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. The “minor” prophets are the most neglected books of the Hebrew Bible, but they are all major messengers from the Lord. This week, we are continuing our study of Hosea so be sure to read Hosea 4 -5 as part of our Bible Reading challenge.
Last week, we read the first three chapters of Hosea which told the story of Hosea’s marriage to the harlot Gomer. Hosea’s broken marriage was an extended metaphor, a visual aid, to demonstrate Israel’s abandonment of Yahweh.
In the remaining chapters of Hosea, the tone and style of the prophetic book completely changed as the prophet went from describing his marriage to giving his message. No longer was Hosea writing in autobiographical prose. He transformed to both activist and poet. Oddly, Hosea did not reference Gomer at any point in the rest of the book. Adultery as a symbol for Israel’s infidelity remained the undercurrent throughout his oracle, but the historical Gomer disappeared.
Hosea 4 began with a litany of accusations against Israel, like a lawyer in divorce court: summoning witnesses, identifying the guilty party, listing Israel’s offenses, and declaring her upcoming punishment. Micah 6 was written with a similar formula.
Unlike the book of Amos, a prophet whose message targeted Israel’s elites, Hosea indicted “all the inhabitants of the land.” The people, the priests, and the leaders were all guilty. Hosea 4:1 charged, “There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land.” The Hebrew word for ‘knowledge of God’ used in 4:1 is da’at Elohim. Da’at Elohim is not measured by intelligence. Da’at Elohim is measured by faithfulness, faithfulness to Yahweh and the terms of the covenant relationship.
Over the centuries, as the memory of their deliverance from Egypt grew dim, the citizens of Israel forgot the laws given at Sinai and the moral obligations placed upon them as a kingdom of priests (Ex.19:6). It is as if the people were systematically scratching out every line of the Ten Commandments. They worshiped idols, swore, lied, murdered, and committed adultery. Society became so violent that the prophet said, “murder touches murder” or “bloodshed is upon bloodshed,” depending on your translation of Hosea 4:2. This was the chaotic period after the death of King Jeroboam II around 746 BCE when Israel went through a quick succession of kings. Four were assassinated within a twenty-year span.
As God’s mouthpiece, Hosea’s job was to remind the people that there were stipulations written in the covenant. God’s love for the sons of Abraham is eternal, but the blessings and curses that they would experience were correlated with their degree of obedience to the moral and spiritual obligations spelled out to them. Moses warned of this in Deuteronomy 28. Before he died, Moses instructed the Hebrews that they would be judged for their treatment of each other, their obedience to God, and their care and governance of the promised land. Moses foresaw a day that the people would be tempted to turn from Yahweh and instead worship the same gods as their neighbors (Deut. 11:16). Moses warned that the land was a gift, part of Israel’s dowry. If Israel broke the laws given to her, God would withhold the rains and cause the ground to be cursed.
The people of Israel almost six centuries later did just as Moses had foretold. They bowed to wooden idols placed in their fields and homes. They covered their bases, hoping that if Yahweh did not hear their prayers for a good harvest than the Canaanite gods would provide instead. God detested their desire to pursue both Him and the idols. He shut their wombs and let their land go fallow. Hosea wrote in 4:10, “For they shall eat, but not have enough.”
Yahweh had no intention of sparing Israel of the consequence of her sin. Hosea wrote, “I will destroy your mother” (Hos. 4:5), but God did not mean a specific mother. He was using “mother” to talk about the whole Kingdom of Israel. Hosea added, “Because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hos. 4:6). One wonders, reading this, if Hosea was thinking of Gomer’s sign-children in this passage. Either way, the prophet demonstrated that the sins of that generation would be an affliction on the next generation who would bear the brunt of the exile.
The Israelites of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century BCE were participating in the fertility rites of the agricultural deities. God accused them of giving way to a “spirit of harlotry” (Hos. 4:12). Hosea 4:13 says, “They offer sacrifices on the mountaintops, and burn incense on the hills, under oaks, poplars, and terebinths, because their shade is good. Therefore, your daughters commit harlotry, and your brides commit adultery.”
Archaeologists have yet to find an ancient Canaanite library. But cuneiform tablets discovered in Ugarit—a port city in Syria from this same time—give us our closest parallel to Canaanite mythology. The Ugaritic hymns and poems describe fertility rites taking place under sacred oak trees that seem very similar to what is described in Hosea. The prophet Isaiah also talked about the acts committed under sacred oaks. Isaiah envisioned a day that the people would wake up to their sin and be ashamed of what they did under the sacred oaks (Isa. 1:29). The theme of adultery and promiscuity in Hosea became not just metaphorical, but literal. The Israelites were almost indistinguishable from their Ba’al worshiping neighbors.
Hosea 4:15 says, “Ephraim is joined to idols.” The Hebrew word for joined in this context is habur, meaning the people of Israel coupled with idols. Clearly, their intimacy with the false gods of their neighbors had no boundaries. This was the primary source of God’s jealous wrath. The drama and jealousy of God, as told through the writing of Hosea, does not make God less divine; it shows the full impact of sin on both the seen and unseen realm. I know many people have trouble reading any passages in the Old Testament where God displays emotion. The late Rabbi Abraham Heschel taught that the job of a prophet was to “dwell upon God’s inner motives” because the “God of Israel is never impersonal.” A prophet, observing the sinful acts of his community, was attune to the repercussions of those actions on Yahweh. Prophets articulated Yahweh’s reaction in the terms of human emotion: jealousy and rage, but also tenderness and love.
Hosea 5 resumed the litigious formula, denouncing the priests of Israel and the royal house, calling them all to account as worthless. Yahweh promised that since they rejected His ways, He also would reject them (Hos. 4:6). By Hosea 5, Israel’s doom was sealed. The first domino was tipped. First came their political ruin with the death of Jeroboam II, and then their social ruin with the depression of their once thriving economy and weakened military, and finally their physical ruin once the Assyrian army killed, enslaved, or deported every Israelite.
Hosea 5:3 says, “Ephraim, you have turned to prostitution; Israel is corrupt.” Oddly, God places Himself among the causes of Israel’s deterioration: “I will be to Ephraim like a moth, and to the house of Judah like rottenness” (Hos. 5:12). It is unclear exactly what God meant, but He is likely pointing to the fact that as sovereign of the Universe, he is in control of every empire. God used the Assyrians as a tool of punishment.
The prophet went back and forth using the term Ephraim and Israel, and I know that is confusing for modern readers. Ephraim was the largest of the ten tribes in the Israelite kingdom. The Tribe of Ephraim housed Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom in its later years and the seat of the monarchy. Specifically calling out Ephraim was meant to target the center of Israel’s religious and political establishment. The way most of the prophets wrote, Ephraim was synonymous with all of Israel. Today’s equivalent would be when someone references Washington DC as the source of America’s problems.
Hosea’s message in chapter 5 starts to take on the sound of war. The poetry and meter marches along with the boots of the approaching Assyrian army. In Hosea 5:8, he writes, “Sound the trumpet in Gibeah, the horn in Ramah, raise the battle cry in Beth Aven, lead on, Benjamin.” Hosea was referencing the nearness of the coming war. With the sounding of the trumpet, the Assyrian army would begin their advance through Israel.
Even with the enemy breathing down their neck, the Israelites did not turn to Yahweh for their rescue. No repentance was at hand. Instead, Hosea 5:13 described an act of appeasement on the part of Israel as she tried to save herself. He wrote, “When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his sores, then Ephraim turned to Assyria, and sent to the great king for help. But he is not able to cure you, not able to heal your sores.” Hosea did not name the leaders directly, but thankfully we have 2 Kings to add historical color to Hosea’s oracles. According to 2 Kings 15, the ungodly Israelite King Menahem decided to pay a heavy tribute to Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III to stay his hand. That misguided act was likely what Hosea referenced, albeit in veiled manner.
The thing that strikes me the most about the Israelites defection from the faith of their ancestors, is that they still prayed to Yahweh and offered up sacrifices to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while they were simultaneously participating in idol worship and pagan rituals. God detested this form of synchronistic worship. Through the mouths of the prophets, Yahweh begged and demanded that his people stop worshiping Him like they want to worship Him. He wanted them to cease and desist from writing their own rules to their manmade Yahwistic pagan religion. All that God required of Israel was their repentance and their return to him. “Return to me, and I will return to you,” Yahweh repeatedly promised.
Please join me next week as we weave our way through Hosea 6 – 10. And email or message me to share what God is showing you through the reading of the prophets. I know God is still speaking. I am sure we all have our own ways that we too are trying to rewrite the script for how we want to worship God, rather than following His way.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. My only measure of success for Bible Fiber is if people, even a few, are reading parts of the Bible that they had previously neglected and seeing them with fresh eyes and hearing the scripture with new ears. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.