A correspondence with a friend brought to mind a curious but long-forgotten interest in Hosea, one of the so-called Minor Prophets in the Old Testament,“The Twelve” in the Jewish Tanakh.

The premise of Hosea is laid out with brutal simplicity. “And the LORD said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the LORD.” The rest of the book, fourteen chapters in all, is a litany of God’s grievances as a disappointed and betrayed lover of his people, of which the circumstance of the prophet’s marriage is presumed to be caution, lesson, allegory, illustration.

I cannot say entirely why this odd book would have spoken to a younger me, but I do remember the moment. Between school and the Army, well along a path out of strict religious upbringing, faced with a clear and compelling moral choice that would have life-altering consequences for me and for others. Perhaps it was the proto-existentialism of Hosea, that in choice itself is the hero constituted, whatever the choice and whatever the consequences. Or the related thought that love is not optional, not a random disposition, but something dangerous and unsettling. A commandment. The first commandment, in which all others are subsumed. This much I had got from Nicholas Tavani, a difficult and paradoxical man who was my most demanding teacher.

Reading Hosea now, a whole lifetime since, I still see some of that and rather admire the young man I was for feeling—however dimly—that there was a space for moral action that was neither purely self-interested nor merely doing one’s duty.

But now I am struck as well by something else.

Hosea’s wife has a name. She is called Gomer. The daughter of Diblaim. And she and Hosea have children. The first one, a son, is called Jezreel. Then Gomer “conceived again, and bare a daughter,” called Lo-ruhamah. When Lo-ruhamah was weaned, the book says, Gomer conceived once more and gave birth to a son, called Lo-ammi. These names are not nice and their meanings in Hebrew are explained as emblems of God’s feelings of anger and vengeance towards Israel. Yet still, the impulse to narrative is palpable, even to a certain kind of novelistic possibility, although the text is mute on everything we would like to know.

Van Eyck, Arnolfini wedding, detail. An orange.

We are not told that Hosea and Gomer have a happy marriage, but neither are we told that they have an unhappy marriage. We do not know what Gomer thought about it. Or Hosea either, really. Were these awful names the ones they used at home? A marriage with two sons and a daughter is surely a lot of life lived for the sake of a metaphor. That space between the general and the particular—between the high appalling thing Hosea is called to say and this tangibly real household—everything in that space we are free to imagine.