebrew term zenunim, used to describe Gomer as a wife of “whoredom” in Hosea 1:2, is derived from the basic Hebrew root znh, which is also the root for the Hebrew term for prostitute, zonah. The verb znh, however, suggests more general illicit sexual activity, not necessarily prostitution. It most often refers to sexual activity initiated by a woman that violates the right of the man who is the guardian of her sexuality—her husband if she has one and her father, usually, if she is unwed. Gomer is never called zonah (“prostitute”), and the noun form zenunim tends to indicate “habitual behavior or inclination.”1 Thus, it appears the behavior referred to in Hosea 1:2 is sex before marriage, not professional (paid) prostitution.2

The term zenunim is also used to describe Hosea’s offspring—he will have “children of zenunim, often translated “children of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2). It is clear from the biographical information in Hosea 1:3 that the children are conceived and born after Hosea marries Gomer. Is Hosea the father? It’s difficult to say. On the one hand, the biographer says nothing explicit about the paternity question, and the description of Jezreel’s birth—she “bore him [Hosea] a son” in 1:3—strongly suggests that Hosea fathered at least this first child. On the other hand, the poem in Hosea 2 describes a rift between God and Israel (and thus Hosea and Gomer): “She is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hosea 2:2). It seems likely that this rift was caused by Gomer’s continued illicit sexual behavior during the marriage. Further, if Gomer did violate her marriage relationship, she would make a much better parallel for Israel in the long metaphorical poem that describes Israel as an unfaithful wife.

Of course, there is much we cannot know about Hosea and Gomer simply because we are given only the barest sketch of their relationship. The purpose of the Book of Hosea, as one scholar has noted, is “not to give a complete account of this domestic tragedy and its outcome, but [for Hosea] to speak to his people the word of Yahweh. His own experience is recorded, not for its own sake (and therefore not necessarily completely), but in order to express the enormity of Israel’s apostasy, the reality of divine judgment, and the possibility of restoration.”3

Just what is it Hosea wants to teach Israel about God? And why is the metaphor of the unfaithful wife helpful to his argument?

Hosea uses the imagery of God as husband and Israel as wife to clarify and emphasize the personal character of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. While most of us may tend to think of God as tender, personal and loving in relationship to us, this was not always the case. In ancient Israel, the principal imagery for the covenantal relationship was primarily political. God is the omnipotent king; Israel is his dependent subject.a This image continued to be central throughout the Old Testament and remains important in Christian tradition (as reflected in the hymn “Come Thou Almighty King”).

The Hebrew term for covenant, berith, has its roots in the secular world of formal, legal, political relationships. Ancient Israelites used this same word to describe the political deal between King Ahab and his rival Ben-Hadad of Damascus (1 Kings 20:34) and the arrangement between Israel and the powerful Assyrians on the march (Hosea 12:1). A political overlord from a powerful land might make a berith that promised caring, benevolent treatment of an obedient vassal nation, but the focus was on the political dimension. The overlord would simply punish any vassal who disobeyed; he felt no personal pain over such disobedience or over the need to punish a vassal.

In Israel, the religious covenant between God and Israel was understood by analogy to such political treaties. By introducing a personal dimension, Hosea emphasizes that the sovereign ruler is also a caring ruler who seeks a close relationship with his subjects. Speaking of the covenant in terms of a marriage, Hosea gives expression to the deep relationship of care and tenderness that differentiates God and God’s covenant from human political overlords and their human treaties. The marriage imagery allows Hosea to capture God’s anguish and frustration over the unfaithfulness of Israel.4 Hosea’s God is not just another uncaring, vengeful political leader coldly punishing a recalcitrant, rebellious, disloyal vassal. Rather, God is an angry, distraught, jealous, heartbroken, deeply caring and emotionally involved husband who feels the need to punish his straying wife and yet is eager to bring her back home.

The introduction of the marriage metaphor also allows Hosea to better describe Israel’s misconduct. By portraying Israel as a faithless wife rather than a disobedient vassal, Hosea can introduce the imagery of Israel’s multiple “lovers.” Just as Gomer gets involved with other men, Israel gets involved with other gods. Sexual promiscuity is a metaphor for idolatry. Apparently following in the tradition of Hosea, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel over a century later will use this same metaphor in their prophecies.

Further, the marriage metaphor helps highlight the fact that God chose to enter into relationship with Israel not because Israel was a particularly deserving partner. Israel was not better or more desirable or more attractive or more powerful or more righteous than any other people—indeed Israel, like Gomer, had some serious flaws. God chose Israel (and Gomer) simply because God wanted to.

In Hosea 2:2, God tells his children that his marriage has failed: “She is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hosea 2:2). For Hosea, this rupture exemplifies God’s (temporary) rejection of Israel. He uses his marriage metaphor to explain how such a relation could be broken—and eventually mended. The idea that the people could be so unfaithful that God would (even temporarily) abandon them is an aspect of the Old Testament witness that many people don’t like to think about today. But the ancient Israelites clearly believed that God could/would/might give up on them, for this theme appears not just in Hosea but in Deuteronomy (for example 28:47–68), Amos (for example 3:13–4:3, 7:8–9, 8:12), Jeremiah (for example 15:1, 18:17) and other prophets. The punishment the errant wife receives—she is stripped naked and starved—is symbolic of the judgment that God will bring upon the unfaithful. He will deprive Israel of the basic necessities.

Finally, the restoration of the marriage relationship symbolizes God’s purification and restoration of the community of faith. Hosea’s last word is not one of doom, but of hope. God will initiate a new covenant involving all creation: “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:18–20). Righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy and faithfulness: These are God’s wedding presents to his bride, and they are just what Israel will need for a right relationship with God. It is an incredible promise: God commits to the people even in the midst of sin and failure. As Hosea’s effective metaphor would suggest: God takes Israel to have and to hold, for better, for worse, forever.

This article is based on Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, “Gomer: Who Betrayed Whom?” chapter 5 of Just Wives? Stories of Power and Survival in the Old Testament Today (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003). It is used with permission of Westminster John Knox,, 1–800-227–2872.