Bible Commentator

Messengers of God: A Theological And Psychological Perspective

Moshe Reiss


Hosea and Jonah

Hosea and Jonah by Raphael

If you talk to God, you’re holy; if he talks to you, you’re insane. 1
“What am I beside what my soul invents?”  2

Hosea was a Prophet in northern Israeli at the time of the conquest of the Land by the Assyrians. His activity coincide with the close of the Kingdom of Israel’s great leader, Jeroboam II. In the year of Jeroboam II’s  death (750B.C.E.), his son Zechariah succeeded him but reigned for only six months and was assassinated by Shallum who himself was killed one month later. Menahem then reigned for approximately ten years. Thus early in Hosea’s prophetic activity, there was enormous instability as four kings reigned in one year.  Shortly after the death of Menahem, the northern tribes - the Kingdom of Israel -was destroyed by Assyria.

The Book of Hosea can be divided into two parts; chapters 1-3 and chapters 4-14. The first three chapters relate to or are a metaphor for a person called Hosea. The last eleven chapters are a serious of threats, pleadings, arguments and hopes. They do not relate to the prophet as an individual. Thus we will concentrate on chapters 1-3.

Hosea is the first prophet to use the metaphor of marriage as the relation between God and Israel.  Hosea’s message is stated as a powerful metaphor - in his call as a prophet he is told to marry a prostitute, named Gomer. His life indeed is transformed into a metaphor; his wife and children symbolize the people of Israel Gomer is the prostitute and perhaps later becomes the adulterous wife. And Hosea seems analogous to God.  His entire life can be viewed as is a metaphoric message which depicts the relationship between God and Israel. If God ‘married’ Israel at Mount Sinai, then idolatry can be equated with adultery. The metaphor stories, presenting Hosea and Gomer (his wife/prostitute) and presenting God and Israel are so intimately intertwined in the Book of Hosea that it is not possible to separate the two stories.

Whereas it is probable that Jeremiah borrowed the metaphor of marriage between God and Israel from Hosea for Jeremiah it is a minor metaphor. Jeremiah approaches the closest ideal of a messenger who embodies his message. Jeremiah is by no means a metaphor, but a suffering messenger of God. His palpable suffering as a human being is intrinsically interwoven within the fabric of his message. A great deal regarding Jeremiah’s life can be gleaned from his book, however virtually no reliable facts are available about the real life of Hosea.  The story of Hosea’s life is ‘that the theological imagery arises out of his personal tribulation’.3  The question then arises why was this particular image chosen. Why would Hosea or the author choose this particular imagery - Israel as a whore? Hosea is commanded to marry a prostitute but also loves an adulterous woman (who may or may not be Gomer) ‘just as YHVH loves the Israelites’ (3:1). 4
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 will be ultimately dispersed from their land. While in theory repentance always remains an option it, in fact  appears a most remote possibility. After an exile God may grant them mercy and a restoration may occur. The meaning of this message bears a strong similarity to the message of Amos, however a striking difference exists between the metaphors.

Hosea’s  marriage metaphor appears directly opening the book.  Hosea’s prophetic call reads as follows: ‘Go marry a whore. And get children with a whore; for the country itself has become nothing but a whore by abandoning YHVH’ (1:2) Hosea obeys and when his first child , a son is born, God instructs him to name the child 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, a daughter is born; God orders Hosea to name call her ‘Lo-Ruhamah’ (‘I shall have no pity’) for I shall show no more pity for the House of Israel’ (1:6). A third child is born and named by God ‘Lo-Ammi’ (not my people’) for you are not my people and I do not exist for you’ (1:9).  (One wonders what the children’s friends called them?) 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? If so, the children would under Jewish law be a ‘momzer’ who could not be married to another Israeli. 5
The idea of a marital union between a prophet of God and a prostitute is understandably so extremely problematical that commentators struggled with it for centuries.  Maimonides the great rational philosopher chose to interpret the entire story of Hosea and his wife as a vision and not as a reality. 6 Abraham Ibn Ezra considered it to be scandalous. ‘God forbid and forend that the Deity should  command [anyone] to marry a wife of harlotry and beget children of harlotry.’ He continues that while the act is metaphoric an actual man does not become a metaphor. The prophet saw visions of prophecy, in the dream of the night. 7   According to Abe Lipshitz, a scholar on the Ibn Ezra  this means that the vision ‘should be regarded as a psychological occurrence’ or disorder. 8 

Maimonides and Ibn Ezra consider the entire story (chapter 1-3) as a visionary dream, totally non-reality based. The Aramaic Targum Jonathan simply rejects and denies the marriage story - Gomer and her children vanish from the text. A Midrash changes the whore image to a wife ‘looking disreputable, her house untidy, the beds not made’, 9 again unable to envision what Hosea claims to have envisioned.

The Talmud sees a pun on the name Gomer meaning in English ‘to finish’ (in Hebrew ‘n’g’mar’) sexually i.e. a man completing his ejaculation. They magnify Gomer’s role and attributes a significant more than appears in the text itself. The Talmud blames the story on Hosea for having failed to respond to God’s statement  ‘your children have sinned’.  Moses, is seen by contrast. When he was faced with a similar accusation replied ‘they are Your children’. The Talmud proposes that Hosea response to ‘exchange them for a different people’  as is diametrically opposed to Moses’ response. 10  (Fisch points out that when God gives names to Hosea’s children He says ‘I will not be your God’ (1:9) using the Hebrew term for God ‘eyeh’, the term God told Moses in front of the burning bush (Ex. 3:14)).

In another Midrash while Moses is depicted as loving Israel, Balaam as hating Israel and Hosea is in a midway position. 11  Thus God decided to ‘teach Hosea a lesson’. 12  Gomar’s  father’s name, Diblaim, is construed to mean pressed figs and thus they are making a pun of her father’s name.  ‘Rab said that all satisfied their lust on her. . . 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’. 13  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). This is an enormous criticism for a prophet.  The prophet is ‘callously indifferent to God’s love of the people of Israel’ 14 

Israelite society (characteristic of the norms of the time and place) was patriarchal. Hosea’s wife and children are solely under his care and control. Hosea says to his 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?  Inasmuch as his wife is a whore can he be certain of their paternity? 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) – a curse in modern as well as ancient Hebrew. Did Hosea deliberately married Gomer for her status as a prostitute, not despite it? Was she a holy prostitute? Subsequently he demands his adulterous/wife (if she is Gomer) or adulterous/mistress whom he has purchased at God’s request to become celibate, not only to other lovers but to him as well. (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/adulterous as his lover (Israel) and then suddenly exact celibate from her?

Prophets being God intoxicated and having audio relationships with God were an accepted norm - that is almost a definition of their function - their ability to hear and some to speak to God. A limited number of prophets experienced visual hallucinations (Ezekiel and Isaiah) and even fewer were transported by God (Ezekiel). Some held 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 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. Ezekiel barely managed to be canonized despite the Sages judging his work as problematic (as we will discuss in the chapter of Ezekiel).  The Talmud never deemed it necessary to debate the merits of canonizing of Hosea, they simply criticized him as seen above. The fact that the Sages of the Talmud, the canonizers of the Jewish Bible, deemed it necessary to dispute the writings of Ezekiel and Hosea suggests that their behavior was ex-centric even for prophets. What makes Ezekiel and Hosea ‘Prophets’ and Ben Sira or Tobit or Judith, not is unclear? We do not have the actual criteria for inclusion in the Canon.

Given the lack of psycho-social-medical history, psychoanalysis of these personages is
virtually impossible. However in view of the fact that this text is important and influential  because it was canonized one must attempt to understand and interpret it to the best of our ability. The language of the text can be viewed as symptomatic of a personality. 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 the based on these images. 15 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.’ 16

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 even he 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 adopting various metaphors and parables 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 change a whore to a Madonna. Did Hosea believe that he also had that power?  In the short chapter 3 it appears that Hosea’s grasp of  reality had disintegrated, as occurs to schizophrenics. In the latter part of his book (chapters 4-14) Hosea describes a form of idolatry which was in fact not prevalent in Assyrian influenced Israel. Political problems abounded, both internally and externally motivated, but the temple cults were relatively clean of idolatry. Thus there appears a confusion between reality as Hosea seems to mix metaphors and reality. (Jeremiah, a century later, also describes a political suicidal situation, and he does use the metaphor of idolatry to describe it. However Ezekiel, who lived at the same time described idolatry as a sin of the past as if it were present – see later.) While Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are all burdened with impossible missions and hence suffer immeasurably from their task, Amos and Jeremiah reactions are within the normal range.

Not all mental health practioners consider the symptoms of schizophrenia to be mental illness. Some consider it a ‘moral verdict’ concerning certain forms of unacceptable or unintelligible behavior. 17   This kind of behavior may indeed be culturally-bound. 18  William Blake, a great English poet, artist and religious thinker has been called  schizophrenic. 19 What is important to us is to understand is whether Hosea’s vision can be seen as a legitimate vision of God; or at best can it be called a ‘cultural aberration’ or at its worst the writings of a schizophrenic?

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). (Does this seem like the God of Jeremiah?) These threats of sexual violence by a God-like figure can only equaled in the Bible in Ezekiel. Were these threats ever actualized? ‘That is why I hacked them to pieces by means of the my prophets, why I killed them with words of my mouth’ (6:5).  Is he justifying spousal abuse?  Despite these words commentators disagree as to whether Hosea justifies wife battering. Anderson and Freedman suggest this might indeed be the case. 20  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’. 21

The ‘I shall’s’ construction - a symbolic representation of God - are repeated 21 times in chapter 2. The chapter ends with the words, saying ‘You are my God’ uttered by Lo Ammi Hosea’s child(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.

The term knowledge of God 22  is a central concern of Hosea. The word in Hebrew ‘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 have God love you, can one reconcile  Hosea’s use to ‘love a whore’ with his violence and torturing her? It can only be explained by his use of the term a dysfunctional emotionality and certainly not on an intellectual basis, 23  in keeping with his sexual connotations.

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 both a Canaanite god and  in Hebrew, ‘master’ and ‘husband’. Thus Gomer’s husband, Hosea, once a ‘Ba’al’ (a god)  will become only  a man.

‘Schizoprenogenic . . .  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.’ 24

A child at an early stage of development may have confused images of Father and Mother. The concept of ‘God, the Father’ as opposed to ‘Mother as a  whore’ concept developed from this splitting. For some children (and in some religions) the splitting is at a higher level than in others. Christianity developed out of a black and white form of Judaism (as seen also in the Essene community), but later Hellenized has a clear splitting personality. This explanation would seem to be equally relevant to the Hosea’s personality. Hosea’s thoughts may have been influenced by Egyptian,  Assyrian and even Greek thinking.

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 of Hosea Gomer is no longer present after God has adopted the children.  God then told 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 need to be single minded to each 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 about Hosea’s father and mother nor about his childhood. In people defined as schizophrenics, especially those with a ‘god’ complex  the father and/or mother image always figures prominently.

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. 25 Extreme anger toward the mother and/or father is often found with children growing up circumstances 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 – however lacking a vitality, without the idea of a ‘living God’ being very important. Hence Hosea rejects the official religion and its God and  creates his own living personal God. He rejects the official rules of the religion and virtually creates his own. ‘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’ 26 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 believed in a God of Justice. Hosea God claimed to be a God of ‘chesed’ but as He is described He is not. Chesed (in Hebrew), a key term for Hosea, is  usually translated as grace. But in fact there is little grace in Hosea. ‘I shall feel no pity for her children since they are the children of her whoring’ (2:6). Note ‘her children’; is Hosea suggesting that they are not his children? Hosea seems perhaps, the only Hebrew Prophet who adopted the Egyptian and Greek-like ideology of becoming God the father and confusing the mother/wife syndrome as a Madonna/whore. 27  (The fact that Christianity, originally a sect of Judaism took this idea as a major premise comes from the Hellenization of Judaism as discussed by many scholars.)

Hosea and Gomer
Hosea, Gomer and Children in the Zurich Bible


1 Quoted by Moshe Wisnefsky, ‘As someone put it’, in Farbrengen (a Chabad publication - from the disciples of the Rebbe of Lubavitch, Passover 2000, pg.9. David Berkowitz, a serial murderer in Queens N.Y., known as the ‘son of Sam’, when asked by his court appointed psychiatrist ‘who told you to kill’ responded ‘Sam’. The Court believed he was talking to himself, but the psychiatrist stated that Berkowitz believed he was talking to ‘Sam’.

2 Ora Wiskind-Elper, Tradition And Fantasy In The Roles Of Reb Nahman Of Bratslav, (S.U.N.Y., Albany, 1998) pg. 35.

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

4 As a believer the author accepts that, at least in the distant past people with a divine mission could hear and perhaps speak to God, the question for this author is what do they hear, what to they say and how do they respond. That has to be based on their own personality.

5 Gordis, R., Poets, Prophets and Sages, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1971) pg. 230- 254.

6 Maimoinides, Guide, Pg. II,46.

7 Mark L. Solomon, Scandal Or The Birth Of A Prophet, European Judaism, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring 1999, pg. 56.

8 Lipshitz, Abe, The Commentary Of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra On Hosea (Sepher-Hermob Press, N.Y., 1988) pg. 7.

9 Quoted by Y. Sherwood in Brenner, A. Ed. A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets, (Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, 1995) pg. 106.

10 Fisch points out that when God gives names to Hosea’s children He says ‘I will not be your God’ (1:9) using the Hebrew term for God ‘eyeh’, the term God told Moses in front of the burning bush (Ex. 3:14). Fisch, H., Poetry with a Purpose, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1988) pg. 144.

11 Midrash Rabbah Numbers, Vol. I, pg. 55.

12 BT Pesachim 87a-b, quoted Solomon, Scandal,  pg. 58.

13 BT Pesachim 87 a-b, quoted Sherwood, Brenner, pg. 108.

14 Mark L. Solomon,  pg. 58.

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

16 Buss, pgs. 188-191.

17 Sorbin, T.B. and Monuso, J.C., , Schizophrenia: Medical Diagnosis or Moral Verdict, (Pergamon, N.Y., 1980) quoted in Coleman 353.

18 T. Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness, in Schiff, T., ed. Mental Illness and Social Process, (Harper Row, N.Y., 1967) and Laing R.D., The Divided Self, (Twentieth Publications, London, 1960). Other culturally bound images are Jews seeing Elijah as a predecessor Messiah while Christians see Mary, the Mother of their Messiah..

19 Coleman, J.C., Butcher, J.N., and Carson, R.C., Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life, (Scott, Foresman and Co., Glenview, Ill.,1984) pg. 379.

20 Anderson and Freedman, Hosea, pg. 129.

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

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

23 Heschel, Rabbi A., J.,  The Prophets, Vol. I (Harper & Row, NY, 1969) pg, 59-60.

24 Coleman,  pg. 373.

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

26 Rizzuto, pg. 178 - 179

27 The fact that Christianity, originally a cult of Judaism took this idea as a major premise comes from the Hellenization of Judaism as discussed by many scholars.