Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Prophet of Divine Love
What would attract the most attention: a story of adultery, a spurned husband
and a family abandoned by a promiscuous wife and mother? Or a tract about political and
economic policy? The first three chapters of Hosea have engaged scholars and general readers
alike. But there is a lot more to Hosea. While commentary on political and economic policy
may not be as glitzy as tales about a promiscuous wife, it is the stuff that made his prophecy
a unique phenomenon.
Like most of the ancient biblical prophets, Hosea was a keen and insightful
observer of the political scene. He was well aware of events both at home and abroad and
grasped the significance of trends and events better than the professional politicians
of his day. Hosea’s prophecy is so significant because it is the work of someone
who witnessed the final years of the Kingdom of Israel. It exudes a certain poignancy not
only because of Hosea’s personal tragedies, but also because the prophet warned his
people of a great national tragedy that was approaching quickly. Unfortunately, Hosea was
not successful in persuading his fellow citizens that disaster was coming.
Small national states like Israel and Judah emerged in the eastern Mediterranean
region because there was a vacuum of imperial power. Both Egypt and the Hittites exhausted
themselves in conflicts in the region by the end of the 13th century B.C. The next 500
years witnessed the rise of the Philistine city-states, the Phoenician mercantile cities
of Tyre and Sidon, the Kingdom of Aram in the north, and several kingdoms astride the Jordan
River: Israel and Judah west of the Jordan and Ammon, Moab and Edom to the east. These
small nations vied with each other for dominance, and there was almost constant warfare
in the region. No single nation was successful at dominating the others, although Aram
and Israel were the principal regional powers.
The eighth century B.C. began well enough for the Kingdom of Israel, ruled
by Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.). Even the Book of Kings, which hardly ever says anything
positive about the rulers of the Northern Kingdom, has to acknowledge the success of his
expansionist policy (2 Kgs 14:25). The Books of Amos and Hosea describe Jeroboam’s
rule as a time of economic prosperity for the urban elite, who used their political and
economic power to exploit the vulnerable peasant class. Archaeology has given us a more
precise picture. Excavations suggest that the eighth century was a time of economic stagnation.
The bills for the extensive building projects and military adventures undertaken by Jeroboam’s
predecessors had come due and Israel’s agrarian economy staggered under the strain.
The economic pressure felt by the country’s peasant class was overwhelming. The people
of means, however, concerned themselves with adding to their wealth and power (Hos 12:7-8).
The second half of the eighth century was to be disastrous for Israel. Zechariah,
Jeroboam’s son and successor, reigned for only six months before he was assassinated
by Shallum who, in turn, was assassinated after only one month and replaced by Menahem
(746-737 B.C.). More serious than Israel’s internal instability was the accession
of Tiglath-Pileser III (744-727 B.C.) to the throne of Assyria. Pul, as he is known in
the Bible (2 Kgs 15:19; 1 Chr 5:26) was responsible for changing the face of the ancient
Near East by a policy of expansionism through military conquest. Both the Bible (2 Kgs
15:19-20) and the Assyrian Chronicles attest to Menahem’s submission to Tiglath-Pileser.
The Israelite king bought time by paying a high tribute to the Assyrians. Of course, Israel’s
farmers ultimately paid the price to keep Menahem on the throne. By 734 B.C., the Assyrians
brought the entire region under their control and established a military and trading post
in Gaza on the border of Egypt, which Tiglath-Pileser dreamed of incorporating into his
Menahem was succeeded by his son Pekahiah, who ruled only two years before
he was assassinated during a military coup led by his adjutant Pekah (735-732 B.C.). Israel’s
military leaders were foolish enough to think that they could force the Assyrians from
Syria-Palestine. They formed an anti-Assyrian alliance with Israel’s longtime foe
Aram. Though it appears as delusional now, the people of Israel were confident in the ability
of their army to deal with the Assyrians (10:13-14). The result of Israel’s ill-conceived
military adventure was foregone: the Assyrians crushed the revolt. Aram was incorporated
into the Assyrian provincial system along with much of Israel’s northern and eastern
territories. The Kingdom of Israel was reduced to the city of Samaria and the hill country
of Ephraim. Hoshea then assassinated Pekah and became Israel’s last king (732-722
B.C.). Hoshea sealed his doom and that of his kingdom by trying to take advantage of the
interregnum following Tiglath-Pileser’s death in 727 B.C. (2 Kgs 17:4). After Shalmaneser
V (727-722 B.C.) solidified his hold on the Assyrian throne, he came to Samaria, captured
it, deposed and imprisoned Hoshea, incorporated the last vestige of Israelite territory
into the Assyrian Empire and exiled many leading citizens. So ended the Kingdom of Israel
(see 2 Kgs 17).
The Prophet Reflects
Hosea witnessed these events and tried to lead the people of Israel to understand
what was happening to the nation and why one disaster followed upon another. He takes note
of Israel’s political instability exemplified by the assassination of four of its
last six kings (Hos 7:5-7; 8:4; 9:15; 13:10-11). He has God mockingly ask Israel:
“Where now is your king, that he may save you?” (13:10). God then takes responsibility
for ending the monarchy:
“I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath”
The prophet reflects on the political maneuvering that marked Israel’s
final years. He states that, for all its efforts, Israel did no better than “a silly
and senseless dove” flitting about, searching for some safe refuge (7:11). The treaties,
plots, revolts, coalitions and alliances formed by Israel’s political and military
leaders were as foolish as chasing after an east wind—a scorching, blinding wind
that brings destruction and death in its wake (12:1). In the end, all Israel’s scheming
would amount to nothing more than a source of shame as the nation will find itself exiled
from the land (10:6).
Unlike some of the other prophets of the eighth century, Hosea was not interested
in the fate of Assyria or the other nations in the region. His book contains no “oracles
against the nations” (compare Amos 1:1–2:3; Is 13:1–23:18). Hosea focuses
all his attention on Israel and does not offer an opportunity for the people of Israel
to consider the future of other nations that flaunt the divine will. The prophet does not
want to distract his people from recognizing the seriousness of the circumstances in which
they find themselves. What kept Israel from this recognition was its public worship. The
people and their leaders talked themselves into believing that their well-attended liturgies
would be their salvation in the grave political crises that they faced.
There were royal sanctuaries at Dan in the north, Samaria in the central
area, and Bethel in the south of the Kingdom of Israel. Hosea did not speak to people who
neglected worship. In fact, from Hosea’s perspective they had too many shrines and
made too many pilgrimages (10:1-2, 8; 12:11). The people frequented the shrines of their
kingdom and participated enthusiastically in worship (8:13), but their belief that this
activity would save them was misplaced (6:6). The prophet saw two fatal flaws in Israelite
Hosea asserted that Israel’s worship merely compounded its problems
because the liturgy as practiced in the Northern Kingdom did not honor the LORD alone.
Canaanite religious rituals became part of the liturgy at Israelite shrines (4:15–5:7).
The priests of these shrines failed in their responsibilities (4:4-6) so the people did
not know that it was the LORD who made the land fertile (2:8-9). They thought that the
land’s fertility was the gift of Baal, the Canaanite storm god, who was credited
with bringing rain. At harvest time, the people celebrated what they believed was Baal’s
beneficence (2:13) while it was the LORD who gave Israel “the grain, the wine, and
the oil” that they brought as sacrificial gifts for Baal. To the prophet this was
not simply religious syncretism but the rejection of the LORD, who gave Israel every good
gift, in favor of Baal, who gave Israel nothing (4:17; 8:4; 10:5; 11:2; 13:1-3; 14:8).
What made Canaanite religion and the worship of Baal so attractive? Israel’s
survival depended on rain. It lacked a river system like those in Egypt and Mesopotamia
that could be exploited for irrigation. Without adequate rainfall, agricultural shortages
and even famine were the result. Since Baal was a storm god, it seemed logical to seek
his help. The LORD came from the arid south (see Hab 3:3). From the time of Ahab (875-854
B.C.), the royal family promoted the worship of Baal (1 Kgs 16:31-32). Ahab was married
to Jezebel, a Sidonian princess who supported hundreds of Baal’s prophets. Their
son Ahaziah continued the promotion of Canaanite religion in Israel (1 Kgs 22:53). The
royal absolutism with which Israel’s kings sought to rule was supported by Baalism.
Yahwism, however, saw Israel as a community of equals whose rights must be respected.
The story of Naboth’s vineyard illustrates the contrast between the
Israelite and Canaanite view of monarchy. Finally, Jeroboam I made an unfortunate choice
when he set up calves in the royal sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel (see 1 Kgs 12:28). These
probably served the same purpose as did the cherubim in the Jerusalem Temple, i.e., as
supporting the footstool of the invisible Yahweh, but they probably only confused most
people by merging elements of the cult of Baal and that of Yahweh (Baal was often depicted
standing on the back of a bull). Hosea considered these calves as idolatrous deviations
from authentic worship of Yahweh (8:5-6; 13:1). He brooked no compromise—even an
unintentional one—with worship of the LORD alone.
The prophet also had a problem with the fact that Israel’s religious
activity was not accompanied by a commitment to social justice. On the contrary, it served
to free people from the responsibility to maintain a just and equitable social and economic
system (12:7-8). The prophet does not paint a flattering portrait of the wealthy. He characterizes
them as people who consumed more than their share of the agricultural bounty with an arrogance
that implied that all this was their due (4:1–5:7). The prophet looked at the moral
fabric of society and saw it torn into shreds. He saw a complete breakdown of the social
order (4:1-3). This, coupled with Israel’s service of Baal, will bring divine judgment
upon Israel (4:1; 5:1).
Response to the Prophet
What was Hosea’s advice to his people? “Sow for yourselves righteousness;
reap steadfast love . . . it is time to seek the LORD . . . (10:12). What was the people’s
response to Hosea’s message? They thought he was crazy: “The prophet is a fool;
the man of the spirit is mad!”
(9:7). It was only after the Northern Kingdom disappeared into the pages of history that
some people–probably from the Southern Kingdom (Judah)–realized that Hosea
was not so crazy after all. They preserved his words and handed them down so that later
generations of believers could profit from them.
Though Hosea proclaimed God’s judgment on Israel, he did not believe
that judgment was God’s last word to the people. God’s last word to Israel
is a word of love and mercy: “I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you
for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy” (2:19).
Hosea’s experience taught him how the bonds of love are stronger than the infidelity
that threatened to undo them. He was confident that God’s love and mercy were more
powerful than Israel’s unfaithfulness. Still, Israel’s salvation was not going
to be a matter of cheap grace. The prophet was certain that Israel would experience a very
long night, but he urged his people: “Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD;
for [the LORD’s] appearing is as sure as the dawn” (6:3).
Next: Dreams and Visions (by Mary Ann Getty)
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