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Old Testament: Hosea

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The book of Hosea is a collection of prophetic messages delivered by the prophet Hosea and narrative descriptions of Hosea's marriage and the birth of his children (1:2-2:1; 3:1-5). Most of Hosea's messages are announcements of God's anger with Israel (the northern of the two Israelite kingdoms) and God's impending judgment on this people. Hosea's messages focus on Israel's unfaithfulness to the Lord. This lack of faithfulness is seen in Israel's worship of other gods (alongside the Lord). The religious leaders of the people are singled out by Hosea for condemnation. Their job was to lead the people in faithfulness, but they actually did the opposite. The prophet also criticizes the political leaders of the nation for forming covenants with Egypt and Assyria, rather than relying on the Lord. The book also includes messages of hope, most notably the tender image of God as the parent who taught the child Israel to walk and will not, in the end, abandon the nation.

So What?

The messages of Hosea announce sharply that God's relationship with human beings includes judgment--and also that this relationship continues on the other side of judgment, because God is faithful. Hosea teaches that to know God is to have one's entire life transformed in faith and obedience. God's anger was provoked because the people both worshiped other gods and oppressed their neighbors, sins that Hosea sees as related.

Where Do I Find It?

Hosea is the twenty-eighth book in the Old Testament. It the first of the so-called "minor" (or shorter) prophets, the twelve books that make up the final portion of the Old Testament.

Who Wrote It?

Most of the messages in the book of Hosea were spoken by Hosea. We do not know if he wrote them down himself; his words were most probably collected by followers who were convinced that Hosea spoke for God. It is likely that an editor placed Hosea's messages in the present order and composed the narrative descriptions of Hosea's family life (chapters 1 and 3). It is also likely that the editor arranged the books so that each major section (1-3; 4-11; 12-14) ends with a word of hope.

When Was It Written?

Hosea most likely spoke his messages between the years 750 and 722 B.C.E. Sometime after that, the messages of Hosea were collected, edited, and copied. It is not clear when this process was completed, but it is likely that it was finished before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.

What's It About?

The book of Hosea is about God's loving relationship with the chosen people--a love that leads God to judge the people when they love other gods and oppress each other, but also a relationship to which God is faithful on the other side of judgment.

How Do I Read It?

The prophetic messages in the book of Hosea can be read both individually and as a group. The particular messages should be studied individually to determine what they say and how they apply to life today. A study Bible can help with Hosea's metaphors, references to history and tradition, and references to social practices of his time. Read together, the messages make clear that the judgment proclaimed by Hosea was neither a departure from God's history of dealing with the people nor an end to that history, but an ongoing part of that history.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

I. Introduction (Hosea 1:1)

An editor titles the book as "the word of the Lord that came to Hosea" and gives some historical and biographical information regarding the prophet.

II. Marriage as a Metaphor for the Covenant (Hosea 1:2-3:5)

The first section of the book is organized around the theme of marriage as a metaphor for God's relationship with the people. According to this metaphor, God is like a faithful husband who is married to Israel, a faithless wife. This section of Hosea has been the source of much controversy and debate. This section announces judgment on Israel and then promises restoration following punishment.

A. Hosea's Marriage to Gomer and the Names of Their Children (Hosea 1:2-2:1)

Hosea marries Gomer, "a wife of whoredom," as an act symbolizing the covenant relationship between God and the people; God is the faithful husband and Israel the faithless wife. Hosea gives the children symbolic names--"Jezreel," which means "God sows," but was also the name of a place in which the kings of Israel had committed atrocities; "Lo-ruhamah" (or "Not Shown Mercy"), because God no longer will have mercy on the people; and "Lo-ammi" (or "Not My People"). The end of the chapter reverses the condemnation implied by the children's names into a proclamation of hope: "For great shall be the day of Jezreel. Say to your brother, Ammi ["My People"], and to your sister, Ruhamah ["Shown Mercy"]" (1:11b-2:1).

B. God the Husband's Speech to Israel the Wife (2:2-23)

This is a long and complex speech in which the prophet proclaims a message from God to the people. In the message, God first says, "She is not my wife, and I am not her husband" (2:2). God promises to punish the people for their unfaithfulness. The chapter closes with God promising restoration and reunion: "On that day…you will call me, 'My husband,'….And I will take you for my wife forever" (2:16, 19).

C. God's Command to Hosea to Love "an Adulteress" (3:1-5)

God commands Hosea "again" to love an adulteress, "just as the Lord loves the people of Israel." The chapter includes the hope-filled announcement that the Israelites will return to God. It is not clear whether the chapter is referring to the same incident as chapter 1, to a different incident that also involves Gomer, or to an incident with a different woman (see below).

III. Prophetic Messages of Hosea (4:1-14:9)

The second section of the book consists entirely of prophetic messages that Hosea delivered. These messages are generally grouped into sections chronologically; chapters 4-8 likely reflect the earlier period of Hosea's ministry, from the reign of Jeroboam II (died 746 B.C.E.) until the reign of Pekah (died 732 B.C.E.); chapters 9-12 reflect the time of peace following the Syro-Ephaimite war (735-732 B.C.E.); and chapters 13-14 reflect the last years of the northern kingdom, which was destroyed in 722 B.C.E. Chapters 4-11 present one subsection; chapters 12-14 a second subsection.

A. The Lord's Lawsuit against Israel (4:1-11:11)

1. Opening Summary of Hosea's Proclamation (4:1-3)

An editor has placed a brief prophetic message at the beginning of the collection of Hosea's messages, which serves as a summary of Hosea's proclamation: "The Lord has an indictment [lawsuit] against the inhabitants of the land."

2. Further Messages of Judgment (4:4-10:15)

This is a collection of prophetic messages of judgment sent by God through Hosea. The messages highlight the corrupt and incompetent leadership of the priests and prophets, especially those who worship other gods alongside the Lord and who try to silence Hosea's witness. Hosea also condemns the moral evil and political intrigues of the nation.

3. God the Loving Parent (11:1-11)

A tender, even heart-wrenching, message from God about the Lord's love for the child Israel: "When Israel was a child, I loved him….[I]t was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms" (11:1, 3). God promises that on the other side of judgment, the relationship will continue: "How can I give you up, Ephraim?...I will not execute my fierce anger" (11:8-9).

B. The Lord's Lawsuit against Israel and Judah (11:12-14:19)

1. Messages of Judgment (11:12-13:16)

This is another collection of prophetic messages of judgment. The messages highlight the corrupt and wicked political leadership of Israel; they also include the announcement that God has a lawsuit with Judah. In addition to the condemnation of the nation's leaders, the wealthy are condemned as are those who worship gods other than the Lord.

2. Closing Summary of Hosea's Proclamation: A Call to Repent (14:1-3)

"Return…to the Lord your God," says the prophet; "say to him, 'Take away all guilt….Assyria shall not save us…we will say no more, "Our God," to the work of our hands'" (14:1-3). This call to repent has been placed here by an editor to serve as the closing summary of Hosea's proclamation.

3. God the Faithful Gardener (14:5-9)

A hopeful message has been placed last in the book; it promises that God will make Israel blossom, take root, grow, be fragrant, and flourish.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

The book of Hosea is one of the four books that come to us from prophets who were active during the eighth century B.C.E. (the others are Amos, Micah, and Isaiah). During this time, God's people were divided into two nations. Like Amos, Hosea was a prophet who was active in the northern kingdom of Israel (Hosea also refers to Israel as "Ephraim" and "Samaria."). And like the book of Amos, the book of Hosea somehow made its way south to Jerusalem where it was copied, edited, and preserved to serve as God's word for future generations. Unlike Amos, Hosea himself was a citizen of the northern kingdom.

Hosea had a very long prophetic ministry, probably from about 750 to 722 B.C.E. Hosea began his prophetic activity in the northern kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II (died 746 B.C.E.). The years of Jeroboam's reign were the last days of what had been a century of peace and prosperity. Shortly after Jeroboam II died, Tiglath-Pileser III ascended the throne of Assyria and initiated Assyrian military campaigns into Israel's region. The threat of Assyrian power paints the background against which Hosea's ministry must be understood.

As Assyrian might increased, political stability in Israel decreased. Of the six kings who reigned following Jeroboam's death, four were murdured--in 745 B.C.E. alone, three different kings sat on Israel's throne. In about 735 B.C.E., Pekah joined other neighboring countries in a revolt against Assyria. Assyria prevailed over the revolting countries; Pekah was murdered by Hoshea, who reigned over a brief period of peace. But Hoshea led another revolt against Assyria, which resulted in Israel's final demise. In 722 B.C.E., Samaria, the capital of Israel, was conquered and the nation ceased to exist. The end of Hosea's life and ministry is not recorded, but it is likely that he was still active when Samaria was conquered (13:9-16).

Not much is known of Hosea's life, other than what can be discerned about his family life from chapters 1-3. The interpretation of these chapters is controversial. One likely way of interpreting the chapters is to conclude that on God's command Hosea married Gomer, who was either "a promiscuous woman" or a "cultic prostitute." She bore three children, whose names served symbolic purposes in Hosea's preaching. It is possible that Hosea came from a priestly lineage, although this is uncertain.

Hosea announced God's condemnation of Israel for worship of other gods, for wickedness, and for the oppression of the poor by the wealthy. Hosea was particularly critical of the priests and prophets, who had been given the responsibility to teach the people the ways of the Lord but who neglected that responsibility. Hosea proclaimed that the people would suffer because they did not know God's ways; the priests who were supposed to teach God's ways would suffer as well. Like Amos and other prophets, Hosea did not teach a new morality. His message was conservative in that he called people to faithfulness to the laws of Moses. Hosea served up a withering attack on the religious and political structures of Israel. God had made a covenant with Israel. Because of the nation's wickedness, the people would be punished.

In spite of the coming punishment, Hosea also knew that on the other side of judgment, God would graciously continue a relationship with the people. Using tender and emotional language, Hosea proclaimed that God longed for a relationship with the people and would not finally let them go.

It should also be noted that interpretation of Hosea is complicated by the fact that the Hebrew text of Hosea is very difficult. At many points, the text is not clear. One likely reason for this is that the prophet spoke a northern dialect of Hebrew that we do not fully understand.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

Divine violence. Perhaps the most difficult issue to deal with when interpreting Hosea is the issue of divine violence. The book of Hosea portrays God as one who will exercise judgment on Israel by means of military defeat and national destruction. While the book does promise that God will remain faithful both in the midst of and on the other side of the violence, this assurance does not erase the impression that God seems to find violence an appropriate means of judgment.

Gomer. Perhaps the most puzzling and controversial issue regarding the book of Hosea has to do with his wife Gomer, who is called "a wife/woman of whoredom." In tradition, this was normally interpreted to conclude that Gomer was a "cultic prostitute"--a woman who engaged in sexual relationships with men as part of a fertility cult, with the idea that sexual activity between two humans on earth as a part of divine worship would stimulate the gods in heaven to bless the earth with agricultural fertility. However, it is not even certain if sexual acts were part of the Canaanite religion or if there were cultic prostitutes in ancient Israel or its neighbors. A second interpretation that has been popular is to view Gomer as a common prostitute, one who earns a living by means of sexual activity, but whose activities have no religious content. An interpretation that is gaining wide acceptance is that Gomer was not a prostitute at all, but a "promiscuous woman," one who was unfaithful to her husband.

Hosea's family life. What can we know of Hosea's personal life? Are the narratives of chapters 1 and 3 meant to be taken as historical descriptions, or are they metaphorical? If historical, do the two chapters simply describe the same event, using different words? Or do the two chapters tell of two different events involving the same woman? Or are the women of the two chapters actually two different women? Hosea 1-2 suggest that Gomer bore three children, but it is unclear if Hosea was the biological father of the children; the fact that he gave the children names suggests that he was at least their legal father. But was Hosea the biological father of Gomer's children? Or are chapters 1-3 meant to be interpreted metaphorically and not as historical reports? Many commentators have thought so, believing that God would not order a prophet to marry a prostitute.

The marriage metaphor. Similar to and connected with the issue of divine violence is the issue of marriage as a metaphor for both God's faithfulness and human unfaithfulness. One basic problem is that when God is seen as the faithful husband and Israel as the unfaithful bride, some interpreters have drawn very bad conclusions about the nature of marriage and about the nature of women in marriage. Because the book of Hosea shows "God the husband" disciplining "Israel the wife" by violent means, some misguided and sexist interpreters have concluded that the book of Hosea seems to endorse the physical abuse of women and children within marriage. This is such a large problem, that some recent interpreters have questioned whether people of faith should even study Hosea 2, in which the problem is most difficult. A second basic problem has to do with the metaphor of the unfaithful wife as a primary image for human unfaithfulness. Because women are so often the victims of abuse and unfaithfulness on the part of men, to draw on the metaphor of the unfaithful wife as a primary image for human infidelity can lead to the false conclusion that women are more unfaithful or sinful than men.

Political situation. Hosea began to prophesy during a time of relative peace and prosperity. The Egyptian Empire (to the southwest) and the Assyrian Empire (to the northeast) were at lower ebb as Hosea began his ministry, but that soon changed as Assyrian power grew and its dominance began. It is likely that Hosea lived to know the destruction of the northern kingdom.

Prophetic literature. Hosea is a book made up of messages once spoken by the prophet Hosea, but he is not the "author" of the book. Most of the speeches in Hosea were once spoken by the prophet, but they were most likely collected by other people--probably followers or disciples of Hosea--and gathered into a book by these people. The editors shaped the book into sections (1-3; 4-11; 12-14), which evidence a pattern: each section ends with the promise of restoration on the other side of judgment. It is also likely that the editors shaped the individual prophetic messages of the book in subtle ways; the handiwork of the editors cannot be untangled from the words of the original prophet.

Use of the historical tradition. Hosea is aware of the history of Israel and draws on that history to condemn the people. He refers to traditions from the wilderness (see chapters 2-3), the Ten Commandments (4:1-3), and traditions of Israel's election by God (11:1-2). One point that this use of history scores is that God's judgment of the people is not at odds with the history of God's dealings with the people, but consistent with it and an ongoing part of that relationship.

Use of the legal/moral tradition. Hosea does not preach a new social morality, but calls Israel to faithfulness to the Law of God (4:1-3). Some interpreters in the past have seen the prophets as presenting a new ethical system or advancing the moral reflection of Israel. But like the other prophets of the eighth century B.C.E., Hosea does not present a new moral system; he calls the people to faithfulness to God's law.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament

God's anger. Some people think that God's anger is the opposite of God's love. But God's anger is a part of God's love, not its opposite. Because God loves people, God is angry when they suffer. God's commitment to all people, including the poor and oppressed, fuels God's anger at oppressors. Without the concept of God's anger, God's love is an empty concept.

The inseparability of the two great commandments. In the New Testament, Jesus teaches that the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord and to love the neighbor. Hosea's preaching is consistent with this, in that Hosea condemned the people of Israel for both violating the first great commandment (to love God and have no other gods than the Lord) and the second great commandment (to love the neighbor and to refrain from evil). But Hosea's message asserts that there is an inseparable connection between these two commandments. Hosea taught that to love God is to love the neighbor and to refrain from doing evil. He also proclaimed that the love of gods other than the Lord led people to commit acts of injustice and oppression.

Judgment as a part of God's covenant. Hosea proclaims that God's judgment is not God's repudiation of the covenant that God made with the chosen people, but a necessary part of that ongoing covenant. Because God is just, God will neither ignore the wickedness of the people nor will God end the covenant relationship with them. God's judgment does not end the covenant. God's judgment is an "instrumental" part of the covenant--that is, it is an instrument that God uses to instruct or teach.

Knowledge of God. Unlike the other eighth-century prophets, Hosea did not emphasize the word "justice" in his preaching as much as he did the "knowledge" or "understanding" of God (4:1-11). The term "knowledge" extends beyond merely a sense of intellectual acknowledgement to include the sense of "obedience" and even "lifestyle." One cannot know God and disobey God's laws. If one knows God, then one's entire life and being are changed.

AUTHOR: Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament