Kirsi Cobb invites us to look again at the story of Gomer…


In the beginning of the book of Hosea, we are introduced to the prophet Hosea and his somewhat unenviable task assigned to him by God to marry a woman of ‘whoredoms’ (KJV, 1: 2), a woman later identified as Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (1: 3). The marriage is to be in some way symbolic of the ‘whoredoms’ that Israel has committed in departing from the Lord (KJV, 1: 2). The marriage is swiftly followed by the birth of three children, who are given ominous names to depict Israel’s dark fate (1: 4-8). After a glimpse of hope in the potential overturning of the children’s names (1: 10-2: 1), the text presents us with another dark sequence, where in Hosea 2: 2-13 Hosea/God threatens Gomer/Israel with various punishments, including stripping and death by thirst (2: 3), imprisonment (2: 6) and public rape (2: 10). After such brutal and violent acts, the text ends on another note of hope: Hosea/God will allure Gomer/Israel back to himself, resulting in a new honeymoon period and renewed vows (2: 14-23).

The story might sound like another fairy tale, of a ‘bad girl’ being loved to life by a ‘good guy’, an interpretation promoted in Nancy Rivers’ fictionalised retelling of the Hosea-Gomer story in Redeeming Love (1991/2013). However, several biblical scholars have pointed out how Hosea 1-2 has a more sinister side: the text is filled with acts of cruelty, abuse, and sexual violence. In fact, while reading Hosea 1-3 with a group of sex workers in Hong Kong, Nancy Nam Hoon Tan (2021: 106) recorded how the female workers found the ‘husband figures’ in the story ‘obviously jealous, overly possessive, physically abusive and sadistic.’ Furthermore, the women claimed that ‘[u]nder such circumstances…they would rather die than return to this mentally disturbed husband’. Such responses raise the question if in the character of Gomer we are dealing with a bad girl or rather a victim of male power mongering.

Traditional scholarship has had little problem in attributing the punishments meted out on Gomer in Hosea 2 as the result of her sinfulness. After all, Hosea is told to marry a ‘woman of whoredoms’, which is the King James translation of the Hebrew phrase eshet zenunim. As Phyllis Bird and others (1989, pp. 75–94; Sherwood, 1996, n. 4 pp. 19–20) have pointed out, the Hebrew root zanah indicates both pre- and extramarital sexual activity and the abstract plural noun habitual behaviour rather than a profession. In Gomer, we might thus encounter a stereotype of the ‘loose woman’ or the ‘whore’, who seeks sexual encounters with whomever she pleases. By the standards of the ancient Israelite culture, Gomer’s behaviour would have been shocking, disrespectful, even deserving of death (Lev. 20: 10-12; Deut. 22: 22-24). That Gomer/Israel is threatened with various punishments by her husband should thus be of little surprise especially as some of the punishments such as confinement, divorce with the wife’s loss of all financial and economic assets, and execution were all within the husband’s legal right (Kelle 2005: 49, 58—79).  

Problem solved, right? We simply need to understand Gomer’s/ Israel’s shocking behaviour in view of the culture of the day, and admire Hosea/God, the patient husband, who contrary to cultural expectation chooses to woo his wicked wife back (Hosea 2: 14-23).  Moreover, since Gomer’s promiscuity is in some way meant to be symbolic of the misdeeds of Israel, perhaps we should not take the violence and abuse in Hosea 2 too seriously. After all, the chapter is only a metaphor for the fate of Israel rather than what may have happened to Gomer. In fact, since the target audience of Hosea’s message would have most likely been the Israelite male elite and leadership, presenting these men as an unfaithful woman may well have been intended to have a shock and awe effect on the audience rather than be descriptive of abuse against ‘real’ women.

While we certainly need to acknowledge that the primary audience of Hosea 1-2 may well have been Israel’s male elite and that Hosea 2 is shrouded in metaphoric language, I am not convinced that this makes the passage any less horrific. As famously noted by Renita Weems (1995: 110), ‘Metaphors can hurt. Metaphors can distort. Metaphors can kill. Metaphors can oppress.’ Language is not made less potent by being metaphoric especially as in our case the metaphor relies on patriarchal assumptions of gender roles, marriage, and the husband’s right to punish his wayward wife. Furthermore, death, starvation, and rape were and are the oft-horrific fate of women (and men) in war which makes the metaphors used of Gomer’s/Israel’s fate in Hosea 2 even more poignant.

How should Gomer’s antics in Hosea 1-2 then be understood? Especially to those who wish to believe in a loving, forgiving God, Hosea 1-2 can be a tough pill to swallow. For some, the cultural context of the text is enough to justify it. As God has the right to punish Israel for her sins, in that day and age husbands had right to punish their wicked wives so perhaps it is only our C21st sensitivities that get in the way.  However, understanding a particular cultural context does not make the context ‘right’ or the metaphor any less problematic for contemporary readers. In fact, audiences both ancient and modern might be forgiven for contemplating the character of the husbands in the text who would even consider such punishments for their spouses, justified or not.

However, since Hosea/God ultimately woos Gomer/Israel back to himself, could we perhaps argue that the means justify the ends? For the original audience, the fact that the cuckolded husband takes his wayward wife back may have come as a (positive) shock. However, even the ‘happy ending’ in Hosea 2: 14-23 might not be as happy as we would desire. Studies into domestic abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV) have shown that this type of ‘honeymoon phase’ is often only temporary and part and parcel of the cycle of abuse. During the honeymoon phase, the abused partner is showered with ‘loving’ attention sometimes to the extreme, yet this phase is often only another way for the abuser to establish control over the abused. The ‘loving’ end might hence not only justify the ‘violent’ means but in the case of abuse, the end is part and parcel of the means.

Perhaps a better way to read the text would be to understand it as the product of cultural trauma. In its final form, the book of Hosea would have provided an explanation for the fall of Samaria in 722 BC to the Assyrians, and as such Hosea 1-2 would have achieved two aims. Firstly, it gave the audience a reason for the calamity: it was Israel’s sin that caused the Assyrian invasion. By blaming the nation for her downfall, agency is restored where a past disaster can be explained by the nation’s bad behaviour and, conversely, a future restoration becomes possible due to renewed faithfulness (2: 14-23). Secondly, it confirms that Israel’s God was not defeated by the Assyrian deities: rather, God used the Assyrian forces to punish Israel. For such an explanation, the patriarchal marriage, the punishments meted out on the wife and the oft-brutal fate of women in war all provide a canvas against which to paint a story of Israel’s and, ultimately, God’s survival. Israel and her God were not defeated but in Hosea 1-2 are recast in roles that keep the national identity of Israel as God’s chosen intact. Such an explanation does not, however, come without problems. Not only does it ignore the culpability of the invading Assyrian armies, but it also displaces male guilt onto a female figure (Claassens 2020: 144). Yet perhaps the traumatic nature of the text might go some way of explaining its gruesome content.  As noted by Kathleen O’Connor (2011: 43–44), in order for trauma survivors to “resume life…  . . . they must have meaning, interpretation, explanation, even if the explanation is ephemeral, inadequate, partial, or outright wrong.” In this way, Gomer and her ‘whoredoms’ do not give us a glimpse of the character of God, rights of the husband, or the wickedness of women, but rather of the human struggle to make meaning at the point of its complete absence. To read Hosea 1-2 today is to read the passage as a text that provides us with a view of how the community found a way to navigate a national disaster. Hosea 1-2 is not a text that provides universal truth (cf. Frechette 2017: 244), rather, it is raw, raging, and problematic piece of trauma literature that honours humanity’s persistent need to survive even at the expense of (fe)male dignity.


Dr Kirsi Cobb is a Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Cliff College and a co-director of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre. Her current research focuses on women in the Hebrew Bible. Her recent projects include a reading of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19 in the light of trauma theory and revenge (2022), as well as a study on gender and violence in Hosea (2024).



Bibliography

Bird, Phyllis A. 1989. ‘“To Play the Harlot”: An Inquiry into an Old Testament Metaphor,’ in Peggy L. Day (ed.), Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, pp. 75–94.
Claassens, L. Juliana M. 2020. Writing and Reading to Survive: Biblical and Contemporary Trauma Narratives in Conversation. The Trauma Bible 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix.
Cobb, Kirsi. 2004. ‘Gender and Sexual Violence in Hosea,’ in Brad E. Kelle (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Hosea. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 317-334.
Frechette, Christopher G. 2017. ‘Two Biblical Motifs of Divine Violence as Resources for Meaning-Making in Engaging Self-Blame and Rage after Traumatization,’ Pastoral Psychology 66/2: 239–49.
Kelle, Brad E. 2005. Hosea 2: Metaphor and Rhetoric in Historical Perspective. SBLAB 20. Atlanta: SBL.
O’Connor, Kathleen M. 2011. Jeremiah: Pain and Promise. Minneapolis: Fortress.
Rivers, Francine. 1991/2013. Redeeming Love. Oxford: Lion Hudson, Kindle Edition.
Sherwood, Yvonne. 1996. The Prostitute and the Prophet: Reading Hosea in the Late Twentieth Century. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Stulman, Louis. 2014. ‘Reading the Bible through the Lens of Trauma and Art,’ in Eve-Marie Becker, Jan Dochhorn, and Else K. Holt (eds), Trauma and Traumatization in Individual and Collective Dimensions: Insights from Biblical Studies and Beyond. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pp. 177–92.
Tan, Nancy Nam Hoon. 2021. Resisting Rape Culture: The Hebrew Bible and Hong Kong Sex Workers. London and New York: Routledge.
Weems, Renita J. 1995. Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.


As with all guest blogs, the views expressed in this blog post may not represent the views of the CSBV.

Just another bad girl? Gomer and her ‘whoredoms’ in Hosea 1-2
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