Here is this week’s paper for my Old Testament class. As always, I think it could stand to be expanded – there are several points about this passage that I don’t address at all due to the word limit. But I think it’s really important as we read through the prophets to understand that God is presented as an abusive husband – and that doesn’t mean that God is actually abusive but that that’s how people THEN understood loving husbands to act! God always meets us where we are and speaks to us in language that we can understand. And metaphors that were useful then may be less useful now – and some, like this one, may even be harmful if taken as models rather than as a way to deliver a message! I strongly recommend reading Hosea 1-3 before reading this post, as I assume familiarity with this passage.
Marriage as it is portrayed in the first three chapters of Hosea is a patriarchal institution in which the husband feels a sense of ownership over his wife. He has control over her and is not opposed to using various methods of punishment and reward to maintain that control. The husband loves his wife (reciprocated or not); but there is a gender hierarchy present that takes full advantage of contemporary patriarchy.
If I put on a patriarchal mindset (like what the original readers would have had), I can see a positive message in this passage. God’s anger about Israel’s faithlessness indicates that God loves Israel and deeply feels her worship of other gods as a betrayal of the most painful kind. This illustrates the profound love that God has for God’s people. God’s promises of tender reconciliation illustrates God’s compassion and willingness to forgive. It is a message of mercy and great hope.
However, this passage presents an enormous problem: we can now recognize God’s threats of violence as abusive. God is unhappy with Israel’s behavior and is trying to get her back under control – and God is seemingly willing to engage in great violence to do so. This behavior in marriage is domestic abuse.
God threatens psychological abuse through public humiliation (2:3, 10) and isolation (2:6); physical abuse through physical harm by privation (2:3); financial abuse through cutting off her income (2:12) and refusing to share God’s (2:9); God even threatens the well-being of the children as a weapon of control (2:4). This behavior, though normative in the patriarchal world of ancient Israel, is now known to be abusive. This presents a huge problem for those who look to the Bible to learn how marriage ought to be.
Seen from the lens of domestic abuse, even God’s promise of reconciliation (2:14-23) illustrates the “honeymoon period” that follows an incidence of abuse. This “kindness” is designed to reward the woman for coming back under control and give her enough pleasure to persuade her to stay, hopeful that “everything will be ok now.” Thus what might look like a hope of joyful reconciliation can also be seen as one of the most sinister stages in the abuse cycle.
I understand marriage to be an institution of free association of equals, requiring mutual submission and giving. There is no ownership and no control. What my understanding has in common with the depiction of marriage in this passage is that both involve love and commitment. My understanding fundamentally differs, however, in the enforcement of that commitment. While my husband and I are bound by a vow to each other, our vows are ours to uphold. We have no right to force each other to keep our vow. We belong to each other as family… but we do not own each other.
My understanding of marriage works as a metaphor for the divine/human relationship because we are in relationship freely. We love each other deeply. God has never punished me harshly when I have turned my heart away, but has always waited in love for me to return. God always helps me to grow, learn, and deepen my relationship with my Source of Life. The closer I want to draw to God, the closer God will draw to me – there is no force involved.
God always meets us where we are – God designs metaphors according to what we understand (consider Jesus’ parables). Hosea wrote in a particular culture of extreme patriarchy, which is reflected in this marriage metaphor. To respect this passage, we must recognize that the depiction of marriage in Hosea 1-3 is meant to deliver a message, not serve as a model. This passage doesn’t show us how God wants us to act in marriage; it tells us that God loves us deeply; God expects us to worship God alone and is hurt when we don’t; and God is always ready to forgive us with great mercy when we inevitably make mistakes.