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Hosea 4:15 (ESV) reads:

Though you play the whore, O Israel,
let not Judah become guilty.
Enter not into Gilgal,
nor go up to Beth-aven,
and swear not, “As the LORD lives.”

What is the significance of Gilgal and Beth-aven in this verse? Were they places of false worship? And how is that connected to swearing by the name of Yahweh?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

The NET Bible notes:

Beth Aven means “house of wickedness” in Hebrew; it is a polemic reference to “Bethel,” which means “house of God.” Cf. CEV “at sinful Bethel.”

Bethel was also a worship center established by Jeroboam for the people of the Northern Kingdom. Hosea seems to be referring to the same place where a golden calf was worshiped, sacrifices where made to idols, and ritual prostitution was practiced.

Wikipedia suggests several referents to Gilgal:

  1. The location on the east side of the Jordan where Israel encamped mentioned in Joshua.
  2. A stop on Samuel's annual circuit mentioned in Samuel.
  3. The home of prophets associated with Elijah and Elisha.

It also suggests the Hebrew word means circle of standing stones, but according to Strongs, it simply means wheel. I don't know what to make of the difference or even if there is a difference of opinion.

By the time of Hosea, Amos, and Micah, the place (or at least place name) was clearly associated with sinfulness and especially illicit sacrifice. If altars were still being used at Gilgal after the temple was established in Jerusalem, then travelling there would represent the breaking of the covenant.

Both places are associated with idolatry and wickedness during the Divided Kingdom period. In the larger context of his prophetic work, Hosea illustrates Israel's separation from God by marrying a prostitute named Gomer who is unfaithful to him. The broken relationship also seems to symbolize the Northern Kingdom's separation from Judah, which is sometimes shown to be more faithful to God in the text (e.g., Hosea 11:12).

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+1 After asking the question I read Calvin on it. Your answer agrees with his comments. – Kazark May 22 '12 at 22:51

Can't improve on Jon Ericson's splendid answer, but would like to make some comments on the parallel passage Amos 5:5:

Do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. For Gilgal will surely go into exile, and Bethel will be reduced to nothing. (NIV)

This page mentions much the same thing as what Jon is saying. Interestingly, Clarke's commentary mentions some play on letters and words. I heard a sermon on Amos 5:5 in church a long time ago, which if memory serves applied the passage to the life of the individual Christian something like this:

Gilgal and Bethel were both places where something good had happened to Israel in the past. But God says, do not seek them. Instead, in Amos 5:6, God says to seek Him instead. As human beings we often dwell on past victories that God gave us and get too focused on such things. But God says, seek Him now.

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