Hosea’s family: biography, allegory, parable, or something else?

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One of the key interpretive issues in the book of Hosea is whether the account of Hosea’s family – his marriage to Gomer and three children – in chapters 1 and 3 is based in true events from the prophet’s life or whether it is a prophetic parable or allegory with a teaching purpose yet not based in real-life events.

James Luther Mays, in his commentary on Hosea writes, “Disagreement about the nature of this family narrative is as old as the interpretation of the early Church Fathers” (Mays, Hosea 23).

Claude Mariottini, with whom I studied the book of Hosea in seminary, catalogs the different views on Hosea’s family life, and the proponents of each view, as follows:

  • Inconclusive – The prophetic symbolism behind the marriage makes reconstruction impossible (Gerhard von Rad)
  • Historical – The marriage is an actual experience in the life of the prophet: Gomer was a prostitute before marriage (C. Hassell Bullock and James D. Newsome)
  • Proleptic – Gomer lapsed into prostitution after marriage (Walter Harrelson)
  • Cult functionary – Hosea married a sacred prostitute (Theodore H. Robinson)
  • Idolatry – Gomer’s harlotry was spiritual unfaithfulness to God (Robert H. Pfeiffer)
  • Gomer was not Hosea’s wife but only a concubine (Thomas Aquinas)
  • Literary device – Hosea’s marriage was only a literary device to convey a message (Hugo Gressman)
  • Vision – This marriage never occurred, but was only a vision or dream of the prophet (Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg)
  • Parable – The marriage is only a parable to illustrate the sins of Israel (Jerome and John Calvin)
  • Allegory – The marriage is only an allegory invented by Hosea to illustrate the love of God (various Jewish rabbis)
  • Drama – The marriage of Hosea was a stage play (Yehezkel Kaufmann)

With all of these various views presented, the case could be made that at one level it makes no difference to the interpretation of Hosea which view we hold. However, I find James Luther Mays illuminating here. He writes:

Is the story an allegory whose only reality is the meaning, or do the marriage and births represent actual episodes in the life of Hosea? The majority of recent commentators agree that the latter is correct….The story reports the real. And yet it is not, indeed cannot be, approached as though it were biography. The interest is not in Hosea and the experiences of his life, and perhaps it was the recognition of this which led to the allegorical approach before prophetic symbolism was properly understood. There is a severe concentration on the divine word through the prophet’s family life….The narrative is kerygmatic, not biographical….The details of Hosea’s family life are hidden behind the word-function of the narrative.

As Mays suggest, Hosea’s prophecies in chapters 1 and 3 brings together real-life events, while presenting those events through a theological lens so that a specific message from God might be communicated.

A Prayer for the Church from Hosea 1-3

Almighty God,
Our Creator and the Lover of our Souls,
You have called us to Yourself
by Your grace and truth
that we might know You, live for You,
and show You to the world.
We admit that we often fall into temptation and sin,
losing our way like an adulterous spouse,
straying in our hearts from You and Your love.
Thank You that, like a dedicated spouse and an ever-faithful lover,
You continue to pursue us.
Come now, Lord, and forgive us,
heal us,
transform us
and restore us through Your steadfast love.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.