An ethical dilemma in Hosea (part 7)


This is part of a series. I recommend starting with the first installment.

We started this series examining an ethical dilemma that was presented in the opening of the book of Hosea. Over several posts we explored numerous solutions that are offered by various commentators and scholars to handle the challenge. In the last post a solution was offered as the most likely, as it was the only one that seems to fit all of the available information. However, that solution requires us to accept an uncommon translation of Hosea 1:4 that is not used in modern translations.

Here are the two possible translations of the passage, with the more common one on top:

  • in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel
  • in just a little while I will visit the bloodshed of Jezreel on the house of Jehu

A short overview of the second translation, which is required for the preferred solution to the dilemma, is offered in this post. It should be noted that I do not know Hebrew and am indebted to the work of other scholars in examining this solution.

The Minor Prophets

In The Minor Prophets, the entry on Hosea is written by Thomas E. McComiskey. In that entry McComiskey explores the Hebrew behind our passage and notes that the text of the book is presents an interpretive challenge.

The text of Hosea is one of the most difficult in the prophetic corpus. … Absolute objectivity in the interpretation of literature is, of course, beyond our reach, but we must nonetheless strive for it. The objectivity we seek in Old Testament studies lies in the symbols and structures of the Hebrew language. That which strikes us as broken or awkward may have been quite acceptable to the original reader. … We are obliged first to attempt to understand this language better, or to try to comprehend the author’s peculiar dialect or style of expression. [1]

In writing about Hosea 1:4, McComiskey explores how to understand the verb “visit upon”. This is the essential part of the passage that affects how it can be interpreted.

The expression visit upon (pāqaḏ ʿal) presents the interpreter with several difficulties. One of these is the sense of the word pāqaḏ itself. It is difficult to determine a satisfactory translational equivalent for this word because of the complexity of its range of meaning. …

This sense of pāqaḏ obtains in the expression pāqaḏ ʿal, where we may understand it to denote attend with, bring upon, visit upon, or similar concepts. We may see this clearly in Jeremiah 15:3 [see the Exegesis] where pāqaḏ ʿal does not denote the concept punish for but punish by. It is semantically misleading always to translate pāqaḏ ʿal as “punish for.” It is true that this idea is a valid translational equivalent in the majority of cases, but in these instances the expression is accompanied by an object that demands requital, such as sin or other similar concepts (see Hos 2:15 [13], where the feasts of the Baals will be brought upon [pāqaḏ ʿal] the nation). It is not certain that the phrase in this verse asserts that Jehu’s dynasty was to be punished for the bloodshed at Jezreel. [2]

Shortly after, McComiskey acknowledges that the interpretation “punish by” is not the most common, but fits the context of the book better.

This verse is regarded by several commentators to mean that the Jehu dynasty was to be punished for the murders committed by Jehu. A few commentators extend that concept to the nation itself on the basis of the parallelism of the clauses. … That conclusion is tenuous, however, because nowhere else in the book are the murders at Jezreel cited as the cause of Israel’s demise. It is Israel’s idolatry and unwise international policies that brought about her downfall. [3]

Later, McComiskey, suggest that the best way to interpret the passage is to see the phrase “the bloodshed of Jezreel” as describing the punishment that will be brought upon the house of Jehu, rather than referring to the crime that was committed.

If we understand Hosea 1:4 in this way, it states that the bloodshed at Jezreel will reappear hauntingly in Jehu’s dynasty, bringing it to an end. The way in which the bloodshed associated with Jezreel was visited on the Jehu dynasty has been explained variously. It is suggested here that is occurred when Zechariah, the last king in the dynasty, was assassinated by Shallum (2 Kings 15:8-12). [4]

Finally, McComiskey examines how the Hebrew word translated “bloodshed” should influence the translation.

The dēmê (bloodshed) may appear to influence the idiom pāqaḏ ʿal in Hosea 1:4 in the direction of punish for, rather than visit upon. This word seems automatically to demand requital, and in a large number of contexts the translation “bloodguilt” is appropriate. But the word dāmîm (bloodshed) does not have the intrinsic sense of bloodguilt; it always denotes bloodshed. …

… The word dāmîm (bloodshed) does not always carry with it the demand for requital, as do words for sin. Besides the several uses of dāmîm (lit. bloods) for the flow of human blood in Leviticus, it refers to bloodshed in a general sense (see Exod 4:26; 1 Kings 2:5; Isa 9:5[4]; Ezek 16:9,22,36; 21:37[32]). The context always invests dāmîm (bloodshed) with a specific sense within its semantic range. Here the context does not make a moral judgment about dāmîm. Rather, it balances pāqaḏ plus ʿal plus dāmîm with the word šāḇaṯ (destroy) which connotes termination. [5]

Hosea Translated from the Hebrew with Notes

Having searched numerous commentaries, there were not many that mentioned the alternative interpretation as a possibility. I did find an entry in Samuel Roffens’ translation notes in which he tackles the dilemma.

And it cannot be conceived, that the very same deed, which was commanded, approved, and rewarded, in Jehu, who performed it, should be punished as a crime in Jehu’s posterity, who had no share in the transaction.

To avoid this difficulty, another interpretation is mentioned with approbation by the learned Pocock, in which “the blood of Jezreel” is still understood of the blood of Ahab’s family, shed by Jehu in Jezreel: but by a particular acceptation of the verb פָּקַד, this is understood not as the object, but as the standard or model, of the punishment. And the words are brought to this sense: that God will execute vengeance upon the wicked house of Jehu, in slaughter abundant as the slaughter of Ahab’s family and kindred in Jezreel. [6]

Pocock’s translation, similar to McComiskey’s, is noted by Roffens as valid. However, Roffens goes on to note the more common interpretation is the one we find in most translations (emphasis added).

although the Hebrew words in themselves might not be incapable of this construction, if this were the only passage in which the phrase occurred; the truth is, it is a very common manner of expression. And wherever the phrase is used of “visiting any thing upon a person,” the thing, … is always to be understood as some crime, to be punished upon the person. [7]

Roffens does not endorse the translation from Pocock, because it would mean that “a punishment is denounced for a crime not specified”. Hosea would be suggesting that the house of Jehu would be punished in the manner that the house of Ahab was at the Valley of Jezreel, without stating why that was to be done. This, according to Roffens, is “not the manner of the denunciations of Holy Writ.” However, it could be countered that the crime of idolatry is repeated in the book of Hosea making it clear to the reader what the offense was that required punishment.

Roffens, preferring to see “the blood of Jezreel” as the crime and not the punishment, is left with the dilemma. To solve it he chooses to interpret Jezreel with a “mystical meaning”. He argues that the phrase, “the blood of Jezreel”, refers to the prophets and true followers of God that were killed during the reign of the house of Jehu. These deaths are the crime that must be paid for. Rather than focus on the mystical view, the scholar’s acknowledgement (noted in bold) that Pocock’s translation is possible will suffice.

A hat tip to Sherlock Holmes

Even if the translation of Hosea 1:4 is improbable, after all it is not the one we find in our Bibles, it is still a valid way to interpret the Hebrew. As Sherlock Holmes, famously, notes to Watson: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

The ethical dilemma in Hosea suggested that God was not just, going against numerous other passages that describe Him in that way. This discovery sent me down a path of research to try and understand what the best solution was to the problem. The more I read, the more I found the solutions to the problem weak. This series of posts share much of what was learned. It also offers, what I consider, the best explanation for how to solve the dilemma. This series should not be seen as an attempt to exonerate Jehu or present him as a good king. May it never be. Rather, may it serve as motivation to dig into the Scriptures and make sure that we don’t accept weak arguments because we want to sweep away a difficulty.


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