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Marry a Prostitute!

The Book of Hosea begins with the command of God to Hosea, “Marry a prostitute!” Hosea’s obedient response represents a prime example of acted prophecy, an “act of prophetic symbolism.”1 If so, what does this act signify?

There is debate among the commentators about whether Gomer, Hosea’s wife, was in fact a prostitute.2 The phrase in Hebrew is “a woman of harlotry” (the KJV gets this right: “take unto thee a wife of whoredoms;” the NRSV follows suit); that is, the shocking word is in verbal form, not the noun that signifies a prostitute everywhere else in the OT. This implies that it is Gomer’s inclinations that are being referenced, rather than her business. If that is the case, then Gomer is a good reflection of straying Israel, according to what we read in Hosea’s prophecies later in the book. Hosea condemns Israel for several kinds of unfaithfulness, of running after several different kinds of “lords.” The primary temptations are religious and political, as Israel turns to worship local traditional baals instead of Yahweh (4:4-6), and also seeks national security in military strength (8:14; 10:13) and in alliances with the neighboring powers of Egypt and Assyria (7:8-11), instead of in her God. Beyond this, Hosea enumerates additional sins of dissipation and deceit (for instance, “swearing, lying, and murder, stealing and adultery,” as well as violence and drunkenness; 4:2, 10), and all this points to a vast underlying misalignment with the received tradition of the worship and covenant life of Israel. Hosea names this misalignment “harlotry.” It is the broad and rooted instinct for unfaithfulness that he condemns in Israel, and that is the very attribute that he is commanded to seek in a wife.

In our culture, where prostitution as a profession has achieved respect in many circles, and where promiscuity is widely celebrated as a legitimate life style, it is difficult to hear the depth of the offense that would have been generated in Hosea’s time by this divine command. Perhaps the closest we can come is to consider a command to “marry a sexual addict.” That implies some of the incomprehesibility of committing oneself to someone, knowing they are constitutionally unable to return the commitment.

Sociologists3 define addiction as the pursuit of a behavior catastrophic for an individual’s conscious life values and goals, while denying its seriousness. Further, addiction is (technically understood as) a behavior that requires some form of community intervention to interrupt and alter it. Thus the spouse addicted to gambling will be unable to stop draining family assets without the intervention of a pastor, a boss, or a court decision. In Hosea, Gomer’s irrepressible unfaithfulness mirrors the headlong rush of Israel “looking for love in all the wrong places,” thus endangering its very existence as God’s people. Further, the solution that the Lord proposes is one that foreshadows contemporary advice regarding the breaking of addictions. If the persuasion of loved ones doesn’t work with Gomer (2:1-2), direct intervention will remove her from all sources of temptation and possibilities of sinful behavior (2:3-13), and the resulting isolation from addictive sin will allow the opportunity for the establishment and nurturing of positive, loving relationship (2:14-15). Seeing the book of Hosea in this way helps us to get something of the sense of Hosea’s grasp of God, acting in full power and unstoppable love to rescue an unwilling people from itself. “The central announcement of the book of Hosea can be summarized in one short sentence: God promises to do what human beings ought to do but cannot.”4 

If Gomer has received significant attention from scholars, Hosea himself is not far behind. The first thing to be said about the man who obeyed the command to “marry a woman of harlotry” is that his commitment to his message is astounding. The story has sometimes been misunderstood to imply that Hosea’s unfortunate choice of wife led him to see in, or project upon, Israel the attributes of an unfaithful spouse. Recent commentators categorically deny this interpretation. Our text presents Hosea being commanded, within the parameters of an existing prophetic ministry, to enter into precisely into the worst sort of marriage. The marriage itself is a prophetic act, not a naïve blunder.5 

In fact it is possible to speculate that the catastrophic wedding functioned not as a prelude to Hosea’s prophetic ministry and message, but as a climax of it. If Hosea was already established in prophetic activity, he had probably already promulgated some or even most of the prophecies of ch. 4-14. The marriage would then have come as an incomparably powerful statement of the seriousness of the Lord’s frustration with Israel’s chronic refusal to hear his word—and Hosea’s seriousness as a preacher of that word. We read the text in the opposite order, since we normally read the first three chapters first. But we might well envision a long and unsuccessful preaching ministry against the harlotry of Israel, finally punctuated dramatically by a spectacularly unwise marriage.6 The marriage then would have served to reiterate the word. The act of prophetic symbolism would catch fire in the context of the whole of Hosea’s leadership.

The second thing to say about Hosea is his powerful representation of God. “No prophet, including Jeremiah, experiences a more intimate connection with his God than does Hosea, and the fact that Hosea repeatedly characterizes communion with God in terms of ahab, love, and yada’, intimate knowledge, testifies to the depths of that relationship.”7 James Luther Mays finds in Hosea “a feeling for and of ‘the divine pathos’ (A. Heschel), the inner tragedy and glory of the God who by his own choice struggles for the soul of his people.”8 There is another side to this experience of intimacy, however—as we might well be reminded, we who tend to associate intimacy with comfort. Hosea’s intimate insight into the heart of God led precisely to his involvement with the anguish of God, that is, that anguish in which love is itself in the center of the pain, crushed and yet still alive. Hosea’s willingness to bear the pain becomes the possibility of divine revelation, as he takes it on both in the passion of his preaching and in the very fabric of his daily life.9 In this respect Hosea is the OT figure that most approximates the sacrificial path of the Son of God, the Son of God’s love.

Recent studies have been attentive to problematic gender relationships in Hosea 1-3. Our unfinished attempts to reduce and replace uncritical patriarchal social patterns mean that we can be sensitive to the implied victimization of Gomer, as well as to Hosea’s ability to act in an apparently imperious way in “taking a wife.” His threat to strip her of her possessions and isolate her comes close to describing “God’s legitimate punishment as physical abuse of the wife by her husband.”10 The harshness, however, is best construed in its prophetic intention—as intentionally shocking (not culturally condoned), and aimed finally at the (male) leadership of Israel in their dereliction of duty. The book offers us a choice: to continue in the deadened state of harlotry, or to participate in the agonizing process of the redemption of God’s people.

—Theopulos



1 The phrase is that of James Luther Mays, Hosea: A Commentary (OTL. Phildelphia: Westminster, 1969), p. 22.

2 See the survey and response by Thomas Edward McComiskey, “Hosea,” in McComiskey, ed., The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992, 1993, 1998), pp. 11-17.

3 Patrick Carnes, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction (3rd ed; Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2001), pp. 11-75. Carnes’ books, including Don't Call It Love (New York: Bantam, 1992) have been basic to the recent therapeutic approach to addiction, not least in the Christian community.

4 Elizabeth Achtemeier, Minor Prophets I (NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), p. 3.

5 Mays, p. 3; Achtemeier, pp. 5-6.

6 This approach finds some support in the general conclusions about the composition of Hosea, namely that the prophecies, given in the North, were collected by an editor in the South after the deportation of Israel and perhaps the death of Hosea. The account of the marriage in ch. 1-3 is of course in the 3rd person, and not composed in its final form by Hosea by an admirer or disciple. It may have been placed first because it served to introduce the prophet and his circumstances, and in particular well his well-remembered commitment to the message.

7 Achtemeier, p. 8.

8 Mays, p. 7.

9 Achtemeier, p. 5

10 Gale A. Yee, “The Book of Hosea,” in Leander Keck, et al., eds., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII (Nshville: Abingdon, 1996) p. 207. See also Yvonne Sherwood, The Prostitute and the Prophet: Hosea’s Marriage in Literary-Theoretical Perspective (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996) pp. 254-322.