The meaning of the simile “like a twig on the face of waters” in Hosea 10:7

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 10:7, Hosea provides a rather ambiguous simile—כְּקֶ֖צֶף עַל־פְּנֵי־מָֽיִם. Making matters worse, the referent of this simile is also obscure. But, to understand this verse, and to have a better understanding of this judgment oracle at large, the exegete does well to investigate this matter in detail.

Various “sub-exegetical issues” are involved in this larger exegetical issue. (1) The meaning of קֶצֶף. Although קֶצֶף everywhere else means wrath, many translations suggest twig or foam due to the language “on the face of the waters” (“wrath on the surface of the waters” makes little sense). But, if twig is the correct rendering here, this is an anomaly. In support of this understanding are the ancient versions. For example, the LXX reads φρύγανον (piece of dry wood). McComiskey also notes a form of the word in Joel 1:7 which means the splintering of a tree. (2) A part of understanding the significance of a metaphor or simile, or any comparison for that matter, is determining what characteristic(s) is shared by the compared elements. In this case, what attribute does a twig on the water have that Samaria’s king also has? Helpful in answering this question are two more questions: (a) what is known about twigs on the surface the water; and (b) what is known about this king of Samaria? Regarding question b, oftentimes thinking in the reverse direction of a given comparison (e.g., asking, How does the king of Samaria help us understand the twig, rather than just, How does the twig help us understand the king?) can be extremely insightful. These questions should set the agenda for this exegetical investigation. Garrett seems to get the meaning of the simile right when he says, “one thing that characterizes a stick on water, regardless of how rapidly the water moves, is that the stick is simply moved along with the water. That is, the stick is entirely subject to movements over which it has no control” (212). Using a contemporary idiom one might describe this as “being under the thumb” of another. The historical background of this simile may refer to exile or diplomacy. But, either way, the point of the metaphor seems to be a lack of control in these events, whatever they are. Hence, the events have a sense of inevitability. (3) What is the meaning of דּמה here? According to lexicons, דּמה can either mean something like to destroy, to be silent, or to be similar. Further, the NIV seems to suggest the idea of to float away here. McComiskey (169) suggests the idea of to cease, i.e., the cessation of the monarchy. Because this verb in many ways determines the meaning of one element of the comparison, its meaning is significant. And, unfortunately, given its ambiguity, כְּקֶ֖צֶף עַל־פְּנֵי־מָֽיִם does little to clarify the verb’s meaning. (4) How should one understand the clausal structure of this verse? In other words, should the verse be rendered (a) something like the YLT, “Cut off is Samaria! Its king is as a chip on the face of the waters,” where נִדְמֶ֥ה שֹׁמְר֖וֹן and מַלְכָּ֑הּ כְּקֶ֖צֶף עַל־פְּנֵי־מָֽיִם are seen as two separate clauses; (b) like the ASV, “As for Samaria, her king is cut off, as foam upon the water,” where is שֹׁמְר֖וֹן is understood somewhat like a nominative absolute, setting the context for the statement; or (c) something like the ESV, “Samaria’s king shall perish like a twig on the face of the waters,” which understands all of 10:7 as one clause withכְּקֶ֖צֶף עַל־פְּנֵי־מָֽיִם modifying the verb נִדְמֶ֥ה. These differences are significant because they change the referent of the comparison (in turn affecting issue #2). With view a the comparison is directly between the king and the twig. In views b and c the comparison is directly concerned with the king’s destruction (נִדְמֶ֥ה; or silence or similarity; cf. issue #3) and therefore only indirectly concerned with the king who is the subject of that verb. With just this short overview of the “sub-issues” involved, one can easily see how complex and convoluted an issue like this can become.

My own tentative conclusions are as follows. (1) Given the language “on the face of the waters,” the LXX rendering, and the parallel with Joel 1:17, it seems best to take קֶצֶף as “twig.” (2) Concerning the nature of the simile, Garrett seems correct to suggest the idea of being entirely subject to an external force, having no control over one’s movements. This likely refers to impending exile but may (also) refer to Samaria’s political situation. But, either way, it is interpreted as divine judgment. (3) The most natural way to understand the meaning of דּמה here appears to be to destroy. This fits the judgment oracle context. (4) Given the nature of the simile (issue #2), it seems best to understand the clausal structure of the verse as option a. It seems odd to describe destruction (דּמה) like a twig in the water; but to describe the king (and by extension, his people) as such is insightful and descriptive. In other words, their destruction isn’t like the twig (what would that even mean?); but due to their destruction, they themselves will be like that twig.