Read through Hosea a few times, and you’ll soon pick up on how frequently Hosea’s prophecies are rooted in particular places. There are about 34 references to 20 different places in the book—a fairly dense concentration for a book of only 14 chapters! Some of them are familiar because of references in other biblical books, but others are fairly obscure to us, and we can only guess to their import by looking at the kinds of things Hosea has to say about them.
What’s interesting to me is the effect of rooting these poetic poems, which could be simply abstractions, in the concrete world of these specific places. Often that means the poem is bound to a narrative, or even a set of narratives, that comes with the location. All of this works throughout Hosea to give the book a sharp historical focus and feel, even if the specific force is lost on us as readers separated by a great distance. What’s important is to pick up on the sense of place in the poetry. When you read the book as a whole, and get beyond the strange archaic place names, the continuing cadence of places helps pull the poetry out of the sky, planting it firmly on the earth.
Here’s a list of all the places that show up in Hosea, with some brief references to what makes some of them significant. This list doesn’t include Israel, Ephraim, Judah, Assyria, or Egypt, since they are all significant enough either as places or players in the drama that I want to give them their own space.
Jezreel and the Valley of Jezreel (Hosea 1:4, 5, 11, 2:22) This is perhaps one of the easier places to identify in the book, and its mention is by no means incidental. Indeed, God’s instruction for Hosea to name his firstborn “Jezreel” signals the significance of the place for Hosea’s message. Unfortunately, although it’s easy to see that it is significant, it’s not nearly as easy to see precisely why it’s significant. The principle text is probably the explanation given for the name. The NRSV translates the key part of Hosea 1:4 like this: “for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel.” Another rendering might be “in a little while I will apply the blood of Jezreel to the house of Jehu…” That more literal translation is only helpful in that it shows a little bit if the ambiguity in this text. It could mean that the same sort of violence that took place at Jezreel in the time of Jehu (2 Kings 9-10) is about to be reenacted—another Jezreel is coming. I think o this interpretation as being something along the lines of “you came to power by the sword, and you’ll now lose power by the sword.” Or, what seems more natural to me, it could mean that the violence of Jehu is about to be paid for by his descendants. This reading is, of course, more problematic since Jehu clearly acted by divine authorization. Perhaps he went beyond God’s instructions? Or, perhaps the texts here are simply in tension.
The Valley of Achor (Hosea 2:15) The Valley of Achor isn’t very prominent in the Old Testament except in Joshua 7. “Achor” means “trouble”, and the story in Joshua is when Achan brings “trouble” for the people after taking silver dedicated to God (for destruction) from Jericho. Hosea playfully reverses the name.
Gilgal (Hosea 4:15, 9:15 12:11) has a little bit of a longer history. Hosea’s references could both refer to the tradition of God reluctantly allowing the people to have a king at Gilgal (1 Samual 10-11), or simply to worship at the shrine there.
Bethel (Hosea 10:15, 12:4) or Beth-aven (Hosea 4:15, 5:8 10:5, 8 ) is an official shrine in Northern kingdom, created by Jeroboam as the kingdom divided (1 Kings 12). Only having the one temple in Judah would have subverted the northern kingdom’s independence for which Jeroboam was fighting. Supposedly devoted to worship of Yahweh (1 Kings 12), the shrine is often the target of prophetic scorn. Hosea’s mocking nickname, “Beth-aven (house of trouble)” shows he does not really consider the shrine “Beth-el (house of God).”
Mizpah (Hosea 5:1), Tabor (Hosea 5:1), Shittim (Hosea 5:2) All seem to be simply mentioned because of idolatrous worship.
Gibeah (Hosea 5:8, 9:9 10:9) and Ramah (Hosea 5:8) are situated in Benjamin, placing them on the fringe of the southern kingdom, between Jerusalem and the armies of the North. Gibeah is the site of a crazy episode in Judges 19-21.
Benjamin (Hosea 5:8) is a small tribe that became a part of the southern kingdom. It was on the northern border of the southern kingdom, though, and thus at the center of conflict.
Adam (Hosea 6:7) seems to be a location unknown to us in the rest of the canon (or archaeologically). Of course, some take this to be the “Adam” of Genesis rather than a place, but I tend to think of it in terms of a place here.
Gilead (Hosea 6:8 12:11) Shechem (Hosea 6:9) The references to these cities in chapter six perhaps regard political assassination (2 Kings 15:25).
Samaria (Hosea 8:6 13:16) Is the capital of the northern kingdom, and also a site of a shrine for worship.
Peor (Hosea 9:10) Shrine. (At this point, you’re getting the idea.)
Admah and Zeboiim (Hosea 11:8) seem to be simply cities that would evoke a memory of tragedy.
Aram (13:12), or Syria, is the nation to the Northeast of Israel. During Hosea’s time period it was an ally against Assyria and Judah. (The conflict born out of this alliance is known as the “Syrio-ephraimatic war”
Lebanon (Hosea 14:5, 6, 7), the nation to the north of Israel along the coast, is often referenced in the Old Testament for the sake of its trees and lush landscape.