What is the referent of the “priest” in Hosea 4?

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 the final line of 4:4, Hosea specifies that God’s accusation is specifically directed against כֹּהֵן. However, what is the identity of this כֹּהֵן? Who is the referent? The purpose of this brief paper is to investigate this exegetical issue. Its importance is seen by the fact that the entire section of 4:4-10 is an accusation against כֹּהֵן. Hence, the details of 4:4-10 relate to the identity of this כֹּהֵן, and vice versa.

Three primary positions exist. (1) Many understand כֹּהֵן (singular) to be a “collective singular” referring to the priesthood (e.g., Garrett, Stuart). (2) Others understand Hosea to be addressing a specific priest. For example, Wolff represents this position: “The כהן addressed here is probably a high official of an important sanctuary” (77). And (3), several commentators understand כֹּהֵן (singular) to refer to a specific priest; but, nonetheless, understand this priest to be representative of the priesthood at large. For example, Dearman understands vv.4-6 as a direct address to a specific priest. Yet, since “in the context there will be further critique of priests [plural] and the priesthood…the singular address and the individual here may be representative in nature” (157). Several factors are involved in this exegetical issue. (1) Grammatically. Wolff, argues that “כֹּהֵן never has a collective meaning in the vocative” (77). If this is true, this observation would rule out a collective use in 4:4. (2) The use of both singular and plural references. Throughout 4:4-10, the priest is referred to with both singular and plural references. The variance occurs between both verbs and nominal forms. Garrett interprets the plural verbs in 4:7 as clarifying or assuming a collective singular use in 4:4-6 (118). Explaining how a singular use of כֹּהֵן could refer to the priesthood at large (collective singular) is much easier than explaining a 3rd person plural as referring to an individual priest. Wolff, however, evades this predicament by seeing a shift in reference from a singular priest in vv.4-6 to priests (plural) in v.7 (80). But, noteworthy is the fact that Hosea uses a 3rd person, singular pronominal suffix on נַפְשֹֽׁו amidst and with 3rd person, plural verbs. This is likely a collective singular with the plural subjects of these verbs as its antecedent. This particular incident may shed light on the broader use of singulars in 4:4-10 referring to כֹּהֵן, i.e., collective use. However, de Regt notes that in Hosea “a brief change in grammatical person…frequently marks the beginning or end of a paragraph” (250). If this is true, determining whether the actual referent is individual or collective may be difficult to determine by merely usingperson alone. However, de Regt’s conclusion would mean that a shift in person does not mean a shift in referent (250), which some (e.g., Dearman, Wolff) propose. (3) Personal details. As Wolff notes, the mention of personal details such as the punishment of mother and sons favors a specific referent for כֹּהֵן (77). However, mother and children were already used metaphorically in chs. 1-3 to refer to Israel institutionally and the Israelites specifically. Further, even Wolff admits that these threats are “obscure” (80). (4) A parallel with נָבִיא in 4:5. Some commentators (e.g., Stuart, 77) understand this as a referent to the prophetic office (collective singular). Therefore, the parallel priest is also seen as collective. But this interpretation could be challenged. (5) A parallel with Amos 7:10-17. Many commentators recognize a parallel with Amos 7:10 in which Amos rebukes a specific priest, Amaziah. Similarly, Amos also threatened both children and wife (Wolff, 78). Depending on how exactly this parallel should is meant to be understood (if it is meant to be understood at all), one could argue that Hosea also has a specific priest in view (e.g., Wolff, 77). (6) The accusation. One might argue that such a devastating consequence, i.e., lack of knowledge among the entire people (4:6), is beyond the scope of one particular priest’s failure. If true, כֹּהֵן would need to be understood as either collective or representative.

In conclusion, I favor understanding the referent as either collective or representative, but more likely collective. The national (widespread) consequences of the failure of the כֹּהֵן seem incompatible with a specific referent. And the 3rd person plurals along with the seeming collective singular pronominal suffix on נַפְשֹֽׁו lean towards a collective or representative use. I prefer a collective referent over a representative one because Hosea is speaking of a widespread problem; and the details he provides do not seem to require that a specific referent be in view.