The meaning of “like the bread of mourners to them” in Hosea 9:4

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.

Although Hosea 9:4 contains various difficulties, its individual phrases are relatively easy to translate and interpret compared to many parts of the book of Hosea. However, when viewed as a whole, the situation described in 9:4 is quite difficult to determine. A few things are clear in this verse; but how they relate is not. This problem is compounded by those aspects of the verse that are not clear. Central to a proper understanding 9:4 appears to be the meaning of כְּלֶ֤חֶם אוֹנִים֙ לָהֶ֔ם. In an endeavor to shed light on the meaning of 9:4 as a whole, this paper will seek to examine briefly various factors related to the meaning ofכְּלֶ֤חֶם אוֹנִים֙ לָהֶ֔ם  in its present context.

Several issues are involved here. Unsurprisingly, they are interconnected, which makes matters quite complicated. (1) כְּלֶ֤חֶם אוֹנִים֙ לָהֶ֔ם is a verbless clause. A being verb seems implied. But (2) this leaves the question, what is the referent of the כְּ‍ preposition? All that is explicitly said here is, [something] is like mourners’ bread. But what is that something? Could this be the people, their sacrifices, or something else (e.g., their bread—unstated [McComiskey, 140])? (3) How does זִבְחֵיהֶ֗ם fit into the syntax of this verse? Does it function as the referent of the כְּ‍ preposition, cf. the ASV and KJV translation: “Their sacrifices shall be unto them the bread of mourners”? Or, does זִבְחֵיהֶ֗ם belong with the preceding clause (cf. most modern translations)? (4) How does this metaphor relate to the surrounding clauses? (a) This issue requires determining what the surrounding clauses mean, cf. does ערב mean to please (McComiskey, 140)or to enter (i.e., to enter to make an offering; Andersen and Freedman, 140); what does נֶפֶשׁ mean (e.g., oneself, one’s desires [McComiskey, 140], one’s throat [Wolff, 155; Stuart, 140]); and what is the referent of בֵּ֥ית יְהוָֽה (e.g., the temple, the land)? (b) It requires presenting a sensible explanation of the relationship of כְּלֶ֤חֶם אוֹנִים֙ לָהֶ֔ם to the surrounding clauses. (5) What is the historical background behind this metaphor? Without necessarily identifying specifics, two options seem possible based on to what Hosea has referred: (a) an unproductive harvest (Garrett, 191-192) and/or (b) expulsion from the land (Stuart, 143). This fifth issue is important because it informs not only many other aspects of this verse but also how mourners’ bread functions as a good metaphor for the situation being described. In other words, in order to understand the metaphor, one does well to understand the historical referent of the metaphor. And, last but not least, (6) what is mourners’ bread and what is its significance (see Num 19:11-22; Deut 26:14; Ezek 24:17)? Unlike the other issues, the answer to this question is quite clear. It also sheds much light on the other issues. Those in mourning were considered unclean due to contact with the dead. Therefore, their bread was unclean and all who ate it were likewise unclean (cf. כָּל־אֹכְלָ֖יו יִטַמָּ֑אוּ). It was suitable only for unclean mourners (cf. כִּֽי־לַחְמָ֣ם לְנַפְשָׁ֔ם), not offerings at the worship (cf.לֹ֥א יָב֖וֹא בֵּ֥ית יְהוָֽה).

In conclusion, any acceptable interpretation must make sense of all of these factors both coherently and satisfactorily. This author’s tentative interpretation is as follows: In God’s judgment, the people will become exiled (v.3). As a result, they will no longer be able to make offerings to God (v.4a). The people’s food will be food that is literally unclean (v.4b; cf. v.3), and hence like mourners bread. Consequently, it will be food used purely for eating (v.4a) seeing it is unfit as an offering to God (v.4c). In sum, their food source will be like mourners’ bread— (1) unclean, (2) unfit for worship, and (3) only suitable to be eaten by those who are unclean (e.g., mourners).