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Hosea 11:4 NASB:

I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love, And I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws; And I bent down and fed them.

Robert Alter’s translation for the first phrase reads:

With human cords I tugged them, with bonds of love

What are the “cords of a man” or “human cords” that God led Israel with?

2 Answers 2

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Hosea 11:4 NASB:

I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love, And I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws; And I bent down and fed them.

with cords
בְּחַבְלֵ֨י (bə·ḥaḇ·lê)
Preposition-b | Noun - masculine plural construct
Strong's Hebrew 2256: A rope, a measuring line, a district, inheritance, a noose, a company, a throe, ruin

of kindness,
אָדָ֤ם (’ā·ḏām)
Noun - masculine singular
Strong's Hebrew 120: Ruddy, a human being

Note the parallelism:

I led them with cords of a man, 
           with bonds of love

This is the loving image of a father leading his son by cords, in contrast to an animal trainer roping an unmanageable animal.

Pulpit Commentary

I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love. This verse contains a further representation of Jehovah's fatherly guidance of Israel. The cords of a man are such as parents use in leading weak or young children. Bands of lore qualify more closely the preceding expression, "cords of a man," and are the opposite of those which men employ in taming or breaking wild and unmanageable animals. The explanation of Rashi is similar: "I have always led them with tender cords such as these with which a man leads his child, as if he said with loving guidance." Aben Ezra and Kimchi, in their explanations, carry out more fully the same idea. The former says, "The bands of love are not like the bands which are fastened on the neck of a plowing heifer;" the latter, "Because he compared Ephraim to a heifer, and people lead a heifer with cords, he says, 'I have led Israel by the cords of a man, and not the cords of a heifer which one drags along with resistance, but as a man draws his fellow-man without compelling him to go with resistance: even so I have led them after a gentle method;' and therefore he afterward calls them (cords of a man) bands of love."

It was a familiar contrast between two opposite images: cords of a man/adam and ropes of an animal. One is manipulated by love; the other by force.

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The NASB quoted by the OP is quite an accurate translation of the Hebrew. However, I note that several version interpret this first phrase of Hos 11:4 as follows:

  • NIV: I led them with cords of human kindness
  • ESV: I led them with cords of kindness
  • NLT: I led Israel along with my ropes of kindness
  • BSB: I led them with cords of kindness
  • NKJV: I drew them with gentle cords
  • CEV: I led them with human cords

Such interpretive translations are defensible for several reasons:

  1. The context of the chapter is YHWH being kind to Israel despite their rebellious nature; see V1-3. The picture is one of the LORD trying to turn Israel back to Himself
  2. The first phrase "cords of a man", or "human cords" is poetically parallel to the next phrase, "rope of love" and is obviously a case of synthetic Hebrew parallelism.
  3. The first two phrases are also parrallel to the next two phrases, "I lifted the yoke from their necks", and, "bent down to feed them"; - a further picture of a loving God hand feeding an animal - a quintessential metaphor of kindness and & patience.
  4. The verb used here, מָשַׁךְ (mashak) meaning "to draw along" is also used in Jer 31:3 in a similar phrase, "I have drawn you with lovingkindness".

The force of the the expression appears to be be a contrast between the cords of lovingkindness used on humans in contradistinction with the less caring and forceful control exerted over an animal such as an ox.

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