The meaning of “Ephraim is shepherding the breeze” in Hosea 12:2 (English 12:1)

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 12:2 Hosea accuses Ephraim of רֹעֶ֥ה ר֨וּחַ. This language is clearly poetic and figurative. And as with any figurative language, the exegete does well to investigate the meaning of the figure so as to determine the original author’s intended effect in using such language.

Biblical authors employ figures of speech in order to convey a message more vividly. The effectiveness of such figures lies in a common trait between the figure and the reality to which the figure is applied. Therefore, when analyzing a figure of speech, the exegete’s goal is (a) to determine what aspect of the figure is at focus and (b) how this communicates something about the reality to which the figure refers. In this case, Ephraim is said to be רֹעֶ֥ה ר֨וּחַ. Several factors are involved in this exegetical issue. (1) What is the meaning of רָעָה in this particular incident? (2) What is the meaning of רוּחַ here? (3) How does אֶפְרַ֜יִם רֹעֶ֥ה ר֨וּחַ relate to its parallel line, וְרֹדֵ֣ף קָדִ֔ים כָּל־הַיּ֕וֹם? And (4) how does this figure of speech relate to the rest of the verse, which speaks primarily of making a covenant with Assyria? These four questions should provide a framework for examing this exegetical issue. (1) The meaning of רָעָה. רָעָה can mean to feed or to shepherd, to pasture, to let graze. Many English translations translate this participle as “feeds” (ASV, KJV, NASB, ESV, NET, NIV, NLT). But one has to ask, what does it mean to feed on the wind? McComiskey answers this question by arguing that it refers to a stupid animal biting at the wind (198). The RSV, on the other hand, renders רֹעֶ֥ה as “herds” (cf. the HCSB’s “chases”). Garrett (235) notes that רָעָה “can mean to ‘feed on’ in the sense of cattle grazing on the land, but it means to ‘shepherd’ when used of a human.” And since nothing in the context indicates Ephraim has taken on a cattle identity, he concludes that “shepherd” is the meaning here. The parallel verb רָדַף seems to support the idea of shepherding. In this case, Ephraim would be accused of trying to control something that is beyond its control. Wolff (149, 206) and Stuart (185) (and seemingly the YLT) understand the root of the participle to be רעה, to befriend, which fits the consonantal text. This would make sense of the parallel with וְרֹדֵ֣ף קָדִ֔ים כָּל־הַיּ֕וֹם, where both lines would refer to making covenant with Assyria which is depicted here as a scorching wind (see issues 3 and 4). (2) The meaning of רוּחַ. רוּחַ can refer to the wind, the Spirit of YHWH, a human spirit, breath, etc. Given the parallel with קָדִים (east-wind), wind seems to be the best sense here. (3) The relationship to the parallel line, וְרֹדֵ֣ף קָדִ֔ים כָּל־הַיּ֕וֹם. As many commentators note, קָדִים was a miserable, intensely hot dry desert wind. And, as Stuart (191) says, only a suicidal fool would pursue it. Or, as Garrett (235) says, “In modern terms Israel is playing with fire.” The question is, should אֶפְרַ֜יִם רֹעֶ֥ה ר֨וּחַ be understood primarily as meaning something equivalent to this parallel line, or should it be understood as carrying a more unique nuance? (4) Relationship to the rest of the verse. As one examines the rest of the verse, one easily realizes that this figure of speech serves as language for unapproved and foolish covenant-making with Assyria.

In conclusion, this author thinks it is best to interpret the verb as רעה, to befriend. This makes the best sense of the parallel between אֶפְרַ֜יִם רֹעֶ֥ה ר֨וּחַ and וְרֹדֵ֣ף קָדִ֔ים כָּל־הַיּ֕וֹם and the verse at large. Ephraim befriends the wind. Specifically, she pursues a wind that only scorches her in the end. And what this refers to practically speaking is Ephraim’s covenant-making with Assyria. To shepherd the wind is another reasonable explanation. But this rendering would convey more the idea of Ephraim lacking control, whereas the parallel line (וְרֹדֵ֣ף קָדִ֔ים כָּל־הַיּ֕וֹם) refers more to the destructive nature of this covenant-making. Thus, רעה should be taken as to befriend. In short, אֶפְרַ֜יִם רֹעֶ֥ה ר֨וּחַ refers to Ephraim’s harmful covenant making.