The meaning of the imagery in Hosea 13:12 – “The transgression of Ephraim is being bundled up; his sin is being stored up”

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 3:12, Hosea says, צָרוּר֙ עֲוֹ֣ן אֶפְרָ֔יִם צְפוּנָ֖ה חַטָּאתוֹֽ (“The transgression of Ephraim is being bundled up. His sin is being stored up”). But what exactly does Hosea mean by this sin being צרר (“wrapped up”) and צָפַן (“treasured” or “stored”)? Is this intended to convey some negative idea or a positive concept? And how does the context influence one’s understanding of this imagery? Unfortunately, as Andersen and Freedman (637) note, “The connection of 13:12 with its context is not easy to trace;” and “neither of the adjacent verses seems to throw light on it.” Furthermore, given the abstract nature of sin (חַטָּאת) and iniquity (עָוֹן), what could it possibly mean to pack them up and hide them away? The exegete does well to investigate these matters. Therefore, this paper will examine the meaning of this imagery employed in Hosea 3:12.

Andersen and Freedman (637-638) suggest that this imagery could refer to leaving sin concealed, i.e., Israel not admitting her guilt. Nonetheless, they prefer a different interpretation. Noting the potential background of storing away precious manuscripts in caves, they suggest understanding the verbs (צרר and צָפַן) as having to do with storing something for safekeeping and the nouns (עָוֹן and חַטָּאת) as referring to idols—Israel’s specific sin. However, as Garrett insightfully comments, “It is not likely that the text means that the Israelites have been concealing their guilt [or their idols], since the fertility cult that Yahweh condemns was a very public part of Israelite life” (262). Stuart (206) understandsצָרוּר֙ עֲוֹ֣ן אֶפְרָ֔יִם as meaning something like, “The payback of the long history of Israel’s disloyalty is still ‘on hold,’ as it were” and צְפוּנָ֖ה חַטָּאתוֹֽ as meaning that “this sin [specifically Israel’s idolatry and polytheism mentioned in vv.2-6] has been noted and will not be forgotten or forgiven until punished.” Wolff (227-228) insists that this imagery must be understood in light of the context of the previous verses which list a long chain of national transgressions. Citing Isa 8:16, he argues that the background of this language is the binding, sealing (צרר), and preserving (צָפַן) of legal documents. The meaning: Israel’s “guilt … remains in effect, as though it were laid away in a nonrevisable legal record….” Thus, v.12 relates to the litany of sins and judgment that immediately precede. Similarly, McComiskey (223) comments on this imagery, “We must think of Ephraim’s guilt as having been sealed, all of it carefully kept in store.” It denotes the ultimacy of Hosea’s doom-statement. In contrast to these interpretations stands Garrett (262-263). In light of what he sees as a parallel with Zech 5:5-11, Garrett interprets Hosea as essentially saying that the evil of Israel must be contained and removed, which is accomplished in her exile—an act of judgment, yet also an act of grace in this sense. But this interpretation seems dubious and strained.

In closing, it seems best to understand this imagery as a way of expressing Israel’s impending doom. The couplet is best understood as expressing one unified idea. And, if Wolff is correct about the legal document background, the idea here is that Israel’s guilt is not forgotten or dismissed but demands a punishment which is as sure as an irreversible legal document.