Can anyone love a prostitute? Yes.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Hosea 1-3
In this introduction to Hosea, we cover the very difficult subject matter of marital unfaithfulness as a metaphor for our spiritual unfaithfulness to God. And also children's names. We learn how far Israel has turned from God through God's call for the prophet Hosea to marry the prostitute Gomer and be faithful to her.
Afterward, the people of Israel will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. (3:5)
I cover a lot of ground in the post. It's a long one.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
What Drew You to Your Significant Other?
Hosea is a very difficult book to read, not the least reason of which is that God commands Hosea to marry a woman that we don't think he would otherwise choose to marry.
So, let's use this as an opportunity to celebrate our spouse (or significant other if you're not married). (If you are currently single, please take the opportunity to pray for others' relationships. Only about half of American adults are married, and about 40% of those marriages will end in divorce.)
For me, it's simple -- I thought she was cute. What's funny is that the more we got to know each other, the more different from one another we realized we were. Opposites attract? The one thing we had in common was our commitment to Jesus. Our experience is why I believe that Christianity can bring a couple through any rough patches.
So, how about you? If you're in a relationship, what drew you to that other person?
What Makes People "Fall in Love"?
Have grace with me on this one -- I know that a lot of people don't really know what "love" is. What do you think people give for why they "fell in love"?
Here are reasons I found repeated online:
Attraction (physical and emotional)
Sense of humor
I also found these: "Similarity to a parent" and "they complete me" and "dopamine".
So, if you were to select a "top five answers", what would you think are the five most common reasons people give for "falling in love"? (With apologies, I don't have a "survey says" for you -- I didn't trust anything I found about this online.)
How Do People Choose Names for Their Children?
Here's one last idea for you: baby names! We're going to read some very unfortunate names that God gave to Gomer's children. (But at least we know the reason!) How do parents choose names today?
2022 Top Girl Names: Olivia, Emma, Charlotte, Amelia, Ava, Sophia, Isabella, Mia, Evelyn, Harper
2022 Top Boy Names: Liam, Noah, Oliver, Elijah, Mateo, Lucas, Levi, Asher, Leo, James
"Reasons" were harder to find that I thought. I could find some fun rules about what they would not name the child:
No names of former boyfriends/girlfriends
No names of pets
No names of friends/colleagues
Older parents tend to pick more "classic" names. Younger parents tend to pick more "unique" names (although that seems to be changing, based on the lists above). Some parents research the meaning of names and put a lot of thought into it. Some parents match initials so they can use the same monogrammed stuff. Some parents choose names in honor/memory of a family member. Some parents pick a celebrity. Some parents pick random syllables. Some parents pick a "fancy" name but also a nickname.
Here are two ways to approach this: how did you pick your children(s) names? or how did your parents pick your name?
If you're looking for some help, try this website:
What Does My Name Mean? The Meaning Of Names (names.org)
What I enjoyed most about that website is that parents submitted what they thought a name meant. Uh oh! For example, I looked up "Micah". Everyone said it was of Hebrew origin. Good start. Multiple people thought it meant "who is like God" (pretty close -- that would be "Michael"). Someone thought it meant "God-like", someone "God's savior", someone "good looking", and someone "beautiful young woman". So, yeah.
But the website will also tell you other people with that name, when that name was the most popular, where that name is popular, and even an ethnicity distribution. Fun!
This Week's Big Idea: Introducing Hosea
Let's start with the Bible Project video this time.
Hosea had a long ministry that began during the reign of the wicked Jeroboam II and ran through the disastrous successors. When we studied the fall of Samaria a few weeks ago
I mentioned that Hosea prophesied under 7 kings, which means that he got to see his warnings come to pass (he died a few years before the actual fall of the kingdom). He prophesied during the height of Israel's arrogance (Jeroboam II) and false sense of security and power, and he prophesied during their collapse.
It's worth reminding you that the people's knowledge of God and God's law was pretty nonexistent. They had a vague awareness of behaving righteously and not having any other gods, but they completely ignored that.
It's also worth pointing out that Hosea makes several references to Judah (the southern kingdom). It's in Hosea that we begin to realize that the north and the south were on independent tracks. God wanted the south to learn from what was happening in the north.
Israel (the northern kingdom) was filled with idolatry and paganism during this time -- the foundation of this week's lesson. We don't know for certain, but it would seem that Hosea grew up in Israel, surrounded by depravity. We don't have any indications that he was a priest, a noble, or a wealthy person. He was educated -- his poetry is skillful -- but some of his spellings are very unusual (see the bottom of this post), suggesting that his education may have been localized.
Here's a working outline summarized from The Prophets as Preachers:
Prostitution is in the Family of God (1-3)
Hosea's family symbolizes this (1:1-2:1)
The struggle with overcoming this (2:2-25)
Restoration of both families (3:1-5)
Prostitution comes because people don't know God (4:1-6:6)
Declaration of a covenant lawsuit (4:1-3)
Charges against the priests (4:4-19)
Judgment against the leaders (5:1-14)
Restoration is still possible (5:15-6:6)
Prostitution is incompatible with loyalty to God (6:7-11:11)
Social sins (6:7-7:7)
Turning to other nations (7:8-8:14)
Destruction will result (9:1-10:15)
Restoration is still possible (11:1-11)
Prostitution is deceitful to God (11:12-14:9)
Israelites have always been deceitful (11:12-13:6)
Destruction will result (13:7-16)
Restoration is still possible (14:1-9)
I might have overemphasized the parallelism, but I want to point out just how much of this book is actually about restoration. When we studied Amos, we noted that the emphasis was on judgment and destruction. But Hosea focuses on the possibility of healing and forgiveness.
The Rawness of Marital Unfaithfulness as an Illustration
I think this is one of the reasons why God had Hosea focus so much on restoration: adultery/unfaithfulness is a sad reality in many marriages. Today's estimate is that 20% of marriages have endured some kind of unfaithfulness. That would suggest that someone in your group has probably endured the betrayal of a marriage vow, making this a very hard subject to consider "academically".
But a consistent point in Hosea is that restoration is possible. Yes, the primary point is about a relationship with God (through Jesus Christ), but I think God chose the illustration of marital unfaithfulness for two important reasons:
It's very real and raw for readers
It gives hope to families dealing with unfaithfulness
God could have chosen a different "object lesson", but He didn't. We will focus on Gomer's story this week, and then in the next few lessons we will shift to the spiritual implications.
This Week's Bonus Big Idea: About Prostitution
Gomer is often taken to be the "bad guy" of this book, and we will have plenty to say about her over the course of our study. But I have read some discussion about this book that draws the conclusion "prostitution is the problem" or "prostitutes are evil". Here are a couple of talking points if someone in your group tries to make this book about modern prostitution.
Prostitution (paying for a sexual act) in the ancient world existed because men lived by a double standard -- they expected their wives (and daughters) to be sexually pure, but they themselves could have sex with others if they wanted to. A prime example is Genesis 38, where Judah thought it was fine for him to have sex with a prostitute, but when his daughter Tamar turned up pregnant, he wanted to burn her at the stake. (And then he found out that she was the prostitute -- awkward!)
Prostitution in the ancient world fell into three broad categories:
Brothels -- inns or houses where men knew they could come for sex. Prostitutes might be in the employ of the brothel, or they might rent a room. The most famous example is Rahab (Josh 2).
Independent Harlots -- some women acted independently, buying their own supplies and using their own home (or renting a room at a brothel). The temptress in Proverbs 2 seems to be based on this.
Cult Prostitutes -- some pagan religions used sex as part of their attraction. You remember when we talked about the fertility gods Baal and Asherah that people thought to get their attention by having sex in their temples.
Moses had to put into the law (1) that fathers could not sell daughters into prostitution (Lev 19:29), and (2) that Jewish men could not have anything to do with cult prostitutes (Deut 23:17-18). This suggests that such behavior was a problem among the Israelites.
Jesus had compassion on prostitutes and shared the gospel with them. Many prostitutes had been forced into that lifestyle, or they had come from other countries where they had never been taught about righteousness. Rather than condemn them like the Pharisees did (think Jonah:Nineveh), he gave them the opportunity to repent.
Matt 21:31 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; but you, when you saw it, didn’t even change your minds then and believe him."
That's talking point #1: Prostitution exists because society craves sexual immorality, and there will always be people who find ways to meet that craving for profit.
But demonizing the prostitute isn't a helpful response. In the ancient world and in the modern world, people became prostitutes for three frequent reasons:
They were sold into that life by a family member.
They were kidnapped/coerced into that life by a pimp/john.
They had no other way to pay off a debt/meet a financial obligation.
The net of blame must be cast widely. Hosea even speaks to this in 4:14:
I will not punish your daughters when they act promiscuously or your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery, for the men themselves go off with prostitutes and make sacrifices with cult prostitutes.
Of the people who have gone on the record about that lifestyle, very very few said they wanted to be a prostitute. Most find prostitution humiliating and degrading (and dangerous), but they don't know how to get out or they are forced to remain by their pimp.
Here are some simple statistics:
There are an estimated 40-42 million prostitutes in the world today.
80% of those are girls 18-25.
90% work for a pimp.
Atlanta is the sex worker capital of the US.
A pimp in Atlanta can make $2M per year.
Multiple Baptist churches in Atlanta work with law enforcement to "rescue" women (and boys) from the sex industry. Many sex workers feel incredible shame, and they feel stigmatized by society. They need rehab, hope, and opportunity for a new life.
Talking point #2: Christians need to show compassion, not condemnation, to people in the sex industry and share gospel truth and hope with them.
For some Christians, the sex industry is their "Nineveh" (if you remember our discussion from last week's lesson in Jonah). But we must realize that many prostitutes today have been trafficked. Most are not the "dangerous temptress" of Proverbs 2. In fact, many prostitutes are just boys and girls, exploited by wicked men (and women).
Our study of Hosea brings the topic of prostitution to the fore, and Christians should realize that it's a huge (and tragic) issue in our world today. We need to pray that law enforcement can bring down the leaders of the rings in our state, and that Christians can show the people rescued from those rings that there can be repentance and redemption.
Part 1: Obedience Demonstrated (Hosea 1:2-7)
2 When the Lord first spoke to Hosea, he said this to him:
Go and marry a woman of promiscuity, and have children of promiscuity, for the land is committing blatant acts of promiscuity by abandoning the Lord.
3 So he went and married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. 4 Then the Lord said to him:
Name him Jezreel, for in a little while I will bring the bloodshed of Jezreel on the house of Jehu and put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5 On that day I will break the bow of Israel in Jezreel Valley.
6 She conceived again and gave birth to a daughter, and the Lord said to him:
Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel. I will certainly take them away. 7 But I will have compassion on the house of Judah, and I will deliver them by the Lord their God. I will not deliver them by bow, sword, or war, or by horses and cavalry.
Part 2: Unfaithfulness Seen (Hosea 1:8-9)
8 After Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and gave birth to a son.
Then the Lord said: Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people, and I will not be your God.
(I'm putting these two sections together because that makes more sense to me.)
Urfph. This is tough.
Let's address the elephant in the room: God did command Hosea to marry a prostitute. "Woman of promiscuity" is not used of someone who would commit adultery, but rather someone who engaged in prostitution. God did so knowing that Gomer would break Hosea's heart and trample on their vows.
So start here: why would God command something so gut-wrenching to Hosea?
We learn that we're supposed to feel icky about this. If we feel this bad for Hosea, how should we feel about God, who has endured this kind of betrayal from millions (billions?) of people?
About Gomer. As I said above, Gomer was a prostitute. This does not refer to a cult prostitute (although the symbolism would be there) or someone who would have an affair, but someone like the "independent harlot" listed above. She would not have had a pimp; Hosea was providing for her needs. And I think that's a big part of the symbolism: Hosea was taking care of her and being a good husband, but she couldn't leave her other life behind.
About the Children. There are two opinions here: the children are Hosea's, or the children are of some of the men Gomer slept with. I personally believe that the children are not Hosea's. The phrase "bore him a son" could mean "bore a son for him" or "bore a son of him". But the next two children do not have even that phrase (the Bible just says that Gomer "bore a son/daughter"). Finally, regarding the metaphor of Israel, God says that the "children were conceived in disgrace" (2:5), which I think doubly applies to Gomer. I conclude that they are not Hosea's. I think this makes the situation even more gut-wrenching for the reader -- Hosea knows that the children aren't his, but he still cares for them as a father.
Aside on 2:4. God says that He will not show love to the children conceived in promiscuity. This seems ... harsh. After all, it's not the children's fault. This is where the mixed metaphor gets harder to follow.
Gomer represents "Israel"
Gomer's children represent the people of Israel
God's accusation is that the nation has gone astray, causing all of the people in the nation to do the same. In that metaphor, the children are not "innocent" -- they have willingly prostituted themselves to these false pagan gods, and yet they have been led to do so by the leaders/priests of Israel. In 2:21-23, God specifically uses the wordplay of the children's names (see below) to describe how He will restore them. In other words, the children can choose to follow Gomer (the path away from God) or to follow Hosea (the path of God). One will lead to destruction, the other to restoration. Does that make sense? The metaphor might be confusing.
About the Children's Names. There's no way around this. These are terrible names. These would have been scarring for the children. Some have suggested that the children didn't actually go by these names -- these were just symbolic. That's certainly possible, but it would be truer to the power of what God called Hosea to do for these to be the actual names of the kids. Every time Hosea spoke to them, he (and they) had to remember the scenario God had called Hosea to confront. There was no escaping it. We will talk more about the names below.
About the "Second Marriage" in Chapter 3. God's command to Hosea in 3:1 doesn't specifically refer to Gomer. Some scholars have taken this to mean that Hosea was marrying a new woman who would also be unfaithful. I think that God sent Hosea back to Gomer. This makes much more sense in the "living sermon" God has called Hosea to preach, and it makes better sense of 2:7. By then, Gomer isn't just a prostitute -- she is an adulteress because she has been unfaithful to her husband. But it's even more than that -- Hosea has to buy her from slavery! Here's my take: sometime after the third child, Gomer completely relapsed into her prostitution and left her family. Along the way, she incurred enough debt to force her into slavery. So Hosea isn't just rescuing a woman from debt-slavery, he's redeeming his own wife who had abandoned him and her children in order to live a life of debauchery. We don't know how long it's been. It seems to have been long enough that Hosea might have felt done with her. And yet he has been raising her children (who are not his). That's what God has been for His wayward people Israel. His people have abandoned Him in the most intimately cruel way possible, and yet He will take them back.
[Key caveat: while God told Hosea to take Gomer back unconditionally in chapter 3, the rest of the book explains that there will be a time when the people must repent before God will take them back.]
Back to the passage.
God sends Hosea into an awful situation. He's going to marry a woman knowing that she will be unfaithful to him, and she will bear children that (likely) aren't his. The power of this is in the "knowing". Knowing and doing it anyway. That's where God is. God knows all people's hearts. He knows we will be unfaithful to Him. And yet He chose us anyway. (This is not the time to get into a God's sovereignty/human responsibility in salvation debate. However we choose to slice it, God has allowed people to be saved who would absolutely sin against Him after being saved.)
The first child is Jezreel. "Jezreel" means "God sows/scatters". It's the name of a valley and town where a lot of death took place, notably where Jehu assassinated the entire house of Ahab (2 Ki 10). Jehu was God's agent of justice against the wicked family of Ahab, but he was also bloodthirsty and violent. Importantly, he also didn't learn any lessons, but by the end of chapter 10, we learn that he had drifted into the very idolatry he had killed Ahab's family for. Therefore, the name Jezreel told the Israelites that God had seen through their guise of being zealous and would punish them for their violence and wickedness. (This is literal -- remember from our study of 2 Kings 17 that the upper class of Israel were violently oppressive toward the lower classes).
The second child is Lo-ruhamah. "Lo-ruhamah" means "no compassion/pity". Not a great name. And there's no misunderstanding it. To make it even clearer, God specifically mentions Judah, that He would have compassion on them. Indeed, they survived another century and had high moments like under Hezekiah and Josiah. But they too crossed a point of no return by their own unfaithfulness. This indicates that God wanted this book to be read in Israel and in Judah. He wanted the people of Judah to learn the lesson from Israel and not repeat the same mistakes.
The third child is Lo-ammi. "Lo-ammi" means "not my people". The detail is added that Gomer had weaned the daughter before conceiving this third child. Not sure why; it indicates that 2-3 years had passed. The Lifeway material seems to stress this to be about Gomer's continued unfaithfulness to Hosea. I take that as a given because Lo-ammi is not Hosea's son. This is a very powerful name. God's covenant with the Jews was based on this idea:
I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. (Ex 6:7)
With this child's name, God has indicated that the covenant is broken. Note: the later prophets all talk about how this broke covenant will be restored, that God will again take the Jews as His people (see Jer 31:33, Ezek 37:23, Zech 8:8, etc.).
What We Skip in Chapter 2
Chapter 2 is full of tough poetic imagery, describing how God will shame Israel for her promiscuity. But the purpose of this shaming is to bring her to her senses in 2:7--
“I will go back to my former husband, for then it was better for me than now.”
But chapter 2 tells us in very powerful terms just how much better life was with Him than with the false pagan gods, most notably in 2:16:
In that day—this is the Lord’s declaration— you will call me “my husband” and no longer call me “my master.”
The name "Baal" is the word that was used for "lord" "husband" and "master". This word would be extremely difficult to remove from Hebrew conversation, and yet they would one be hyper-sensitive to their devotion to God and completely stop saying the word "baal" in any context.
But there's more -- "Baal" was a cruel master. You remember what his worshipers thought he wanted from them in their contest with Elijah -- blood and tears. God's people had drifted so far from God that they didn't even understand the difference between God and Baal. But just like Gomer would experience the difference between her life of prostitution and her life of stability and love with Hosea, God's people would experience the difference between God and Baal when they return to God.
2:19 I will take you to be my wife forever. I will take you to be my wife in righteousness, justice, love, and compassion. 20 I will take you to be my wife in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord.
That word for "know" was highlighted in the Bible Project video. It doesn't mean "head knowledge" -- it means "acknowledgement". It was used in covenants. The lesser party would acknowledge his situation with the greater party. That meant he understood and accepted the situation. One day, the people will know God.
Finally, there's the beautiful wordplay on the children's names. I think this is important to cover, at least briefly, because it explains why God gave the names He did:
2:22 The earth will respond to the grain, the new wine, and the fresh oil, and they will respond to "God's sowing" ("Jezreel").
23 I will sow her in the land for myself, and I will have compassion on "no compassion" ("Lo-ruhamah");
I will say to "not My people" ("Lo-ammi"): You are my people, and he will say, “You are my God.”
All three of the names are reversed in connotation -- God used those names to demonstrate all the ways He will restore His covenant with the people:
With the full story, these names are actually amazing.
Part 3: Restoration Sought (Hosea 3:1-5)
Then the Lord said to me, “Go again; show love to a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the Israelites though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”
2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and nine bushels of barley. 3 I said to her, “You are to live with me many days. You must not be promiscuous or belong to any man, and I will act the same way toward you.”
4 For the Israelites must live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar, and without ephod or household idols. 5 Afterward, the people of Israel will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come with awe to the Lord and to his goodness in the last days.
I presented my case that this is Gomer, not another woman. I guess that by this point, I've also described the purpose and point of God sending Hosea back to Gomer.
I know a few individuals who have taken a spouse back after that spouse had committed adultery; it was difficult for them to talk about it. Trust was shattered. Things had to change. I would not recommend asking for examples or stories. Some subjects are too raw for a group discussion. (If someone offers a story, that's different.) Rather, take a look at some Christian resources to get a sense of what counselors say:
(Note: one caution based on the FamilyLife post -- we should never be glad for a sin. We can be glad that God has brought great good out of the fallout of the sin, but that's very different than being glad that the sin was committed. Also, I was surprised how many secular websites have advice for marriages after an affair. I guess I'm glad that they want to help marriages survive?)
Anyway, back to the passage.
I love the mention of raisin cakes. We're talking about covenant unfaithfulness and the death of a nation, and the people cared about their raisin cakes. (Yes, raisin cakes were served in pagan ritual feasts, not kosher Jewish worship, but I think the mention of raisin cakes is intentionally silly.) What are silly, selfish reasons people have to go to certain churches or worship experiences? This is pathetic as it gets -- "Covenantal righteousness? Eternal peace with God? Nah -- I want raisin cakes!"
The specificity of the redemption price is important. Those who believe this woman is not Gomer interpret this to be a "bride price" paid to a woman's family by the future husband. I do believe this is Gomer, and I believe this man is the equivalent of her pimp/lover, and she is working for him to pay off a debt. This would be terribly embarrassing for Hosea, more so because he didn't have enough silver to pay the price! (Note: it's difficult to know exactly what the ransom price was. In any case, it was a significant amount of barley.)
The "many days" is Hosea's acknowledgement of the difficulty of reconciliation. While it might sound odd, the stories I have heard from betrayed spouses is that they felt the need to be extremely specific about the rules for rebuilding the relationship. And the adulterer was in no position to argue.
There's a lot of debate about what verses 4-5 mean. Here's my take: Hosea is warning the people about the 400 years of silence before the births of John and Jesus. While the people are waiting for God to speak, they will be seeking Him. In other words, "the Lord their God and David their king" is a reference to Jesus.
We don't hear anything else about Gomer in the book. The optimist in me believes that Gomer became a faithful wife to Hosea for the rest of her life. In that scenario, the rest of Hosea and Gomer's marriage became a picture of God's restored relationship with His people in Jesus Christ. That's certainly what I hope, not the least reason is for the sake of Hosea and the children. If that's not how things worked out, it would be a depressing reminder of how each of us repeatedly turns from God.
And clearly, we're not supposed to know the end of Gomer's story. Maybe this is how God ultimately protected Hosea's privacy after requiring him to share the details of his early marriage with the rest of human history.
Anyway, the point of the passage is clear. Most of your group time will be spent wrapping your head around the context and difficult events of the first three chapters. Please emphasize the verses of hope and restoration in these chapters!
And then the personal takeaways will be how God has rescued us from our own sin, and yet we still continue to sin against Him. How do we demonstrate our unfaithfulness to God, and what can we do to become more faithful?
Closing Thoughts: The Textual Difficulties in Hosea
We've already seen how difficult Hosea's messages are to stomach. They are filled with metaphors and actions that are distasteful to us (much like how our sin is distasteful to God). But on top of that is the fact that the earliest manuscripts of Hosea that translators work from have more discrepancies than other books. This is not to say that the translations we read are untrustworthy! It is to say that there is spirited debate over how different verses should be translated. A Hebrew scholar I respect believes that most of the confusion can be traced to the possibility that Hosea was a self-educated northerner, meaning that he spoke and wrote with an unusual dialect. The early Bible translators of the Roman era (who didn't have the tools we have today) assumed that Hosea had misspellings in it and "corrected" the text to match what they thought it should say. Modern translations will differ in wording from one another based on which manuscripts they work from.
There is very little debate over what the big meanings of Hosea are, just minor points of individual verses. The way I personally handle this is how I handle all Bible study: I compare several versions of the Bible. That helps me see how different scholars translate the Hebrew, and it gives me an appreciation for the range of meanings possible.
Remember -- even when we know beyond debate what the original Hebrew words are, scholars still debate how they should be translated into modern language. The only added wrinkle in Hosea is that there is additional debate over some of the spellings of the words in the manuscript.