A Tale of Romance or Spousal Abuse?: Love and Violence in the Book of Hosea
Bo H. Lim is associate professor of Old Testament at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary and co-author, with Daniel Castelo, of the new Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary on Hosea.
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When I teach on the book of Hosea, I often encounter people whose first, or most sustained engagement with the book, was through reading Francine Rivers’s Christian romance novel, Redeeming Love, which has remained on the Christian Bookseller’s Association best seller list for nearly a decade. Redeeming Love is set in 1850s California and tells the story of Angel, who is sold into sex work at an early age and works as a prostitute in an unsuccessful attempt to buy her freedom. The farmer Michael Hosea receives the command from God to marry Angel and obeys despite his inner protestations. Angel is beaten unconscious because she defies her madame, at which point Michael rescues her, pays her for her release, marries her, and attempts to start a new life with her. Angel initially refuses his love and returns to a life of prostitution not once but twice, only to have Michael relentlessly pursue her until she finally undergoes a religious conversion and returns to be Michael’s faithful bride.
Dorothy Clark, an author who seems to have modeled her work after that of Rivers, has written a contemporary version of Redeeming Love called Hosea’s Bride, which tells the tale of Angela, who is rescued from a life of sex trafficking by the pastor Hosea Stevens, who later falls in love with this ex-prostitute. A 2012 movie starring Sean Astin, portraying the ancient story of Hosea and Gomer carries the title Amazing Love: A Love Story for the Ages. In addition, the filmmaker Josh Read created a series of six short online videos entitled “The Hosea Love Story” that portrays the long-suffering love of a young husband to his adulterous bride.
The book of Hosea is wildly popular among pop evangelicals as a human tale of romance and illustration of God’s long-suffering love and grace. This popularity is quite odd, given that for most of its history Hosea was an embarrassment to both Jews and Christians because of its instruction for God’s prophet to marry the promiscuous woman Gomer. Augustine, given his sexually licentious past, found the book difficult and concluded that Gomer must have abandoned her harlotry once she married Hosea. The medieval rabbi Ibn Ezra believed Gomer was only a dream, and Calvin argued that Hosea was merely acting and therefore Gomer was only part of a fictional drama.
By the late 19th and 20th centuries commentators had come to accept that Gomer did indeed exist and that Hosea actually married a prostitute. No longer was Gomer a moral embarrassment that commentators attempted to explain away; she became the central character of a love tale between Hosea and Gomer. Romanticism impacted biblical studies in the 18th century, and the interpretive focus turned toward examining the inner life of the prophet poet. It is no wonder, then, that romantic interpretations of the book of Hosea as an extreme example of unrequited love flourished among interpreters, especially biblical critics. Yvonne Sherwood observes, “Carried away on a tide of romanticism, critics suspend all critical judgment, and the figure of the prostitute seems to make a fool of them. Like babbling fools in front of a beautiful woman, they compete in descriptions of just how beautiful she was and how much Hosea loved her.” While for centuries Hosea was an embarrassment for the people of God, in the 20th century the book became one of Protestantism’s most exemplary texts.
Beginning in the 1970s feminist critics began critiquing the privileging of patriarchy within the Bible and in particular took issue with the ways the Bible was used to legitimate violence by males against women. A seminal work in the field, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, contains the now oft-referenced essay by T. Deborah Setel, “Prophets and Pornography: Female Sexual Imagery in Hosea,” where she argued that Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel contained texts that could be classified as pornography. This volume also included Susan Thistlethwaite’s essay, “Every Two Minutes: Battered Women and Feminist Interpretation,” where she cited examples of incidents where the Bible was used to justify domestic violence against women. Since the publication of this book the literature on this topic has been voluminous. In academic biblical studies, no longer does the story of an unrequited romance provide the backdrop of reading Hosea. Now Hosea is read from the perspective of battered women.
Is Hosea too volatile? Should it be decommissioned by the church because in the hands of readers it will be turned into a story condoning spousal abuse or a human romance tale?
My co-author, Daniel Castelo, and I take seriously the challenges that have been posed to reading Hosea today. We acknowledge and address the interpretive concerns raised, both ancient and modern. The unique strength of our approach, the theological interpretation of Scripture, is that we address the text and contemporary issues from the perspective of biblical studies (Lim) and theology (Castelo). Ours is an interdisciplinary work, perhaps the most integrated commentary of this kind to date. Not only do we address the texts and topics involving love and violence, we examine all fourteen chapters of Hosea in order to understand how its message speaks to God’s people today.
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 The Prostitute and the Prophet (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 55.