Saturday, January 15, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (10)

Description is not the same as prescription. Or, to put it less technically, Old Testament historical passages are a questionable source of moral guidance for Christians.

We have noted previously that the book of Hosea goes back and forth between the historical account of Hosea’s marriage and the lessons God was drawing out of that relationship for Israel and, to a lesser extent, Judah. Hosea’s adulterous wife Gomer represented the idolatrous northern kingdom of Israel, while Hosea himself represented God.

Chapter 1 was more or less evenly split between history and prophecy. Chapter 2 was almost entirely prophetic. Chapter 3 takes us back to the historical narrative, and it is here that we have to be careful about the practical lessons we take out of the text for ourselves.

Hosea 3:1-3 — Gomer Again

“And the Lord said to me, ‘Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.’ So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. And I said to her, ‘You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.’ ”

God’s Will for Divorced Couples

David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary entry on Hosea 3 takes a crack at discerning God’s will for modern marriages in distress from the poor prophet’s rather unusual situation:

“God directed Hosea to go back to his wife, even though she was committing adultery. It wasn’t in the past; it was in the present; yet he was commanded to go back to her and to love her. This shows us that though Deuteronomy 24:1 and Matthew 19:7-8 permit divorce when adultery breaks the marriage union, it by no means commands divorce. If God commanded divorce in the case of adultery, then He would go against His own command here.”

Hmm. Bringing Christians into a historical passage in Hosea is probably a bad idea. Don’t get me wrong, I think Guzik draws the correct conclusion here: scripture permits but does not command divorce in every case of adultery. I’m just not sure you can get to that conclusion legitimately from Hosea.

Hosea’s marriage was not normative in any respect. He was told by God in chapter 1 to “take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom”. No Christian marriage ever starts on that basis, nor should it, any more than today’s Bible teachers should preach naked and barefoot just because Isaiah was instructed to. A Christian who marries a prostitute and tells his fellow believers “God wants me to” has got more than a few issues, not the least of which is rightly dividing the word of truth.

A Curveball from Jeremiah

For that matter, if we are going to draw conclusions from the Old Testament about how a Christian should proceed when faced with a marriage union fractured by adultery, we may as well do so from Jeremiah:

“If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted?”

The (rhetorical) answer to “Will he return to her?” in this instance is clearly “Not very likely. That is a pretty disgusting prospect. You never know what you’ll catch.” This too is not a command, but it does seem to indicate that a man who takes back his wife after a divorce is doing something unexpected, distasteful, and to which he is not obligated in any way.

As to becoming another man’s wife, it is not likely Gomer had actually remarried, but it seems she was in some kind of ongoing quasi-monogamous forbidden relationship, “loved by another man [not ‘many men’ but ‘another man’, singular] and is an adulteress”. And yet Hosea was very much obligated to take Gomer back. God commanded it.

So then, let’s just say the evidence from the Old Testament as to how Christians ought to deal with cheating spouses is ambiguous at best. The situations described in the Prophets are exceptional, calculated to shock insensate sinners out of their spiritual torpor. I suspect they were never intended to be used as a marriage counseling primer for elders trying to help struggling Christian couples. There is plenty of instruction about divorce in the New Testament for us to work with without trying to make the Prophets say what they don’t.

Cakes of Raisins

The KJV has “flagons of wine” for “cakes of raisins”. Which is correct? You will find good and bad arguments for both translations. Jeremiah refers to the idolatrous practice of offering cakes (a different Hebrew word) to the “queen of heaven”, but in the same passage also speaks of “drink offerings to other gods”. What is important here is that neither is a grocery item; their purpose was religious and their object of devotion was not YHWH. The cakes or flagons are associated with turning to other gods.

Fifteen Shekels of Silver and a Homer and a Lethech of Barley

The price of Gomer’s return was fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. David Guzik again: “Hosea didn’t really need to ‘buy’ his own wife, to hire her as a prostitute. She was his wife!” This might have been technically the case, but I’m not sure that was either Gomer’s view of the situation or that of her new partner. Further, it is unclear whether this was some sort of redemption agreement (Boice and Sweeney, for example, conclude Gomer had been sold into slavery and Hosea was buying her back from her current owner), or an allowance for Gomer personally, perhaps an enticement to return to a relationship with Hosea or evidence that he could provide for her. Commentators generally go with the allowance idea, but I am not convinced.

One reason is that Hosea’s ability to provide for Gomer had never been at issue; there is no biblical evidence she had left him over financial problems. Another is that all commentators are agreed fifteen shekels of silver was not a staggering amount. Most point to the value of an injured slave in Exodus or the valuation of a female in sanctuary shekels for the purpose of making a vow in Leviticus, and argue that Gomer was bought for half that. Unless Gomer’s living situation was extremely unpalatable to her (which seems unlikely since her new “friend” is described as having affection for her) or unless she had already reached a state of genuine repentance (which also seems unlikely given the long period of sexual separation Hosea prescribes, the purpose of which was presumably to encourage a change of heart), it is hard to see how Gomer would have agreed to return to Hosea for a fraction of the benefits she had previously enjoyed.

Moreover, the idea that this was an ongoing allowance paid to Gomer also assumes a modern sort of agency on her part, which seems inconsistent with the times and with Gomer’s station in Israelite society. I tend to think the sum was probably paid to this new man with whom she was living to persuade him to terminate his involvement with her and put her in a position where returning to her husband seemed the best possible option even if the terms of the arrangement proposed by Hosea were not as favorable as originally.

Dwell as Mine for Many Days

Hosea then tells Gomer, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” We may reasonably assume from what follows that these instructions were God-given, and this “time out” from the normal husband-wife relationship he prescribes is intended to have a prophetic significance we will explore in more detail next week.

The meaning of the words “so will I also be to you” is debated, but seems most likely to suggest that while Hosea would provide for Gomer (“dwell as mine”), he would not become sexually involved with her during this period. Normal husband-wife relations would not resume for some time to come. The suggestion has been made by some commentators that Hosea is promising Gomer that he too will remain chaste during this separation, and not take to himself another wife, but it is hard to see why such a possibility would be of great concern to Gomer. After all, Hosea had just gone to the trouble of buying her back. It was not Hosea but Gomer whose attitude to the relationship needed to be reconsidered.

Once again, none of these instructions may be considered normative in Christian marriages. Paul instructs married believers not to separate sexually, but rather, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” It is hard to see how any genuine reconciliation of a damaged marriage might be effectively accomplished if it fails to touch the bedroom.

If we recognize that Hosea was not giving us instructions for Christian marriage, this apparent inconsistency in the teaching of scripture disappears.

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