Introduction

The Bible uses a number of images to depict God in the Hebrew Bible. In the Psalms, he is described as a tower (61:3 [MT 4]), a warrior (18:14 [MT 15]), the sun (84:11 [MT 12]), and a judge (7:11 [MT 12]) to name a few. The Prophets use familial imagery to reveal various features of YHWH’s character (cf. Isa 54:5; 63:16; Jer 31:9).

A commonly used metaphor in the Hebrew Bible is God as a lion. This image invokes several responses. Anyone who has seen a lion up close has felt both the awe and fear these animals can inspire. In the ancient world, lions were often a symbol of power. Kings, often in exaggerated fashion, boasted of their exploits of capturing and killing lions. The Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076 BCE), for instance, claims to have killed 120 lions on foot, and another 800 from his chariot by his “wildly outstanding assault.”[1] Such feats of strength are not foreign to heroes in the biblical text (cf. Judg 14:5–6; 1 Chron 11:22).

When used in relation to YHWH, leonine imagery has the potential to express both security and danger. In some cases, there may be hints of both. This polyvalence, as Brent Strawn argues, contributes to the power of the lion metaphor in the Hebrew Bible.[2] While occurrences of lion imagery may be found across the Old Testament, this article will briefly explore the metaphor in Hosea.

In the Book of the Twelve (i.e. Minor Prophets),[3] five different nouns are typically translated as “lion,” “young lion,” or “lioness,” with a total of 23 occurrences.[4] Some of these describe human agents. Israel’s enemies, for example, are depicted as a lion baring their fangs and with a cave full of prey (cf. Joel 1:6; Nah 2:11–13 [MT 12–14]). Other verses employ a naturalistic presentation of lions as an analogy or comparison (e.g. Amos 3:4, 12; 5:19).[5] Though explicit reference to a lion is absent, we may also mention verses that reference YHWH as roaring (Amos 1:2 = Joel 3:16 [MT 4:16]). For our purposes here, however, I will consider only the metaphor with YHWH as the specific referent in Hosea.

The Lion in Hosea

Hosea includes three instances of leonine imagery with reference to YHWH. Two of these are indicative of judgment (5:14; 13:7–8), while the other provides future hope (11:10). In chapter five, the priests, the house of Israel, and the house of the king are called to attention (5:1). Their sins have caused YHWH to withdraw from them (v 6b). The southern kingdom of Judah is also implicated in their guilt (v 5b, 10). In response YHWH takes on various images of judgment in first-person speech. In v 12, he declares that he will be like a moth to Ephraim and dry rot to Judah. Contrasting the picture of small and slow deterioration of the people, YHWH asserts in v 14 that he will be like a lion (שַׁחַל) to Ephraim and a young lion (כְּפִיר) to the house of Judah, tearing them to pieces with none to rescue the nation (v 14). The picture of judgment is clear.

The historical retrospect in Hosea 13 recounts Israel’s waywardness and idolatry. Though YHWH exalted the nation and provided their needs, they nevertheless forgot him. YHWH proclaims their fate as he will stalk, maul, and devour them like a lion, a leopard, and a bear robbed of her cubs (13:7–8). The pairing of these animals graphically portrays the swift and ferocious violence in store for the people.

Hosea 11 in many ways anticipates the chapter 13. YHWH reminisces about the exodus when he called his beloved son out of Egypt (11:1). But as elsewhere in the book, Israel abandoned YHWH for idols. This being the case, the usage of lion imagery in the chapter may be unexpected. Though the people will face destruction and a new enslavement in Assyria (vv 5–6), YHWH’s compassion is stirred yet again (vv 8–9). His roar like a lion is a summons to his children who will experience a new exodus (v 10–11). The sound invokes trembling among the people of God, but rather than causing them to flee from YHWH they return to YHWH. The sheep know the lion’s voice and they follow him. Here the leonine imagery means restoration and safety for the people of God. The phrase “they will walk after YHWH” (v 10a) indicates that the people will genuinely seek God when these events occur (cf. Deut 13:4; 2 Kgs 23:3).

Together, these three occurrences show the polyvalent potential for the lion metaphor. It can illustrate the aggression and violence enacted upon a rebellious people. On the other hand, it can function within oracles of salvation. The metaphor is context-dependent. Yet in every case, the imagery leaves no question about where power lies. YHWH is sovereign over peoples and nations, moving in history for both woe and weal. He is the true king of the cosmos.

Conclusion

Among other things, the leonine imagery in the Hebrew Bible should remind us that God is not docile. There are no bars that can keep this lion at a safe viewing distance. His roar may mean certain destruction. But as in Hosea 11, the roaring of YHWH may also entail deliverance for his people. Just like a lion defending its young, so too does YHWH act on behalf of his own. As readers of Scripture, we do well to keep this multi-faceted view of God before our eyes. We can often rightly take comfort that God is our father and Christ is a friend of sinners, but we must never forget that God is indeed a ferocious adversary against sin and injustice. The Lamb who was slain is none other than the Lion of Judah (Rev 5:5–6).[6] The leonine metaphor is an able device to depict the dangerous deity who both destroys and defends. He is, as Mr. Beaver tells Susan, not safe, but good.[7]

[1] A. K. Grayson, Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millennium BC I (1114-859 BC), vol. 2, RIMA (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 26.

[2] Brent A. Strawn, What Is Stronger than a Lion?: Leonine Image and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 212 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005), 284. Strawn’s exhaustive study identifies four primary referents of lion imagery in the Hebrew Bible 1) Self/righteous, 2) The enemy/wicked, 3) the monarch/mighty one, 4) The deity.

[3] There is evidence that the Minor Prophets in antiquity were viewed as “one book.” For an overview see the various essays in James D. Nogalski and Marvin A Sweeney, eds., Reading and Hearing the Book of the Twelve, SBLSym, no. 15 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000). For opposing viewpoints, see Ehud Ben Zvi and James Nogalski, Two Sides of a Coin: Juxtaposing Views on Interpreting the Book of the Twelve/the Twelve Prophetic Books (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009).

[4] For a complete discussion on lion terminology in the Hebrew Bible, see Strawn, What Is Stronger than a Lion?, 293–326.

[5] Strawn details naturalistic usage of the lion in Strawn, 27–46.

[6] On Rev 5:5–6, see Brent A. Strawn, “Why Does the Lion Disappear in Revelation 5?: Leonine Imagery in Early Jewish and Christian Literatures,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 17, no. 1 (2007): 37–74.

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 1987).


Andrew M. King is a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has published articles in Bulletin for Biblical Research, Conversations with the Biblical World, Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament, and others. He also serves as the Executive Director of Speak for the Unborn (speakfortheunborn.com). He and his wife, Lauren, have three children. You can follow him on Twitter at @aking443 or contact him at aking@sbts.edu.

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