What does YHWH mean in Hosea 1:2 when he says that Hosea should marry a “wife of prostitution”?

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Eric Tully’s Advanced Hebrew Exegesis of Hosea course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Please note: I use the Hebrew Bible’s chapter and verse references below, which can at times be different than what one will find in our English translations.

In Hosea 1:2, a unique construction appears. Hosea is told to take as his wife a אשתזנונים, a woman of [something related to sexual immorality]. Commentators are divided over the meaning of this phrase; and various interpretations are provided. Some suggest a prostitute, more specifically, a cult prostitute; others suggest an immoral woman; still others suggest a woman with tendencies towards adultery; and the list goes on. This issue is no small debate but is vital in interpreting the rest of the book. One might rightly say that one’s interpretation of אשתזנונים sets an interpretive agenda for the rest of the book. This is because Hosea’s marriage to this woman is the central speech-act of which the book is exposition.

אשת זנונים form a construct chain in which זנונים attributes certain qualities toאשת. In other words, this is a woman characterized by זנונים. Lexically, the meaning of this phrase is somewhat vague. For example, the LXX translates זנונים as πορνείας (a rather generic term for sexual immorality). HALOT describes זנונים as fornication, or the status and practice of the זוֹנָה (prostitute; cf. זֹנָה). However, noting that commentators are divided, HALOT also mentions the possibility of an inclination to fornication. But despite lexical ambiguity, two rather noteworthy uses of זנונים occur in Gen 28:24 (cf. 38:15), where Judah mistakes Tamar for a prostitute (cf. Gen 38:15), and Nah 3:4, which seems to refer to a prostitute with its mention of charms. Likewise, within the book itself, in Hosea 2:4, זנונים seems to refer to items a prostitute would wear. And, 2:7 may even list items given to a prostitute as compensation (Garrett, 51). Nonetheless, Garrett notes that a word like זֹנָה, which clearly means prostitutes, could have been used if a reference to a prostitute was in fact intended (51). He also warns against making a sharp division between an “occupational” prostitute and a generally immoral woman. Contrary to our contemporary culture in which a woman may be immoral without receiving pay, in the ANE culture of Israel, an immoral woman likely made her living by such immoral practices (51). But, nonetheless, Garrett favors prostitute, and argues that no valid evidence exists for a woman with immoral tendencies (48). Also, adulterous inclination is entirely absent from the book’s message; so, it is further unlikely (Wolff, 13). Based on supposed ANE evidence, Wolff argues that אשתזנונים refers to any woman who had taken part in the initiatory Canaanite sexual fertility rite in Baal worship. Consequently, אשתזנונים would refer to an average Israelite woman (14). According to Stuart, אשתזנונים cannot refer to a soliciting prostitute, for that would require זוֹנָה. זנונים, on the other hand, refers to a trait, not a profession (26). Based on Hos 4:12 and 5:4, and the supposition that actual sexual immorality is absent in the book, Stuart concludes that זנונים refers to inclination to spiritual/religious adultery (26-27).

In conclusion, in order for Gomer’s adultery to serve as an intelligible metaphor, her adultery would have to be sexual (not merely spiritual) and committed against Hosea. Stuart’s interpretation convolutes the metaphor (would this even be a metaphor in this case?) Further, Hosea’s ability/qualification to speak on behalf of God is based on their actual shared experience of an unfaithful wife. Wolff rightly takes the hints to cultic background, something more than mere “non-religious” sexual immorality, in Hosea seriously. However, his overly specific interpretation seems at best possible. And, to read such meanings into אשתזנונים is to stretch the language beyond its capacity; it seems that something ought to be preserved about the vague nature of אשתזנונים. I also heed Garrett’s warning about reading contemporary distinctions between a soliciting, “professional” prostitute and an immoral woman into this exegetical discussion. Therefore, I conclude that אשתזנונים refers to a prostitute/immoral woman, and, in specific application to the book of Hosea, may likely have cultic implications. This tentative and somewhat open interpretation has implications for the rest of the book. One should be careful not to force the rest of the book into a particular mold based on a specific interpretation of אשתזנונים in 1:2. It is key to find a balance within the “hermeneutical spiral” that allows the entire book to inform the meaning of אשתזנונים while allowing אשתזנונים to inform the rest of the book. During the process of our spiral’s narrowing, we should write our conclusions with pencil, not pen, and with eraser in hand.