Gospel Doctrine lesson 34: Hosea

The Might of Assyria
The Might of Assyria. (Public Domain, Wikipedia.)

First off, my podcast and transcript on Hosea are here. The manual suggests primary focus on Hosea 1-3 (the marriage metaphor) and 11, 13, 14 (invitations to repent.) However, Hosea is not long, and reading the whole thing in preparation is fairly quick. Before getting on to it, though, a brief message. A few weeks back, I asked for some support, and was happily surprised by your collective generosity. I know many of you are not too different from me financially, and would contribute if you could. As it turns out, you can. All the book links I post go to a Benjamin the Scribe “store” at Amazon, although it doesn’t look any different to you than the regular site. The way the program works, if you buy something on Amazon after getting there from one of my links, they pay me a small advertising fee. This works for anything, not just the books I post: clothes, electronics, movies, diapers, household goods, motorcycles, etc. Whenever you buy anything from Amazon, you can support the site by coming here, clicking on this generic Amazon link (or any other book link), and then shop like normal. I’m required to say, Benjamin the Scribe is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

So, let’s discuss. Hosea is the longest in the Book of the Twelve, or so-called Minor Prophets. He is roughly contemporary with Isaiah (a southern prophet sent to the south) and Amos (a southern prophet sent to the north), mid-8th century. As soon as you hear the words “8th century” you should immediately think “expanding Assyrian empire, which will threaten both Israelite kingdoms!”

If the history reviewed in Lesson 30 isn’t quite sticking, check out this Institute handout I made of the general story, and think ABC. First we get Assyrians (who destroy the north), then Babylonians (who destroy the south roughly 150 years later), then Cyrus the Persian (who sends everyone back home to Israel with royal Persian funds to rebuild roughly 50 years after the Babylonian destruction/exile).

Hosea has a way with language, making extensive use of wordplay and metaphor. While the latter comes through in translation, the former does not. Some of Hosea’s wordplay is with names, which always mean something in Hebrew. Examples

  • 1:4 Then the LORD said to Hosea, “Name him ‘Jezreel,’ because in a little while I will punish the dynasty of Jehu on account of the bloodshed in the valley of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel. This is the NET Bible, which notes

    The proper name “Jezreel” sounds like “Israel”. This phonetic wordplay associates the sin at Jezreel with the judgment on Israel, stressing poetic justice.

  • 1:6 She conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the LORD said to him, “Name her ‘No Pity’ (Lo-Ruhamah) because I will no longer have pity on the nation of Israel. For I will certainly not forgive their guilt.         Lo is Hebrew for “no, not” and ruhamah is pity or mercy. (If you’ve heard any of the Koran recited or the Basmala, you know that two of the epithets of Allah are related; He is ‘ar-RaHMan, ‘ar-RaHeeM. See that RHM root common to all three? God is merciful and gracious (i.e. full of grace)… but not here in Hosea, where he will no longer have ruhamah on Israel.
  • 1:8-9 When she had weaned ‘No Pity’ (Lo-Ruhamah) she conceived again and gave birth to another son. Then the LORD said: “Name him ‘Not My People’ (Lo-Ammi), because you are not my people and I am not your God.”      Significantly, this is the reversal of the covenant from Exodus. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. (Exo 6:7 NRS)

And this is one of the major themes of Hosea. Covenants can be violated without being broken… but Israel has strayed too far. The metaphor introduced here is that of marriage. On the one hand, this is a fantastic metaphor that all can relate to, at least in terms of our parents, perhaps ourselves, or our children. On the other hand, we see the Old Testament fulfilling the Old Testament stereotype in that in this metaphor, the faithful loving one is the male husband, and the adulterous unfaithful one is the female wife.

Like other prophetic books, Hosea often employs sexual and family metaphors to express the relationship between God and Israel. Within the metaphorical world of the book of Hosea, God takes the role of an angry husband who condemns, severely punishes, and publicly dishonors his unfaithful wife, who fails to recognize how good he had been to her. After his violent and shaming punishment is carried out, he will be willing to accept her back. The basic imagery present here is quite common in the society within which the prophetic books were written (see also Ezek. chs 16, 23), and in the ancient Near East as a whole. To be sure, the text was not written to glorify or justify family violence or violence against women in general, but rather to explain the reasons for the disasters that befell Israel, to persuade the readers to live their lives in a way consistent with the will of the LORD, and to give them hope for the future. Nevertheless, this imagery carries connotations that are very troublesome for many contemporary readers, and especially painful for those who cannot but associate their reading of the text with their, or their acquaintances’, personal experiences (see chs 1–3, and particularly 2:3–15).- The Jewish Study Bible

Israel’s polytheistic “infidelity” has gone too far; the covenant has been stretched so much it is now broken. 2:2 may be using legal language indicating the formal ending of this covenant through the metaphor, i.e. divorce “She is not my wife, and I am not her husband.”

Several ancient Near Eastern parallels suggest that Hosea is here alluding to the legal language of an actual statement of divorce. According to Mesopotamian cuneiform sources a person affected a divorce by saying, “You are not my wife.” Similarly, within the Egyptian Jewish community of the fifth century B.C. at Elephantine, a husband or wife could make a statement in repudiation of the marriage by standing up in a congregation and saying, “I hated [Personal name] my husband/wife.” Likely except when there were solid grounds for the divorce such as adultery, the dismissing party was obligated to pay the other “money of hatred” (which varied from a modest to a fair sum). The dowry in such a case always reverted to the wife. Moreover, the wife was entitled to go wherever she desired, including back to the home of her father. Let her remove the adulterous look from her face (2:2). The Hebrew text allows for the possibility it might be a badge or token of her harlotry (rather than the look) that she is to remove from her face. Hosea may then have in mind a piece of jewelry or a type of face paint that would identify her as a harlot. I will strip her naked (2:3). This sounds harsh, but these words contain elements of grace. For one thing, ancient Near Eastern law, including biblical law, allowed for a judge to impose the death penalty on a wife proven guilty of adultery, although such was not usually invoked. Here the husband chooses a lesser penalty involving, curiously, stripping. As Hittite and Mesopotamian law attest, so too in Israel, a husband could not have punished his wife without satisfying the courts that the offense had taken place. Regarding the wife’s being stripped, an Old Babylonian tablet from Hana is somewhat akin to Hosea 2:3 by mentioning nakedness in relation to a declaration of divorce: “And if his wife Bitti-Dagan says to her husband Kikkinu: ‘You are not my husband,’ she shall go out naked; they will cause her to go out to the roof of the palace.” The significance of the undressed wife is not made clear either here or in 2:3 (beyond it being a punishment of shame). However, stripping is mentioned in Babylonian wills written on behalf of a husband in the event his widow chooses to remarry. In these texts, the wife is stripped by her children in testimony that, by remarrying, she agrees to transfer no property belonging to her former household over to her new family, as this would jeopardize the estate of her former husband. Perhaps, then, in addition to a punishment of shame, the stripping may also suggest that Yahweh is making Israel renounce any claim to ownership of his property when she leaves him to join other lovers.- Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary

Having seen just how serious Israel’s sins were, we might wonder. We live in a society that largely takes monotheism for granted, and the attraction of polytheism is not at all obvious. Why should the Israelites be pulled in that direction so often, so strongly? Think of it this way. How many have internet? Phone? Cable? All bundled as one service? What if that one company also provided your water, electricity, and natural gas? What if, further, that same company also delivered your groceries, managed your building, did your plumbing, electrical and painting work, exterminated your bugs, etc. Suppose that one company also was also privately contracted for fire, police, and medical services? And moreover, what if it turned out to be only one guy working at the company who did all this? Would you believe he was competent in all those areas? Or might you feel inclined to call a specialist? So it was with the Israelites. Sometimes they couldn’t quite believe Yahweh could do it all the things deities needed to do, and so they would turn to others, just in case. (It’s a little like Acts 17:23, with the alter TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.) Unfortunately, this was a violation of the covenant. Ritual violation of the covenant was often accompanied by moral violations of the covenant. A covenant was a legal agreement. When you violate a legal agreement, sometimes lawyers get involved. This is the case here. Israel has seriously violated the covenant, and Hosea is the Lord’s prosecuting attorney. Note how the NRSV brings this out- 4:1 Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel; for the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. The NET says “covenant lawsuit” and the JPS says “a case against” With that behind us, let’s look at Hosea 6:6, a famous passage quoted in the NT several times.

  • Matt 9:13 But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
  • Matt 12:7 But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.

Hosea 6:6 says in the KJV,  “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” The KJV is consistent in translating as mercy in all three passages, but if you consult other translations, you’ll see that they differ, sometimes considerably. Why? Mercy here is chésed (that’s a guttural -ch- like Loch, accent on the first syllable), and it doesn’t really mean mercy per se. Rather, chésed has to do with things like covenantal faithfulness and loyalty, which sometimes include things like mercy and kindness. Other translations read “steadfast love” (NRS, ESV cf. the “love” aspect of the covenant in Deu 6:4-6 which is another way of saying “loyalty”),  “faithfulness” (NET),  “faithful love” (New Jerusalem Bible). (For more on “love” and chésed see this short Bible Review article and this longer, more technical article from the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Given Hosea’s emphasis upon serious violation of the covenant by Israel, you can understand why he might emphasize that what God really wants is not ritual reliability in animal sacrifice, but covenantal fidelity and “knowing God.” Yes, keeping the covenant includes and implies keeping the prescribed rituals and ordinances, but you can do the latter without the former. Again, the NET Bible-

Contrary to popular misunderstanding, Hosea does not reject animal sacrifice nor cultic ritual, and advocate instead obedience only. Rather, God does not delight in ritual sacrifice without the accompanying prerequisite moral obedience (1 Sam 15:22; Pss 40:6–8; 51:16–17; Prov 21:3; Isa 1:11–17; Jer 7:21–23; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6–8). However, if prerequisite moral obedience is present, he delights in sacrificial worship as an outward expression (Ps 51:19). Presented by a repentant obedient worshiper, whole burnt offerings were “an aroma pleasing” to the LORD (Lev 1:9, 13).

This, I think, is a fantastic point of discussion, and one that will recur in our study, through the NT. Do we overemphasize the ritual and outer trappings of moral behavior instead of moral behavior itself? Do we act as if it is more important to appear righteous than be righteous? God doesn’t want us to simply take the sacrament every Sunday. He wants us to repent, to change and become something new, to think about the directions our lives are heading, and to give meaning and power to that ritual by our thoughts and actions. Otherwise, it’s meaningless. Oh sure, you avoid someone noticing you not taking the Sacrament… but no one pays attention to that anyway. Tidbit:

  • As the Assyrians were on the rise, Israel started thinking about defense and the military. Yehezkel Kaufmann has noted that Hosea was “the first man in history to condemn militarism as a religious-moral sin” (Hosea 8:14; 10:13–14; 14:3)

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