The Marriage of Hosea and Jehovah's Covenant

By Kent P. Jackson

Kent P. Jackson, “The Marriage of Hosea and Jehovah’s Covenant with Israel,” in Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 57–74.

The Marriage of Hosea and Jehovah’s Covenant with Israel

Kent P. Jackson

The ministry of the prophet Hosea is generally placed in the turbulent third quarter of the eighth century B.C. Approximately two centuries earlier, the great Israelite empire of David and Solomon had divided into two rival nations, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Hosea’s stewardship was primarily to the Northern Kingdom. His ministry began during the reign of Jeroboam II, when both kingdoms were prosperous and wealthy. The two great powers of the day, Egypt and Assyria, were then less involved in Syria-Palestine than at other times. As a result, the smaller kingdoms, which during other periods had fallen into their respective spheres of influence, now were able to concentrate on internal and external affairs to their own benefit. Jeroboam’s reign was characterized by growth and consolidation. Yet the wealth of the two kingdoms in Palestine was not that of nations blessed with the riches of righteousness; their prosperity was not that of those who serve the Lord. Indeed, the prophets denounced both nations for their wickedness. Amos, a contemporary of Hosea, decried Israel’s oppression of the poor and the excesses of the rich. Hosea announced God’s severance of his covenant relationship with Israel. Both foretold the bitter consequence of that action.

That consequence was soon forthcoming. Hosea undoubtedly witnessed many of the tragic events that culminated in the destruction of his nation. Within a few years of the beginning of his ministry, the Assyrian empire began extending its influence into Palestine. Soon both Israel and Judah were subjected to Assyrian vassalage. In Israel that status was not to be permanent, for during the reign of King Hoshea, records the biblical writer, “the king of Assyria found conspiracy” in Israel (2 Kings 17:4). [1] “Then the king of Assyria came up throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria, and besieged it three years. In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria” (2 Kings 17:5–6).

The utter horror of a three-year siege followed by capture and deportation is part of the fulfillment of prophecy. The house of Israel had been warned that the breach of covenants made with God would bring sure calamity, including destruction and scattering (for example, see Deuteronomy 4:25–27). Hosea, possibly more than any other prophet, proclaimed publicly that God had canceled that covenant, that the divine protection afforded by it would no longer exist, and that the punishment resulting from its violation would soon be realized. He delivered his message to Israel in the generation immediately prior to their destruction. It is no wonder, then, that his preaching takes for granted the inevitability of that event.

The Marriage

Undoubtedly the most noteworthy issue in the writings of the prophet Hosea, at least from a Latter-day Saint perspective, is the strange account of his marriage, by divine command, to an immoral woman: “And the Lord said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms” (Hosea 1:2). To Latter-day Saint readers, who understand the nature and role of prophets, it seems surprising—if not shocking—that God would command his prophet to marry a woman described in these terms; elsewhere she is called an adultress (see Hosea 3:1). Since ancient times, commentators have debated whether this divinely arranged marriage actually took place or whether it was only figurative, as an allegory of God’s relationship to Israel. Since the essential points of the many interpretations of this issue can be found elsewhere, only a summary follows. [2] Briefly stated, the three main lines of interpretation are as follows: (1) The marriage described refers to the actual condition of Hosea’s marrying, by a commandment of God, a promiscuous, immoral woman. This interpretation takes the account literally as recorded. (2) Possibly the woman was not immoral when Hosea married her but became so later. In this case Hosea 1:2 mistakenly records that she was originally “a wife of whoredoms,” or possibly it anticipates her later behavior. (3) The entire account is an allegory of Jehovah’s relationship to Israel, an immoral and promiscuous nation, and does not record an actual historical circumstance.

My inclination is to reject number one, the literal interpretation. I believe there may be merit in either number two or number three.

The main issue in Hosea’s prophecy is not his relationship with his wife but God’s relationship with Israel. When God established that relationship, Israel was pure. It was not until later that Israel apostatized and violated the covenant. Yet in a distant day, following the rejection, separation, and punishment resulting from that breach of covenant, Israel would repent and Jehovah would bring her back and establish the covenant anew. Hosea’s domestic situation may have followed the same pattern. Perhaps he was married to a woman of integrity who afterwards became an adultress. After her immoral escapades and the punishment and separation that resulted from them, she may have repented and returned to Hosea, her long-suffering husband, who then took her back forgivingly and renewed his vows with her. What better object lesson than his own marital history could Hosea have used to teach the principles that underscore the covenant history of God and Israel? One can almost hear Hosea proclaiming on the streets of Samaria: “Look at us! Just as you are unfaithful to Jehovah, my wife was unfaithful to me. Just as she had to bear the consequences of her infidelity, so must you. But just as she has repented and returned and I have welcomed her back, so must you do away with false gods, repent, and return to Jehovah. And he will take you back also.” This interpretation seems more likely to me than does the one in which God literally commands his prophet to marry someone who already is a woman “of whoredoms” and “an adultress.”

The third possibility to which I have referred assumes that the account is not to be taken literally at all but simply seen as an allegory employed by Hosea to illustrate the relationship that existed between God and Israel. The “unfaithful wife” metaphor is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to describe that relationship, but it is only in Hosea that it is expressed by means of the domestic circumstances of a prophet.

As stated already, the message of the book is not Hosea’s family life, but rather the relationship between God and his people. Hosea’s marriage and the names of his children are the vehicles by which the real message is conveyed. That is clear from the two parallel passages in which the prophet is commanded to take his wife: “And the Lord said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the Lord” (Hosea 1:2; emphasis added); and “Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend, yet an adultress, according to the love of the Lord toward the children of Israel, who look to other gods” (Hosea 3:1; emphasis added). In both cases we are told that the purpose of Hosea’s marriage, as far as the prophecy is concerned, is to exemplify Jehovah’s ruined relationship with Israel. Whether we assume that an actual marriage of Hosea was involved or not is irrelevant to the purposes of the book; either way the greater message comes through. The message itself, however, was of vital importance to the house of Israel in Hosea’s time, and its relevance has not diminished over the twenty-seven centuries since then. What better way could there be to teach that message than through the analogy of marriage?

When a man and a woman enter into the sacred covenant of marriage, they make certain promises to each other, either explicitly or implicitly, which form the very foundation of their union. Chief among these covenant promises are honesty, unfailing love, and strict faithfulness. Often in the scriptures the covenant which God made with Israel is referred to as a marriage covenant. The same conditions which are at the core of the bond of marriage are also at the core of the bond between Jehovah and Israel: honesty, love, and fidelity. The covenant of marriage and God’s covenant with his chosen people are, in fact, very similar. Hosea’s message concerning Jehovah and his people is expressed in that kind of language. Yet even more graphically, the violation of that covenant of honesty, love, and fidelity is expressed as adultery—the violation of the sanctity of marriage. The dissolution of that covenant is described as divorce.

According to the biblical account, Hosea’s marriage to Gomer, daughter of Diblaim, resulted in the births of three children who had symbolic names. The first was a son, Jezreel, “for yet a little while, and I will avenge the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu, and will cause to cease the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:4). Conveyed in this symbolic name is a forewarning of the Lord’s vengeance on Jehu’s dynasty and the destruction of the kingdom of Israel. Jehu was the king who had come to power in Israel by overthrowing the previous king in the city of Jezreel, beginning his massacre of the descendants of King Ahab. Jehu’s descendants still ruled Israel in Hosea’s day. The use of the name Jezreel is a prophetic pronouncement that the blood shed by Jehu at that place would now be avenged upon his dynasty, whose kings were wicked like their ancestor.

The second child, a daughter, is introduced in verse 6. Hosea was commanded to call her “Lo-ruhama: for I will no more have mercy upon the house of Israel; but I will utterly take them away.” The name lō’ rūhāmâ means “not pitied” or “not having obtained compassion,” and its prophetic message is, “I will no more have mercy [more accurately translated ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’] upon the house of Israel; but I will utterly take them away”—no more pity, no more compassion.

The third child, a son, was given a name of similar meaning: “Then said God, Call his name Lo-ammi: for ye are not my people, and I will not be your God” (Hosea 1:9). The name lo”ammî means simply “not my people.” Its message is clear: Israel is no longer God’s people, and he is no longer Israel’s God.

To understand the full impact of God’s announcement that hewas terminating the covenant relationship which he had with Israel, we must go back to that great event when the covenant was established at Sinai. Even prior to that, however, the Lord announced to the patriarchs his choosing of their future seed. And through Moses, before the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the Lord proclaimed, “And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Exodus 6:7). When the actual covenant was established between God and Israel at Sinai, the Lord announced, “If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people” (Exodus 19:5). A better translation of “a peculiar treasure unto me” would be “my special possession” or “my treasured property.” This is a unique relationship. It is a relationship of love and commitment, a treasured status not available to all the world but reserved for the house of Israel. The cancellation of that relationship, as announced by Hosea, is one of the greatest tragedies in human history, a tragedy that continues to have profound implications in our time, not only theologically but politically as well.

In chapter 2, Hosea shifts his emphasis to the unfaithful and immoral character of his wife. He announces in verse 2 that “she is not my wife, neither am I her husband.” This is essentially an announcement of divorce; Jehovah has divorced Israel. What begins now is bitter condemnation of Israel’s behavior and a proclamation that God would punish her severely for it. He would publicly expose his unfaithful wife to ridicule, shame, and abuse because she violated her vows to him. He would expose her adultery to the world and humiliate her before her lovers: “Let her therefore put away her whoredoms out of her sight, and her adulteries from between her breasts; lest I strip her naked, and set her as in the day that she was born, and make her as a wilderness. . . . I will discover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and none shall deliver her out of mine hand” (Hosea 2:2–3, 10). In verse 12 the Lord vows to destroy the productivity of the land, which promiscuous Israel attributes to her lovers, saying “these are my rewards that my lovers have given me.” In Canaanite religion, the productivity of land and cattle is assured through worship of the deified forces of nature. The Israelites were involved in this type of worship and were therefore denounced forcefully by the Old Testament prophets. Hosea here accuses Israel, Jehovah’s unfaithful spouse, of having illicit intercourse with the Baals, exchanging sexual favors for the good things of the earth, blessings that come only from the true husband, Jehovah. The Lord promises to annihilate the productivity of the earth and turn back Israel’s vines and fig trees to pristine forest, food for “the beasts of the field.”

God’s condemnation of his adulterous consort is the punishment that she must receive for her infidelity. Other prophets foretold even more graphically than did Hosea the extent to which Israel would be punished for her sins following her rejection by the Lord. The picture painted in the scriptures of the years of separation from the covenant blessings is not a happy one. Through Ezekiel, for example, the Lord proclaimed that he would consume Israel in the furnace of his fury: “Yea, I will gather you, and blow upon you in the fire of my wrath, and ye shall be melted in the midst thereof. As silver is melted in the midst of the furnace, so shall ye be melted in the midst thereof; and ye shall know that I the Lord have poured out my fury upon you.” (Ezekiel 22:21–22.)

Though the separation is deserved and the punishment sure and inevitable, neither is irreversible. The Lord has vowed to make available to Israel, following her purging and repentance, “a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15), something that a modern-day prophet has called a “miracle of forgiveness.” [3] After the punishment and repentance are complete, the Lord will take her back. As Hosea describes it, that reunion would be characterized by Israel’s referring to Jehovah as “Ishi” (Hosea 2:16), “my husband,” and not as “Baali,” which also means “my husband” but means as well “my Baal.” In other words, Israel would then know to whom indeed she had a covenant obligation and would be faithful to that bond.

Since Jehovah has divorced Israel, the renewal of covenant is described as a reestablishment of the marriage: “And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving kindness, and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:19–20.) This describes the permanent reunion of the repentant wife to the ever-forgiving husband. Notice some of the key words: “loving kindness,” “faithfulness,” and “thou shalt know the Lord.” The reestablishment of the covenant is finalized in verse 23: “And I will sow her unto me in the earth; and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy; and I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God.” An English translation cannot convey the beauty and skill of the Hebrew text. Hosea’s wordplay here is superb as he uses the names of the three children, not to express the dissolution of the covenant as he did in chapter 1, but to show its renewal. The name of the first child, Jezreel, means “God sows” or “God will sow.” It is used in this verse to depict the restoration of Israel in the land: “I will sow her unto me in the earth.” The name of the second child follows: “I will have compassion upon lō’ rūhāmâ,” or “I will have compassion upon her that had not obtained compassion.” And finally, “I will say to lō- ‘ammî, ‘ammî-’atâ,” or “to not my people, ‘you are my people,’ and he shall say, ‘you are my God.’ “The precious relationship which is described in so many places in the scriptures as the core of God’s dealings with Israel is now restored once again: “You are my people, and I am your God.”

Hosea was not alone in using these words to describe the reestablishment of the covenant relationship between Jehovah and his people. As we saw already in Exodus 6, the Lord used them with regard to establishing this covenant relationship in the first place. In Ezekiel, following a description of cleansing, spiritual renewal, and reestablishment of covenant, the Lord says, “And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:28). In the next chapter Ezekiel highlights repentance and cleansing in recording his millennial message: “So shall they be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 37:23). Later in the same chapter, in a passage referring to the millennial reign of the Savior, which follows Israel’s acceptance of an “everlasting covenant,” we read, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Ezekiel 37:27). In all of these passages it is clear that this special status exists only when the covenant is intact, contingent upon the faithfulness and obedience of the people. When the stipulations of the covenant are not met, it is not in force, and God rightly states, “You are not my people, and I am not your God”—or, using the marriage metaphor with reference to Israel, “She is not my wife, neither am I her husband” (Hosea 2:2). And so the situation must remain until Israel, the covenant-breaking party, repents.

Hosea chapter 3 presents the same story of Hosea and his wife, but with different details and additional information. Some scholars argue that this chapter introduces a second wife; but that, in my view, is unlikely, though admittedly the relationship between the two accounts is problematic. [4] The narrative in chapter 3 is in the first person, while that in chapters 1 and 2 is in third person. Of significance for the chapter 3 account is the fact that Hosea buys his wife for a price. Much scholarly discussion has been generated over the issue of whether she is being purchased out of slavery or redeemed out of prostitution. [5] The meaning is quite unclear. What is clear, however, is that the wife is purchased for a price, giving Hosea, the purchaser, the right to stipulate their relationship: “Thou shalt abide for me many days; thou shalt not play the harlot, and thou shalt not be for another man.” This list of commands is followed by his statement of his responsibility: “So will I also be for thee” (Hosea 3:3). Notice the reciprocal nature of the covenant, both partners being bound to obligations of faithfulness. Violation of this covenant by either party would be adultery. Chapter 3, verse 4, prophesies Israel’s long period of separation from the covenant, during which time of divorce the Israelites would enjoy neither direction from a king nor divine instruction through revelation. Finally, the children of Israel would return “and seek the Lord their God, . . . and shall fear the Lord and his goodness in the latter days” (Hosea 3:5).

The Controversy

Beginning in chapter 4 the marriage of Hosea is no longer a factor in his prophecy. But marriage remains the image through which his message is conveyed. Verse 1 is one of the most important verses in the book: “Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land.” “Controversy” here is from the same root as the word inadequately translated “plead” in Hosea 2:2. “Plead” is not at all what Hosea had in mind. As has been explained elsewhere, “The verb rib never describes an appeal or call to repentance, but always a hostile confrontation, an accusation. It refers to an angry quarrel or altercation, in any situation, with more formal application to disputation in a court of law. The verb can mean to lay charges, denounce, bring evidence, argue a case, viz. the actions of the aggrieved party.” [6] In verse 1 the Lord does indeed accuse Israel. He brings legal proceedings against her for breach of covenant and takes her to divorce court. The specific charges brought against Israel are threefold: “There is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land.” We must examine these three concepts—truth, mercy, and knowledge—individually.

First of all, “truth.” The Hebrew word from which it is translated, ‘emet, means more than just truth. It means also honesty, integrity, stability, and permanence. It is the kind of permanent honesty that stands at the core of any covenant or marriage relationship. This, according to Jehovah, is lacking on the part of his spouse.

Second, “mercy.” The Hebrew word from which this is translated is hesed. “Mercy” is not a good translation; in fact, there is no English word that conveys the meaning of hesed accurately. It means loving–kindness or unfailing love. It is the kind of love that translates into action, a key requirement of a successful marriage.

Third, “knowledge.” The Hebrew word da’at comes from the root yd’ which means “to know.” Yet this word means much more than “knowledge,” both in a semantic and in a theological sense. Recall that the verb “to know” is used in the Bible to denote sexual relations. For example, “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain” (Genesis 4:1). “And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth” (Genesis 4:25). Knowledge here denotes the most intimate possible relationship between two individuals, both physical and emotional. The sexual union is the most profound expression of oneness within the bond of marriage. It belongs exclusively within that bond and in the scriptures is strictly prohibited from any other context. Only in marriage is this ultimate intimacy appropriate. It is therefore most fitting that Hosea should allude to it in his teachings concerning the exclusive intimacy of the covenant bond between Jehovah and his chosen people.

Each of the three terms defined above is found in Hosea 2:19–20, which describes the reestablishment of the covenant, or the remarriage, following the divorce. “Loving kindness” is translated from hesed; the same word is rendered “mercy” in Hosea 4:1. “Faithfulness” comes from the same root, and means essentially the same thing, as “truth” in Hosea 4:1. And the concept of “knowing” the Lord is found in both passages. These qualities are key aspects [7] of the religion of ancient Israel. When they are present, the covenant faith is intact. When they are gone, the covenant faith is lost.

Earlier in this study I mentioned three fundamental promises, implied or stated, that form the foundation of a successful marriage: honesty, unfailing love, and strict faithfulness. These are precisely the qualities mentioned in Hosea 4:1. God’s controversy with Israel is based on the fact that they are missing from the relationship. And when those fundamentals are absent, the conditions described in the next verse come to the fore: swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery. All five of these are prohibited in the Ten Commandments, which is “a list of things necessary to preserve the tranquil continuation of society.” [8] As these evils become the norm, society rapidly becomes chaotic and disintegrates. Both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon bear witness, through sad example, that this tragic cycle results when the covenant with God is broken.

The concept of “knowledge,” used to describe the exclusive intimacy of the covenant bond, is very important. Hosea uses this concept in the sense of establishing and maintaining an intimate covenant relationship. Notice the following in Hosea 13:4–5 concerning the establishment of the covenant between Jehovah and Israel, expressed in the vocabulary of marriage. The translation is my own.

I am Jehovah your god

from the land of Egypt.

Egypt is where Jehovah found Israel, his bride.

You shall know no god but me

and there is no savior but me.

The use of the verb “know” here is important, as it refers to a relationship of great intimacy that Israel is permitted to have only with Jehovah in the bond of the covenant. Anything other than that is the equivalent of adultery.

I knew you in the wilderness

in the land of drought.

The wilderness refers to the Sinai desert, where God established the covenant with the Israelites. The marriage was performed there and the honeymoon took place there. In the imagery of Hosea, the exodus from Egypt and the covenants made in the Sinai wilderness represent Jehovah’s finding his bride and marrying her by covenant. Their sojourn in the wilderness was the honeymoon. Notice that during the honeymoon, or the early stage of their union, the intimacy of God and Israel’s knowing each other was a vibrant reality of their relationship: “I knew you in the wilderness” (vs. 5). But by Hosea’s day, five hundred years later, things had changed. The honeymoon was over. Israel was sharing her intimacies promiscuously with other lovers. God rightly announced in Hosea 4:1 that he had a controversy with Israel because there was no “knowledge of God” in the land. This is God’s controversy with Israel. He is suing her for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Israel has not remained true to the covenants. Her infidelity has taken the form of worship of false gods and numerous other violations of God’s commandments. As such, God is perfectly justified in terminating the covenant and canceling Israel’s bride status. As he proclaimed through the Prophet Joseph Smith in a later age, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (D&C 82:10). Yet through it all Jehovah has been strictly faithful to his covenant with Israel. He stated through Amos, “I have known only you of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2, my translation).

Apostasy as Adultery

A frequent characteristic of Hebrew prophecy is the description of apostasy through the metaphor of adultery. Adultery is, by definition, sexual relations with someone other than one’s husband or wife. The national apostasy of Israel involved relations with (i.e., worship of) gods other than Jehovah. In the Old Testament, God is jealous of his relationship with his people and does not stand for Israel’s sharing intimacies with others. Adultery, then, is the ideal metaphor for referring to that condition.

Several of the most powerful passages that concern the wickedness of Israel are couched in the imagery of adulterous behavior. The language in these passages is often explicit in describing the illicit sexual activities of Israel, personifying her not only as an adulteress but also as a “whore” or sometimes worse. In modern times we are not used to conceiving of God’s speaking in the kinds of terms recorded by the ancient prophets. Our Western cultural heritage makes us uncomfortable when discussing certain things in public, particularly those relating to sexual matters. These inhibitions were not shared to the same degree by the peoples of the ancient Near East, and the Israelites, including God’s prophets, were no exception. They freely spoke of the sins of Israel in ways that to our ears sound not only blunt but obscene. In most cases, God is the speaker. I will examine only a few examples, not as an illustration of the culture of the ancient world, but to show how the Lord through his prophets chose to express his utter disgust for Israel’s behavior in the strongest conceivable terms.

We have already seen how Hosea characterized Israel not only as an adulteress but as a prostitute, since she accepted bread, water, wool, flax, oil, drink (all in Hosea 2:5), vines, and trees (Hosea 2:12) in exchange for sexual favors to her lovers. Jeremiah accused Israel of having “gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree,” and there having “played the harlot” (Jeremiah 3:6). Her sister Judah was accused of committing adultery “with stones and with stocks” (Jeremiah 3:9).

The most graphic discussions of Israel’s collective apostasy are found in Ezekiel, chapters 16 and 23. I use here the New International Version, since it conveys the Lord’s words more clearly and more faithfully to the original Hebrew than does the King James text. We will consider chapter 16 first.

The allegory in Ezekiel 16 tells how Israel, the daughter of an Amorite and a Hittite, was left to die in an open field on the day of her birth. Jehovah found her, still covered with blood and with her umbilical cord not yet cut, saved her life, and caused her to grow up and become a beautiful woman. When she was mature, he established a covenant with her, depicted as the consummation of their marriage (see Ezekiel 16:8). He dressed her in beautiful clothing and adorned her in the finest of jewelry. Her fame spread among the nations because of the perfect beauty which God had given her. But soon Israel began misusing that beauty: “But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You lavished your favors on anyone who passed by and your beauty became his.” (Ezekiel 16:15.) In verse 22 the Lord laments, “In all your detestable practices and your prostitution you did not remember the days of your youth when you were naked and bare, kicking about in your blood.” Then the divine complaint continues (Ezekiel 16:23–29):

Woe! Woe to you, declares the Sovereign Lord.

In addition to all your other wickedness, you built a mound for yourself and made a lofty shrine in every public square.

At the head of every street you built your lofty shrines and degraded your beauty, offering your body with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by.

You engaged in prostitution with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, and provoked me to anger with your increasing promiscuity.

So I stretched out my hand against you and reduced your territory; I gave you over to the greed of your enemies, the daughters of the Philistines, who were shocked by your lewd conduct.

You engaged in prostitution with the Assyrians too, because you were insatiable; and even after that, you still were not satisfied.

Then you increased your promiscuity to include Babylonia, a land of merchants, but even with this you were not satisfied.

Israel is depicted as having an insatiable appetite for sexual gratification. She situated herself at the head of every street and offered her body to anyone who passed by. She was promiscuous with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. But still she could not be satisfied. Even the Philistines, who in the Old Testament are almost the embodiment of wickedness, were shocked by her lewd conduct. Then the Lord’s denunciation of his adulterous wife continues. He accuses her of being even worse than just a prostitute. Prostitutes at least receive payment for their favors. Israel does the opposite: she pays anyone who passes by to have sexual relations with her. [9]

Ezekiel chapter 23 paints a similar picture of the immoral character of the house of Israel, using a somewhat different allegory. Here the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, are characterized as two sisters who were immoral before Jehovah found them in Egypt and who failed to change their ways after he married them. The elder sister, Israel, lusted after the Assyrians, whose splendor and virility she could not resist, and gave herself to them just as she had to the Egyptians when she was younger. In the Lord’s words, “She gave herself as a prostitute to all the elite of the Assyrians and defiled herself with all the idols of everyone she lusted after. She did not give up the prostitution she began in Egypt, when during her youth men slept with her, caressed her virgin bosom and poured out their lust upon her.” (Ezekiel 23:7–8.) But the younger sister, Judah, was even worse. Verse 11 says that “in her lust and prostitution she was more depraved than her sister.” She also lusted after the Assyrians but went even further and lusted after the Babylonians as well. As the Lord states further:

As soon as she saw them, she lusted after them and sent messengers to them in Chaldea.

Then the Babylonians came to her, to the bed of love, and in their lust they defiled her.

After she had been defiled by them, she turned away from them in disgust. When she carried on her prostitution openly and exposed her nakedness, I turned away from her in disgust, just as I had turned away from her sister.

Yet she became more and more promiscuous as she recalled the days of her youth, when she was a prostitute in Egypt. (Ezekiel 23:16–19; italics added.)

There are still other examples in the Bible of apostasy described as whoredom or adultery, [10] but these will suffice. The Lord’s use of this metaphor is not arbitrary or meaningless. It is ideal; it is the most profound way possible to characterize the behavior of Israel, who promiscuously violated the vows of the covenant by giving herself to the worship of other gods. From Jehovah’s perspective this is adultery, the ultimate insult and sadness to him.

Punishment, Repentance, and Reunion

Adultery is a serious sin. The prophets’ use of this metaphor to represent Israel’s violation of her covenant with God shows that the gravity of her apostasy cannot be minimized. But adultery is not an unpardonable sin, nor is Israel’s breach of covenant unpardonable. Yet Israel must be punished and must repent before Jehovah can take her back.

In Hosea 2 the punishment of the unfaithful wife is characterized by her allegorically being exposed and humiliated in front of her lovers, and also by the destruction of her false system of worship and the ruining of her land. In Ezekiel 16:37–41, the Lord pronounces the following sentence on her:

Therefore I am going to gather all your lovers, with whom you found pleasure, those you loved as well as those you hated. I will gather them against you from all around and will strip you in front of them, and they will see all your nakedness.

I will sentence you to the punishment of women who commit adultery and who shed blood; I will bring upon you the blood vengeance of my wrath and jealous anger.

Then I will hand you over to your lovers, and they will tear down your mounds and destroy your lofty shrines. They will strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry and leave you naked and bare.

They will bring a mob against you, who will stone you and hack you to pieces with their swords.

They will burn down your houses and inflict punishment on you in the sight of many women. I will put a stop to your prostitution, and you will no longer pay your lovers.

Even though this is allegorical for the most part, it is significant that the punishment was in fact brought upon both kingdoms, Israel and Judah, by those nations who were identified as their lovers, Assyria and Babylon. A more literal prophecy of the actual punishment that the Israelites would receive was given by Moses: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed. And the Lord shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the Lord shall lead you.” (Deuteronomy 4:26–27.)

Destruction and scattering are Israel’s punishment. She will remain scattered until she repents and comes back to Jehovah. Only when she enters anew into a covenant with him will her blessings of being a chosen people be restored (see 1 Nephi 19:15–16; 2 Nephi 6:11; 10:7–8). To some extent, the tribe of Joseph is being gathered again to Jehovah’s covenant in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The gathering and restoration of Judah and the other tribes of Israel will not take place until they too repent and join the covenant with the Lord. God can raise up children to Abraham out of “stones” (Matthew 3:9), but he will not take his unfaithful wife back until she puts away her false worship and covenants to worship him alone.

Hosea’s account of accepting his wife again after her repentance characterizes God’s desire to take Israel back. Through Jeremiah he revealed the following words, a loving husband’s compelling plea for the return of his wife who has badly wronged him:

Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the Lord, and I will not keep anger for ever.

Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou has transgressed against the Lord thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to the strangers under every green tree, and ye have not obeyed my voice, saith the Lord.

Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you. (Jeremiah 3:12–14)

Notes

[1] All biblical quotations are from the King James translation unless otherwise indicated.

[2] For example, see H. H. Rowley, Bulletin of the John Reylands Library 39:200 ff.; R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 861–68 and the references cited there.

[3] Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1969).

[4] Compare the discussion in Harrison, 862–64, and F. I. Andersen and D. N. Freedman, Hosea (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 298–300.

[5] Andersen and Freedman, 298–300.

[6] Andersen and Freedman, 219.

[7] Or “representative elements”; Andersen and Freedman, 336.

[8] G. E. Mendenhall in a personal communication to the author.

[9] The King James Version term “whoredom” more accurately expresses Ezekiel’s original intent than does “prostitution” of the New International Version. “Prostitute” is a professional designation, whereas the word “whore” also expresses the strong moral judgment implied in Ezekiel’s use of the Hebrew zônâ (for example, see Ezekiel 16:35).

[10] For example, see Jeremiah 3:6–11; Hosea 5:3–4.