Peculiar Passages: the Strange Case of the Forbidden Raisin Cakes

 
Katy Morgan | August 27th 2019

There are plenty of actions and attitudes that the Bible describes as wrong. Lying, thieving, adultery, anger, selfishness, pride, boasting… and eating raisin cakes.

Yes. It’s in Hosea 3 v 1. God is speaking to his prophet Hosea, telling him to love his wife despite her serial unfaithfulness. This is a symbol of the Lord’s own relationship with the Israelites: he loves them, even though they love other gods instead. To be precise: even though “they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes”.

We are supposed to be amazed by God’s love in the face of total rejection and immoral behaviour by the Israelites. And the number one example of rejection and immorality that God comes up with is: loving raisin cakes.

Does that mean that next time you go to a tea shop, you should avoid the scones? Are Welsh cakes off the menu? Should fruit loaf, Garibaldi biscuits, Panettone, Christmas cake and poffert (look it up) give you a guilty conscience?

Well, no. First things first: the raisin cakes in Hosea 3 aren’t actually cakes with raisins in them. The Hebrew word has to do with pressing. It’s talking about a cake of raisins: dried fruit pressed and caked together into a specific shape.

Rich raisins

These cakes are mentioned in a few other places in the Old Testament, and usually they present no problem. In 1 Samuel 30 v 12, pressed raisins are administered to revive a fainting slave. In 1 Samuel 25 v 18 they’re part of a generous list of foodstuffs provided by Abigail for David. In 2 Samuel 6 v 19 and 1 Chronicles 16 v 3, David hands out raisin cakes to the people after a sacrifice in the temple, as a sign of celebration and blessing.

A raisin cake seems to be the ancient equivalent of really nice chocolate: energy-rich, delicious, and luxurious. In Isaiah 16 v 7 they’re used to represent all the lost prosperity of the nation of Moab: “Lament and grieve”, we are told, “for the raisin cakes of Kir Haraseth”.

But if raisin cakes are so great elsewhere in the Bible, why are they a problem in Hosea 3?

Part of it may be that they evoke a sense of luxury, the rich living which can distract people from God. In chapter 2, Hosea’s wife, Gomer, talks about “my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink” (v 5) and decks herself with jewellery (v 13), going after the lovers who she thinks can provide these things for her, and forgetting that it is Hosea who gave them (v 8-9). This is not only a metaphor for the way God looks after his people and is rejected by them: the same distractions are really, literally theirs. In 4 v 10 they love wine and in 8 v 14 they build palaces; the prophet uses both to prove that they have forgotten the Lord. Wealth makes them complacent, believing in their own skills and capacities rather than worshipping God with gratitude.

So raisin cakes stand for flourishing vineyards and swelling bank accounts. Love these too much and you will worship yourself instead of the God who makes the rain fall and the sun shine.

Sacred cakes

Not only this, but you will worship other gods. This is the context of the rest of the sentence: the Israelites “turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes”. There is a reason the word “sacred” is added by the NIV translators. Loving raisin cakes isn’t a separate type of immoral behaviour; it is an example of “turning to other gods”. Raisin cakes may have been eaten as part of sacrificial feasts in the temples of idols, just as they were in the Lord’s temple by David; or even used as offerings, as other cakes were (e.g. Jeremiah 44:19). To love raisin cakes means to love worshipping at other altars: to turn away entirely, explicitly, from the Lord, just as Gomer not only rejects her husband but also seeks out other lovers.

Loving raisin cakes may seem like a weirdly specific—and harmless—thing to condemn, but we need to look past the dried fruit itself and think about what it signifies: distraction, complacency, self-centredness, pride, and a wilful rejection of the providing hand. The Israelites are guilty of all that. And yet they are the people whom the Lord loves.

Katy Morgan

Katy Morgan is an Editor at The Good Book Company. She is involved in various ministries at Chessington Evangelical Church in Surrey, UK, where she lives. She holds a master's degree in classical Greek literature, and previously worked in a ministry role as part of a school chaplaincy.

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