The translation of Hosea 6:7 has been hotly debated, and the debate is mainly about the meaning of the Hebrew כְּאָדָ֖ם, which has been primarily understood as being either “like Adam” (the person), “at Adam” (the city), or “like mankind.” There have been some other suggestions for the translation, such as “they have walked on my covenant like dirt” (Douglas Stuart, Word Biblical Commentary), but these have not been well supported by other scholars. We will examine the three main possible meanings below.
A number of modern versions have the translation, “like Adam.” The main reasons for translating כְּאָדָ֖ם as “like Adam” is that the Hebrew letter kaph most naturally means “like” and not “at,” and also “like Adam” is a way that many Christians have understood the text for years (in part because it supports the theological viewpoint of Covenant Theology, although John Calvin himself favored the translation, “like men;” see Calvin’s Commentaries). However, a number of things militate against the translation “like Adam.”
First, there is no other mention of a covenant with Adam anywhere in Scripture, and that is a significant problem. God was consistently angry with Israel for breaking the Mosaic Covenant and Israel’s unfaithfulness is mentioned many times in the prophetic books (including Hosea, cp. Hosea 8:1). It would be extremely unusual for God to deviate from His standard line of reproof for Israel’s breaking the Old Covenant and bring up a covenant that is nowhere else mentioned in the Bible. Many times in Scripture God brings up the point that Israel broke her covenant with Him, but He just states that as a fact without saying Israel broke His covenant “like” anyone else (cp. Josh. 7:11; Judg. 2:20; 2 Kings 18:12; Ps. 78:10; Jer. 11:10; Ezek. 44:7; Hos. 8:1), so saying that Israel broke His covenant “like Adam” would be very unusual.
Also, the word “Adam” in Hosea 6:7 is not the form of the name that is used in Genesis. In Genesis, when the man Adam is spoken of, the Hebrew text places the definite article before the name. So it seems that if God was trying to say Israel sinned “like Adam,” meaning the man Adam in Genesis, He would have used the familiar form of the name “Adam” that appears in Genesis. In fact, that God does not use the familiar form of the name “Adam” is one of the reasons that some English versions have “like men” (cp. KJV), which is a meaning of “Adam” without the article.
Also against “Adam” being a man’s name is that the most natural reading of the second stanza of Hosea 6:7 uses the word “there” as a reference to a place, as in the REV translation: “They have dealt deceitfully with me there.” In fact, the Hebrew word translated “there” is so commonly used of a place that many of the English versions that have “Adam” as the person’s name also have “there” as a place name even though that produces an incongruity between the two halves of the verse (cp. the ESV: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me”). If the second stanza is referring to a place then the most natural reading of the verse is that the first stanza is too. There are rare times in Hebrew poetry when the Hebrew “there” can be the equivalent of “Look,” “See,” “Behold,” etc., (the NET is an example of that form of translation), but most scholars feel that is forcing the meaning to fit the first stanza. Also, another possible reason that the man “Adam” does not fit in Hosea 6:7 is that the specific sin spoken of in the context of Hosea 6:7-9 is murder, and Adam did not murder.
There are some English translations that have “like men” (cp. KJV) instead of “like Adam.” The main reasons for translating Hosea 6:7 as “like men” is the Hebrew prefix most naturally reads “like,” and the word “Adam” does not have the definite article as it does in Genesis when it refers to the individual, “Adam.” “Adam” without the definite article is the standard form of the word when it refers to people in general.
However, there are significant things that militate against the translation “like men.” For example, just as with the translation “like Adam,” there is no record of “men” [“humankind”] making a covenant with God. Even if they had at some point, why would Hosea mention it if it was not well known? Even more to the point is that “humankind” does not seem to make good sense in the context of Hosea. Israel was a part of “humankind,” so to say that Israel broke a covenant like “humankind” seems to miss the point. The best way to have the text make sense would be to understand “humankind” as referring to non-Israelites, the nations. But God mentions Israel along with the pagan nations on many occasions and never refers to those nations as “humankind.” Also, as was stated above, God says many times that Israel broke her covenant with Him, but He just states it as a fact without saying Israel broke His covenant “like” anyone else. So saying that Israel broke His covenant “like mankind” would be very unusual. Also, brought up above but applicable here is the strong point that the most natural reading of the second stanza of the verse refers to a place, and not a person or persons.
In contrast to the translations “like Adam” or “like mankind,” a number of modern versions read like the REV and translate the Hebrew as “at Adam,” that is, at the city of Adam (cp. NAB; NET; NIV2011; RSV; Jerusalem Bible; New Jerusalem Bible; Moffatt Bible; NIV2011). Significantly, the NIV committee changed “like Adam” in the original 1984 NIV to “at Adam” in the 2011 revision.
One argument against “Adam” being a city name is that the Hebrew prefix before “Adam” most naturally reads as “like” and not “at.” However, some scholars point out that the single Hebrew letter prefix meaning “like” (the kaph כ) and “at” (the beth ב) are so similar that a copying mistake could have been easily made, while others point out that the proposed emendation is not actually necessary. Also, although some opponents to Adam being a city point out that there is no mention of idolatry at Adam anywhere else in the Bible, there is a city of Adam mentioned in Joshua 3:16.
There are a number of factors that weigh heavily in favor of “Adam” being a city. As is pointed out by Francis Anderson and David Noel Freedman in The Anchor Bible: Hosea (Doubleday & Company, 1980), Hosea 6:7-9 fit together as a unit and in any case they are each about places. Hosea 6:7 mentions “Adam,” Hosea 6:8 mentions “Gilead,” and Hosea 6:9 mentions “Shechem.” Also, as was pointed out above, the second stanza of Hosea 6:7 most naturally reads “Adam” as a place name, as in the NIV: “they were unfaithful to me there.”
Also, the “covenant” that Israel is regularly accused of breaking, as was pointed out above, is the Mosaic Covenant (cp. Hos. 8:1), and the Israelites did not specifically break that covenant “like Adam” because the Mosaic Covenant was 2,500 years after Adam, nor could they break it “like mankind” because God did not make the Mosaic Covenant with mankind. Also as was pointed out above, although Israel broke God’s covenant in many ways, the specific sin in the context is murder and Adam did not commit murder. On the other hand, the Israelites could have easily broken the Mosaic Covenant at the city of Adam, just as they were breaking it all over the nation of Israel.
A city named “Adam” is mentioned in Joshua 3:16, and it makes sense that it would be the same city as is mentioned in Hosea. The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible says that Adam is a “…Transjordanian city, described as ‘beside Zarethan’ south of the meeting of the Jabbok and Jordan rivers and modern Tell ed-Damiyah, where the Jordan’s waters miraculously arose upstream from the Israelites, allowing them to cross the river on dry land (Josh 3:16). Hosea denounces certain priests’ disloyalty to Yahweh and murderous activities at the city (Hos 6:7).”
Good evidence that the “Adam” in Hosea 6:7 is the same city as the city of Adam in Joshua 3:16 is that it perfectly fits the geographical information given in Hosea. According to Hosea 6:9, the murderous priests were on their way to Shechem. Shechem was a well-known place of worship in Israel and it would have drawn people such as the idolatrous priests mentioned in Hosea (see commentary on Hos. 6:9, “Shechem”). The priests were coming from Gilead in the Transjordan (that is, east of the Jordan River), and would cross the Jordan River from east to west at the ford near the city of Adam on their way to Shechem. The commentary in The Interpreter’s Bible points out that both the translations “like Adam” and “like human beings” have problems. Then it goes on to say, “But we may consider Adam as a place name, and read ‘at [i.e., ב for כ] Adam.’ In this case Adam would be understood to be the well-known ford of the Jordan (cf. Josh 3:16); people going from Gilead to Shechem would normally cross the river there” (The Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1956. Brackets and parentheses theirs.). Thus, what Hosea 6:7 points out is that when the evil priests who lived in Gilead were going to Shechem, they had to go by the city of Adam to cross the Jordan River and they would have sinned at Adam just as they had back in their hometown of Gilead.
In conclusion, although each possible translation of Hosea 6:7 has its proponents, the weight of evidence seems to most strongly support that Hosea is referring to the city of Adam, where the bloodthirsty priests of Israel broke God’s covenant.
“dealt deceitfully.” The Hebrew word is bagad (#0898 בּגד), and it means to “deal treacherously with; deal deceitfully with, be unfaithful to.” It is used a lot in interpersonal relationships of people who were deceitful or unfaithful to another. In this case, the people of Israel were unfaithful to God at the city of Adam, and broke their covenant with Him.