Hosea 11: Yahweh’s Persistent Love

Linzy H. "Bill" Hill, Jr.  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 36 - Fall 1993

Introduction

The book of Hosea is a testimony to love reaching beyond rejection. From the prophet’s love for Gomer, which was the basis for his purchase of his adulterous wife, to Yahweh’s self-expression of love for Israel in chapter 11, the theme of love is found repeatedly in Hosea. What one learns of Yahweh’s love by way of illustration in chapters 1-3 is expressed succinctly and clearly in chapter 11: Yahweh’s love is persistent in the face of opposition and rejection. It is this persistent love that is introduced as the basis for Yahweh’s dealings with Israel, and it is in the book of Hosea that one finds for the first time the notion that the relationship between Yahweh and Israel is founded on his love.[1]James L. Mays, Hosea, The Old Testament Library (Philadel­phia: Westminster Press, 1969), 153.

Hosea 11 appears to be a homogeneous unit, not tied directly to what precedes it or what follows it in the text.[2]Hans Walter Wolff, Hosea, Hermeneia, trans. Gary Stansell (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 193. The chapter displays a remarkable degree of internal unity which is evidenced by the distinct pattern of singular pronoun (vv. 1, 4b, 5a, 6a) and plural pronoun (vv. 2, 3, 4a, 5b, 6b, 7) usages in referring to Israel, and the four-fold repetition of the idea that Israel has responded to Yahweh’s love with obstinate rejection (vv. 2, 3, 5, 7).[3]Ibid. Only verse 10 has been seriously considered a later addition based on the reference to Yahweh in the third person. The suggestion, however, that it is a late Judean gloss is weak given that nothing in it specifically addresses Judean interests.[4]Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1987), 176.

The chapter can be divided along temporal lines into three sections. Verses 1-4 report Israel’s past in which the saving acts of Yahweh and the sins of his people are interwoven. Verses 5-7 indicate the present threat posed to the people for their rebellion against Yahweh. Verses 8-11 show the agony which Yahweh has suffered because of the refusal of the people to respond to him as well as the dramatic promise of future restoration which his persistent love has made possible.[5]English texts include verse 12 in Hosea 11, but the Hebrew text places this verse as the first verse of chapter 12. Considering the tone and nature of the verse, the Hebrew placement seems most appropriate.

 

Israel’s Past: 11:1-4

In verse 1 Hosea begins the message of chapter 11with a declaration of Yahweh’s love for the people whom he called out of Egyptian bondage. The historical retrospection which initiates the verse reminded the hearers that their knowledge of Yahweh and, indeed, their relationship with Yahweh began at the Exodus. This is not the first occasion where Yahweh used a historical perspective from which to make his point (see 9:10; 10:9). It is in 11:1, however, that he reached beyond references to the wilderness experience to the event which the people of Israel themselves understood to be the creative point of their relationship with Yahweh. This specific historical reference is then tied closely to the metaphorical picture of Israel being the son of Yahweh. The Exodus, then, has itself become a metaphor signifying the birthplace of the nation, and the relation­ ship is then described in the warm and loving terms of a parent and child.[6]The first stated recognition of the relationship in terms of par­ent and child is found in Exod. 4:22 where Yahweh said to Pharaoh, “Israel is My son, My first-born” (NAS). (All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.).

Yahweh’s use of “called” (garah) is significant in that it emphasizes the role of the divine word in the Exodus tradition.[7]G. I. Davies, Hosea, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992), 254. Several aspects of the word are present in the verse. Certainly one sees here the principles of “adoption” and “election,” but the further notions of “gathering” or “summoning” are also detected.[8]Stuart, 178. Further still, since this verse is quoted in Matthew 2:15 in reference to Jesus, the Messianic qualities of the verse are noteworthy, although it is important to understand that Matthew’s use of it serves as an ultimate fulfillment which does not exhaust the historical, contextual meaning of the verse. The multi-dimensional features of the verse run along a line which begins with the Exodus event itself, running through the historical context of Hosea, and ultimately finding its completion in the unique “second Exodus” of Christ from Egypt.

Where verse 1 established Yahweh’s love as the basis for his relationship with Israel, verse 2 shows in stark contrast the reaction of faith­ less Israel to Yahweh’s overtures. Set once again in a framework of historical retrospection, but with emphasis on continuing activity as well, the verse contrasts the loving, tender way in which Yahweh called Israel with the apostasy and rejection that characterized Israel’s response.[9]The contrast between faithful Yahweh and rebellious Israel has been seen from early in the relationship. Consider, for exam­ple, the incident at Baal-Peor. At the earliest opportunity to do so, Israel chose to abandon Yahweh in favor of a false god (see Num­bers 25). A second use of “called” (garah) dramatizes the contrast.[10]Modern translations are problematic here. The Masoretic text indicates a plural subject with “called,” which translates “they called.” NIV and other translations, however, indicate “I called,” referring to Yahweh as subject. Several translation possibilities ex­ist: “The more I (Yahweh) called, the more they rebelled;” “The more they (the false gods) called …;” or, “The more they (the prophets) called ….” Where Yahweh initially called them in love into the relationship, that call now serves as a catalyst for rebellion. The rebellion is two-fold. It is marked by refusal to respond to Yahweh’s call (sins of omission) and by turning to worship gods other than Yahweh (sins of commission).[11]Stuart, 178.

Verse 2 forms a strong contrast with verses 3-4 in the same way that it did with verse 1. The rebellion and apostasy of Israel toward Yahweh forms the backdrop of the faithfulness of Yahweh in his provision for Israel. The image of the parent/child is seen again in verses 3-4, but here it is presented through the careful actions of the parent in raising the child rather than in a specific statement regarding the familial tie. The contrast establishes firmly that the fault of the breakdown of the relationship does not rest with Yahweh.[12]The use of the adversative in the Hebrew texts makes this clear: “But I (as opposed to you) ….” Yahweh, in fact, has treated his child with the utmost care. How could the people reject Yahweh when he, like a father, had held their hand while they made their first faltering steps as a new nation, providing them with care and healing when they stumbled? The verses demonstrate the complete nature of Yahweh’s care. Not only did he guide them as they learned, he continued his watch care over them throughout their growth as a nation, and he provided healing (rapha’) when they were injured.[13]Rapha’ (heal) is used by Hosea as a verb of redemption from historical threats and dangers to the nation (5:13; 6:1; 7:1). Wolff,’ 199, suggests rapha’ is used specifically in reference to the deliverance from Egypt and does not refer here to physical healing. That approach, however, weakens the parent/ child metaphor established in v. 1 and taken up again in vv. 3-4. The image may cover the wilderness and the time following the conquest of the land when Yahweh fulfilled his fatherly duties in spite of Israel’s rebellion.[14]Mays, 154.

The text of verse 4 is problematic and renders a variety of translations. The problem revolves around a Hebrew word which can be translated “yoke” (‘ol) or “suckling baby” (‘ul). Only the vowels separate the meanings. If “yoke” is used, it results in the translation offered by the NAS: “I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws.” The metaphor of parent/child in this instance gives way to one of the teamster who gently leads the animal with “cords of love” rather than driving her with a whip. Yahweh had helped them bear the burden (“one who lifts the yoke”) rather than adding to it.[15]D. David Garland, Hosea, Bible Study Commentary (Grand Rapids: Lamplighter Books, 1975), 68. Stuart, 174, uses this transla­ tion as well. If “suckling baby” is used, the metaphor returns to that of the parent/child and results in the translation offered by Wolff: “And I was to them as those who lift a small child to their cheek.”[16]Wolff, 191. Mays, 154-55, also prefers this translation. He writes: “The picture of the parent lifting up a child to its cheek for an embrace is an incomparable image for the most tender feeling­ parental devotion concentrated in one gesture!” (155). The closing sentence of verse 4 fits well with either translation, for it tells of Yahweh’s provision of food. More important, though, than the recipient of the food is the manner in which Yahweh offered it: he “bent down” to feed them.[17]Of this Mays, 155, writes: “He bent down to feed the child who could not provide its own food or eat alone-divine conde­scension dramatized as fatherly care!”

 

Israel’s Present Predicament: 11:5-7

Living with the consequences of choices made was the responsibility of Israel for her determination to ignore the pleas of Yahweh through the prophets. Israel’s choice of the gods of the other nations suggested their preference for the world which those gods provided. The relationship of the people of Israel to Yahweh, however, prevented them from having dual allegiance. The ultimate result of their lack of loyalty to Yahweh was to be removed from the land.

Verse 5 begins with the negative (lo’) in the Masoretic text, but to place the negative here confuses the meaning of the verse. The LXX translation seems more appropriate as it places the word with the previous verse and translates it, as part of the closing phrase of verse 4, “to him” (lo).[18]The NAS translates the verse according to the Masoretic text. Wolff, 192; Stuart, 174; and Mays, 150, follow the DOC. The NIV translates the Masoretic text as a negative question, “Will they not return to Egypt?” The anticipated positive response to the question would then follow the suggestion of the LXX. The threat, then, which is posed by verse 5 is the removal of the people from their land to Egypt. Hosea has threatened several times a removal or flight of the people to Egypt and verse 11 presupposes some sort of exile.[19]Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Hosea, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 583. Is the removal to Egypt a literal one? The specific mention of Assyria militates against this view. The mention of Egypt, though, again raises in the minds of the hearers a specific reference point to which they can relate: bondage. As Yahweh had redeemed them from bondage, he would return them to bondage because of their faithlessness. In this case, judgment on Israel would be provided by Assyria, a judgment which to some degree was already in place with the pressure being asserted on Israel by Assyria. This judgment would be fulfilled in the fall of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. Israel returned to bondage because they refused to return to Yahweh.[20]The play on the word “return” (shub) in v. 5 is graphic.

Verse 6 indicates the level of destruction which was to take place in Israel. Israel would become subject to Assyria by being conquered in a bloody war. Israel’s defenses (“gate bars”) would be useless against the onslaught of the enemy. Much of the blame for the destruction of the people was to rest squarely on the shoulders of the false prophets who had led the people away from Yahweh.[21]Stuart, 180, understands the latter part of this verse as a spe­cific reference to the destruction of the false prophets themselves. Perhaps so, but the influence of the false prophets on the people as a whole and its resulting judgment seems to be more the point. Is there a more revolting indictment than that against the “servant” of Yahweh who leads the people away from Yahweh? What the religious leaders had offered the people as divine oracles had in fact proven to be the basis for their destruction.

Verse 7 serves an interesting role in this middle section of chapter 11 depending on the translation one chooses to follow. The translation offered by Wolff accentuates the apostasy of the people who continued to call on Baal for help, help which Baal could not provide them.[22]Wolff, 192. What Yahweh had done for the people in the past they now expected of Baal! Israel’s state of bondage under sin was tantamount to slave bondage and would find reality in literal bondage under the Assyrians. This particular translation would serve to close the protests of Yahweh against the people, creating a sharp contrast with the verses which follow.

Stuart has offered an intriguing alternative. In his view, the Hebrew allows for the following translation:

Then my people will tire from turning away from me;
and on the Most High they will call;
all together they will surely exalt him.[23]Stuart, 181.

The sense which this translation offers is noticeably different from that of Wolff. Here the verse no longer contrasts that which follows but serves as a transition into the following verses. A key element in taking this position rests with the phrase “my people.” Israel is still the elect of Yahweh though they are to face judgment. A time would come when they would grow weary of their plight under the Assyrians, at which point they would return (shub) to Yahweh, who would be waiting for them.

 

Israel’s Future Restoration: 11:8-11

The dramatic shift which occurs in verse 8 provides the reader with a glimpse into the complex motives which are part of the character of Yahweh. Is it an inconsistent trait of Yahweh that he should struggle with the fate of his child? How is the reader’s perception of Yahweh to be affected by witnessing the heart of Yahweh convulsing with pain? These are the kinds of questions which one must face when reading the final section of chapter 11. What appears in this section is a growing awareness that Israel’s punishment was not to be the end of Israel’s history with Yahweh, and that this continued history was to be based on the compassion of Yahweh. In 11:4 Yahweh spoke of the tender care which had characterized his treatment of Israel, all set within the context of the exodus-wilderness experience. Even though they had turned from him, Yahweh’s deep compassion had persisted. Now, in Hosea’s present, the prophet found himself staring into the heart of Yahweh and finding a spanning of the gap between judgment and compassion. There was a basis for hope, and it was to be found in the compassion of Yahweh, which even in judgment was actively involved in rescuing a lost people.[24]Paul D. Hanson, The People Called (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 164.

There is a sense in which Yahweh’s toiling over the destruction of Israel is not surprising. This conflict has already presented itself in 6:4, as well as in Amos 7:3, 6. Jer. 26:3, 13, 19 also express the same theme. It is only in the text under consideration, however, that such a passionate display of inner struggle can be found.

The reference to Admah and Zeboiim in verse 8 provides the standard by which the destruction of Israel had been considered by Yahweh. These cities are mentioned in close association with Sodom and Gomorrah in Deut. 29:21ff., all of which were destroyed by Yahweh. The allusion to these cities provides, though, an even more important role in 11:8. The total destruction of Admah and Zeboiim, characterized in Deut. 29:22 as being “overturned” (haphak) by the anger of Yahweh, now serves as a dramatic contrast to the “overturning” (haphak) of Yahweh’s heart because of his compassion. Yahweh’s heart has been over­ turned so that Israel will not be overturned. In a real sense, Yahweh has turned his own wrath upon his own anger which he felt toward Israel.[25]See Wolff’s expanded discussion on the notion of Yahweh’s anger turning on itself (201).

The three-fold use of “I will not …” in verse 9 serves to underscore the decision of Yahweh not to destroy Israel. The fourth use of the negative (lo’) in the verse provides the basis for this decision: “I am God and not man.” Yahweh is not one of the Israelites in the midst of the people. He is God, “the Holy One,” who is in their midst. The limitations which define humanity do not restrict and affect the sovereign freedom and power of Yahweh. For this reason he “will not come in wrath.”

It is nonetheless crucial to understand that the judgment which was to come on Israel was not to be abated. Israel was dismantled by the Assyrians, yet the people were not completely destroyed. Evidently, the turmoil of Yahweh over the fate of the people resulted in the fact that he did nothing to reverse his previous acts of blessings, while at the same time satisfying the judgment demands of the covenant relationship and of his own righteousness. Yet once Yahweh’s wrath   against Samaria had struck, those who survived the catastrophe could look forward to deliverance and renewal. Though this falls short of a promise of mercy, it could be viewed as a word of hope for those who were faithful to the covenant and who heeded the words of the prophet.

How the future will unfold for the faithful is described in verse 10. The return from exile which is described in verse 11 must first be preceded by a return to Yahweh. This necessary first step for renewal is announced in verse 10. The people will “walk after the Lord,” which is followed by Yahweh roaring as a lion.[26]Other passages which contain this imagery are Amos 1:2; Jer. 25:30; and Joel 3:16. The metaphor of the roaring lion often signaled hope, for it was the sound of Yahweh coming forth to do battle with the threatening foes of his people.[27]Mays, 158. When those who had fled to the west heard this mighty roar, they would know that their redemption was at hand. The “trembling” (charad) posture with which they would return suggests that they had yielded to the demands of Yahweh and would with reverence, awe, and joyous anticipation “walk after the Lord.”

The passage concludes with specific references to the homecoming by the refugees who fled to Egypt and to the deportees carried away by Assyria. The coupling of these two powers and their respective roles in the political scene of Israel in the day of Hosea is common and expected. The second use of “trembling” (charad) underscores the yielded spirit which characterizes the people of Yahweh. The final period of the nation’s history was not to be dominated by the consequences of Israel’s deeds. Their future was instead to be determined by the compassion of Yahweh. Where the people had once abandoned Yahweh in order to seek political alliances, they now were rescued from these false paramours by Yahweh. No human power could have accomplished this wondrous task, a fact reiterated in the final phrase of verse 11 which identifies the declaration as proceeding from Yahweh himself.

Conclusion

Dealing with the motives of Yahweh is a difficult task. There is, in fact, a broad gap be­ tween witnessing the acts of Yahweh and understanding his motives for the actions. One fact rings true, however, in the book of Hosea, and especially in chapter 11: Yahweh’s love for his people is persistent to the point of reaching beyond rejection in order that his will for them will be realized. This fact rings true today. Yahweh’s love reaching in the form of Jesus Christ is its highest expression.

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