The Battered Wife and God’s Love
Renita Weems (and other radical feminists) objects to Hosea’s use of the
metaphor of an adulterous wife to describe Israel’s apostasy, and argues
that it legitimizes the mistreatment of women
_Death is all metaphors, shape in one histor_y; writes the poet Dylan
Thomas, filling his poem ‘Altarwise by Owl-Light” with hundreds of
metaphors for death. In the same manner the Hebrew Bible is filled with
metaphors that expand and explain Yahweh’s relationship to Israel. The
prophet Hosea uses the metaphor of a wife and her husband’s reaction to her
adulteress behavior to portray the relationship between Israel and God.1 The
emphasis is on God’s treatment of Israel in His attempt to bring her back
from apostasy to the covenant. As Michael Fishbane writes, ‘If there is any
central motif in the book as a whole, it would have to be the recurrent
focus on religious apostasy and the concomitant expressions of divine wrath
or love toward Israel. Sometimes, in fact, these themes are combinedas, for
example, in Hos. 2:4-22, where they underpin the motif of
marriage-divorce-restoration.”2 The images of God’s behavior toward Israel
are stark: desertion, stripping, denial of life sustaining water, rejection
of her children. Feminist scholar Renita Weems and others object to the
metaphor of the wife in this text. They believe the metaphor not only
legitimizes the mistreatment of women but also pictures God as capricious,
and one who had ‘volatile” and ‘erratic dealings with Israel.”3 In her
book, _Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets_,
Weems refers to the biblical metaphors of husband and wife, as metaphors of
‘power and punishment,” and states that they, ‘not only capture the basis
of social relations; they naturalize the ideological framework of those
relationships.”4 In this paper I will focus on that problem. How does a
metaphor work and how should it be used to understand the message of
scripture and in particular this passage.
What a metaphor is and what it does
A metaphor transfers some or one of its meanings to another entity thereby
expanding what we can know or understand about the second entity. Monroe C.
Beardsley in his article on ‘Metaphor,” writes, ‘By common definition, and
by etymology, a metaphor is a transfer of meaning, both in intension and
extension.” 5 Beardsley explains the two properties of metaphor. His first
understanding of properties has to do with the tension created between the
‘subject and modifier.” He writes, ‘we are alerted by something special,
odd, and startling in the combination.” His second understanding of a
property of metaphor has to do with the intelligibility of the combination.
It cannot be nonsensical.6 Obviously it is important that a metaphor be
understood correctly. G. B. Caird writes, that, ‘when two things are
compared, they are not to be considered like in all respects.” He goes on
There is an intended point of comparison on which we are being asked to
concentrate to the exclusion of all irrelevant fact: and the
communication breaks down, with ludicrous and even disastrous effect, if
we wrongly identify it. 7
Caird explains the differences between simile and metaphor and points out
that ‘In metaphor the two things to be compared are not set side by side;
the name of the one is substituted for the name of the other.” He refers to
G.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards and their terms ‘vehicle and tenor.” He
writes, ‘ vehicle being the thing to which the word normally and naturally
applies, the thing from which it is transferred, and tenor the thing to
which it is transferred.” Caird goes on to suggest that as we look at the
tenor through the lens of the vehicle, they become one. ‘We concentrate on
the object and ignore the lens”8
Virginia Mollenkott argues that the metaphor reinforces the thinking of
ancient Israelite men about women
With what seems to be a bit of confusion, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
describes the interaction of vehicle and tenor as ‘like nuclear fission.”
She suggests, in her article on metaphor in _Dictionary of Feminist
Theologies_, that ‘each term used is modified,” but goes on to explain,
‘like two people entering into partnership, the terms remain themselves,
radically different, even as they merge into the third factor of a
relationship or resemblance that may be complex, instantaneous, or even
nonlogical.”9 This is a very different view of the metaphor from that of
Caird. In Mollenkott, the vehicle is either ‘modified” or while retaining
its own distinction it becomes part of a ‘third factor” in which it is
modified. On the other hand, for Caird the vehicle is simply the lens, it is
not modified. Weems uses the metaphor of the battered wife as a modified
metaphor that works both directions. For her it not only informs and
enlarges the audience’s views about God and His relationship to Israel, it
also strengthens and ‘naturalizes” the views of ancient Israelite men about
Weems argues that the metaphor is hopelessly bound to culture, and that it
therefore in no longer relevant
There is another way metaphors are used in contemporary theology. Garrett
Green in his article, ‘The Gender of God and The Theology of Metaphor,”
critiques a type of metaphorical theology that is based on role-model
theology.10 This is an understanding of religious concepts that began with
Feuerbach, Marx, Freud and Schleiermacher. The former three proponents meant
the ideas as a refutation of religion but Schleiermacher fleshed out the
apologetic aspects of this theory. The idea is that religion is a projection
of human culture and consciousness, and God is shaped to be a role model for
humanity based on a particular culture’s norms. 11
Not all scholars agree with Weems
In this view metaphors are seen as replaceable and are expected to agree
with current human experience. However, when applying these ideas to a
biblical text the theologian misses the point. As Green points out, ‘the
error of role-model theology is to confuse form with content: to assume that
the cultural language of the story, rather than the narrative depiction of
the protagonist, [in this case both God and Israel] is the theologically
normative content.”12 This can be seen in Weems statements about the use of
metaphors. Referring to Max Black’s work, she writes, Metaphors are not
timelessly applicable to every context nor timelessly relevant to every
generation; the values, assumptions, and worldview inherent in a metaphor
can differ according to context.”13 But Weems is not in the process of
writing scripture, (one hopes), but of interpreting scripture. She is
looking through the lens backwards and she is emptying the text of its true
meaning. Green on the other hand, referring to a book about language and
feminist theology which focuses on Hosea, chapter 2, writes:
The scriptural point of the text is not to provide us with a model of
sex and relationships, distorted or otherwise. Rather the prophet is
talking about God. That he does so in the language of his culture goes
without saying (what other language might we expect him to use?).
Understood in the prophet’s context (and that’s what it means to
understand a text), his metaphor proclaims the love of God.14
Exploring the metaphor of the adulterous wife
So using the metaphor of the adulteress wife as a lens for seeing Israel,
and the metaphor of a hurting betrayed, but loving husband as a lens for
seeing God, the text can help the reader understand God’s relationship to
His people. Looking first at the image of Israel as the wife the reader sees
her from the point of view of God the forsaken and betrayed husband. In
verse two she is told to remove ‘signs of prostitution from her face, and
her signs of adultery from between her breasts.” This could mean either
that she dressed as a prostitute or may simply refer to her adultery and
prostitution. Douglas Stuart suggests that the signs may also be referring
to ‘amulets worn by women in Baal worship.” He, however, goes on to say
that there is no confirmation of this idea.15 In verse 5 she intentionally
makes plans: ‘For she said, I will go after my lovers.”’ Calvin expands on
the word _said_ in the verse. He writes, ‘But by introducing the word,
_said_, he [the prophet] amplifies the shamelessness of the people, who
deliberately forsook their God, who was to them as a legitimate husband.”16
She also gives the lovers credit for all the good she receives. ‘Those who
gave me food and water, wool and flax, oil and drink.”
Stuart, as do other scholars, considers ‘the lovers” the Baals. He writes,
‘ While perhaps not officially sanctioned by Jeroboam II, Baal worship was
freely tolerated so that it flourished among the populace in a syncretism
with Yahwism.”17 David Allan Hubbard goes further in describing Israel’s
devotion to the Baals. He writes,
The participial style with which she chants the lists of gifts virtually
makes her words a hymn to the Baals (a close parallel in a hymn to
Yahweh is Ps. 136:25: he who gives [is giving] bread to all flesh’).
Graspingly, she has claimed all this beneficence as her own, with the
Hebrew suffix _my_ attached to every noun. A two-fold error this: credit
to the wrong giver; possessiveness by a selfish recipient.18
The chasing after lovers or the Baals is enlarged in verse eleven where God
tells Israel he will end ‘all her gaiety, her feasts, her new moons, her
Sabbaths and all her festal assemblies.” Hubbard explains that the prophet
uses a ‘repetition of the pronouns” as a means of showing how Israel had
turned the special days meant for Yahweh into her worship of Baal. Hubbard
goes on to explain that:
The agricultural character of the pilgrimage feasts made them readily
adaptable to the fertility cult whose purpose was to assure regularity
of harvest and abundance of produce. The _new moon_ and _sabbath_, which
had counterparts in other Middle Eastern religions, may well have become
corrupted by the astrological practices of Israel’s neighbors as well as
by the sexual rites against which Hosea inveighs.19
Stuart concurs with Hubbard on this point. ‘Though these holidays were in
their origin legitimate, they had been turned into days of Baal’ by Israel,
thus syncretistic in nature.”20 Stuart enlarges on these issues when
addressing Hosea chapter four. The verses are, ‘Shall I not punish your
daughters, since they turn to prostitution? And your daughters-in-law, since
they commit adultery? Indeed, the men make offerings with prostitutes, and
sacrifice with the cult prostitutes! A people that lacks understanding must
be ruined because it turns to prostitution.”(4:14) The verse involves all
the people in an affair with Baal. Stuart sees the women being charged in
this verse with ‘theological heterodoxy,” and the men with real physical
interaction with both female and male cult prostitutes. He writes of the
men, ‘Then they would have intercourse with cult prostitutes, as a ritual
act of sympathetic magic,’ designed to stimulate the god(s) of fertility to
fertilize the land.”21 This combination of self-centeredness and false
worship went hand in hand for Israel, as did real prostitution and false
worship. Stuart writes:
By supplementing their religious base of Yahwism with other forms of
worship . . . apparently effective for their Canaanite neighbors and the
nations surrounding them, the Israelites assumed that they had hit upon
a formula for abundance. A syncretistic religion was not only more
enjoyable, in terms of practices it allowed and/or prescribed, but it
also seemed to bring better results.22
In the metaphor, Yahweh acts startlingly different than a human husband
Yet, Yahweh, the hurt husband, will bring back the straying Israel and cause
her whole attitude to change. The contrast between how God acts in this text
and how a husband might have acted is undoubtedly part of the ‘something
special, odd, and startling,” that Beardsley wrote about in his article on
metaphor. It is not just that God is pictured as an injured husband, but
that His purpose in the treatment of His wife, Israel, is to bring her back
into relationship with Himself, something that theoretically an Israelite
husband would and should not have done. The audience receiving this message
not only sees Yahweh as husband, but also as a husband who seeks a
relationship with a wayward wife.
First, He pleads with her to put away her adultery and prostitution. He
offers her a chance to escape punishment with the word ‘or” in verse three.
Even in his threat to strip her naked is couched a plea to remember the
relationship. He states that He will expose her ‘as on the day when she was
born,” and combines this with pictures of the desert and wilderness;
reminding her that He was the one watching over her in the desert as well as
the one who birthed her out of Egypt.23 In Israel’s attempt to go after her
lovers, the Baals, Yahweh treats her like a farmer might treat a wandering
milk cow. He hedges up ‘her way with thorns,” and builds, ‘a wall against
her so that she cannot find her paths.”(6) Hubbard writes of this
particular verse, ‘The enforced chastity, described in the thorn bushes and
stone walls (cf. the firm hand that God has to keep on the stubborn heifer’
of 5:16) that block the paths to the shrines and cut her off from the Baals,
anticipates the period of discipline and sexual continence in the second
part of the action.” 24 The farmer does not do this to destroy the cow, but
rather to keep her safe.
The list of items the Lord will remove from errant Israel are all those
properties she believes she has received from the Baals: protection,
festivals, produce of the land as well as the riches of other lands. By
removing them Israel will learn who really provides for her. Keren E.
Morrell and Catherine Clark Kroeger put it into the wording of modern
psychology; God will not be an enabler. They write:
God is pictured as stopping the support of his adulteress wife. He does
not enable flagrant promiscuity. The food, clothing, water, material
comforts and wealth-which were his contractual obligations in the
marriage covenant (Ex 21:10; Ezek 16:10)were abrogated when the covenant
was broken. The stripping bare was the lesser of two punishments for an
adulterous wife (Ezek 16:39), the other being stoning. Yahweh distances
himself from the behavior, but he waits for his repentant wife to
Stuart agrees and writes that, ‘The Israelites felt no urgency to return to
Yahweh as long as he blessed them with plenty. So he must deprive them
severely. They will be driven by their loneliness and misery back to him
(Deut 4:30). 26 With this reference to Deut. 4:30 Stuart reminds the reader
of Yahweh’s promise to the people in the desert, ‘When you are in distress
and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days you will return
to the Lord your God, and listen to His voice.” This is connected to the
passage which promises that God is compassionate, and ‘He will not fail you
nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to
them”(Deut.4: 31) And so Hosea states that because Israel has been hedged
in and removed from her false lovers, she will say ‘I will go back to my
first husband, for it was better for me then than now.”
The wayward Israel is put in such a position by her husband, Yahweh, that
she cannot move with her self-interest married to a false understanding of
her own welfare. God has removed any delusions. Unlike Weems who sees this
God as one who ‘is out of control,”27 the prophet portrays a God who acts
with a definite and solid determination to bring about the relationship with
Israel. Abraham J. Heschel writes of God’s anger, ‘It is never a spontaneous
outburst, but rather a state which is occasioned and conditioned by man.
There is no belief in divine arbitrariness, in anger which consumes and
afflicts without moral justification.”28 Yahweh corrects, disciplines and
woos Israel back to Himself.
At the end of chapter two, the picture of the Lord’s betrothal to His people
encompasses nature and the cosmic order. God makes a covenant with the
beasts and birds and creeping things, He removes the ‘sword and war from the
land.” The earth will once again bring forth the grain, wine and oil. Weems
points out that, ‘many of the same extended metaphors from the natural world
in 2:9-13 are alluded to and assumed in 2:18-22.” She enlarges on this:
In the former, the husband hisses at the nature festivals the wife takes
part in, and threatens to banish her from them and from any other
rituals that might occupy her time. To deflect attention away from his
previous threats of isolating her, the husband turns around in 2:13f.
and describes their reunion in language reminiscent of an outdoor
wedding ceremony. Wild animals, birds, creeping animals are all invited
to join with them in this covenant-making ceremony, witnessing their
oaths and sharing their joy.29
Weems misses the point
Weems totally misses the meaning of this text because of her methodology. It
is not because the rituals ‘occupy her time” that He hisses at the rituals.
The Lord hisses at them because they include the worship of Baal and all
that that entails. The Lord is not picturing an ‘outdoor wedding” in order
to ‘deflect attention away from his previous threats.” He is poetically
proclaiming the redemption of creation. The husband to be, seen here, is not
the earthly husband, but the Lord of all the earth. The One who is lord of
all nature and lord of all nations. There is a true festival in this
picture, with peace both among the nations and with nature. There is a
faithful bride and a reason for singing. Most important is the emphasis on
all of this as the work of the creator Yahweh. He removes, ‘the names of the
Baals from her mouth.” God, who created all things good, makes covenant
‘with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky and the creeping
things of the ground. God, who uses His wrath to bring redemption, abolishes
war from the land. God, who loves, betroths Israel to Himself. God, who
works in history, calls those who are not His people and they respond, ‘You
are my God!”
1 Douglas Stuart sees verse 2:1 as a part of the first chapter. ‘Hebrew
verse number 2:1 equals 1:10 in the English translations, where chap. 2
starts at Hebrew 2:3.” This places verse 2:1 as part of the blessing that
begins with 1:10 in the Christian Bible. The call for repentance and the
curse would begin with verse 2. This fits since verse one could be
translated, ‘Call your brothers ‘My People,” and your sisters ‘Shown
Compassion.” See Douglas Stuart, _World Biblical Commentary: Hosea-Jonah,_
David A. Hubbard & Glenn W. Barker, Ed. Old Testament Ed. John D.W. Watts,
Vol. 31, (Waco, Texas: Word Books 1987) 35. Michael Fishbane also refers to
this as blessing, see _The JPS Bible Commentary_: Haftarot, Michael Fishbane
commentary, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society 2002), 210.
2 Ibid., 555.
3 Renita J. Weems, _Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew
Prophets_, Overtures To Biblical Theology, Walter Brueggemann, et al, eds.
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1995) 71.
4 Ibid., 21.
5 Monroe C. Beardsley, ‘Metaphor,” in _The Encyclopedia of Philosophy_,
Paul Edwards, Ed., Vol 5 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., & The Free
Press; London: Collier Macmillan Publishers 1967) 285.
7 G.B. Caird, _The Language and Imagery of the Bible_, N.T. Wright,
foreword, (London: Gerald Duckworth 1980, Grand rapids: Eerdmans 1997) 145.
8 Ibid., 152.
9 Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, ‘Metaphor,” in _Dictionary of Feminist
Theologies_, Letty M. Russell & J. Shannon Clarkson, Eds. (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox Press 1996), 179.
10 Garrett Green, ‘The Gender of God and the Theology of Metaphor,” in
_Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of
Feminism_, Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., Ed. (Leominster, England: Gracewing
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1992) 44.
11 Ibid., 47,48.
12 Ibid., 56.
13 Weems, _Battered Love_, 25.
14 Green, _Gender of God_, n.25, 60.
15 Stuart, _World Commentary_, 47.
16 John Calvin, _Hosea: The Minor Prophets_, The Geneva series of
Commentaries, Vol. 1, The Banner of Truth Trust Edition, (Edinburgh: Banner
of Truth Trust 1986) 84.
17 Stuart, _World Commentary_, 48.
18 David Allen Hubbard, _Hosea: An introduction & Commentary_, Tyndale old
Testament Commentaries, D. J. Wiseman, Ed. (Leicester, England: intervarsity
Press 1989) 75.
19 Ibid., 79.
20 Stuart, _World Commentary_, 51.
21 Ibid., 82, 83.
22 Ibid., 87.
23 Fishbane, _Haftarot_, n., 5 reference to Targum, Rashi, and Ibn Ezra,
24 Hubbard, _Hosea_, 75.
25 Keren E. Morrell & Catherine Clark Kroeger, ‘Hosea,” _The IVP Women’s
Bible Commentary,_ Catherine Clark Kroeger & Mary J. Evans, Eds., (Downers
Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press 2002), 436.
26 Stuart, _World Commentary_, 49, 50.
27 Weems, _Battered Love_, 83.
28 Abraham J. Heschel, _The Prophets_, 1st Perennial Classics Edition,
(Harper & Row, 1962: Perennial Classics 2001) 381.
29 Weems, _Battered Love_, 93.