J.A. Dearman, The Book of Hosea

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Dearman, J. Andrew, The Book of Hosea (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010). Pp. xiv + 408. Hardcover. US $45.00. ISBN 978-0802-82539-1.

J. Andrew Dearman offers his readers a thorough and holistic analysis of the book of Hosea, a decidedly difficult task in regard to syntax, lexemes, and metaphors. This addition to the NICOT commentary series is well researched and thoughtful. It is a solid mid to upper-level commentary that will benefit students, pastors, and scholars alike. Dearman's approach is largely historical, though he also engages with the poetry, rhetoric, and structure of Hosea. In regard to history, Dearman attributes the majority of Hosea to the eighth-century prophet by the same name and the remainder to anonymous Hoseanic disciples who continued Hosea's work after his death (p. 3). Dearman understands the book of Hosea primarily as a theological response to the Assyrian threat posed by the Syro-Ephaimite rebellion and the subsequent destruction of Samaria by Assyrian forces in 722 b.c.e. (pp. 3, 179–83). He tentatively proposes that Hosea's prophecies were preserved in written form by the time of the destruction of Samaria (p. 19). He asserts that even if this were not the case, the writing as a whole should be interpreted in light of that time period (p. 31). He does, however, allow for the possibility of editorial updates throughout the book, positing the scenario that the book developed into its current state through the work of pre-exilic editors living in Judah. Although Dearman proposes a date for the original composition no later than the end of the eighth century, his commitment to this view is open to consideration, and he claims to hold it “undogmatically” (p. 6).

In addition to Dearman's historical orientation, he offers readers a “root metaphor” or interpretive lens for understanding Hosea (p. 11). Shifting images in Hosea often become problematic for interpreters (i.e. husband, wife, children, land). As Dearman explores the images in Hosea, he proposes that the root metaphor is that of the “household.” For Dearman, God as head of the household is the unifying motif of the entire book. In this way, whether the image of God is husband, father, shepherd, cultivator, or king—and whether the image of Israel is wife, child, animal, land, or inheritance—the overarching metaphor of a household head and subordinates is present throughout Hosea. Dearman finds this method more helpful than the common approach of using the husband/wife relationship as the root metaphor because the household model has the flexibility to incorporate most or all of the images used in Hosea.

Dearman divides the text of Hosea into two larger sections. The first is chapters 1–3, which explore Hosea's family. Hosea's relationship to his wife, Gomer, and three children is the dominant metaphor for YHWH's interaction with Israel in this section. Dearman understands Hos 1–3 as an edited unity that conveys the larger theme of Israel's rejection and subsequent restoration rather than a chronological rehashing of events that coincide with Israel's history. Dearman conceptualizes Hosea's marriage to a “prostitute” as a prophetic sign act similar to those carried out by Isaiah (children's names) and Ezekiel (lying on his side for many days) (pp. 45, 83). In addition to these larger interpretive claims, Dearman asks questions of the text which he hopes will be helpful to interpreters such as, “Would a moral God require an immoral union between Hosea and a prostitute” (p. 82)? To answer this difficult question, Dearman provides a series of options and concludes that it is plausible that Gomer was not yet a prostitute when Hosea married her and became one only after the marriage (p. 84). It becomes clear that Dearman conceives of Hosea, Gomer, and their children as historical individuals and their activities (i.e. prostitution, name changes, and marriage/remarriage) as historical events. For Dearman, God used the sign act of Hosea's marriage to a prostitute to describe Israel's cultic sins metaphorically. Hosea himself was a prophet who belonged to an “opposition party” that contested the religious practices that took place in Israel (p. 30). Dearman holds that Hosea's accusations and sign acts were primarily aimed at Israel's religious transgressions but that they also expressed condemnation of alliances with foreign nations (pp. 48–49).

Dearman continues the household “root metaphor” in the second major section of Hosea, chapters 4–14. In addition, he conceptualizes these chapters as an extended dispute in which God brings a rîb (case) against God's people. Dearman divides the extended dispute of chapters 4–14 into several smaller subunits. The poetry of 4:4–11:11 “circles around” the declaration of Israel's culpability (p. 18). However, 11:8–11 conveys YHWH's compassion for Israel and foresees Israel's return to the land. Hosea 11:12 (MT 12:1) returns to the theme of culpability, which carries through 13:6. Finally, chapter 14 offers another chance for renewal. Dearman recognizes the composite character of chapters 4–14 and acknowledges the frequent change in speaker and the oscillation between judgment and hope. He concedes the likelihood that the composite nature of this section is indicative of editorial work (he grants the same in his comments on chapters 1–3 and also asserts the likelihood that these primary units were combined by a later editor, p. 19). As he considers the possibility of editorial activity, Dearman willingly entertains several alternatives: perhaps Hosea was the main editor of the work, perhaps there was some updating during the reform of Josiah, and perhaps there was even editorial work done in the post-exilic period. In the end, Dearman leaves the question open-ended, saying, “If one can affirm that God worked through Hosea… then one can give that same affirmation to editors of his work, whatever their role” (p. 20). However, Dearman makes clear throughout his commentary that his inclination is to minimize later editorial activity, consistently suggesting that texts, which scholars often deem secondary, could have just as easily been the work of the eighth century prophet.

Dearman's work exhibits several strengths. He is dedicated to locating and interpreting Hosea in an eighth century context (i.e., the context that the book itself claims). As a result, his approach is an original voice in the larger scholarly conversation that tends to place Hosea's composition much later. In addition, Dearman pays careful attention to the poetic use of puns throughout Hosea, drawing the reader's attention to poetic devices that would otherwise be hidden in the Hebrew text. Dearman also makes good use of excursuses. Nearly every chapter contains one such excursus in which he provides extensive comments on a significant aspect of the text. For example, in Hos 3:5 the reference to “David their King” receives about a page and a half of specialized commentary in which Dearman explores several possibilities for how such a phrase was included in a northern prophet's writing (p. 142).

Though Dearman's analysis is helpful, his parameter of the eighth century proves quite precarious at times. For instance, Dearman relies on several intertextual relationships between Hosea and Deuteronomy to support this interpretive stance. This causes him some trouble because he acknowledges that many scholars date Deuteronomy to the time of the Josianic reform, an historical conclusion that he neither confirms nor denies (pp. 52, 218). He seeks to solve this problem by speaking in terms of a “covenant ethos” that would have governed authorial mentalities long before the Josianic reform and would have informed both Hosea and Deuteronomy (pp. 49, 174, etc.). In a similar way, when Dearman alludes to the wilderness tradition that informs Hosea, he maintains that the traditions in the canonical book of Exodus may not have been standardized by the eighth century and that perhaps Hosea drew on a different, though not conflicting, tradition like the one found in Psalm 106 (pp. 36, 151). This is an astute observation, but Dearman lacks a robust articulation of his understanding of the wilderness tradition that informs Hosea. Finally, Dearman often entertains several scholarly options for interpreting difficult texts simultaneously. In so doing he demonstrates that he knows and understands the larger scholarly conversation, but he rarely defends one option over the others. In spite of these shortcomings, Dearman has produced a well researched volume that aptly navigates the difficult text of Hosea.

Anna E. Sieges, Baylor University