Hosea’s Dove

Biblical studies has been enriched in recent decades by the insights of cognitive linguistics, a field that explores the connection between cognition (understanding) and language. Of particular interest to me is the subfield of metaphor theory since scripture is replete with metaphors. Hosea is arguably the most prolific user of metaphor among the prophets, harnessing metaphor’s power to clarify understanding and grant new insight (cognitive power), describe and/or elicit emotion (emotional power), and prompt change within the reader (volitional power).

Metaphors are powerful but they are also challenging. That is due in part to how metaphors describe abstract matters in concrete terms. The reader/hearer of the metaphor then has to decode the metaphor to understand to what it is referring. At times this is a simple process. At other times it is not so simple. This is especially the case when we are reading biblical metaphors as those metaphors were spoken centuries ago in a culture quite different than our own. These dynamics were at play when I was discussing Hosea 7:11 with a class of seminarians.

Ephraim was like a dove;
               Foolish, without heart
To Egypt they cried out;
               To Assyria they went.

What does it mean that Ephraim (that is, Israel, the people of God) is like a dove? Twenty-first century western readers must guard against imposing our typical thoughts of the metaphorical use of a dove. For example, connotations of peace would not make sense in this text’s usage of dove. The challenge of the metaphor is further compounded by Hosea using “heart.” Though we often invest “heart” with emotion, that was not the norm biblically. “Heart” in biblical usage can be compared to our use of “mind” in that commitment is involved. We would say that you make up your mind and commit to something. The biblical lexicon would be more apt to say that you make up your heart and commit to something.

That begins to grant clarity to the metaphor of the dove in Hosea 7:11. Ephraim was foolish so that they would not commit to Yahweh. Instead, they cried out to Egypt (to the southwest) and to Assyria they went (to the northeast). Egypt and Assyria were rival powers in Hosea’s day to whom Ephraim would alternatively look for assistance amid mounting pressures. With whom will they cast their lot? Egypt? Assyria? That was foolish! They were acting as a dove, flying back and forth rather than having heart, committing themselves to stand firm with Yahweh.

Once the metaphor is rightly understood, then it powerfully changes how we think (how foolish that we look for deliverance from rival powers who long to consume us), feel (shame is mine for following in Ephraim’s steps without heart to remain committed to Christ), and act (rather than run back and forth between the rival powers of money and power, I will find my confidence in Christ).

The metaphor has another surprise up its sleeve. While the metaphor must be rightly understood in the historical and cultural context in which it was first used, metaphor theory holds that humans are hardwired to think in terms of metaphors. Thus, some metaphors can bridge the cultures and centuries. That is even the case with Hosea’s dove. A seminarian who is a native of Haiti reports to me that in his homeland they speak of how the dove’s knowledge is in its heart, not in its head. While the use of heart here is not the same as in Hosea 7:11, the point of connection between 8th century BC Israel and 21st century Haiti is undeniable. The dove acts not on commitment but upon feeling. Indeed, the Haitians will say, “You are jealous like the dove.”

Though not identical, the view of the dove bears startling similarities that help us to ponder anew not only how ancient Ephraim was like a dove but also how we are like a dove. No, not that we are peaceful, but that we are foolish and without heart. Too quickly we abandon commitment to Yahweh to chase after this option and that option in the vain hope they will deliver what they cannot. And when the metaphor brings us to that clarity, we speak similar words as Israel in Hosea 14:3 and hear Yahweh’s reply in Hosea 14:4 (verses 4–5 in the Hebrew).

4Assyria cannot save us.
               We will not ride on horses.
And we will no longer say “our gods” to the works of our hands.
               For by You the orphan is pitied.
5I will heal their apostasy.
               I will freely love them
                             For My anger has turned from them.

Dr. Kevin Golden is Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

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