When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” – Hosea 1:2, ESV
And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. And I said to her, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” – Hosea 3:1-3, ESV
A common hermeneutical error (i.e. reading Scripture error) is to take a narrative and treat it as if it is prescribing a moral command. A classical example is to read about Judas hanging himself and then applying Jesus’ command to do likewise. It is an application without observing the context of the Judas story as well as making it a command. Absurd? Yes. However, we do it all the time with other less obvious passages.
We need to be careful about reading commands from descriptive or poetic works.
In my pastoral opinion, I see this error committed when Christian leaders read the story of Hosea and Gomer as an example for how faithful spouses ought to respond to adultery today. They take this story about an extreme situation and add a merciless burden not to divorce to faithful spouses already struggling under the trauma of adultery discovery.
I consider using Hosea to prohibit divorce for faithful spouses as spiritual abuse.
That interpretation is an abuse of the book to further one’s merciless agenda against divorce of any kind. It is a use of God’s name to control and further hurt faithful spouses already ravaged by the sins of their adulterous spouses. This is not God’s heart on these matters. That abusive interpretation of Hosea ignores major contextual facts of the story and makes a very special calling on Hosea normative for all Christians. Furthermore, it ignores or rejects clear commands that go against such counsel concerning adultery found elsewhere in Scripture. To suggest this as the proper reading is to judge other Scripture as wrong for other Scripture requires the death penalty for adultery–i.e. an unequivocal, God-commanded divorce by death (see Deut 22:22 and Lev 20:10).
In the rush to pressure faithful spouses into not divorcing their adulterous spouses, pastors and well-meaning (but wrong) Christians ignore many important pieces from this book:
- They ignore how Hosea is called by God to marry a prostitute from the beginning. Hosea was not surprised Gomer acted the way she did. Most faithful spouses are greatly surprised to discovery the adultery for most of us would not have married this person knowing this upfront as Hosea did.
- This is a special call from God to Hosea. Nowhere do I see God calling us to marry someone knowingly who engages in such behavior. In fact, God warns us to do the opposite. He tell us not to be yoked together with someone who lives in lies and sin (“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” – 2 Cor 6:14, ESV).
- The book works only as understood as an extreme example. So, that ought to warn us not to take it as normative for all Christian behavior. This book is shocking in how it flies in the face of how adultery is usually treated (e.g. Deut. 22:22). If Gomer (and adulterous spouses by analogy) was entitled to marital reconciliation, Hosea would not have needed God to tell him to buy her back (Hosea 3:1). Furthermore, we would not be shocked to read how Hosea kept taking her back like God takes back his adulterous people. We would expect it. To demand this behavior from God or a faithful spouse is to come at it from a place of arrogant entitlement. We do not deserve God’s mercy in not divorcing us to Hell for our sins. And some people will end up in that condition according to Scripture (more on that and reconciliation below). Similarly, an adulterous spouse does not deserve and is not entitled to marital reconciliation. It is pure unmerited mercy and grace coming from the faithful spouse if he/she chooses to stay in the marriage. I contend that God does not command it (see post here).
- They ignore Hosea’s instructions to Gomer not to continue in adulterous sin after he buys her back (see Hosea 3:3). Even in this most extreme example of forgiveness and reconciliation, Hosea requires fidelity from Gomer. This is a healthy, important, and godly boundary to maintain in marriage. God does not want His people to be doormats who tolerate contemptuous sin.
- They ignore the many verses in this book talking about God punishing Israel for her adulteries! A stronger case for punishing adultery can be made from the text than ignoring the sin by “reconciling” without consequences. Here are a few examples of God punishing Israel’s adulteries: “As for my sacrificial offerings, they sacrifice meat and eat it, but the Lord does not accept them. Now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt. For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces, and Judah has multiplied fortified cities; so I will send a fire upon his cities, and it shall devour her strongholds.” – Hosea 8:13-14, ESV. “He destroys you, O Israel, for you are against me, against your helper.” -Hosea 13:9, ESV.
- They confuse forgiveness for reconciliation collapsing the distinction. God forgives us our sins as this book powerfully teaches through this incredible analogy. I believe that is a true and applicable lesson for us all. We need to forgive. However, reconciliation does not follow from our obligation to forgive as Christians. While I believe we are to forgive those who wrong us, I do not believe we reconcile with everyone. Reconciliation takes two. Not everyone will be reconciled with God, yet God has provided forgiveness for all through His son. It is not a deficiency upon the faithful party that reconciliation has not taken place. God is not less because some choose sin over Him. By choosing adultery, the adulterous spouse has chosen rebellion and relational death over fidelity and relational life.
- An interpretation to just take back an adulterous spouse irregardless of their repentance fails to recognize our calling to be a holy people who does not tolerate sin. Tolerance excuses and overlooks sin. It is not forgiveness; rather tolerance traffics in a false spiritual reality where sin is no big deal. On the other hand, holiness demands the contamination of sin be addressed. “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.‘” – I Peter 1:14-16, ESV.
More can be written on these passages. However, I hope it is clear at this point that Hosea ought never be used to pressure faithful spouses into reconciliation. That is an abuse of the book and spiritual authority. And God does not take lightly those who misuse His Name.