Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss



If you talk to God, you’re holy; if he talks to you, you’re insane. (1)

   Hosea was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the period shortly before it was conquered by Assyria. His activities coincide with the close of the reign of its powerful King Jeroboam II. Jeroboam II died in 750 BCE and was succeeded by his son Zechariah, who reigned for only six months before he was assassinated by Shallum who was himself assassinated one month later by Menahem, who then reigned for approximately ten years. Thus Hosea’s early prophetic activity came at a time of extreme instability, when four kings reigned within a span of one year. Shortly after the death of Menahem, the northern tribes -- the Kingdom of Israel -- were subjugated and scattered by the Assyrians.

   The Book of Hosea can be divided into two parts, Chapters 1-3 and Chapters 4-14. The first three chapters relate to the life of the prophet. The next 11 are a series of threats, pleadings, arguments and even hopes. These do not relate to the prophet as an individual. We will concentrate on Chapters 1-3.

   Hosea is the first prophet to use the metaphor of marriage to describe the relation between God and Israel. His message is stated as a powerful metaphor; in his call to prophecy he is told to marry a prostitute named Gomer, who perhaps later becomes the adulterous wife. Hosea's life indeed is transformed into a metaphor; his wife and children symbolize the people of Israel. His entire life can be viewed as a metaphoric message depicting the relationship between God and Israel. If God ‘married’ Israel at Mount Sinai, then idolatry can be equated with adultery. The metaphoric stories presenting Hosea and Gomer are so intimately intertwined in the Book of Hosea as to be inseparable.

   Though Jeremiah may have borrowed the metaphor of marriage between God and Israel from Hosea, it is for him a minor symbol. Jeremiah himself is by no means a metaphor, but a suffering messenger of God whose palpable suffering as a human being is intrinsically interwoven with the fabric of his message. A great deal regarding Jeremiah’s life can be gleaned from his book, but there is virtually no reliable information about Hosea's life, with whom "the theological imagery arises out of his personal tribulation.  (2)

   The question arises: Why would Hosea or the author of the book choose this particular imagery of Israel as a whore? Hosea is commanded to marry a prostitute but also loves an adulterous woman -- who may or may not be identified with Gomer --  just as the Lord loves the Israelites (3:1). The message of Hosea is that God may repudiate His covenant with the people of Israel because of their consistent violations of His commands. The people will be overrun by other nations and ultimately dispersed from their land. While in theory repentance always remains an option, in fact it appears a most remote possibility. Yet after exile, God may grant them mercy and a restoration may occur.


    The Book of Hosea opens with the marriage metaphor. The prophetic call reads: ‘Go marry a whore. And get children with a whore; for the country itself has become nothing but a whore by abandoning the Lord’ (1:2). Hosea obeys. The first child is a son, and when he is born God orders he be named Jezreel ‘for in a while I shall punish the House of Jehu for the bloodshed at Jezreel and put an end to the sovereignty of the House of Israel’ (1:4). The second child is a daughter, and when she is born; God orders that she be named ‘Lo-Ruhamah [I shall have no pity] for I shall show no more pity for the House of Israel’ (1:6). Another son is born, and God orders that he be named ‘Lo-Ammi [not My people] for you are not my people and I do not exist for you’ (1:9).  Why would anyone give his children such horrific and abominable names? (One wonders what the children's friends called them.)

    The idea of a marital union between a prophet of God and a prostitute is understandably so extremely problematical that commentators have struggled with it for centuries. Both Maimonides and Ibn Ezra consider the entire story of Chapters 1-3 to be strange. Maimonides chose to regard the story of Hosea and his wife as a vision and not as a reality. (3) Abraham Ibn Ezra considered it to be scandalous: "God forbid and forfend that the Deity should command [anyone] to marry a wife of harlotry and beget children of harlotry." He continues it metaphoric, and that the prophet saw visions in the "dream of the night." (4) Abe Lipshitz, a scholar on the works of Ibn Ezra believes that the vision "should be regarded as a psychological occurrence" or disorder.  (5)

    The Aramaic Targum Jonathan simply rejects and denies the marriage story, and the wife/prostitute motif becomes part of Hosea's preaching to a city of idolatrous inhabitants "not pitied because of their wicked deeds." A midrash, unable to envision what Hosea claims to have heard from God, transforms the whore image to a wife "looking disreputable, her house untidy, the beds not made." (6) In the Talmud, Gomer's role is magnified, and given a greater significance than in the text itself. Her name is seen as a pun on "g’mar [finish]" implying a man completing his ejaculation: ‘Rab said that all satisfied [gomerim] their lust on her. Diblaim, the name of her father, is construed to mean pressed figs. Samuel said it means she was as sweet in everyone’s mouth as a cake of figs, while R. Jonathan interpreted that all trod upon her as a cake of figs.

    In the Talmud Hosea is blamed for having failed to respond to God’s statement ‘your children have sinned.’ This is placed in contrast to Moses who, when faced with a similar accusation, replied ‘they are Your children.’ The Talmud proposes that Hosea's response to ‘exchange them for a different people’ is diametrically opposed to Moses’ response. Consequently, God said marry a prostitute and love her and see if you can send her away (BT Pesachim 87a-b). A midrash states that whereas Moses is depicted as having loved Israel, Balaam, the pagan prophet (Num. 22-25) is depicted as having hated Israel, and Hosea's position is midway between them. (7) Thus, according to the Talmud, God decided to "teach Hosea a lesson" (BT Pesachim 87a-b). God then says to Hosea  see if you can put away your wife. Is God giving Hosea the power to determine His love of Israel? God tells Hosea not to plead for himself and his bizarre life but for God’s people, and that He God, will respond ‘I will not say to ‘Not for My People’ [but] ‘You are My People’ and he will say ‘You are my God’ (2:25; BT Pesachim 87a-b). Hosea is "callously indifferent to God’s love of the people of Israel." (8)

    Israelite society was patriarchal, as was the norm for the time and place. Hosea’s wife and children are entirely under his care and control. He says to the children ‘take your mother to court . . . She must either remove her whoring ways from her face and her adulteries from between her breasts or I shall strip her and expose her naked as the day she was born . .  Let her die . . . I shall feel no pity for her children’ (2:4-6). Are these not his children as well? If indeed Gomer is a whore, can one be certain of the paternity of the children? Can the ‘Lo’ mean that Hosea is not the father? Under Israelite law the children would be a considered momzerim, who could not marry other Israelites. (9) The wisdom of such parenting is ludicrous. Is Hosea calling his son a ‘ben zonah [son of a whore]" and his daughter a ‘bat zonah [daughter of a whore]" – that are expletives in modern as well as ancient Hebrew? Did Hosea marry Gomer for her status as a prostitute, not despite it? Was she a cult prostitute? Subsequently, he demands that his adulterous wife (if she is Gomer) or adulterous mistress, whom he has purchased at God’s request, to become celibate in relationship to himself as well as to other lovers (3:3) These demands and expectations are extreme and unrealistic, and in fact inappropriate for his chosen wife. Why would Hosea choose a known prostitute/adulteress (Israel) and then suddenly exact celibacy from her?

    Hosea heard the word of God telling him to marry a harlot.

‘Plead with your mother, plead with her for she is no longer my wife nor am I her husband’ (2:4).

‘I shall strip her. .   I shall make her bare . . . I shall make her as dry as the desert and let her die of thirst. I shall feel no pity for her children. . .  I shall block her way with thorns (2:5-8).  

Threats of sexual violence by a God-ordained figure can be found also in the Book of Ezekiel. Were these threats ever actualized? Anderson and Freedman suggest this might indeed be the case. (10) Weems writes: "God is no longer like a husband; God is a husband. If God’s covenant with Israel is like a marriage . . . then a husband’s physical punishment against his wife is as warranted as God’s punishment of Israel." (11) Are we to understand God as a battering husband, as cruel and full of rage toward Israel his wife?

    God-intoxicated prophets having auditory relationships with God were an accepted norm of the day; their ability to hear and some to speak to God is part of their function. A limited number of prophets experienced visual hallucinations (Ezekiel and Isaiah) and only one is transported by God (Ezekiel). Some viewed their enemies to be God’s enemies. While that can be defined as paranoid, in fact Jeremiah and Amos were tried by their real enemies; the former being arrested several times and sentenced to death and the latter exiled after being tried. Thus their paranoia was indeed textually based. Whether their enemies were also God’s enemies (as Jeremiah claimed) is a question of faith, not fact. But some prophets deviated from the norm more than others. This holds particularly true of Ezekiel and Hosea. Both perform bizarre symbolic actions: Hosea marries a prostitute and an adulteress, gives his children with insulting names, exposes and beats his wife, Ezekiel becomes a "dumb" prophet for 390 days, while continuing to be "dumb" lying on one side and then the other for 40 days, eating a scroll and cake made with dung, and flying to Jerusalem. The Book of Ezekiel was included in the canon despite the Sages judging his work as problematic. The Talmud never deemed it necessary to debate the merits of canonizing prophets such as Hosea; they simply criticized him as seen above. The fact that the Sages of the Talmud, who canonized the Hebrew Bible, deemed it necessary to dispute the writings of Ezekiel and Hosea suggests that their behavior was eccentric even for prophets.


   I shall strip her and expose her naked as the day she was born, make her as dry as the desert and let her die of thirst. I shall have no mercy on her children (2:5-6). What kind of an author would create such a text?

To both Francis Landy one who is obsessed with sexual sadism, (12) and to T.D. Setel one who is pornographic. (13) Given the lack of psycho-social-medical history, analysis of such a personage is extremely difficult. However, in view of the fact that this text is important and influential because it is included in the Hebrew Bible, one must attempt to understand and interpret it to the best of one’s ability. The language of the text can be viewed as symptomatic of a personality. Thus it is the personality beyond that text that we will attempt to analyze.

    Schizophrenia has been defined as involving loose associations and disturbances of language and thoughts, including hallucinations and delusion of grandeur particularly of a sexual and religious nature. Persons with such an illness have a disturbed image of self (and of others) and consequently act on these images. (14) The actions tend to be based on symbolic or metaphoric language.

In schizophrenia, . . . single images or whole combinations may be rendered ineffective, . . . thinking operates with ideas and concepts which have no [connection], or a completely insufficient, connection with the main idea . . . The result is that thinking becomes confused, bizarre, incorrect, abrupt. . . [The] schizophrenic experiences a distortion of body image . . . {his] entire world changed . . . every day events appear in a new light, everyday objects seem strange. . . Many schizophrenics assume they have lost their former selves and have taken on a new identity. . . some believe that they are now someone else and attempt to assume the name and characteristics of the other person. (15).

    The Talmud suggests that Hosea was besieged with delusions of being Moses -- the prophet par excellence, the Servant of God and the Man of God. Perhaps he even believed himself to be God. Perhaps he became his own Higher Authority. Hosea becoming God, at least as a metaphor, lives his life as in the metaphor. This is quite different from Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who adopt various metaphors and parables as symbols for the people of Israel. The self-image in Hosea arises from his own delusions. He develops his own Divine message of his marriage. God Himself may indeed have the power to transform a whore into a madonna. Did Hosea believe that he too possessed such power? In the very brief Chapter 3, it appears that Hosea’s grasp of reality has disintegrated, as indeed happens with schizophrenics.

   The "I shal"l constructs, symbolic representations of God, are repeated 21 times in Chapter 2. The chapter ends with the words ‘You are my God,’ uttered by the child Lo Ammi (2:25). Who indeed is the father and who is the God? Distinction between the word (or world) of God and the words (or worlds) of Hosea are very problematic in the Book of Hosea.

    Knowledge of God  (16) is a central concern of Hosea. The Hebrew word ‘da’ath’ means "to know," and particularly to know a woman sexually. If we accept the notion that to know God is to love God and to be loved by God, can one reconcile Hosea’s use of love a whore with his violence towards her? In this metaphor, who is God’s mother/wife? ‘And it shall be at that last day, says the Lord, you shall say my man, and no longer say my master [ba’ali]’ (2:18). A word-play appears embedded in this text. Ba’al denotes ‘master’ and ‘husband’ in Hebrew, and it is also the title of a pagan Canaanite god. Thus Gomer’s husband, Hosea, once a ‘ba’al’ [god] will become only a man.

   Schizophrenogenic . . .  mothers have been characterized as rejecting, domineering, cold, overprotecting, and impervious to the feelings and needs [of their children] . . . [They have] rigid, moralistic attitudes toward sex that cause the mother to react with horror to any evidence of sexual impulses on the child’s part. . . . {This] deprives him of a clear sense of his own identity.. (17)

At the end of Chapter 2, God takes pity on Lo-Ruhamah and tells Lo-Ammi that you are My people. In the very short Chapter 3, after God has adopted the children, Gomer is no longer present. God then tells the prophet to find another woman to marry, an adulteress as opposed to a prostitute. Hosea ‘buys’ this adulterous woman and informs her that both of them must be single minded to one other (3:3). Is this suggesting that God also was an adulterer? Is this not a series of ‘loose associations’? It is possible that this chapter is a recapitulation or another sexually promiscuous story.


    We, of course, know nothing of Hosea’s father and mother or of his childhood. However, it is well documented today that the father and/or mother image also figures prominently with schizophrenics who have a ‘god’ complex. The following traumatic relationships can contribute to the formation of a ‘god’ complex: Immature, depressive and isolated parenthood, childhood rejections, borderline mothering, passive dependent emotionally hungering father and a socially deprived background. (18)

    Extreme anger toward the mother and/or father is often identified in children who are raised in family situations as described above. Hosea’s depiction of the mother/wife as quasi-demonic suggests a massively hostile relationship with his mother. His father may have been ritually an obsessive compulsive yet bound to formality, lacking in vitality, with a blatant absence of the idea of a ‘living God’. Hence, Hosea may reject the official religion and its God and create his own living personal God. "God’s representational characteristics depend heavily on the type of resolution and the compromises the child has arranged with his Oedipal objects. . .  Half of God’s stuffing comes from the child’s capacity to ‘create’ a God according to his needs.’ (19) Hosea’s God is primarily a punishing God, a God of Law, not a God of Justice. Amos, Jeremiah and Job believed in a God of Justice. Jeremiah and Job fought God for Justice because they had a firm belief in Him as God of Justice. Hosea claimed to believe in a God of  "hesed [grace, mercy]," but his descriptions contradict such a concept. Hesed is a key term for Hosea, but one sees little of it in his words, such as I shall feel no pity for her children since they are the children of her whoring (2:6).

    Not all mental health professionals consider the symptoms of schizophrenia to be mental illness. Some consider it a "moral verdict" on certain forms of unacceptable or unintelligible behavior. (20) This kind of behavior may indeed be judged according to the norms of the culture. (21) William Blake, a great English poet, artist and religious thinker, has been called schizophrenic. (22) What is important to us is to determine whether Hosea’s vision can be viewed as a legitimate vision of God; or a cultural aberration or, even worse, the writings of a schizophrenic.

(1) Quoted by Moshe Wisnefsky, “As Someone Put It’ in Farbrengen (a Chabad Publication) Passover 2000, pg. 9.

(2)Anderson, F.I. and Freedman, D.N., Hosea, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (N.Y., Doubleday, 1980) pg. 46.

(3) Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Vol. II, pg.46.

(4) Mark Solomon, ‘Scandal or the Birth of a Prophet’, European Judaism, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring 1999), pg. 56.

(5) Lipshitz, Abe, The Commentary of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra on Hosea (N.Y., Sepher-Hermon, 1988) pg. 7

(6) Quoted by Y. Sherwood in Brenner, Althea, ed., A Feminine Interpretation of the Latter Prophets (Sheffield, Sheffield University Press, 1995) pg. 106.

(7) Midrash Rabbag Numbers, Vol. Pg. 55.

(8) Solomon, pg. 58.

(9) Gordis, Robert, Poets, Prophets and Sages (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1971) pgs. 230-254.

(10) Anderson and Freedman, pg. 129.

(11) Weems, R.J., Gomer: Victim of Violence or Victim of Metaphor? Semeia 47 (1989( pg. 100.

(12) Brenner, Althea, ed. A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets, (Sheffield, Sheffield University Press, 2001) pg.147-148.

(13) Russell, L., ed. Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1985) Pgs. 93-94.

(14) Buss, A., Psychopathology, (N.Y., John Wiley, 1966) pg. 31-32, 195-196.

(15) Buss, pg. 188-191.

(16) 2:10,22; 4:1; 5:3; 6:3,3,7; 7:9,9; 8:2,4; 9:7; 13:4.

(17) Coleman, J.C., J.N. Butcher and Carson, R.C., eds. Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life, (Glenview, Illinois, Scott, Foresman, 1984) pg. 373

(18) Rizzuto, A. M., Birth of the living God, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1998) pg. 151.

(19) Rizzuto, pg. 178-179.

(20) Sorbin, T.B. and Monuso, J.C., Schizophrenia: Medical Diagnosis or Moral Verdict, quoted in Coleman, pg. 353.

(21) T. Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness, in Schiff, T., ed. Mental Illness and Social Process, (N.Y., Harper Row, 1967) pg. 211.

(22) Coleman, pg. 379.