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Hosea 3:1 reads (ESV):

And the LORD said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.”

The translators of the NLT took this interpret "love cakes of raisins" to mean love of the worship of other gods:

Then the LORD said to me, “Go and love your wife again, even though she commits adultery with another lover. This will illustrate that the LORD still loves Israel, even though the people have turned to other gods and love to worship them.”

This seems to be a good interpretation, but could someone connect the dots for me? In what manner were cakes of raisins used in cultic practices? What's the back story here?

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Also, I wonder if there's a difference between historical-interpretation and history? I think I prefer history if they are the same (or even close). – Jon Ericson May 21 '12 at 19:37
Actually, I saw the tag wiki and then commented. I think it would be a good Meta question. Thanks. – Jon Ericson May 21 '12 at 19:52
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The link to Strong H809 in Kazark's answer brings three other references:

  1. II Sam 6:19
  2. I Chron 16:3
  3. Song 5:2

In addition see Isaiah 16:7.

None of the contexts gives a clearer idea of what "ashishim" are. Different words but similar general imagery to Hosea 3:1 in Amos 6:6 provided a basis for some commentators.

"anavim" are grapes, but in this context could mean raisins.

"Ashishim" appears in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesahim 36b and in the Jerusalem Talmud Oaths 10:14 where it means cakes of roasted bean flour with honey, like our halvah.

It might be that a raisin halvah offering was part of the Baal worship (Cassutto), but it is not clear, either from the context or from the grammar whether the "lovers of raisin cakes" were the Israelites or the "other gods".

The ancient commentators had trouble with this too, translating variously "raisin cakes", meaning wheat cakes with raisins, "caked raisins" meaning little bricks of compressed raisins, "pressed grapes" - an oblique reference to wine itself perhaps because "anavim" is literally grapes and not raisins, and even "wine goblets" (possibly by comparison with Amos 6:6) and none of them can say convincingly why this imagery is appropriate.

A similar sounding phrase meaning grape juices or wines is "Asise anavim", spelled with the letters ayin and sin instead of aleph and shin.

I guess that we will have to wait for the Tishbi to answer this one.

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The Hebrew of "raisin cakes" is

אֲשִׁישֵׁ֥י עֲנָבִֽים

Strong's: 809, 6025.

The old rendering is "flagons of wine" (KJV). If that interpretation is taken, then he is criticizing their drunkenness, as elsewhere in Hosea. Calvin and Henry both follow the flagon translation. However, this appears to be a mistranslation; the word seems to come from a root associated with the idea of pressing down.

Gill says that if it is taken to mean cakes of raisins, this probably indicates the debauched feasts in the temples of idols. Presumably, the food was offered to the idols and then eaten; this is the interpretation taken by the NET Bible:

They turn to other gods and love to offer raisin cakes to idols.

I do not yet have a modern commentary on Hosea (hoping to buy one in the next few months). Unfortunately it seems like the old commentators are less help on this point because of the mistranslation of ashishey. More answers/comments welcome.

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Raisin cakes were not uncommon in the time of the Hebrews as raisins themselves weren't, being that raisin cakes were just raisins pressed into cake form. They were sweet, being a compressed form of sugar. They were eaten as a delicacy in SoS. This probably has more to do in Hosea with Israel turning to the things they love, instead of God who they should love and other women and raisin cakes being two examples, one adultury and the other just a food item. God's remark is alomost comical in that he is telling Hosea that the Israelites will once again go and follow after women and a small tasty cake.

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Raisin cakes were an item used in pagan worship1. The NET Bible makes this explicit:

...although they turn to other gods and love to offer raisin cakes to idols.

The same practice is spoken of in Jeremiah 7:18

Children are gathering firewood, fathers are building fires with it, and women are mixing dough to bake cakes to offer to the goddess they call the Queen of Heaven. They are also pouring out drink offerings to other gods. They seem to do all this just to trouble me. (NET Bible)

Would you find it offensive if your wife kept a picture of her old boyfriend by her bedside? We expect our spouses to make a clean break with their old flames. God expects a complete break with our old loves, and a total devotion to Him.

1John Brown's Commentary, and also Jamieson, Fausset & Brown :: Commentary on Hosea

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