The drama continues in the life and prophetic ministry of Hosea as God instructs him again regarding his wife, Gomer. This time apparently Gomer has sold herself into prostitution and Hosea is sent by God to buy his own wife back. Frankly, I don’t know what I’d do if put in a similar situation, and just thinking about being in his shoes makes me want to curl up and die. Imagine for a moment if your spouse did this and you had to buy them back (or if you are not married, picture if your dad had to buy back your mom). Not a good feeling, is it? That is but a taste of God’s despair at his people Israel’s unrepentant hearts as they worship other gods and prostitute themselves to Baal.
When we think of “prophets” in the Tanakh, we generally think of the big guys (Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah etc). But back in those days, there were entire groups of prophets, also called “the company of prophets” (1 Kings 22:6 speaks of 400 prophets of the LORD, and 2 Kings 2:7 speaks of a detachment of 50). And so there were hundreds of prophets which the books of Samuel and Kings record as actually prophesying. So even the so called “minor prophets” were big comparatively – hey, they got their own book in the Bible! Later in his life, Elijah had one of these companies of prophets following him, and Elijah was a prophet to the Kingdom of Israel during the divided kingdom. So it’s not hard to extrapolate that there were still other prophets of the LORD in Israel when Hosea was a prophet (maybe not as many, but at least some). Can you imagine the reaction of the other prophets when Hosea went and bought his wife back from prostitution and adultery? It must have seemed completely insane! I’m sure more than one prophet gave him some advice on seeking divorce. Wouldn’t you? And yet God does not totally reject his adulterous people and instead takes them back.
Let’s dig into the scripture of Chapter 3. It’s a short chapter (5 verses) with alot of meat. The NIV translates verse 1 like this:
The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” (Hosea 3:1)
However, the Rabbinic version I have (which is a fresh translation from the Hebrew to English) translates it like this:
And the LORD said to me: “Go again, love a woman beloved by her companions, yet an adulteress, like the love of the LORD of the children of Israel, who turn to other gods, and love goblets of grapes.” (Hosea 3:1)
A raisin being a dried grape it’s easy to see here where the two versions take different English translations. First of all, the word “sacred” (from the NIV translation) is not even in the Hebrew text of the verse, but was added while the translators tried to make sense of the this rather cryptic verse. The raisin cakes, they posit, were used in the worship and celebration of the fertility gods (e.g. Baal), and so God is using it as a symbol of their unfaithfulness. The Rabbis, according to the translation of it being “goblets of grapes” paint a different picture.
“They are fond of becoming drunk with their wine and do not engage in Torah. (see: Amos 6:6, Isaiah 5:11-12)” (Rashi)
“Despite her infidelities, should she repent, God will view her actions as having been committed in a state of drunkenness (symbolized by the ‘goblets of wine’), for which she cannot be held fully accountable.” (Targum Jonathan as interpreted by Abarbanel)
Really, either raisin cakes or goblets of grapes speaks powerfully, but scripture speaks much about the woes of having too much wine and what it will do to you. I think the explanation given by the Rabbis is more likely, but again, it’s an interpretation. The next verse becomes much more interesting as we get into a deeper meaning that the Pshat (simple).
So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. (Hosea 3:2, NIV)
As western Christians, we immediately want to know how much a shekel weighs. The NIV induldges this by putting footnotes for how much a shekel weighs and how much a homer and a lethek of barley are. But this misses the entire point of listing the price for which Hosea bought back Gomer. I do believe that he actually paid that much – scripture says it, so it’s true. But that’s not why it’s there (primarily). To a Jew, numbers are ALWAYS symbolic first, and an amount second. So what do these numbers mean, then? Let’s consult the Rabbis, for they list three different explanations:
Ibn Ezra suggests that ‘fifteen’ is an allusion to the fifteen Judean kings with the children of Josiah counted as one, even though there were 16 kings by that method, so it is not clear which king Ibn Ezra excludes and why he does so.
Abarbanel contends that the verse hints at the fifteen prophets of Israel whose works prophecy concerning the Messianic era when God’s acquisition of Israel shall become permanent: 1) David (in Psalms), 2) Isaiah, 3) Jeremiah, 4) Ezekiel, 5) Hosea, 6) Joel, 7) Amos, 8 ) Obadiah, 9) Micah, 10) Habakkuk, 11) Zephaniah, 12) Daniel, 13) Haggai, 14) Zechariah, 15) Malachi.
Rashi tells us that the word ‘silver’ in the Hebrew is the numerical equivalent to the word ‘Nisan’, and so God says, “And I redeemed them at My command on the fifteenth day of Nisan.” (Rashi from Jonathan) (15th day of Nisan is the day of the Exodus and earlier that evening they had the first Passover)
I especially enjoy Rashi’s interpretation because it brings to mind an amazing picture: just as Hosea redeems Gomer from prostitution (and by extension, slavery) for 15 shekels of silver, so God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt on the 15th of the month of Nisan. And just as He did it before, He will do it again. Wow – it truly speaks to the heart. But there’s more, regarding the “homer and lethek of barley” that fits in with the next verse. Rashi states that a chomer is 30 seah and a lethek being half a chomer is 15 seah, and so a chomer and a lethek total 45 seah.
Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.” (Hosea 3:3, NIV)
Now the plural “days” refers to a minimum of two, and the word ‘many’ refers to a minimum of three, making a total of five. Add that to the forty-five in the previous verse and this alludes to the 50 days between Passover and Pentecost. On that day God offered Israel the Torah saying “You must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you” (Hosea 3:3), that is, “You shall have no other God before Me,” (Exodus 20:3). There is even more witting by the Rabbis as to meaning of these numbers, but I think this one picture hits the nail on the head. The rest of the passage fills it out:
“For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol. Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days.” (Hosea 3:4-5)
Here is the picture that God paints through Hosea as I sum up this entire chapter: “You have been a prostitute to me, Israel. But I will buy you back, and redeem you, just as I did in the Exodus. But since you have been a harlot, you must separate yourself from me for a period of time so that you can make yourself holy and ready to become my bride again, just as you waited 50 days from the Exodus to the giving of the Torah, so you must wait for a period of time from your exile to the coming of the Messiah when you seek out David your king. Then I will be your God, and you will be My people.” (James paraphrase)
Peace to you,