Lesson 34: “I Will Betroth Thee unto Me in Righteousness” #BCCSundaySchool2018

ProfitisOsie01Lesson Objective: To appreciate and comprehend the Book of Hosea, which describes an ultimately loving, merciful, and forgiving God to the children who repent and rely on Him.

Scriptures: The Book of Hosea

What is this book and where does it come from? Hosea—a name meaning “He saves” or “He helps”—is one of the twelve Minor Prophets of the Jewish Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament (“minor,” as in, their books of scripture are considerably shorter than those of the three “major” prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah), and he lived in the 8th century BC. Some people refer to Hosea as a “prophet of doom,” but others point out that there is still a promise of restoration even after all has been destroyed. Hosea was a prophet for about sixty years, and while we don’t know tons about the details of Hosea’s personal life, some of what we think we can understand about his own biography comes from this book of scripture and prophecy.

In the book of Hosea, the story of his unfaithful wife, Gomer, will be written as a metaphor of the relationship between God and the Israelites. In the same way that Gomer would cheat on Hosea with other lovers, Hosea criticizes the Israelites who cheat on God by worshiping polytheistic gods (for example, many Israelites credited the fertility of their lands to Baal, a Canaanite god[1]). However, in the same way that Hosea continues to love and forgive Gomer even after she sleeps with another man, Hosea writes that God will likewise not abandon His covenants with Israel even after they worship false gods.

As far as we know, Hosea wrote down his own book of scripture and prophecy himself.

More stuff about names:

  • Hosea means “He saves” or “He helps”
  • Jezreel, Gomer’s son, means “God sows”
  • Lo-ruhamah, Gomer’s daughter, means “not loved; not pitied”
  • Lo-ammi, Gomer’s son, means “not my people”
  • When Lo-ruhamah and Lo-ammi are renamed in chapter 2 as Ammi (“loved”) and Ruhamah (“pitied”), this signals forgiveness and restoration.

What on earth is happening, literally, when Hosea was alive? Here’s some historical background that might help contextualize the book of Hosea. Hosea was from Northern Israel, or Samaria. This Northern Kingdom of Israel (which Hosea refers to as “Ephraim”) gets conquered and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. In the three decades that followed the destruction of Hosea’s homeland, Hosea developed a prophecy that interpreted this conquest as divine punishment—God used the Assyrians to bring the Israelites to repentance for worshipping false gods. According to Hosea, because the Israelites depended on social and political institutions instead of relying solely on God for guidance and support, God knocked over the political and religious institutions that distracted the Israelites from seeking direct inspiration from God. As Gregory Mobley, professor at the Yale Divinity School, puts it, “Israel would, in essence, find itself again in the wilderness.” And just as the ancient Israelites were reunited with God after wandering lost in the Sinai desert, the Israelites in Hosea’s time could be reunited with God and end their punishment by humbling themselves and recognizing their dependence on God.

Also, speaking of context, in chapter 3, Hosea buys Gomer back from one of her lovers. This is pretty problematic (I hope) to a 21st-century reader. However, in Hosea’s culture, women were property that could bought or sold (a cultural ideology that resurfaces in Western culture later and persists for uncomfortably far too long—for a while there, it was easier to sell an unwanted wife than divorce her, as depressing as that is).

Metaphor Mixer
Okay, so I actually really love this lesson plan idea from the official LDS church teaching manual, so I am straight-up stealing this list of metaphors that someone over in the curriculum department put together. The lesson suggests passing out these metaphors from Hosea to people in the class and having them explain what they think the metaphor might mean. I like this idea, especially if it happened after the class had a general idea of what Hosea is all about and what happens in the story. This seems like a great way to get the students involved and participating in the lesson and getting to know each other. Here is the list of metaphors (the King James Version of the Bible is listed first, occasionally followed by the New Revised Standard Version, which I find to be more beautiful and poetic at times):

“The children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea” (Hosea 1:10)

“I will pour out my wrath upon them like water” (Hosea 5:10)

“The Lord . . . shall come unto us as the rain” (Hosea 6:3)
“he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth” (NRSV Hosea 6:3)

“He shall come as an eagle” (Hosea 8:1)
“One like a vulture is over the house of the Lord” (NRSV Hosea 8:1)

“Israel is an empty vine” (Hosea 10:1)
“Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit” (NRSV Hosea 10:1)

“Judgment springeth up as hemlock in the furrows of the field” (Hosea 10:4)
“so litigation springs up like poisonous weeds in the furrows of the field” (NRSV Hosea 10:4)

“They shall be . . . as the smoke out of the chimney” (Hosea 13:3)
“Therefore they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes away early, like chaff that swirls from the threshing floor or like smoke from a window” (NRSV Hosea 13:3)

“I will meet them as a bear that is bereaved of her whelps [cubs]” (Hosea 13:8)
“I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs” (NRSV Hosea 13:8)

“I am like a green fir tree” (Hosea 14:8)
“I am like an evergreen cypress; your faithfulness comes from me” (NRSV Hosea 14:8)

If I were teaching this lesson, I would emphasize that metaphors and other types of figurative language are ambigous and open to multiple interpretations. I would encourage students to offer up multiple different interpretations during the discussion, prompting diversity among the responses with questions like, “How else might we read this metaphor?” and, “I really appreciate that reading, but I bet there are other ways to interpret or approach this scripture, too. Did anyone read this a different way, from a different perspective?” The more we can help our students see that there is not necessarily one “right” or “correct” way to approach figurative language, the more we can foster confidence among our congregations that personal revelation and individual interpretations are valuable even if our neighbors view things a little differently. There are many “reasonable” ways to interpret scriptures like this list of metaphors—there is not necessarily one “right” way to look at it.

What can we learn from Hosea today? Some discussion ideas.

  • The book of Hosea contains a lot of harsh imagery related to women, like women as whores and adulterers, women being punished with miscarriages and dry breasts (Hosea 9:14), pregnant mothers being “dashed in pieces” (Hosea 13:16). These violent and insulting images can be really hard especially for female readers to consume. How can we productively approach this text without encouraging, for example, such treatment of women, or even the perception of women as property that can be bought, sold, and used at will? What are ways that we can appreciate the sentiment of Hosea’s very bold and frightening images by interpreting these women-symbols as metaphors of Israel or a church congregation? (I’d be sure to emphasize that by reading these images as metaphors, we in no way need to erase the discomfort that comes from consuming these images, particularly the more violent ones. I think we aremeantto be unnerved, uncomfortable, uneasy about how these women-symbols are encountered and treated.)
  • We have talked about many metaphors in the book of Hosea already, but what other metaphors can you find? (Give partnerships or small groups a few minutes to review the book of Hosea and come up with a list of at least five more metaphors they can uncover in Hosea that haven’t already been discussed and interpreted as a class. Take some time to let different groups share a metaphor they found and what they make of it. Encourage groups to tackle metaphors that are confusing or difficult—wrestling with challenging scripture can often lead to important, meaningful moments of inspiration and personal revelation.)
  • While the book of Hosea is harsh and frightening, the overall message can be summed up with the beginning of chapter 14: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity . . . I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily . . . They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.” In other words, Hosea argues that no matter how far the church members stray from God, God wants His children back. No matter how many men Gomer slept with, no matter that the three children were likely illegitimate, Hosea loved Gomer and was devoted to her. How does this metaphor help us better understand or consider God’s love for us, even when we stray or are crummy at keeping the covenants we made with God?

A Gloomy Thomas Hardy Aside
I probably shouldn’t even include this here, but I can’t help it. I’m reading Tess of the d’Urbervillesright now, weeping and cursing my way through it, and it is noteworthy, for those of you out there who have read this novel (a feat I highly recommend, but keep tissues handy), that Alec d’Urberville cites Hosea 2:7 to Tess at a time that I won’t specify so as not to give any spoilers: “I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now.” *cue sobbing and shaking fists at the heavens* It is dastardly and unfortunate usage of scripture, and I guess just goes to show that, like anything, scriptures can be used for good or for ill, depending on interpretation, context, and motive. Read responsibly, friends.

From the BCC Archives

Sources Consulted

[1]By the way, when you get to Hosea 3, the Lord says to Hosea, “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” The raisin cake thing is a reference to worshipping other gods—they were apparently used in illicit worship. Don’t confuse this with a Word of Wisdom thing, like we shouldn’t eat cinnamon rolls with raisins or something. Although, if you are asking me, putting raisins in cinnamon rolls is most definitely super evil. But that’s me speaking, not God.


  1. Kristin Brown says:

    Thank you Grover. I enjoy collecting metaphors. A lesson filled with love and hope…and I agree with you on the cinnamon rolls.

  2. Thanks for putting Hosea into context. That’s really helpful.
    I am not a fan of phrases having multiple meanings or interpretations. When I write something I want the reader understand what I’m trying to communicate. If they don’t, then I have failed as a communicator. Perhaps it’s just the compiler in me; I want a phrase to have one meaning.

  3. Thanks, jader3rd. Regarding ambiguity, I think there is a difference between “ambiguity” and “lack of clarity.” I’m all about literature (and scripture) asking big questions but not necessarily providing one “correct” answer. For me, the most meaningful scripture-reading experiences come not when I am being commanded or ordered around but when I am being asked to consider tricky, complicated parables and stories with an abundance of meaning and relevance, depending on the reader and the context and the moment.

    I think one can communicate well without dictating what a reader’s takeaway ought to be. Sometimes the big questions, the mystery, the ethical dilemma IS the communication. God seems to want individuals to seek out our own answers to these things, rather than to skip the struggle by being given the answer key from the get-go.

  4. Explicit metaphor invites–even demands–interpretation. I remain interested in (what I’m learning to call) hermeneutics, or the study of interpretation. Of course MY interpretation(s) are right, and everybody else’s are interesting. But is it really an individual matter? Are there better and not-so-good interpretations?

    There is a long tradition of authority applied to interpretation. A group of rabbis, a privileged text, Mormon Correlation, the “academy.” As a 21st century person I resist the idea of authority. But I wonder if total atomization is the right way to go? Isn’t there some way we can come together? Some way to say “this one works for me, but also seems to work for a lot of us”?

  5. Jader– Often, lack of clarity allows for multiple valid meanings. Poetry, for example, is rich in metaphor and can often be interpreted on multiple levels. Similarly, prophecy has layers of meaning; for instance, the destruction foretold by Daniel applies to both the violence preceding the diaspora of the Jews and the violence preceding the Second Coming of Christ.

    That said, I agree with your primary argument. One reason I struggle with the argument that Jesus was the Master Teacher all should emulate(see “Teaching in the Saviors Way”) is that he really wasn’t. He was vague. He deliberately masked meanings in parables. Even his most devout followers misunderstood his central message. Nearly 2,000 years of serious study hasn’t yielded consensus on what Jesus taught or his expectations for followers.

    So, yeah. Metaphor is great. But so is directness. As J. Reuben Clark taught back in the 1930s, “The youth of the Church are hungry for things of the Spirit; they are eager to learn the gospel, and they want it straight, undiluted.” Now that we’re a generation or two too late, I think TPTB are finally starting to see that it’s the best approach.

  6. Thanks, Grover. This is really good.

    Two thoughts in response to some of the comments.

    First, metaphor and poetry are useful because they express ideas that can’t be expressed in any other way. It’s true that the effort it takes to absorb these ideas is different from what we do when we analyze narrowly factual text with a carefully circumscribed meaning. But just-the-facts writing is a fundamentally different kind of communication. By design, poetry has layers of meaning and possibility that allow for a kind of sacred discovery in the process of reading. Hosea is great poetry.

    Second, even just-the-facts writing requires interpretation. The question always remains: what do the facts mean? This question is renewed every time another reader takes up any text of any kind. The question always resets for that reader in that time and that place. What a blessing this is! It means that we, the living, always matter. Our relationships to things past and to each other are never dead as long as we are willing to engage.

  7. Loursat, I love all of that comment. Thank you for adding it to this thread.

  8. Thanks again, Grover.

    Chris, if I were teaching this lesson, I would count it a major win if I could just get the class to glimpse the power of the imagery, which is sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, and sometimes awesome. That should open a path to some discoveries in their personal reading.

    Total atomization, I think, is the wrong way. I’m a believer in the hermeneutical idea that there can never be a totally private interpretation, since our reading always occurs in the midst of other interpretations. As for authoritative interpretations, institutional authority is a weak claim, but the authority of tradition is very powerful. It’s hard to beat thousands of years’ worth of accumulated wisdom. Of course, the only way to get acquainted with the tradition is to start reading.

%d bloggers like this: