Hosea and His Household
Covenant & Divine Hesed

Header image source: http://whitehallbfc.org/images/sermons/2013_hosea.jpg

Embedded within the book of Hosea is the recurring theme of covenantal relationships. The primary covenantal relationship is between God and his chosen people, and the second involves the covenant between the person of Hosea and his wife Gomer. Throughout Hosea, of whom the book is attributed to, the Prophet draws an analogy between his relationship with Gomer and Yahweh’s relationship with Israel by employing figurative language, as well as symbolic action, in order to set up Yahweh as Israel’s husband. Of all the prophets, Hosea may actually be the first to use the metaphor of husband for God, casting Israel in negative female imagery as God’s adulterous wife.[1] In regards to the prophetic texts, Hosea’s analogy is assuredly the earliest.[2] It is necessary to understand how relationships are used within Hosea’s message because Hosea draws comparisons from the anthropological and places it in parallel with the nature of Yahweh. This entails knowing specifically what Yahweh expects from His people in terms of a relationship both with Him and with each other. The intent is not to provide a chapter by chapter commentary on Hosea rather the focus will be set on what an inquirer should be mindful of in order to gain a better understanding between the anthropological aspects of the book and the theological concerns that Hosea was addressing. This reading will draw out the major themes of the book, thus allowing the inquirer to clearly see how the message of Hosea tightly fits into the light of the New Testament.

The Main Household Members

Although the marriage motif is dominant throughout the book, it would be a grave error to set focus solely upon Hosea and his marriage to Gomer. Within the very first chapter of the book, it is learned that the relationship went beyond the scope of these two individuals. Gomer gave birth to three children, who are all quite significant to understanding Yahweh’s message in Hosea.[3] This removes any notion that the focus should be set upon the marriage of Hosea and Gomer alone. A more viable treatment would be to approach the members not as individuals but as a part of a household or family.

The first household member is no other than Hosea himself. Within the opening of the book, Hosea receives his calling from the Lord, “When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom.”[4] For the sake of canonicity this command must be understood as Hosea’s calling, and the Lord speaking through Hosea solidifies the prophet’s integrity. This is significant because it tells the audience that Hosea’s message was not of his own doing, but of God’s will.[5] Additionally, this reveals that, within its literal sense, Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was imposed upon him by the word of Yahweh.

Hosea shows his obedience and willingness to carry out God’s will by marrying Gomer, who is the second household member. Yahweh did not blindly lead Hosea into a marriage that was intended to break his heart and wreak havoc upon his life rather Hosea married Gomer knowing full well of her reputation.[6] The belief that Yahweh willed the performance of any act provided ample evidence to enable any prophet to carry out even the most unusual requests.[7] This type of dedication is not unique to Hosea and can be seen elsewhere in the other prophets, such as Isaiah (Isa. 20:2) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 12:9), who were both called to act out in harmony to Yahweh’s will.

As shocking as it may seem within a modern context, Hosea’s action of marrying a woman of whoredom may have been received differently in Hosea’s time. Hosea delivered his message to an audience who were increasingly devoting themselves to Baal worship. Their worship incorporated idolatrous images, sacred pillars, the consulting of spirits, and cultic prostitution.[8] According to Hosea’s own words, such a marriage may not have been considered so extreme, at least not in comparison to the culture and society that many are accustomed to today. Hosea writes,

They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains and burn offerings on the hills, under oak, poplar and terebinth, because their shade is good. Therefore, your daughters play the whore, and your brides commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for the men themselves go aside with prostitutes and sacrifice with cult prostitutes, and people without understanding shall come to ruin.[9]

When put into its proper context it becomes clearer that Gomer was caught up with the rest of the culture. This is confirmed within the same sentence that the Lord instructs Hosea to marry Gomer, “…for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”[10] Hosea’s audience was not made up of people who were on the fringes of society or even a small marginal group of people rather the Prophet’s audience was the larger community who made up the massive portion of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. From what Hosea has written in chapter four, his situation may not have been so different than the lifestyle that many of the people in the land were caught up in.[11] Although it is vital to recognize Hosea’s marriage as an abnormal and adulterating situation, it is equally important to realize that the society and culture that Hosea was a part of was not made up of the most sanctifying community of people. Furthermore, Hosea’s participation within the community should not imply that Hosea was a sinful man rather he was quite the opposite. In carrying out the command of God to marry a wife of whoredom, Hosea was showing the people just how sinful their lives had become by allowing their adulterous ways to be played out within his relationship with Gomer.

The Children of the Household

Hosea’s household was eventually filled with children of whoredom, all of whom were named by the Lord. The Prophet does not go into whether or not the children were appropriately named because it is quite obvious that each child was given a symbolic name in order to carry out the will of God. It is important to note that the symbolic naming of Hosea’s children does not transition the account of Hosea’s experiences from literal to allegorical. Rather than struggle with whether or not the narrative should be interpreted as literal or allegory, it is best to think of Hosea’s experiences as enacted prophecy.[12] This means that the narrative is actual experiences, which have been plotted by Yahweh, in which the prophet carries out God’s holy purposes at all costs.[13] Therefore, the symbolic names of the children are intended to draw attention to the impact of Yahweh’s dealings with Israel.

The first child introduced into the household was a son named Jezreel. Note that this child was Hosea’s own: “and she conceived and bore him a son.”[14] The name Jezreel means literally “God sows” or “God scatters.”[15] Jezreel was a city in the Northern Kingdom of Israel that was associated with the horrific judgment that Jehu executed on the family of Ahab. Upon Jezreel’s birth, God announced that He would end Jehu’s dynasty in Israel, which was fulfilled in 752 B.C. upon the assassination of Zechariah, who was the great-great-grandson of Jehu and the last of his dynasty to reign.[16] God then, through the symbolic use of the name Jezreel declared that the whole nation of Israel would come to an end in the Valley of Jezreel. In 733 B.C., the Assyrian army fought its way into the Jezreel valley and lopped off the northern territories of Israel and marched their inhabitants off to Assyria.[17] God used Jezreel’s birth and name as an instrument for announcements and judgment upon the people.

Gomer then gave birth to a second child. Note that the ‘him’ is missing in verse 1:6. It merely states that Gomer conceived a daughter and does not attribute her to Hosea. The same is applicable to the third child as well, as seen in verse 1:8. This shows that the children were living proofs of the invasion into the marriage, thus, at this point, the household was damaged.[18] However, the importance resides in the metaphorical meaning of the situation. Just as the children were affected by the poor decisions and lifestyle of their mother Gomer, likewise the people of the land were affected by the decisions and lifestyle of their mother Israel.

The second child, a daughter, was given the name Lo-ruhamah, which interprets to “not pitied” or “not loved.”[19] The name is quite explicit as the Lord states that He will no longer show his mercy on the house of Israel, but will have mercy on the Southern Kingdom of Judah. It is important not to press the figurative language of God showing no mercy or no compassion too far here. Throughout the book of Hosea, God’s compassion is revealed repeatedly in regards to His wife Israel and His children, who have clearly gone astray.

Gomer then gave birth to a boy, of whom the Lord instructed Hosea to name Lo-ammi. The name Lo-ammi means “not my people.”[20] The symbolism behind Lo-ammi’s name refers directly to God’s covenant with the people. In addition to removing his mercy from the people He would also renounce the covenant He had made with them.[21] In anthropological terms, this can be seen where a husband divorces his wife and then proceeds to turn his back on her. Since Hosea was parenting Lo-ammi, it could also be seen as a father rejecting his own son.[22]

It should be clear at this point that Gomer has broken the covenant between her and Hosea. This is exemplified in the two children she had out of whoredom. This is easy to understand from an anthropological perspective, but how does one approach Hosea’s relationship with Gomer from the perspective of God?

Covenant – The Crucial Perspective

In order to better understand God’s perspective, partial removal must occur in regards to human pathos. It is essential that the marriage between Hosea and Gomer be perceived from the perspective of the covenant first and then from the perspective of relationship. Whether Gomer and Hosea got along or how loving they were toward each other is not a focal point of the book. The main concentration should center on God’s relationship with Israel, and this relationship is most commonly described within the meaning of the word covenant. The word “covenant” implies mutuality, stability, and steadfastness rather than the personal depth of that relationship.[23] This is how Hosea defined marriage, that is, he saw his marriage in parallel with the relationship of God and Israel. Hosea’s view on marriage wasn’t the most romantic but it allowed Hosea’s audience to see God’s relationship with Israel being played out in Hosea’s household. Therefore, when the wife (Gomer) broke the terms of the covenant with her husband (Hosea), it can be interpreted metaphorically as Israel (wife) breaking the terms of the covenant between her and her husband (God). The question now is how did Israel break the covenant between her husband and her? What exactly was the cause for Israel being served a decree of divorce?

At the heart of Hosea’s message is the prophet’s concern for the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. The indictment is unfaithfulness, which is seen clearly in Gomer’s unfaithfulness to Hosea, but in regards to Israel, it is not so obvious. Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh takes the specific form of apostasy.[24] Just as Gomer surely had a tempter that led to her unfaithfulness, Israel had one as well. Where Gomer’s tempter remains anonymous in Hosea’s writings, Israel’s is identified, and hers was the key reason for her apostasy.

Baal(s)

For Hosea, Yahweh was the only one who truly loved the people of Israel and He provided for them in the fertility of their world. From Hosea’s theology, betrayal occurs in the turning away from loving Yahweh and attributing agricultural fertility and overall prosperity to others.[25] Israel turned away from Yahweh and kept sacrificing to the Baals.[26] The Baals were, in fact, Israel’s other lovers. Rather than rely on the provisions and blessings of Yahweh, Israel looked to her other lovers for, “food and my water, my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink.”[27]

Israel’s unfaithfulness took on several other forms within Baal worship. This included the obvious form of spiritual adultery with the worship and sacrifices to the false gods while the other took on the form of social injustices and vile practices found in cultic prostitution (4:14) and the slashing of themselves in order to appeal to their gods (7:14). Exactly how and when did Baal enter into the picture in the first place?

Baal was the rain and storm god who controlled both agricultural fertility and sexual reproduction among animals and humankind.[28] This Canaanite religion was first introduced into Israel during the reign of King Ahab and his wicked spouse Jezebel, who attempted to combine the cult of Baal with the worship of God so that the former would supplant the latter.[29] The prophet Elijah exposed the impotence of Baal and his priests, but by Jehu’s time Baal worship had regained the initiative it lost to Elijah.[30] By the time of Hosea, Baal had become such an influence that the people of Israel actually began to confuse Baal with Yahweh.

Israel was caught up in religious syncretism, which is the mixing of two beliefs and religious practices into one. Syncretism can be seen most clearly in Hosea 2:16 (MT 18), where Hosea represents Yahweh as saying that Israel will no longer call him Baal. This strongly implies that some of the people in Israel were confusing Yahweh with the Canaanite god Baal and referred to him explicitly with this term.[31] At the very core of their religious syncretism were two questions: Who makes the land fertile, Yahweh or Baal? And, is it possible to give allegiance to more than one deity?[32] Rather than choose Yahweh over Baal, the Israelites chose to mix the two in a syncretistic religion.[33] Israel was serving two gods. On one side was the one true God, Yahweh, and the other was a false god. This, in turn, caused the very first decree of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel to be broken, “You shall have no other gods before me.”[34]

In addition to spiritual unfaithfulness with Baal (or the Baals), Israel also sinned against Yahweh politically. Although not as prominent as Baal, Assyria and Egypt play significant roles within the book of Hosea. The theme, however, between the three are quite similar, that is, rather than trust in God to deliver her, Israel trusted in the power and might of the other nations. This is exemplified where Hosea writes, “Ephraim is like a dove, easily deceived and senseless – now calling to Egypt, now turning to Assyria.”[35] Elsewhere, Hosea writes, “Then Ephraim turned to Assyria, and sent to the great king for help. But he is not able to cure you…”[36] The king, Tiglath-Pileser II of Assyria, was a greedy overseer, not a physician, and when Israel’s last king, Hoshea, withheld tribute, the Assyrians again invaded the land (2 Kings 17:3-6).[37] To Israel’s dismay, Assyria was used as an instrument for God’s judgment upon her as Hosea prophesied in 9:3, “They will not remain in the Lord’s land; Ephraim will return to Egypt and eat unclean food in Assyria.”[38] This was undoubtedly part of the covenant curses.[39]

Hesed – The Unfailing Love of God

In ancient times, a covenant, much like today, signified an agreement, or treaty, where two parties were bound by it. If one of the parties failed to fulfill the obligations listed within the covenant, the other party would be excused from fulfilling the contract. However, Hosea portrays how the divine hesed – the unfailing love of God – goes beyond the norm in a way that is contrary to the legal expectations.[40] This is because, in Hosea, the Lord’s intent is not to annul the covenant, thus abolishing the relationship between Himself and Israel rather it is of renewal. This is supported in Hosea 2:22-23 where there is a complete reversal of the covenant curses that were symbolically played out in the names of the three children. Hosea writes, “And the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’”[41]

Divine hesed is further expressed where the Lord tells the Prophet to go and love Gomer again.[42] This was, of course, in spite of her adulterous ways. From a human perspective, Hosea’s symbolic action certainly touched on the heart of the people, however; from God’s perspective, it expressed His unfailing love and dedication to his wife Israel. The Prophet is very explicit about the meaning here, “Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”[43] Therefore, in addition to the covenant, divine hesed is also a prominent theme throughout the entire book of Hosea.

The Lord as Father

Although the marriage motif is heavily employed in Hosea’s writings, it was mentioned earlier that it was beneficial to perceive the individuals in the narratives as members of a household or family instead. This is because Hosea also depicts the Lord as the great Father of Israel in addition to His divine role as Husband.

Chapter 11 is one of the most expressive appeals to the human pathos in the entire book of Hosea. Hosea uses anthropopathy in order to connect his audience with divine emotion. Within the chapter, the Lord’s tender heart is revealed and it is likened to that of a doting Father. Here, Hosea draws upon the relationship between the Father and his son through a nostalgic portrayal beginning with Israel as a child being called out of Egypt. However, it wasn’t long before the son grew wayward and drifted toward the temptations of the Baals. Regardless of Israel’s defiance, the Father remained faithful and continued to show His unfailing love to His child. “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them.”[44] While the Father remained faithful, the son continued to sin.

In verses 11:5-7, the Lord spells out Israel’s punishment for breaking the covenant. Both Egypt and Assyria are mentioned, however, it is Assyria that will enslave the people this time and not Egypt.[45] In the Father’s eyes, punishment needed to be issued in order to correct the child. It is important to keep in mind that the focus here should not be on God’s wrath or His anger rather the inquirer should place their concentration on God’s unfailing love. From this perspective, it is easier to appreciate how punishment is often an instrument that leads to eventual reconciliation back to God.

The remainder of chapter 11 further expresses divine hesed. “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man – the Holy One among you.”[46] This passage not only displays divine hesed, it also exemplifies the Lord’s faithfulness towards the covenant.

Although Israel’s unfaithfulness is a prominent theme in the book of Hosea, it is solely intended to point to the true source in which the book was written. This, of course, is the mission of the Prophet, that is, to direct the people back to God. It should be explicitly clear, especially at this point, that divine hesed and the Lord’s faithfulness to the covenant are the two main theological themes that are deeply embedded within the book of Hosea. They are, undoubtedly, at the heart of Hosea’s message. Both themes were symbolically played out between Hosea and his relationship with Gomer and the children who made up the rest of the household. Unfortunately, Hosea’s enactment prophecies were not enough to turn Israel away from her sin and back to the Lord. However, it is fortunate that because of divine hesed and the Lord’s faithfulness to the covenant, God had a greater plan that was designed to bring justification for all, thus enabling the people to be reconciled back to God.

Hosea in the light of the New Covenant

             Hosea was exhorting the people of his day to uphold the covenant, which was given to them through the prophet Moses. The old covenant has since passed away and a new one has been given. Today, those who choose to, live in the light of a new covenant, which is offered to all. Jesus the Christ fulfilled the old covenant through his sinless life, sacrificial death on the cross, and resurrection on the third day. Through these events, Jesus Christ was made the propitiation for all sins and therefore, was able to issue a new covenant for all humankind. How then does Hosea fit into the light of the new covenant?

Hosea’s message carries the theme of divine hesed and faithfulness to the covenant between God and Israel. Within the two themes are topics such as love, compassion, patience, repentance, holiness, forgiveness, justification, and reconciliation, all of which are found within the new covenant, only without the sacrificial rituals and regulatory laws of the old covenant, which, incidentally, were never considered part of God’s higher standards in the first place. This is exemplified where Hosea writes, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”[47] All of the sins committed in the Old Testament remain the same; however, justification is now obtainable through Jesus the Christ. Therefore, the theological message of Hosea remains just as applicable to Christians today as it was to the people then, that is, all are to uphold the covenant between God and man.

Regardless of what covenant one is living under, it should be honored. This should be true whether it is between husband and wife or between God and man. Just as God loved Israel, in spite of her adulterous sins and just as Hosea loved Gomer in a similar way, Christians should constantly be conscious and sensitive to the divine hesed and God’s faithfulness to the new covenant through Jesus the Christ. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.[48] Let us then, understand that the ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them.[49]


Bibliography

Campbell, Antony F. Experiencing Scripture: Intimacy with Ancient Text and Modern Faith. Hindmarsh, S. Aust.: ATF, 2012. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctt163t892.

Chester, Tim. Hosea: The Passion of God. Focus On the Bible. Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2014.

Dearman, J Andrew. The Book of Hosea. The New International Commentary On the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010.

 Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas K. Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. fourth ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Prophets. Perennial Classics. New York: Perennial, 2001.

Hill, Andrew E., and John H. Walton. A Survey of the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, ©2009.

Hubbard, Allan David. Hosea, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, vol. 24. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989.

Kidner, Derek. The Message of Hosea, Love to the Loveless, The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981.

Mays, James L., and Society of Biblical Literature, eds. Harper’s Bible Commentary. Indexed ed. New York: Harpercollins, 1988.

Padilla, Elaine. “‘The love that never fails’: hesed and covenant in Hosea.” The Living Pulpit 14, no. 3 (July 2005): 16-18. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 29, 2016). http://0-search.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001466354&site=eds-live

Sellers, O. R. “Hosea’s Motives”. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 41 (4). University of Chicago Press, 1925. http://www.jstor.org/stable/528449.

Smith, Powis M. John., “The Marriage of Hosea”. The Biblical World 42 (2). University of Chicago Press, 1913. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3142378.

Wavoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck, eds. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 1985.

Wiersbe, Warren W., Be Amazed: Restoring an Attitude of Wonder and Worship. [be Commentary Series]. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010.


Footnotes / Endnotes

[1]. J. Andrew Dearman, The Book Of Hosea, The New International Commentary On the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, © 2010), 54.

[2]. Ibid., 55.

[3]. Hosea 1:3-9

[4]. Hosea 1:2 (English Standard Version)

[5]. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, fourth ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan ©2014) 102.

[6]. John M. Powis Smith, “The Marriage of Hosea” The Biblical World 42(2) (University of Chicago Press: 1913) 96. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3142378

[7]. Smith, 97.

[8]. Tim Chester, Hosea: The Passion of God, Focus On the Bible (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2014), 12.

[9]. Hosea 4:13-14 (English Standard Version)

[10]. Hosea 1:2 (ESV)

[11]. O. R. Sellers, “Hosea’s Motives.” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 41 (4). (University of Chicago Press: 1925) 243–47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/528449.

[12]. David Allan Hubbard, Hosea, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, vol. 24 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1989) 19.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. Hosea 1:3 (English Standard Version)

[15]. Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Amazed, Restoring An Attitude of Wonder and Worship, Minor Prophets (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, ©1996) 19.

[16]. Ibid., 20.

[17]. Derek Kidner, The Message of Hosea, Love to the Loveless, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1981), 21.

[18]. Kidner, 22.

[19]. Wiersbe, 20.

[20]. Ibid.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Hosea 11:1

[23]. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, Perennial Classics (New York: Perennial, 2001), 62-63.

[24]. James L. Mays and Society of Biblical Literature, eds., Harper’s Bible Commentary, Indexed ed. (New York: Harpercollins, 1988), 709.

[25]. Antony F. Campbell, Experiencing Scripture: Intimacy with Ancient Text and Modern Faith (Hindmarsh, S. Aust.: ATF, 2012), 22, accessed April 25, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctt163t892.

[26]. Hosea 11:2

[27]. Hosea 2:5 (New International Version)

[28]. Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, ©2009), 589.

[29]. Hubbard, 90.

[30]. Ibid.

[31]. Dearman, 350.

[32]. Mays, 708.

[33]. Hill and Walton, 591.

[34]. Exodus 20:3 (New International Version)

[35]. Hosea 7:11 (New International Version)

[36]. Hosea 5:13 (New International Version)

[37]. John F. Wavoord and Roy B. Zuck, eds., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 1985), 1392.

[38]. Hosea 9:3 (New International Version)

[39]. Deuteronomy 29:21

[40]. Elaine Padilla, The Love That Never Fails: Hesed and Covenant in Hosea. The Living Pulpit 14, no. 3 (July 2005): 16-18. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 29, 2016).

[41]. Hosea 2:22-23 (New International Version)

[42]. Hosea 3:1

[43]. Hosea 3:1 (New International Version)

[44]. Hosea 11:3 (New International Version)

[45]. Chester, 184.

[46]. Hosea 11:8-9 (New International Version)

[47]. Hosea 6:6 (English Standard Version)

[48]. John 3:17 (New International Version)

[49]. Hosea 14:9 (New International Version)

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