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Prophets and Pornography: Female Sexual Imagery in Hosea by T. Drorah Setel. From 'Feminist Interpretation of the Bible'

Prophets and Pornography: Female Sexual Imagery in Hosea

T. Drorah Setel
From Feminist Interpretation of the Bible
Edited by Letty M. Russell
Westminster Press. Philadelphia, 1985

For women living in Western cultures deeply influenced by Jewish and Christian traditions, the Hebrew Bible is a central document in a historical exploration of patriarchy.(1) It is a compilation of materials that span approximately one thousand years of human experience. Even if it is taken primarily as a literary rather than a historically accurate text, the Hebrew Bible (like all ancient Near Eastern material) provides information concerning an extensive period in the formation of patriarchal societies. It therefore deserves serious attention as evidence of the historical bases of contemporary institutions and perspectives, while modern feminist thought can, in turn, serve to illuminate and redefine biblical interpretation.

One example of a significant aspect of patriarchy that may be better understood through the interaction between biblical material and feminist theory is the objectification of female sexuality. Although feminist discussion has focused extensively on the nature and effects of objectification in the form of contemporary pornography, examination of biblical texts shows an interesting congruence between ancient and modern depictions of female sexuality. This is particularly evident in the writings that comprise the second part of the division of Prophets in the Hebrew Bible: the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve "shorter" prophets. While these writings reflect views of female sexuality current in the history of the Israelites before that time, they appear to develop a specific use of female imagery that does not occur in previous periods. They seem to be the first to use objectified female sexuality as a symbol of evil.

In an attempt to understand the emergence of this imagery in prophetic writings, it is important to examine (i) contemporary theory on the nature of female objectification, (ii) the historicaldevelopment of biblical views of female sexuality prior to the prophetic writings, and (iii) the prophetic material in light of those theoretical and historical frameworks. It is, of course, beyond the scope of this presentation to discuss each area in detail. I will therefore focus on the last—that is to say, an analysis of prophetic literature—after a brief summary of its theoretical and historical setting.

The Nature of Female Objectification

The primary relationship between a dualistic worldview and the objectification of women has been a key tenet of feminist theory for more than thirty years.(2) More recently, feminists have begun to explore in greater detail the nature of that objectification specifically as it relates to female sexuality. Most of this study, though not all, has taken place within the context of an attempt to analyze the nature and implications of pornography. In the course of this work, there has emerged an understanding of pornography as both a description of and a tool for maintaining male domination of female sexuality.

In summarizing the theoretical material on pornography so as to apply it to historical inquiry, we are able to distinguish four categories of analysis: features, function, definitions, and causes.(3)

The distinguishing features of pornography can be characterized as follows: (i) Female sexuality is depicted as negative in relationship to a positive and neutral male standard; (ii) women are degraded and publicly humiliated; and (iii) female sexuality is portrayed as an object of male possession and control, which includes the depiction of women as analogous to nature in general and the land in particular, especially with regard to imagery of conquest and domination.

The function of pornography can be summarized as a maintenance of male domination through the denial, or misnaming, of female experience. Four general ways in which this denial occurs are: (i) the representation of female objectification as universal truth, rather than as an oppressive socially constructed reality that allows the tolerance and acceptance of female objectification as a normal and inevitable feature of human experience,(4) (ii) a concern with sex and men rather than male domination and women as the "what" and "who" of pornography,(5) (iii) teaching and/or expecting women to identify with a male perspective,(6) and (iv) a failure to distinguish and, hence, a denial of the difference among the terms "prostitute" (as a nonjudgmental term to describe women who use their sexuality for economic subsistence), "harlot" (implying a woman whosesexuality is "not subject to control"), and "whore" {the object of male control and degradation).(7)

Feminist study has produced various definitions of pornography, which may be seen as complementary summaries of its nature. All the authors of the works I have consulted have included objectification as a fundamental criterion in addition, or relation, to defining pornography as: (i) "a statement about the restriction of fundamental choices for women," i.e., "slavery"(8); (ii) "material that explicitly represents or describes degrading and abusive sexual behavior so as to endorse and/or recommend the behavior as described," involving a distinction between pornography and "moral realism," an approach that condemns the behavior represented(9); or (iii) concerning "male power, its nature, its magnitude, its use, its meaning," and "the graphic depiction of women as vile whores."(10)

The causes of pornography suggested by feminist analysis are not its origins (which are assumed to be identical to the origins of objectification itself) but rather the bases of its growth. Two related perceptions develop out of the understanding that pornography asserts male domination. One is that pornography arises out of a psychological need for a sense of power and superiority as a proof of manhood.(11) A corollary to this may be the denial of individual or group powerlessness. The other cause posited by feminist theory is that pornography is the specific response to changes in the power relationship between women and men which may increase the autonomy of women.(12)

Biblical Views of Female Sexuality

Before going on to relate these perceptions and considerations of the nature of female objectification to its specific use in prophetic writing, we should consider briefly the historical background to prophetic views of female sexuality. These views may be categorized by three areas of emphasis: procreation, ritual purity, and possession.

In general terms, a preoccupation with the reproductive capabilities of women characterized the early history of the Israelites. Recent scholarship has begun to illuminate the relationship between the political and demographic concerns of the Israelites during the period of national formation in Canaan and their emphasis on the reproductive nature of women.(13)

Concurrent with the centralization of political power in the development of the monarchy was the expansion of an exclusively male priesthood. An important element of Israelite priestly power was the complicated ritual and ideological system of tum'ah and taharah,terms usually translated as "uncleanliness" and "cleanliness," although in this context it is more accurate to describe them as "taboo" (tame) and "ritually pure" (tahor) states of being.(14) The significance of this system for female sexuality is complex. Throughout the Hebrew Bible it is clear that the power of life and death is God's power. The fact that women are rendered "taboo" through the life-bearing functions of the reproductive cycle can be seen as a recognition of their participation in divine power.(15) At the same time, the system of ritual purity, by emphasizing the continual need to distinguish the realm of the divine from the realm of the human, serves to diminish—or even negate—the power of female human beings in the life process.(16) It may be seen as a means of male (priestly) control over what may have originally been perceived as female power on both a material (reproductive) and spiritual (procreative) level.

In this period the locus of female sexual activity is significant only inasmuch as it affects paternity. Marriage is a property relationship; the terms usually translated as "wife" and "husband" are actually "woman" (ishah) and "master" (ba'al). There is no verb "to marry"; a man "takes" a woman for himself, thus transferring her possession from her father's household to his own. Virginity is not an ethical but an economic condition; women who are sexually active while in their father's household diminish their property value in a marriage transaction.(17)

Descriptions of female sexual activity outside of marriage take two forms. One is adultery, which is a sexual relationship between a married woman and any man who is not her husband. Adultery is punishable by death. Again, this is a property valuation and not an ethical issue; it is paternity, not a woman's integrity, that is violated in an adulterous relationship.

The second category of nonmarital female sexual activity is zenut, which may be translated as "prostitution" or "harlotry." Preprophetic understanding of the term had two basic implications. One was an association with native Canaanite religion, which supposedly entailed ritualized sexual activity in which human sexuality was viewed as the embodiment of divine creative power. The other meaning of zenut is as a description of the nonreligious activity and status of women. Although, in this context, zonah certainly indicates "prostitute," it is without any inherently pejorative connotation. The role of prostitutes in the structure of Israelite society has yet to be adequately researched, but it has been suggested that they constituted an established urban group outside of the unity of family and household and, by implication, the system of marriage and female control.(18) Within the framework of a concern for paternity, it is certainly imaginable that there existed a toleration, if not encouragement, of the sexual availability of women who, whether by choice or circumstance, were not under the control of a husband or father.

Thus, in the centuries before the prophetic writings, female sexuality was at first viewed primarily as the power to give birth. This power was then constricted by placing the status of motherhood within the confines of the system of ritual purity. In addition, the worth of women's procreative capabilities became a property valuation transferred from father to husband. Female sexual activity that diminished the property value of a woman's body was discouraged; that which challenged the paternity of a husband was strongly prohibited. Sexual activity that did not disrupt the paternity system was tolerated.

Bound up with these developments was the growth of a perspective that sought to distinguish and separate, rather than integrate, categories of experience. Examination of prophetic writings with regard to an understanding of their use of female sexual imagery implies not only a specific concern with that imagery itself but also a consideration of the extent to which it is a manifestation of this larger patriarchal perspective.

Female Sexual Imagery in Hosea.

The rest of this discussion will focus on the writings of the eighth-century B.C.E. prophet Hosea, in which female sexual imagery plays a central thematic role. A primary means by which the prophet conveys his perception of the relationship between Israel and God is through the metaphor of his own marriage. In the course of representing those relationships, Hosea makes extensive use of terms and imagery related to sexuality. Some of these depictions are significant in other prophetic writings as well, while some of them appear to be unique to Hosea.

The second verse of Hosea introduces the central theme of the first three chapters of the book:

When Yahweh first spoke with Hosea,
Yahweh said to Hosea:
"Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry,
and have children of harlotry
for the land commits great harlotry
by departing from Yahweh."

(Hosea 1:2)(19)

The words translated here as "harlotry" are all from the same root as the words zenut and zonah. As discussed earlier, these terms areused descriptively in reference to prostitution, as well as in the evaluative context of depicting Canaanite religious practice.

A third aspect of zenut, implied by this passage and others in Hosea, is "harlotry" in the specific sense of "not subject to control." In their commentary on Hosea, F. I. Andersen and D. N. Freedman point out that the book never uses the descriptive term zonah (i.e., "prostitute") but uses, instead, the term zenunim and the verb zanah, which they translate as "promiscuity" and "to be promiscuous," respectively.(20) In a context of specific concern with female imagery, however, "harlot" and "harlotry" are more useful translations, if understood to have an evaluative meaning distinct from the descriptive word "prostitute." Although "promiscuous" can generally be seen as synonymous with this meaning of "harlot" as unregulated behavior, "harlot" more effectively conveys the designations related to zenut and female experience: In a biblical setting both men and women can act promiscuously ("like a harlot"), but only women are harlots. The English words "harlot" and "harlotry" more clearly convey the female connotation of the Hebrew terms.

The central significance of the concept of harlotry for Hosea and other literary prophets is indicated by the frequency of its use in comparison with other biblical writings. Forms of the verb zanah ("to act like a harlot") occur eighty-four times in the whole of the Hebrew Bible. Of those eighty-four references, fifty-one are in the Latter Prophets. Hosea uses a form of zanah twenty times.

The importance of harlotry in the first three chapters of Hosea is in connection with the portrayal of Gomer. As Andersen and Freedman have observed, Gomer is characterized as a harlot because of her adulterous and idolatrous behavior, not because she may or may not have been a prostitute.(21) The nature of her harlotry is depicted as involving relationships with human males other than Hosea, as well as participating in Canaanite ritual activity: that is, relationships with male gods other than Yahweh. In these actions, Gomer is used as a representation of the people of Israel in their apostasy and disobedience to God. The interweaving of these themes and the underlying analogy is evident in Hosea 2:15:

I will punish her for the feast days of the ba'alim [Canaanite gods]
when she burned incense to them
and decked herself with her rings and jewelry,
and went after her lovers,
and forgot me.

The specific representation of Israel and Yahweh as a woman and a man in a marital relationship has several implications. As discussed earlier, marriage in ancient Israel was in no sense a partner-ship of equals. The sexes of Gomer and Hosea and their respective behavior are not a random representation but a reflection and reinforcement of cultural perceptions. Hence, Hosea's metaphor has both theological and social meaning. With regard to theological understanding, it indicates that God has the authority of possession and control over Israel that a husband has over a wife. The reverse of the representation is a view of human males as being analogous to Yahweh, while women are comparable to the people, who, by definition, are subservient to Yahweh's will. In a dualistic division between the divine (spiritual) and human (material) spheres of experience, men are categorized as belonging to the former, while women are assigned to the latter.

The positive role of the male (Yahweh/Hosea) in relationship to the female (Israel/Gomer) is evident throughout chapters 1—3. Hosea takes the positive initiative of marrying Gomer, while she behaves negatively in committing adulterous and idolatrous acts. Similarly, Yahweh promises to rectify Israel's disobedience and apostasy by positive action: "I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know Yahweh" (Hos. 2:21-22).

Another aspect of the perceived female negativity is apparent in the passages describing Gomer/Israel's reliance on her human/divine lovers for sustenance (Hos. 2:7). In condemning this behavior, Hosea asserts that Yahweh is the true provider:

For she did not know that it was I
who gave her the grain and the wine and the oil,
and multiplied unto her silver and gold,
which theyused for Ba'al,

(Hosea 2:10-11)

These passages emphasize female passivity and dependence upon male support. They also ignore, and thus serve to deny, the female role in the provision of food and clothing. The underlying implication is that males nurture females, a reversal of (at least certain aspects of) social reality. A similar reversal seems apparent in Hosea's later depiction of Israel's ingratitude (Hos. 11:1-4; Gen. 2:23) Gomer's depiction involves her identification with the land, as well as the people, of Israel:

Let her put away her harlotries from her face,
and her adulteries from between her breasts,
lest I strip her naked
and make her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,and set her like a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.

(Hosea 2:4-5)

On one level this passage describes retribution for harlotrous behavior. As a polemic against Canaanite religion, it deftly sets promiscuity in opposition to fertility and echoes the connection made in Hosea 1:2 between human harlotry and the land. Later in the book, Hosea emphasizes Yahweh's control of fertility in general and female reproductive capability in particular:

Ephraim's glory will fly away like a bird—
no birth, no pregnancy, no conception.
Even if they bring up children,
I will bereave them until none is left.
Woe to them
when I depart from them!


Give them, O Yahweh—what will you give?
Give them a miscarrying womband dry breasts.

(Hosea 9:12, 14)

As in chapter 2, infertility is the result of turning to Canaanite deities for fertility. Reproduction is also clearly the province of Yahweh, divorced from any control of power on the part of women. In addition to the punishments of deprivation and possible death due to Gomer/Israel for her harlotry, Hosea also describes her public humiliation:

Now I will uncover her shame
in the sight of her lovers,
and no one will rescue her from my hand.

(Hosea 2:12)

Although the prophet only makes specific use of a female personification of Israel in the first few chapters of Hosea, it is clear throughout the book that his underlying concern is to contrast Yahweh's positive (male) fidelity with Israel's negative (female) harlotry. In so doing, he introduces the themes of the degradation of females and their identification with the land and denies their positive role in human reproduction and nurturance. In his use of the cultural paradigm of marriage as an analogy for the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, Hosea transforms the earlier, material understanding of nonmarital sexuality into an ethical transgression. Or, rather, Hosea witnesses to that historical transition. Whether or not his actual analogy is unique, the efficacy of his prophecy was dependent upon his ability to convey his message to the people of his time. Hence, his using zenut (and other related terms) to indicate not only prostitution or apostasy but also adultery and infidelity generally—in other words, harlotry—indicates that this was a perception shared by others around him.

In summarizing Hosea's use of female sexual imagery, we may note indications of an objectified view of female experience as separate from and negative in relationship to male experience. Discussing the political developments of the late eighth century b.c.e. in relation to Hosea's perspective, Andersen and Freedman point out their powerful impact:

For the first time the threat of national destruction was serious and real, and captivity loomed for the survivors of the impending disaster. Loss of the land and the end of the state were not remote and theoretical possibilities but present and impending realities.(23)

Thus, while the prophecies of Hosea involve a condemnation of the social inequities that developed with the growing prosperity of the monarchical period, they also relate to an experience of disparity between expectation and reality which goes beyond social structure.

The relationship between these historical events and the use of female sexual imagery is illuminated by feminist theoretical considerations. As the development of dualistic perspectives in biblical thought has yet to be adequately explored, it is impossible to determine the extent to which the eighth century represents a point of transition from earlier periods. Nevertheless, there appears to be evidence of an intellectual framework focused on separation between categories previously seen as interrelated. One basis of this perspective may have been a growing material separation between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, in Israelite society. Another discrepancy central to prophetic thought is the perceived separation between ritual and ethical action, perhaps related to the centralization and consolidation of religious power on the part of the male Jerusalem priesthood.

To the extent that these separations became generalized into a broader dualistic view of experience, it is possible to understand the development of a perceived dichotomy between female and male human nature. The emergence of objectified female imagery in Hosea and the other literary prophets can be seen as related to the intellectual and psychological disruptions caused by political events. The eventual conquest of Israel involved not only an assertion of the military weakness of the nation but also a significant challenge to previous understanding of the relationship between Yahweh and the people of Israel. The sense of separation from divine protection may have entailed what seemed a basic reversal of right order: The poeple who were supposed to be superior under the aegis of divine power were proven inferior and rendered powerless. Certainly part of the prophets' response to this problem was a reinterpretation of the relationship between Yahweh and Israel. Another aspect of their reaction may have been to assert their personal and collective dignity as men over against a negative characterization and restriction of women.

A central issue for contemporary religious feminists is the extent to which the use of these (and other) biblical writings continues to so define women in our own societies. The use of feminist theory gives us a framework in which to discuss that issue constructively. For some, understanding the historical setting of prophetic texts may provide a perspective of "moral realism" which allows them to be read as sacred writing. For others, the "pornographic" nature of female objectification may demand that such texts not be declared "the word of God" in a public setting. In discussing these issues we will certainly emerge with new questions and challenges as well. As difficult as the process may seem, it is one that may allow us to redefine our relationship not only to the text but also to our own histories and communities in ways which fully acknowledge female experience.


1. I believe it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that the Hebrew Bible and the culture from which it emerged do not represent the origins of patriarchy. For further discussion of this issue and its implications, see Judith Plaskow, "Blaming the Jews for the Birth of Patriarchy," in Evelyn T. Beck, ed., Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (Persephone Press, 1982), pp. 250-254. I would alike to acknowledge and thank the women of Benot Esh for the community in which I was able to ask the questions which led to this article.

2. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Penguin Books, 1976), pp. 11-29.

3. The following outline draws on Andrea Dworkin, Our Blood and Pornography; Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature (Harper & Row, 1978); Laura Lederer, ed., Take Back the Night (William Morrow & Co., 1980); and Robin Morgan, ed., Going Too Far (Vintage Books, 1978).

4. Dworkin, Our Blood, p. 110.

5. Irene Diamond, "Pornography and Repression: A Reconsideration of 'Who' and 'What,' " in Lederer, pp. 187-203.

6. Dworkin, Pornography, p. 18.

7. Ibid., pp. 199-202.

8. Adrienne Rich, "Afterword," in Lederer, pp. 313-320.

9. Helen E. Longino, "Pornograph, Oppression, and Freedom: A Closer Look," in Lederer, pp. 40-54.

10. Dworkin, Pornography, pp. 199-202.

11. Ibid., pp. 13-47, 199-202.

12. Diamond, in Lederer, p. 192.

13. Carol Meyers, "The Roots of Restriction," Biblical Archaeologist (Sept. 1978), pp. 91-103; Carol Meyers, "Procreation, Production, and Protection: Male-Female Balance in Early Israel," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 51:569-593 (1983).

14. For clarity I have used the modern (rather than linguistic) method of transliteration, given in Werner Weinberg, ed., Guide to Hebrew Transliteration (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1974).

15.1 would like to acknowledge and thank Mr. Hyam Maccoby of the Leo Baeck College, London, for this and other insights related to the tum'ah/ taharah system.

16. The significance of the ongoing aspect of this priestly reattribution of power to the deity is discussed in Nancy Jay, "Throughout Your Generations Forever: A Sociology of Blood Sacrifice" (unpublished dissertation, Department of Sociology, Brandeis University, 1981).

17.1 would like to thank Jo Ann Hackett of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for sharing the discussions which led to some of these insights. For a summary of the textual bases of female status, see Phyllis Trible, "Woman in the OT," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume (Abingdon Press, 1976), pp. 963-966.

18. Norman Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 557-558.

19. Biblical quotations are adapted from Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, eds., The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Revised Standard Version) (Oxford University Press, 1977). Chapter and verse references are according to the divisions of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible.

20. Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, trans., Hosea (Doubleday & Co., 1980), p. 157.

21. Ibid., pp. 157-158.

22. Ibid., p. 43.

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