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Either this text is one of the greatest notes of triumph over death in the Old Testament, or it surrenders the helpless to all the weapons of death. Which is true: the first view with its long history of translations going all the way back to the Greek Septuagint, or the second view, which shows up in such modern translations as the RSV ("Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues?"), NEB ("Shall I ransom him from death? Oh, for your plagues, O death!") and TEV ("Bring on your plagues, death!")?
The first part of this verse has no sign of an interrogative, and therefore I understand it as one of the most beautiful gospel promises in the Old Testament. The Lord, who spoke in Hosea 13:4-11, is the speaker, not Hosea. Our Lord affirms that he will ransom and redeem Israel from the grip of death and the grave. To ransom means to buy the freedom of a person by paying the stipulated price for deliverance. The opening couplet gives a ringing challenge that makes it a straightforward promise. Our God will deliver mankind by fulfilling the law (Mt 3:15), removing the guilt (Jn 1:29) and personally suffering the penalties due to mankind for their sin (Jn 3:16).
How then shall we translate it? "Where, O death . . . ?" and "Where, O grave . . . ?" or "I will be your plagues, O death" and "I will be your destruction, O grave"? Normally the translation which de-notes permission, as in "I will be," is restricted to the second- and third-person pronouns (you and he/she) forms; however, the first-person Hebrew jussive form does occur in some exceptional cases.
But Hosea 13:10 of this chapter had just translated this same Hebrew word as "where." That would seem to settle the matter, even though that has an added Hebrew adverb in this same expression. The form probably reflects Hosea's special northern dialect.
But some protest that a promise of redemption is incompatible with the threats pronounced in Hosea 13:7-13 and repeated in Hosea 13:15-16. The complaint charges that this promise is surrounded contextually with curses and judgments.
The answer, of course, is that the same situation is found in Genesis 3:15. It too is surrounded with the curses on the woman, the serpent, the man and the ground (Gen 3:8-14; 16-19). Often God will interject this note of hope right in the midst of humanity's darkest moments and most deserved judgments.
Therefore, the taunt song to death and the grave is the most appropriate rendering of the last part of Hosea 13:14. It is this same paean that the apostle Paul will raise in 1 Corinthians 15:55. It only asks in mocking tones what the first part of the verse had clearly affirmed as a statement: God can and will ransom them from the power of the grave. He can deliver them even after death has done its worst. No wonder the prophet cries out with such triumphant glee and says (after a manner of speak- ing), "Come on, death, let's see your stuff now! Come on, grave, put up your fists and fight!"
So certain is this affirmation that even God himself can see no cause or condition for changing his mind or intentions. He will have no repentance, says the end of verse 14. There will be no regrets or remorse over this decision in the divine mind, for God has spoken and that will be that.