I have complicated feelings about the book of Hosea.
Hosea is a metaphor, and metaphors are powerful things – easy to remember, great at making complicated subjects simple, and capable of expanding our perspective on a given topic. Christ’s parables still resonate nearly two thousand years later. President Uchtdorf used them beautifully at the women’s sessions of General Conference to appeal to the broad age range of his audience. And Old Testament prophets used them in vivid ways to capture attention and clarify God’s will.
The surface of Hosea’s metaphor – Christ as the forgiving husband, and Israel as His unfaithful bride – speaks powerfully of the expansiveness of Christ’s atonement. I love its message of forgiveness and love. We all fall short, but Hosea teaches us that there is no line we can cross where God will not want us to return to Him. He unequivocally states that we cannot wound God enough that He will stop loving us. This message is so relevant, and so deeply needed.
However, when you dig into the language of the text, particularly towards women, things get problematic.
On a basic level, you have 3:2, where Hosea takes out some silver and buys an adulterous woman (who most scholars agree is Gomer, discussed in chapter 1). It makes me really uncomfortable to see women treated as property to be bought and sold.
And on a more disturbing level, you have the language of God’s rage with Israel in chapter 2. He threatens Israel, using the imagery of the betrayed husband meting out his punishment on his unfaithful wife. The enraged husband threatens to strip her naked and expose her (2:3, 10), “slay her with thirst” (2:3), have no mercy on her children (2:4), and withhold food from her (2:9). It hurts to see a prophet use language that today would qualify as domestic abuse and violence to make a rhetorical point.
I’ve long since stopped feeling upset with biblical figures for not being well versed in feminist thought that only hit the mainstream in the last century. They, like us, are products of their time, and are only going to receive the revelation that they can conceive to ask, based on the culture they are a part of. And throughout the centuries, God has spoken to His people using language they can understand.
The world of Hosea was a patriarchal, violent place. Treating women as property was commonplace, and the penalty for adultery was death by stoning. To his audience, there was nothing shocking about the nature of the metaphor, and for a people dabbling in polytheism, the metaphor was apt. It isn’t fair for me to be upset with ancient people for acting like ancient people, and Hosea for using language his audience would understand.
What I can hope for is that as we teach Hosea today, we can discuss the metaphor with a focus on the realities and needs of our modern audience. And I hope we qualify the metaphor with what modern revelation teaches us about the worth of women and the sinfulness of domestic abuse.
When it comes to Hosea purchasing a woman, I love contrasting that story with an experience Elder Rasband shared from his visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which clarifies the Lord’s view about the current practice of bride prices. The newsroom article states,
“Prior to the multistake conference in Lubumbashi, Elder Rasband felt prompted to invite a young single woman named Anastasia, who had attended the earlier young adult devotional, to share her testimony. Without prompting or direction, Anastasia bore her testimony about the importance of eternal marriage and the need to abandon bride price.
“We are not merchandise,” she declared to parents and other relatives.
Elder Rasband remembers a hush settling across the congregation.
“She bridged a subject that is so sensitive,” he said. “I could not be more proud of her. … That was the most powerful address of my 10-day journey.”
I love that Elder Rasband not only recognizes our divine worth, but that he also privileges women’s voices in communicating the principle. And as we teach the book of Hosea, including modern revelation in the discussion gives us the opportunity to celebrate the divine source of our worth.
When it comes to the metaphor of the vengeful husband, we should be crystal clear that our prophets and apostles demand a higher, holier standard in our own marriages. I seldom see our leaders use stronger language than when it comes to condemning domestic abuse. There are far more examples than I can cite here, but to sample a few highly relevant statements:
“We condemn most strongly abusive behavior in any form. We denounce the physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse of one’s spouse or children. …No man who abuses his wife or children is worthy to hold the priesthood of God. No man who abuses his wife or children is worthy to be a member in good standing in this Church. The abuse of one’s spouse and children is a most serious offense before God, and any who indulge in it may expect to be disciplined by the Church.” – President Gordon B. Hinckley
“Physical abuse is uniformly and unequivocally condemned in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If it is possible to be more condemning than that, we speak even more vigorously against all forms of sexual abuse.” – Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
Perhaps this distinction seems obvious to us, but there are women in abusive marriages listening to our lessons, and they need to see us call the abusive imagery what it is. It is imperative to explain that there are elements of the metaphor that are not in harmony with our current leaders’ teachings. As we thoughtfully guide the discussion, we can share Hosea’s powerful message of forgiveness and love, as well as clarifying the elements of the parable that don’t align with modern revelation.
For additional reading on domestic violence, read these MPW interviews:
TO SHINE A LIGHT
THE SHINING LIGHT OF OAKLAND
Maria de Jesus Cristina