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The Scandal of Grace: Was Hosea’s Marriage Hypothetical or Historical?

The perplexing command from the Lord to Hosea to marry a woman of whoredom (Hos. 1:2) has caused some interpreters to doubt the historical nature of it. Because such a command seems to contradict God’s law, it is thought that the “love” story of Hosea and Gomer was hypothetical or just a parable, no more real than the Good Samaritan or the Ten Virgins. While a defense for an historical reading will be given below, the wisdom of Geerhardus Vos should be exercised in this interpretive endeavor: “The dispute between the allegorists and realists is interesting, but doctrinally the points of arrival on each view coincide.”[1]

A Hypothetical Marriage 

Those who hold to an allegorical or hypothetical interpretation will argue along the same lines as John Calvin who contends that an actual marriage with an impure woman would have disqualified the prophet from any kind of ministry. He writes, “How could he expect to be received … after having brought himself such a disgrace?”[2] E.J. Young and C.F. Keil arrive at the same conclusion.[3] To solve this problem is to remove the historical fact of the marriage, but not its symbolic significance. Calvin explains,

When … the Prophet began to teach, he commenced in this way: The Lord places me here as on a stage, to make known to you that I have married a wife, a wife habituated to adulteries and whoredoms, and that I have begotten children by her.” The whole people knew that he had done no such thing; but the Prophet spake thus in order to set before their eyes a vivid representation. Such, then, was the vision … that the people might see, as in a living portraiture, their turpitude and perfidiousness. It is, in short, an exhibition, in which the thing itself is not only set forth in words, but is also placed, as it were, before their eyes in a visible form.[4]

Young and Keil offer similar comments, though Keil is “cautious not to diminish the sense of heartache Hosea would have felt as this episode played out internally in his spiritual consciousness.”[5] For Hosea it was an internal reality rather than an outward one.

An Historical Marriage

The major problem with the parabolic or hypothetical view is that “it seems forced by theological expediency rather than textual evidence.”[6] The text provides the reader with no clues or hints that it is to be read as symbolic or figurative. Instead, it is given in basic, straightforward historical narrative, including seemingly mundane data with no symbolic significance. This would include the weaning of No Mercy (1:8), which seems void of any symbolic, spiritual significance (though the fact it supposes a delay before the third child is significant). The burden of proof lies on the part of those who hold the hypothetical view, which cannot be found in theological considerations, but in textual and literary ones.

Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute would have been as scandalous in his day as it would be in ours—and that was the point. Israel was to see in this scandalous marriage a picture of herself, not as the one stooping down to marry an unworthy woman, but as the unworthy woman being pursued and relentlessly loved by her faithful, covenant-keeping husband. Here is a picture of God’s scandalous grace. The living marital image was to shock Israel out of the stupor of her sin to come back to reality. Israel has been living a fantasy. She thinks her lovers are providing for her, when it is really the Lord’s gracious provision. The shock-value would be greatly diminished if this were only a hypothetical story or parable, especially as it was to accompany and complement Hosea’s prophetic word. It seems, then, most consistent with the message that this be understood as an historical event.

While an historical interpretation appears to be the best route to take, the overall message that Hosea’s marriage is supposed to convey is clear: “Hosea’s marriage with Gomer (whether historical, symbolic, allegorical, or visionary) is used by God to indicate both his disgust with and his love for his covenant people.”[7]

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, 261.

[2] John Calvin, The Twelve Minor Prophets, 1:44.

[3] E.J. Young, Introduction to the Old Testament, 245–46; C.F. Keil, The Twelve Minor Prophets, trans. James Martin, 1:35.

[4] Calvin, The Twelve Minor Prophets, 1:45.

[5] Barrett, Love Divine and Unfailing, 77.

[6] Barrett, Love Divine and Unfailing, 77.

[7] Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 403. Cf. Vos, Biblical Theology, 261.

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