Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Ehud Ben Zvi, Hosea (The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, 21A/I; Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005) Pp. xiii + 321. Paper, US$55.00, UK£32.99. ISBNO-8028-0795-X.


This is a very intriguing, intelligent and enlightening “commentary”, and everyone who is interested in today's approaches to the prophetic literature and to modern Form Criticism should read it, and will surely benefit a lot. It reflects well some current post-modern trends in the study of the prophetic literature, and as such it is quite different from other commentaries on Hosea that I know, and quite similar to Ben-Zvi's “commentaries” on Micah (published in the same series), Zephaniah and Obadiah. These “commentaries” could be characterized by their point-of-departure: not the interpreted book and its text, but rather an a-priori double agenda to be proven through the “commentary”. This a-priori agenda (see Ben Zvi, “Introduction: Writing, Speeches, and the Prophetic Books–Setting an Agenda”, mentioned in the bibliography, p. 22), which relates to literature and history is, that Hosea (and other prophetic books as well) should be treated as a coherent book, since it “was composed [not edited! Y.H.] by literati and for literati” (p. 13 and more) as one whole book “in Persian Yehud” (p. 15 and more). Within a broader context, the agenda is to undermine as broadly as possible the historical reliability of the Bible, mainly regarding the First Temple period: Hosea probably (p. 6) never existed (unlike the naäve notion of Fohrer, e.g., and “most scholars of his generation”, p. 27) and his book “is less than a reliable source for the reconstruction of the history … of Israel during any period in the Iron age” (p. 75); the Josianic reform is highly doubted (p. 18), and, generally, Israel's past is not real, but rather “a social memory agreed upon by the literati [not by the nation as a whole. Y.H.] in ancient Israel” (p. 251). This post-modern skepticism to (biblical) History is imposed even on the author (or “authorship”, in Ben-Zvi's terminology) of the book of Hosea. Thus, when referring to the historical superscription in 1:1 he writes: “it was rather obvious to the ancient authorship and readership of the book of Hosea, that the mentioned periods [of the reigning kings, Y.H.] were not coterminous” (p. 28), and the author has purposely written a self-contradicted historical setting for Hosea, in order to signal the utter unimportance of “clear-cut chronology” and “precise historical links to reigns and events” (ibid): What a clever and sophisticated tactic of injecting into the first verse of the book such a post-modern message already 2500 years ago!

To exhibit the coherence of the book Ben Zvi begins with an overview of its structure (p. 4), which opens with a “Superscription/Introduction to the Book and Main interpretive Key” and concludes with “Conclusion of the Prophetic Book and Main Interpretive Key”. (I didn't quite understand the difference between “II D. Conclusion to the Body of the Book, 14:2-9” and “III. Conclusion to the Prophetic Book 14:10). The identical wording of these titles creates an impression of a real inclusio imbedded in the book itself. Between the “Introduction” and the “Conclusion” Ben Zvi finds three parts for “The Body of the Book”, and here too the same tactics of imposed uniformity is employed, when each part opens with the same title: “First/ Second/ Third Set of Didactic Prophetic Readings“. This schematization of the “Structure” in the “commentary” creates an impression of an immanent cohesion in the ancient book itself, carefully and meticulously designed by its ancient authorship. The question is, whether this alleged articulated structure is derived from the text or imposed on it, and my claim is that the latter option is the right one. This personal verdict explains my use of inverted commas when referring above to Ben-Zvi's “commentary”. Since the book has been published in a series whose main interest are literary genres and forms, I allow myself to be rigorous about its generic classification as a commentary. To me a commentary should be the humble servant of the text (not because of any ‘holiness’ but because of its antiquity and cultural status), and not its master. I cannot avoid the feeling that this “commentary” is trying to govern, rather than to serve, the text of Hosea; to force it into extra-textual views, rather than extracting them from it. My doubt as to the generic classification of the reviewed book as a commentary is derived also from the total lack of any translation of the interpreted text of Hosea. The graphic design of the book is also unfriendly to readers looking for a commentary; it is very difficult to find a specific verse, let alone phrase (just: “1aa; 1ab–1bb”) and when one finds, at last, the place where an exegesis of that verse is expected, one would realize that in too many cases there is no interpretation at all (E.g., what is “Ashisey Avavim”, 3:1? “letek se'orim”, 3:2? Where is the interpretation of 4:14; 5:2; 12:2 and other numerous examples of a difficult Hebrew text, which are not interpreted?). Isn't the text important in a commentary? The absence of so much exegetical, linguistic material undermines also the coherence thesis of the book, which should be based upon a thorough understanding of the whole text.

Another striking example of unfriendliness to the reader seeking a consistent commentary is the case of Hos 6:1-11. On p. 125 one finds the title “Prophetic reading:… 5:1-15”. The next “prophetic reading” (p. 149) refers to 7:3-16 (p. 149). Now, where is the unit 6:1-11? It is just missing! To be clear: some phrases of it are discussed (pp. 125-127; 134-135), but the reader wonders: does the absence of the whole unit mean that 6:1-11 is not considered “Prophetic Reading” (and if so—what it is?), or maybe this is another manifestation of an unclear over-sophisticated argumentation, if not just a simple (printing?) error?


As a “non-commentary” study, how convincing are its presupposed assertions mentioned above?

Let me begin with the coherence claim. Ben Zvi is definitely successful in showing, through discussions of the “individual units” and their relationship to each other, that Hosea is more than an accidental literary conglomerate. However, the demonstrated connections between the various units are too loose to prove a coherent authorship. A clever, experienced reader (let alone any attentive editor) is always capable of imposing a certain coherence on any given collection of literary texts, written in the same language and sharing close ideological convictions. A vague consistency, however, is not sufficient for proving Ben Zvi's claim of one author; it is rather an indication of a good editorial work of pre-existing clusters of prophetic units!

Thus, the central idea about the literati writing for literati (a kind of a Foucaultian ‘literati conspiracy’, which enables intellectual elite to dominate the illiterate masses) is, at least, cracked. Instead of proving the impossible—an immanent cohesion of Hosea, an optical illusion of coherence is imposed on it by claiming that all the units belong to the same genre—“didactic prophetic reading”. This, however, shallows the discussion: does the personal story of Hosea in chapter 1 really belong to the same literary genre of the prophecies in chapters 4-14?

The assumption about the historical setting of the composition (not editing!) of Hosea, the literati of Persian-period-Yehud, is even less substantiated. On pp. 12-19 this presupposition is discussed, but no convincing argument is brought to support it (although there are bibliographical references, mainly to Ben Zvi's other studies). Why, for example, are prophecies that mention so frequently Assyria (Hos. 5:13; 7:11; 8:9; 9:3; 10:6; 11:11; 12:2; 13:7; 14:4), Egypt (2:17; 7:11, 16; 8:13; 9:3, 6; 11:1, 5, 11; 12:2, 10, 14; 13:4), Northern Israel (2:2, 24; 4:15; 5:3, 5, 9-14; 6:4; 7:8; 8:5 and more), the Baal worship (2:10; 15; 19; 13:1), but do not mention at all Babylon, Persia, Edom, Exile (the root glh is totally absent in the book!) better understood on a 5th-4th rather than on an 8th-7th centuries BCE setting? Does a 5th-4th centuries BC setting explain the total ignorance of the temple (so important to the 5th-4th centuries BCE elite!) better than a 8th-7th centuries BCE Northern Israelite setting? And why would the literati elite attack so fiercely the (ancient) elite (chapters 4; 5; 7; 12), namely, indirectly, themselves, without any claim to a (religious, theological or educational) legitimate supremacy of the literati over the non-literati? Well, the answer to all these and similar questions is, of course, that this is a part of the ‘literati’ plot, to fabricate an ancient national past [hence, “(hi)story” (pp. 226; 244, and more), rather then “history”]. But methodologically such a pre-supposed over-sophisticated-conspiracy-theory is definitely inferior to the more simple, conventional (and adequate of ancient literature as such) assumption: the book of Hosea is an editorial product, which contains side by side mainly pre-exilic, but also post-exilic material, and therefore it is wrong to force every unit, and the book as a whole, into an imagined Persian Yehud setting.

Moreover, the very concept of the study is infected by a logical contradiction. The author declares, that “It is to be stressed that the question of whether actual authors had in mind all these meanings is not only unanswerable but also immaterial. The target readership did not have access to their minds, but to the text they wrote” (p. 255). This is a well-known legitimate literary concept, claiming that all that counts is the text and its present reader, the latter being the only rightful interpretive authority, who is not confined by assumed intentions of the author. Yet, Ben Zvi refutes this basic concept, since he pretends to know the intentions of the Yehud ‘literati’ authorship and readership. I can see no principal difference between an attempt to reveal the intentions of ‘ancient’ 8th BCE century Hosea and those of the less ancient 5th-4th centuries BC ‘literati’.

Instead of proving it, the claimed setting of Hosea is hammered into the readers (sub?)consciousness. Every individual unit is discussed in 4 parts: structure; genre; setting; intention (and then a very rich, useful and up-dated excellent bibliography!), and in all of them this setting is emphasized. The most conspicuous example is the “setting” part. Here, in each and every unit, the same conclusion is repeated once and again as a mantra: “The setting of the production and the primary reading and rereading of these literary units is that of the book as a whole. It involves a group of (postmonarchic) literati…” (p. 97); or: “The setting of the writing and reading of this or any portion of the (present) book of Hosea for that matter is the same as that of the book as a whole. Both writers and readers are among the literati of Yehud” (p. 137; nearly identical words are replicated on pp. 32; 39; 56; 71; 87; 157; 176; 196; 215; 233; 242; 258; 280; 303. This uniformity (it is much more technical than in Ben-Zvi's Micah, although the concept is the same) contributes nothing to the reliability of the argumentation. It reminds me of the anecdote of an Israeli politician: in a printed manuscript of one of his speeches a hand-written marginal note was found: “Knock on the table, the argument is unconvincing!”…

The book ends with a Glossary of the terminology it uses. This is basically a good and helpful idea, yet its complexity and quasi-sophistication is sometimes confusing. E.g.: the entry “PROPHETIC BOOK, IN FULL: ISRAELITE PROPHETIC BOOK”: What is the difference between “Ancient Israelite book”, “Authoritative book” and “Prophetic book in full”? Hosea, Genesis and Deuteronomy are brought as examples of “Authoritative books” (p. 318); so what about all other biblical books, are they not authoritative? In p. 320 we read: “SUPERSCRIPTION … is the literary unit that stands apart and looks at the following text and above all characterizes it as a unit. Hos 1:1 and similar passages should not be considered the superscription to the PROPHETIC BOOK, but to the body of such a book”. I admit of not quite understanding it, mainly when it seems to contradict p. 4, where the same verse (Hos 1:1) is defined as “Superscription/Introduction to the [“Prophetic”? Y.H.] Book and Main Interpretive Key”, rather than an introduction to “II. The Body of the Book”.


As said at the opening of this review, Ben Zvi is offering us a very interesting and illuminating Commentary (let's forget hereafter about generic pedantry). It suggests many intriguing readings, which reflects very high sensitivity of the author to Biblical Hebrew and to Biblical Poetry. Thus, e.g., he rightly indicates that when reading (and composing) poetry, one should listen to the various voices of the text, and not insist on one unequivocal interpretation excluding all others. Such an example is the thorough discussion of Hos 12:11 (pp. 243-255). Ben Zvi shows 4 optional readings of the verse, and rather than choosing a preferred one, he suggests that each of the original readers (and “re-readers”) of the verse could have adopted his own reading, and so do we. The question whether or not this ambivalence was intentionally planned by the authorship, says Ben Zvi, is irrelevant.

In spite of his clear agenda Ben Zvi does not avoid referring to other, more conventional views, which are presented very accurately and fairly. Thus the reader is informed also about aspects that are beyond this commentary's interest, such as questions of authenticity, raised by scholars who believe in the existence of a real prophet Hosea (e.g., pp. 69; the reference to Hayes and Kuan, p. 58; p. 80 and more). In some discussions (e.g., pp. 174; 181 and more) there is also information about other ancient versions in addition to the MT, which is the only relevant text for this commentary. Thus the reader gets also a general idea about other readings of the book and its literary history, which enables one to judge and appreciate the novelty of the present commentary.

One of the best and praiseworthy parts in this study is the wide and up-to-date bibliography. The reader will find it within the discussions of the specific units, as well as at the “bibliography” section of each unit. Ben Zvi's mastering of Modern Hebrew allows him to refer also to studies in Hebrew (e.g., the Hebrew version of Y. Kaufman, Toldot HaEmunah HaYisraelit, 1955-56), an advantage that scholars who lack this knowledge can benefit from. It is therefore very regrettable that there is neither a comprehensive bibliographical list nor an authors index at the end of the volume.


The reader of this review might wonder: Hoffman is criticizing the reviewed book for being written from a pre-supposed agenda; what about Hoffman himself? Is he innocent of any agenda? Well, I am not. But this is a review, and not a commentary. And as a reviewer of a commentary it is my duty to criticize (which I've done) and to recommend—to read or not to read. My unequivocal advice is: Read it! You'll learn a lot about the book of Hosea and the prophetic literature as a whole, and about the post-modern attitude towards their interpretation, with all its advantages and disadvantages. Many biblical commentaries have been published during the last two decades, and not all of them are as stimulating as Ben Zvi's Hosea.

Yair Hoffman, Tel-Aviv University