[Photograph by Michael Pardo]
Hosea 2:14–15 (ESV)
14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
15 And there I will give her her vineyards
and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
Notice the structure here:
Notice the structure here:
Speech: speak tenderly
[Valley of Achor]
The Scripture relies upon a variety of types of writing/speaking: there are stories, contracts, law codes, letters (public and personal), poems. The prophets seem particularly drawn to poety.
Why is this? Why does the Bible rely upon poetry? Poetry doesn’t mean symbols, images, rhythms, rhymes or patterns. Poetry certainly uses all those elements; but so do other forms of language. In fact all good writing and speaking must be cognizant all such elements (and more). I say this, because there is a bizarre belief that poetry means “symbolic” (this is seen in the strange argument that if Genesis 1 is poetry it somehow is non-literal; such an argument could only be made someone who knows little to nothing about poetry). Poetry can be quite “literal” (read some Homer or Alexander Pope).
What poetry does in particular is to compress language with great deliberate intricacy. The purpose of poetry is both pleasure and to change how we think.
The pleasure of poetry’s compression is typically lost on contemporary readers: we are not a people who treasure words. We are a distinctly anti-rhetorical people. And so, I will pass over pleasure at this point.
But the compression and difficulty of poetry forces us to think along lines and in patterns which differ greatly from our “normal” life. Just the use of deliberate rhythm and sound makes poetry different from common speech.
This makes poetry especially useful for achieving one of the principle features of the Scripture: to change the way we think. We think wrongly – and poorly. We think up is down, evil is good. We desire those things which will destroy us; we ignore those things which will save us. We kill Christ and make a king of Herod. We count the rich man at his dinner in the best of positions; and ignore Lazarus at the gate.
And so the Scripture has been given not merely to inform us like a manual (yes there is much information in the Scripture), but to transform us:
Romans 12:2 (ESV)
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
The patterns and complications of poetry make us stop and think slowly and carefully. We cannot breeze through poetry and still maintain a high degree of comprehension. Hebrew poetry emphasizes the complication of thought – often in ways which can be discerned only after puzzling upon a pair of lines.
While we tend to think of poetry as defined by verse (metrical writing often with rhyming), Hebrew poetry depends primarily upon the rhyming and dissonance of ideas. Yes, Hebrew does concern itself with sound and rhythm (for instance in the passage quoted above, the word “wilderness” sounds very similar to the word “speak” in the next line; there is a reason for this).
This fact of Hebrew poetry relying so heavily upon the concept as opposed to the end rhyme is a boon to translation. Translation of rhymed verse is very difficult to achieve in a second language; but the translation of ideas can be done without repeated the sound qualities of the original language. This is an instance of providence, that God chose the Hebrew language.
The patterns of ideas are meant to force us to compare and contrast the parts. We hold up two ideas for careful examination, noting how they compare and differ: in so doing, we learn both elements better.
Pick up any common object: a coffee mug, say. Describe it. Then choose a second cup and compare the two. You will easily learn more elements of each by means of the comparison than you would have noticed by considering one. This process is especially true when ideas are compared and contrasted.
Hosea purposefully sets up a contrast and comparison here. First there are two lines about speaking:
I will allure
I will speak tenderly
Then are two lines about the land and plants
The overall pattern is
In the wilderness
Let us consider first the two descriptions of speech:
Allure and speak tenderly.
The English translation “allure” does not quite capture the range of the Hebrew:
PIEL פִּתָּה.—(1) to persuade any one (πείθω), Jer. 20:7; especially in a bad sense, 1 Ki. 22:20, seq.; Jud. 14:15; 16:5; 2 Sam. 3:25; hence to entice, to seduce, Ex. 22:15; Prov. 1:10; 16:29.
(2) to deceive any one, to delude with words (Gr. ἀπατάω, to which Greek etymologists commonly assign an incorrect derivation), Psa. 78:36; Prov. 24:28, הֲפִתִּיתָ בִּשְׂפָתֶיךָ “wilt thou deceive with thy lips?” i.e. deceive not, see הֲ No. 1, a.
Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), 696. The word used to describe God’s speech to his wayward wife is a word which means something like entice, seduce, deceive. The Septuagint (the ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek) uses the word which means “lead into error” to translate the word pettah here.
That word alone is arresting: God is going to deceive his wife? But that word is then paired with the line “speak tenderly to” (literally speak upon her heart). The words are used to describe careful, tender speech between lovers. How then should we think about the manner in which God speaks to Israel?
Next we have speech in the connection with wilderness and cultivated plants of a garden (a vineyard). This harkens back to the wilderness of Exodus and the land of Canaan. It also harkens to the Garden of Eden and the wilderness outside the garden. It also reminds us of the difference in the world before and after Adam’s fall.
These allusions are coupled to God speaking. All of these instances are marked by the speech of God:
Deuteronomy 4:33 (ESV)
33 Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?
Compare that to the idols which have been viciously seducing Israel to her harm:
Psalm 115:5 (ESV)
5 They [idols] have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
Next: the idols whom Israel worshipped in the hope of obtaining luxuriant vineyards brought them to exile and wilderness (when in reality it has been the Lord):
Hosea 2:8–9 (ESV)
8 And she did not know
that it was I who gave her
the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and who lavished on her silver and gold,
which they used for Baal.
9 Therefore I will take back
my grain in its time,
and my wine in its season,
and I will take away my wool and my flax,
which were to cover her nakedness.
— This only begins to uncover the complications and allusions in the text. The allusions and complications are developed even further in reference to Achor and then the discussion of the wife’s response (which again brings about speech and a remembrance of the wilderness). Further speech by God brings about even greater degrees of transformation.
This then raises the question of precisely how is God going to “allure” and “speak tenderly”? Will it be speech from Mount Sinai again? That hardly sounds like a tender and ardent lover:
Hebrews 12:18–21 (ESV)
18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
How then does he speak? What does he say? You start to see how the layering and patterns of the language require careful thought and attention to understand. This is one reason why the prophets are so often skipped over and thought to be obscure. Yet the prophecy here is not obscure, it is only very dense.