Woman's Body and Social Body in Hosea

  • Alice A. Keefe
  • Jun 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Keefe, Alice A. Woman's Body and Social Body in Hosea. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 338; Gender, Culture, Theory 10. London: Continuum - Sheffield Academic Press, 2001. ISBN 1-84127-285-X. Hb $105.00; pb $29.95. 252 pp.

This volume is a sustained reevaluation of several important interpretations of the female and marriage imagery in the book of Hosea. The author, who is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Steven Point, reorients the sexual focus that many have taken as the fundamental thrust of its message towards an emphasis on the socioeconomic and political.

Keefe argues that the prophetic invective was generated by "the escalating transition from a reciprocal, redistributive village economy to a royal 'command economy' based on interregional trade" (p. 192). This shift led to "a confrontation between two systems of land tenure and two correspondingly distinct worlds of social organization, value and identity" (p. 193). The new economic policies of the Northern monarchy, she believes, led to the rise of latifundialization--that is, the creation of large estates managed by an elite that were dedicated to certain commercial crops, a development which contradicted the patrimonial land system and values of traditional hill-country village society. Her sources here are the work of Norman Gottwald, Marvin Chaney, and Robert Coote.

From this perspective, Hosea's various tropes can be redefined (chpt. 7). The woman and her sexuality now are said to be positive symbols of a productive land and nation; the amorous relationships with other lovers that are decried in the opening chapters, accordingly, represent the commercial ventures and political arrangements of the elite with surrounding states that the prophet and God find reprehensible (She compares this use of the marriage metaphor with that in Jer. 4, Lam. 1, and Ezek. 23). The religious issues, therefore, were not limited to questions of fertility (although this is not totally denied), but rather would have incorporated the social and economic dimensions as well. The prophet inveighed against the official cult and sanctuaries of the crown that legitimated this systemic injustice, not against some hypothetical fertility beliefs of the people.

Throughout her discussion, Keefe has two interpretive foils. On one hand, she critiques those interpretations that hold that the prophet employs the marriage metaphor to denounce Canaanite fertility religion (and, for some interpreters, the accompanying immoral sexual behavior) and to call the people back to the purer, more transcendent covenant relationship with Yahweh. On the other hand, Keefe assesses critically how many other feminist scholars have tended to interpret and condemn the book.

The former view is faulted for at least four reasons (chpts. 2-4). First, the archaeological evidence and the biblical data do not support the idea of a fertility cult per se. Nor can the existence of sacred prostitutes be substantiated; those passages that mention the qedeshâ (Gen. 38:20-23; Deut. 23: 18-19; Hos. 4:13-14) have alternative explanations. Second, the propensity to view the book in terms of promiscuity is a testament to "a set of androcentric associations of women with temptation, sex, sin and nature" (p. 50). Third, Keefe says, interpreters often have been driven by their Christian theological convictions to cast the religious realities of Hosea's day in such a way so as to show the superiority of the faith of Israel (and, hence, of theirs, too) over that of its neighbors. Fourth and last, according to the critical consensus that she follows, covenant theology was a relatively late development in Israel, not taking substantive shape until a century after the prophet's ministry with the deuteronomistic movement. Israel at the time of Hosea would not have been truly monotheistic (Monolatry, she says, would be a more apt term.) and would have had held to many of the beliefs about nature and the divine that were common to the other religions of the general region.

Many feminist interpretations are taken to task, too (chpts. 5-6). The basic mistake of these approaches is that they read the text with Western eyes, grounding their critique of the text on modern ideals of individual autonomy and a woman.s right to control her own sexuality. The problem with these deconstructive, reader-response readings is that they do not adequately appreciate the ethos of ancient Israelite society (Here Keefe appeals to Phyllis Bird, Claudia Camp, and Carol Meyers). In that context, the individual is not the highest value; the family and kinship groups are. Sexuality was conceptualized differently than in contemporary culture. Sexual reproduction was intimately linked with survival in that marginal agrarian world and was inseparable, too, from the interdependence of families. Therefore, even though Israel was patriarchal in many ways in its structure and mores, women were not mere chattel or equal in stature to slaves; they were valued in their own right. To violate a woman in that setting, then, also had broader implications; it was a symptom--even a symbol--of greater ills that were disrupting the cultural fabric (2 Sam. 13; Gen. 34; and Judg. 19).

There is much to commend in this volume. To begin with, Keefe provides helpful surveys of interpretive positions, both of the fertility cult and sacred prostitution variety and of the feminist persuasion. Her criticisms of each point of view are valuable, too. She correctly emphasizes that the more traditional perspective has not integrated well (if at all) its stance on fertility with those larger issues of economics and politics. Religion cannot be so neatly compartmentalized; cultural anthropological and religious studies have underscored that the influence of any deity cuts across all spheres within any given worldview. Her engagement with certain strands of feminism is important as well. Hosea has been the focal point of the analysis of several significant feminist scholars (e.g., Brenner, Exum, Setel, van Dijk-Hemmes, Weems), but Keefe's call to not ignore the cultural realities of ancient Israel in interpretation can serve as a welcome rejoinder to those who too quickly move to celebrate worship of the goddess in supposed solidarity with Gomer, or to perhaps exaggerate what is viewed as spouse abuse or even pornographic voyeurism in the book.

Nevertheless, this reviewer would have some points of disagreement with Keefe's proposal. To begin with, the description of religious life in eighth-century Israel appears a bit too simplistic, and this in several ways. Can religion be dichotomized so easily into the twin categories of national or official religion and popular worship? I have appealed elsewhere to cultural anthropology to point out that this is not the case. The prophetic denunciation of religion and its practitioners is much more nuanced and complex than many realize ("Reexamining Popular Religion: Issues of Definition and Sources. Insights from Interpretive Anthropology," in Rethinking Contexts, Rereading Texts: Contributions from the Social Sciences to Biblical Interpretation, ed. M. Daniel Carroll R. [JSOT Supplement Series 299; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000], pp. 146-67). One wonders, too, how the proposal might change if covenant thought were granted an earlier existence and if there truly had been champions of a more monotheistic stance (such as Hosea) at that time than she allows.

Keefe begins with the imagery of Hosea chapters 4-14 to override the classical understanding of chapters 1-2 (She excludes chpt. 3 from consideration; see pp. 15-18). She reads from right to left, as it were. The sexual imagery thereby is connected (and in many ways restricted) more strongly to economics and politics, and not to fertility and other gods. Is this not a bit reductionistic, though, in its own right? Could not the economic and political dimensions enrich the fertility-apostasy piece? Is it not possible to read the book from left-to-right, from beginning to end, and so witness how the prophetic message expands to incorporate multiple aspects of religious critique? To leave out a part of the book also is a bit suspicious; a hypothesis should be able to deal with all of the data.

It may be necessary to question as well the socioeconomic model that Keefe uses in her argument. The latifundialization model perhaps offers too uniform an explanation for the socioeconomic realities of eighth-century Israel. The publications of Gottwald, Chaney and Coote tend to be over a decade old (A new defense, though, has appeared in D. N. Premnath, Eighth Century Prophets: A Social Analysis [St. Louis: Chalice, 2003]), and recent archaeological studies present a more variegated picture than does that hypothesis (e.g., John Holladay, "The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah: Political and Economic Centralization in the Iron IIA-B [ca. 1000-750 BCE]," in The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land, ed. T. E. Levy [2nd edn, New Approaches in Anthropological Archaeology. London: Leicester University Press, 1998], pp. 379-86). This is not to deny by any means the importance of the socioeconomic dimension in the prophetic message. Rather, this is a reminder of the difficulty in reconstructing with much detail and assured confidence the details of the world of ancient Israel.

Finally, it will not do to impugn so sweepingly the motives of interpreters who have articulated the more traditional view of the marriage metaphor, as having been generated by unacceptable feelings about female sexuality (pp. 11-13, 38-41, 58-62) or by religious bias (pp. 50, 57, 69-71). Perhaps there have been scholars who have been uneasy with the female body and others who have chosen this interpretation because of their Protestant convictions, but it is not fair to generalize as Keefe does.

This is a stimulating read. There is much to learn from this book, not least of which is the importance of interpreting the book of Hosea with a more coherent and comprehensive understanding of the religious worldview and social life of ancient Israel.

M. Daniel Carroll R., Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary
June 2004

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