Is Hosea 13:14 a positive (salvation) or negative (judgment) oracle?

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.

As Stuart (207) states, “The understanding of the couplet and triplet which comprise v 14 hinges on how one interprets ambiguous Hebrew clauses.” Namely, that which is ambiguous is whether Hosea intended 3:14 to be understood as containing a promise of salvation or merely a declaration of judgment. Determining the meaning of this verse is important for understanding this passage at large as well as understanding Paul’s use of this language in 1 Cor 15:55.

Various interrelated factors are involved in this exegetical issue. (1) Are מִיַּ֤ד שְׁאוֹל֙ אֶפְדֵּ֔ם מִמָּ֖וֶת אֶגְאָלֵ֑ם questions or statements? If questions, then they would seem to be rhetorical questions denoting that, in fact, YHWH would not redeem Israel. However, the answer to these questions could be understood as purposefully unclear—either a positive or negative reply being possible. On the other hand, if statements, then they would be explicitly positive, promising redemption to Israel. Related to one’s conclusion regarding this first issue are the following issues. (2) Do the two statements אֱהִ֨י דְבָרֶיךָ֜ מָ֗וֶת אֱהִ֤י קָֽטָבְךָ֙ שְׁא֔וֹל serve as taunts or invitations for death and Sheol to bring their worst? And (3) how does this final clause נֹ֖חַם יִסָּתֵ֥ר מֵעֵינָֽ, which is clearly negative, relate to the previous two issues (#1 and #2)? (4) For what it’s worth, one might also consider Paul’s use of this verse in 1 Cor 15:55. Paul clearly attributes a positive meaning to these words. The question is, is he employing these words with their original meaning or is he demonstrating an ‘ironic’ use of this text? (5) Interestingly the Vulgate and KJV seem to understand אְֶהִי as a 1CS imperfect verb from היה. For instance, the KJV reads, “O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction.” If plausible, this suggestion would certainly add another factor to the discussion. Finally, (6) how does this verse relate to the surrounding context? Specifically, if this verse contains a positive salvation element, how does one handle its seeming incongruity with the surrounding judgment oracle? Stuart (200, 207) sees the context of judgment, especially the final clause, נֹ֖חַם יִסָּתֵ֥ר מֵעֵינָֽ, as decisive. Hence, he takes מִיַּ֤ד שְׁאוֹל֙ אֶפְדֵּ֔ם מִמָּ֖וֶת אֶגְאָלֵ֑ם as questions assuming a negative reply. He understands אֱהִ֨י דְבָרֶיךָ֜ מָ֗וֶת אֱהִ֤י קָֽטָבְךָ֙ שְׁא֔וֹל as “divine summons for the covenant punishments to commence” (cf. Mays, 182). On the other hand, Garrett (265) understands this verse to contain positive and negative oracles. In light of אֱהִ֨י דְבָרֶיךָ֜ מָ֗וֶת אֱהִ֤י קָֽטָבְךָ֙ שְׁא֔וֹל, which he understands as taunts and therefore positive, he insists that מִיַּ֤ד שְׁאוֹל֙ אֶפְדֵּ֔ם מִמָּ֖וֶת אֶגְאָלֵ֑ם  is best translated as statements and therefore expressing God’s determination to save Israel. In support of understanding אֱהִ֨י דְבָרֶיךָ֜ מָ֗וֶת אֱהִ֤י קָֽטָבְךָ֙ שְׁא֔וֹל as taunts he notes that “it is very common for ‘where’ [אְֶהִי] to introduce a taunt directed at an impotent enemy or god (Deut 32:37; Judg 9:38; 2 Kgs 18:34; 19:13; Pss 42:3, 10; 79:10; 115:2; Isa 19:12; 36:19; 37:13; Jer 17:15; Joel 2:17; Mic 7:10).” Regarding how his interpretation relates to the final clause (issue #3) and the surrounding context (#6), Garrett explains that this seeming incompatibility is part of Hosea’s rhetorical strategy: “The purpose of the strategy is to maintain the certainty of salvation in the ultimate plan of God while yet confronting Israel with the reality of their doom in a manner that does not allow for rationalistic evasion.” McComiskey (223-224) likewise understands מִיַּ֤ד שְׁאוֹל֙ אֶפְדֵּ֔ם מִמָּ֖וֶת אֶגְאָלֵ֑ם as statements of salvation promised and argues that it is not uncommon for Hosea to abruptly juxtapose oracles of salvation and judgment. And in support of interpreting מִיַּ֤ד שְׁאוֹל֙ אֶפְדֵּ֔ם מִמָּ֖וֶת אֶגְאָלֵ֑ם as a statement rather than a question, he notes that none of Hosea’s clauses composed of a preposition and an imperfect verb are interrogative (see 5:10; 7:4, 12, 14, 15).

In conclusion, it seems best to understand this verse as containing an explicit salvation oracle placed adjacent to an oracle of judgment for rhetorical purposes. Since אֱהִ֨י דְבָרֶיךָ֜ מָ֗וֶת אֱהִ֤י קָֽטָבְךָ֙ שְׁא֔וֹל  are likely taunts—it seems difficult to take them as summons of punishment—the first two clause are better understood as statements promising salvation despite impending destruction (cf. נֹ֖חַם יִסָּתֵ֥ר מֵעֵינָ).