Despite the power of Hosea’s message and the effectiveness of his marriage metaphor in portraying God’s anguish over the unfaithfulness of the people, his metaphor presents a serious problem to modern readers: The husband who expresses anguish nonetheless uses his power to punish the unfaithful wife.1

Hosea 2 tells us that the divine husband will restrict his wife’s movements: “I will hedge up her way with thorns; and I will build a wall against her” (Hosea 2:6). He will control her financially: “I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees” (2:12). He will withhold food and drink: “I will … make her like a wilderness, and turn her into a parched land, and kill her with thirst” (2:3); I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season” (2:9). He will “strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born” (2:3), he will “punish her” (2:13) and he will have “no pity” on her children (2:4).

Hosea’s metaphorical description of Israel-Gomer’s punishment fits the pattern of abusive domestic situations all too well: physical restriction, deprivation of basic necessities, humiliation and threats.

Even the beautiful restoration imagery (“I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” [Hosea 2:14]) may leave us ill at ease; for this change of tone is reminiscent of a behavioral pattern typical of abusive husbands, who, after a period of renewed tenderness, often return to their abusive ways.

In Hosea’s society, husbands held power over their wives and may sometimes have treated them in ways that are regarded as immoral and even illegal in many 21st-century cultures. Thus aspects of Hosea’s extended metaphor—the parts about punishment—are disturbing in our time.

I cannot imagine any woman who would have wanted to be Gomer.

Yes, at one level Hosea’s words are “only imagery.” Nonetheless, images can be dangerous. Thus, I urge readers to be cautious in using Hosea’s marriage imagery. If we lift up only the positive imagery of tenderness and restoration in Hosea, and do not challenge the negative aspects of the “abusive” husband with which we disagree, we may unintentionally allow both batterers and victims to believe that these verses justify abusive behavior.—K.D.S.