By Shelley Neese—
Shabbat Shalom and Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
The “minor” prophets are the most neglected books of the Hebrew Bible, but they are all major messengers from the Lord whose poetry and prose still ring true today.
This week, we start with the book of Hosea and its first three chapters. Please be sure to read the first three chapters on your own as part of the Bible Fiber weekly challenge. We are here to hold each other lovingly accountable to the discipline of scripture study as we dive deeper into God’s whole word.
The book of Hosea can be divided into two primary sections: Hosea’s Marriage and Hosea’s Message. The marriage of Hosea to Gomer constitutes the first three chapters of the book. The story in this section is written mostly as narrative, as opposed to the remaining 11 chapters which passed down to us as poetry.
The book of Hosea begins with a historical superscription: “The word of the LORD that came to Hosea the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel.” Scholars believe Hosea’s prophetic career lasted around forty years. We know that Jeroboam II’s reign ended around 746 BCE, and Hosea’s ministry started sometime before Jeroboam’s death. Hosea says he was still prophesying at the time of Hezekiah, and we know Hezekiah’s reign began in 716 BCE. Judging from Hosea’s own historical timestamp, the prophet’s work took place between 746 BCE and 716 BCE.
There is one thing that stands out in this historical introduction of Hosea, and maybe only biblical chronologist really get excited about this oddity. Notice that Hosea listed four kings of Judah, but he only named one king for Israel, Jeroboam II. The four kings of Judah had combined reigns of at least sixty years. Jeroboam II reigned four decades, but he was not Israel’s only king during that time frame. A quick succession of six kings inherited Israel’s throne after Jeroboam II. Perhaps Hosea did not feel the need to list them because their reigns were short, usually ending by assassination at the hands of their successor. Alternatively, Hosea saw all Israelite kings in this period of anarchy as illegitimate claimants to the throne so they were not worth mentioning.
Much is known about this period of Israel and Judah’s history, especially from the histories presented in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. When the united monarchy that David and Solomon made famous split into two, the ten northern tribes defected and formed their own Kingdom of Israel with Shechem and later Samaria as its capital. The two southern tribes made up the Kingdom of Judah and kept Jerusalem as their capital. Judah’s kings came from the House of David. The northern Kingdom did not have the same clear-cut line of succession.
The prophets simply refer to these two split kingdoms as Israel and Judah. A common mistake in the minds of Bible readers is not to differentiate the terms Israel and Judah or comprehend their two different paths and histories. We will talk much more about this difference over the coming year, but for now just remember that the kings of Israel almost always “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The kings of Judah sometimes were righteous and sometimes were not.
The Lord began to speak to Hosea at the outset of the prophetic book. God commanded him, “Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land has committed great harlotry by departing from the Lord” (Hos. 1: 2). Hosea obeyed and married Gomer. Some biblical scholars believe that Gomer was a harlot prior to marrying Hosea and others interpret the text that Gomer fell into adultery after the marriage. Either way, Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was meant to be a visual aid, a real-life performative art piece demonstrating the way the Israelites broke their covenant with Yahweh.
With Hosea’s marriage to Gomer, she gave birth to three children. Whether or not the children belonged to Hosea or if they were the result of Gomer’s infidelity is unclear. Some scholars believe there were two groups of children: Gomer’s children before she wedded Hosea, which he adopted, and the ones born to Gomer after her marriage to the holy man. Three of the children are given names to symbolize Yahweh’s dissatisfaction with Israel. Thomas Edward McComiskey, in his commentary on the Minor Prophets, refers to these three sign-children as the “vehicles of Hosea’s prophetic message.”
God commanded Hosea to name his firstborn son Jezreel. Jezreel is the only child that the text says was born “to him,” meaning this may have been the only of three children that was Hosea’s biological child. The name Jezreel means “God sows” or “God scatters.” Naming a child after the Jezreel Valley may seem harmless at first, but the name had multiple layers of significance to Hosea’s Israelite neighbors. Ultimately, in Israel’s history, Jezreel was associated with bloodshed. Naboth the vineyard owner was killed in the Jezreel by Queen Jezebel’s plot to secure his land for her husband, the terrible King Ahab (See 1 Kings 21). Later, General Jehu defeated Jezebel and Ahab’s son, King Joram, at Jezreel. Jehu slew everyone associated with the house of Ahab, placing himself on the throne as Israel’s tenth king (See 2 Kings 10). For a time, Jehu had the Divine blessing. He was at least better than the prophet killing Ahab and Jezebel.
But Jehu soon abandoned worship of Yahweh. Part of Hosea’s message of doom was directed at the house of Jehu, and targeted Jeroboam II. God told Hosea, “I will avenge the bloodshed of Jezreel on the house of Jehu and bring an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hos. 1:3). Hosea highlights the irony in that Jehu, through bloodshed and violence, began his reign at Jezreel and also through bloodshed and violence his dynasty would end at Jezreel, fighting against the Assyrians. By the way, the Christian tradition has another name for the Jezreel Valley: Armageddon. So perhaps, it is more striking if you imagine a child being named Armageddon, where Revelation puts the final battle between the forces of evil and good.
The names of Hosea’s latter two children grow progressively ominous, perhaps an indication that they were the product of Gomer’s infidelity. The second child, a daughter, was called Lo-Ruhamah which means “no pity,” as in God had withdrawn His mercy from Israel. The third child was named Lo-Ammi, meaning “you are not my people.” The language God uses in this verse mirrors the original wording in his promise to the Israelites when he was preparing to free them from their bondage in Egypt. In Exodus 6:7, God promises, “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” Here, in Hosea’s naming of his child, God retracts His declaration saying, “For you are not my people, and I will not be your God” (Hos. 1:9). The retraction only applies for a moment and only to those people in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the days of Hosea.
In the second chapter, in a dramatic act that represents the salvation plot which will continue to echo throughout the Bible until Revelation, God reverses the names of the sign-children. The name changes go from curses to blessings, demonstrating that the judgement of Israel will be certain, but not permanent. Hosea 2:23 says “I will have mercy on her who had not obtained mercy; Then I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ And they shall say, ‘You are my God!’”
He reverses the curse that the Israelites will not receive his compassion, Lo-Ruhamah, and he reclaims them, canceling the curse of Lo-Ammi that they are not His people. Hosea 1:10 also reverses the implications of the name Jezreel: “In the place they were told: ‘You are not My people; they will be called: Sons of the Living God.” God is promising that while they are going to be judged and judged harshly for the moment, a day will come that they will return to Him with exalted status.
These biographical chapters in Hosea are meant to be read with our empathy antennas up. How could God have shamed and humiliated a holy man like Hosea to marry an adulterous woman? The idea of it offends my modern religious sensibilities. How could God ask such a thing of a holy man and how could He further humiliate his prophet by asking that his children be given shameful names?
Hosea was not the only prophet asked to demonstrate God’s warnings as much through action as word. Isaiah, the prophet beloved even in his own time was asked to walk about naked and barefoot in the streets to protest Israel’s misguided military alliances (See Isaiah 20). Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, did not marry or have children to demonstrate to Judah the nearness of the Babylonian destruction. In Ezekiel 4, the prophet was commanded to build a miniature clay model of the Temple under siege, a visual aide to his prophetic warnings. Then he was asked to lie on his left side for 390 days, one day for every year that Israel had betrayed Yahweh. Despite these examples, Hosea’s burden seems even heavier than the other prophets object lessons.
Hosea 2:1 declares, “she is not my wife, and I am not her husband.” The phraseology Hosea uses in that verse mirrors the language used in Akkadian bills of divorce which usually only required a simple declarative statement. As such, God is announcing His divorce with Israel. The day of Israel’s redemption had not yet come, as made clear by the condemnations of both Gomer and Israel’s actions in chapter 2.
Gomer goes after lovers who gave her food, water, oil, wool, and linen, just as Israel turned towards the false agricultural deities of her neighbors, praying to Baal for provision. Rather than giving Yahweh credit for the rains, harvests, ripening vines, and general prosperity, the people defected to Baal. Afterall, Baal was a fertility god and the people of Canaan subsisted on agriculture in a climate that sometimes gave and sometimes withheld the rains. The idea that Baal was lord over the clouds and wombs was irresistible to the Israelites. They could see and touch the Baal idols that they put in their fields and in their homes. They often saw Yahweh as their military protector, who delivered them out of the hands of the Egyptians and facilitated their victories in Canaan, but in times of peace, they took Yahweh’s protection for granted. They went after pagan gods connected to their immediate desires. Yahweh also made moral demands of them, a nuisance that the idols did not require.
God scoffs at the empty pursuit of paganism. Hosea 2:7 says, “She will chase after her lovers but not catch them, she will look for them and not find them.” As a result of Israel’s misplaced gratitude, Yahweh threatened to destroy the trees, fields, and vineyards of the northern kingdom. And within the century, he will use the Assyrians as an instrument to enact that punishment.
Yahweh, like Hosea, is depicted as a jealous and longsuffering husband, tortured by the infidelity and shortsightedness of His betrothed. Hosea 2:13 says, “She decked herself with her earrings and jewelry, and went after her lovers; but Me she forgot.”
Once again, God promises that the punishment is not permanent. Readers are forgiven if they get a bit of whiplash from the rotating moments of judgement and reconciliation. Scholars studying the prophetic book as literature have a very hard time trying to apply an outline to Hosea. Even Martin Luther, speaking about all the Minor Prophets, said they all “had a queer way of talking” and it was hard to make heads or tails of their message since they didn’t “proceed in an orderly manner.”
Starting in Hosea 2:14, God promises to court Israel again one day, to “allure her” and “speak tenderly to her.” Yahweh will return her vineyards and “make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.” The reference to the Valley of Achor, like the name Jezreel, is a multilayered symbol which shows off Hosea’s mastery of Israel’s long history. I think of it as Hosea hiding these literary and historical easter eggs throughout his prophetic texts. Finding them and interpreting their meaning is Hosea’s way of giving us a wink and a nod.
Hosea’s mentioning of the Valley of Achor is ironic in that he says it will be Israel’s “door of hope.” In Israel’s history, the Valley of Achor is not a place of hope but rather a place of punishment and death. Achor means “trouble.” According to the seventh chapter of the book of Joshua, after Joshua’s army handily defeated Jericho, a Hebrew named Achan defied God’s proscription to restrain from plundering the city. When the Hebrew army suffered an unexpected defeat in their ensuing campaign, Joshua understood that his people were being collectively punished for one man’s sin. Through a process of divination, he identified Achan as the perpetrator. Achan’s family and even his livestock were summoned to the Valley of Achor and stoned to death.
The prophet Hosea was writing 700 years after Achan’s stoning. And in a beautifully poetic twist, he wrote that Israel’s future hope and redemption would spring forth from the Valley of Achor. Hosea 2:15 says, “There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.” Redemption from an unlikely place was also part of Isaiah’s prophetic message. Isaiah prophesied that in the time of salvation God would make the “Valley of Achor a resting place for herds, for my people who seek me” (Isa. 65:10).
It takes a careful reading of Hosea but ultimately this prophetic book offers a theology of hope. God would not spare Israel from exile; He allowed her to live out the consequence of her spiritual depravity. He offered her redemption, and in the intimate language of romance unique to Hosea, Yahweh declared to Israel:
“I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me
In righteousness and justice,
In lovingkindness and mercy;
I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness,
And you shall know the LORD.” (Hos. 2:19-20)
Chapter 3 is very short as the closing biographical text on the Hosea and Gomer love story, and it leaves us with many unanswered questions. Apparently, Gomer left Hosea again for another lover, and somehow found herself in servitude. Instead of allowing Hosea to divorce Gomer and try to heal from this wreck of a marriage, God commands Hosea to return to his wife. Hosea redeemed Gomer for fifteen shekels of silver and some barley, a price that seems fitting for a common slave in the eighth century BCE.
Gomer’s period of slavery was the metaphorical equivalent of Israel’s exile. Hosea asked Gomer to repent of her old ways and pursue a new life of faithfulness. English translations of Hosea 3:3 say, “You shall stay with me many days; you shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man—so, too, will I be toward you.” The English does not convey the heaviness of what Hosea is saying in Hebrew. The construction of the second half of the verse is biclausal. Without launching into a grammar lecture, Hosea is implying that just as Gomer is not to become involved sexually with another man, so Hosea is not to be sexually involved with Gomer. Hosea is committing himself to redeem and remarry Gomer, but not to have intimacy with her.
The metaphor of Hosea and Gomer’s marriage is extended. The loss of romantic privileges in the marriage is comparable to what Israel will experience when she returns from exile. While she will continue to be part of the covenanted nation of God, Israel will lose the privileges of nationhood for “many days.” Hosea foretells the day when Israel will no longer have a king, a priesthood, or temple for sacrificial worship. Just as Gomer and Hosea practice celibacy in their marriage, Israel will have no familiar way to approach Yahweh.
I walk away from this text feeling the heavy sorrows of Hosea’s life, the brokenness of Gomer, and the intensity of God’s longing. The fullness of love, offered by Hosea and Yahweh, was rejected for the empty embrace of others. Hosea is meant to be a frustrating book that provokes believing readers to see and experience the frustrated love of Yahweh. Like the ancients, we need the outright visual aid of a cheating Gomer to know what God experiences from us when we turn our hearts and faces from Him.
For Christians, the blessings and curses of Hosea may seem distant from the salvation plan that we hold dear in Christ. But the apostle Paul, in Romans 9, sees Hosea’s oracles right in line with our story as New Testament believers. He quotes Hosea to demonstrate how Gentiles can be grafted into the covenant with Yahweh. Paul wrote:
What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? As He says also in Hosea:
“I will call them My people, who were not My people,
And her beloved, who was not beloved.
And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them,
‘You are not My people,’
There they shall be called sons of the living God.”
Well Sons of the Living God, as you face this new week and all it has to offer or take, remember the fundamental message of the Book of the Twelve: Yahweh’s distress call: “Return to me, and I will return to you.” Please join me next week as we weave our way through Hosea 4 and 5.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate. Bible Fiber is now available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts, a Jerusalem Connection first. Also, visit us on www.thejerusalemconnection.us for Amy Zewe’s weekly Red Alerts, to find all our social media links, and our blog.
The Minor Prophets: A Commentary on Hosea, Joel, Amos, Volume One by Thomas Edward McComiskey (pg. 15)
The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah by Leslie C. Allen (pg 257).