Hosea: Man, Times, and Material

Dan Gentry Kent  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 36 - Fall 1993

Introduction

Philip Yancey writes regularly for Christianity Today. A few years ago he had an article entitled, “The Bible’s ‘Fusty Old Men.”‘[1]Philip Yancey, “The Bible’s ‘Fusty Old Men,”‘ Christianity To­day (October 2, 1987): 17.

If you examine the Bibles of even the most diligent students, you may find a telltale band of white on the paper edges about halfway through. That mark of cleanliness shows how seldom fingers touch the Old Testament prophets. Although those 17 books fill about a fifth of the bulk of the Bible, they often go unread.

Why? I put that question to a Bible study class, and one young Christian bluntly summed up the class’ sentiments: “The Prophets are weird and confusing, and they all sound alike.”

Later Yancey admitted that “the Prophets are difficult books, more difficult than any other part of the Bible.” Then he commented: “Why read the Prophets? There is only one worthwhile reason: to get to know God. They are the Bible’s most forceful revelation of his personality.”[2]Yancey, 19.

Here is what Yancey said in another place: I had always misread the prophets­ when I bothered to read them at all. I had seen them as finger-wagging, fusty old men who …called down judgment on the pagans. I discovered to my surprise that the ancient prophets’ writings actually sound the most “modern” of any part of the Bible. They deal with the very same themes that hang like a cloud over our century.[3]Philip Yancey, Disappointment With God: Three Questions No One Asks Out Loud (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 85.

When one talks about the faith of the Hebrew people, when one talks about the faithfulness of the Hebrew people, when one mentions their self-sacrifice and their commitment to the Lord, one is not usually talking about the people as a whole. One is talking about the prophets. “The history of the struggle of the Israelites to be a people pleasing to God has rightly been called a history of failure. The prophets (were the ones who modeled) what God wanted all his people to be.”[4]F. B. Huey, Jr. Yesterday’s Prophets for Today’s World (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), 5.

And who stands first among those unfortunately called the “minor” (that is, shorter) prophets? He is Hosea.

The prophetic anthology which we commonly call the “book” of Hosea is unique for several reasons. For one thing, the message of the Lord is closely tied in with the anguish and heartache of the messenger. One would rather not think of suffering as a vehicle of ministry, or as training for ministry, but it was that for Hosea just as it often is for us. “Like any good actor, Hosea does not merely mouth his lines; he lives his part.”[5]E. W. Heaton, The Old Testament Prophets, rev. ed. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd), 92.

Hosea was chosen to reveal the heartbreak of God. He did so through his own heartbreak. So this is a story “to be felt more than it is to be understood …. We may never fully understand the meaning of this Old Testament document until we…have heard God sobbing.”[6]Morton F. Rose, “Prophet of Heartbreak,” Home Life (August 1968): 28.

 

Name and Personality

Hosea was a common name in Bible times. There are variations in the spelling. For instance, sometimes it is spelled with a second “h,” Hoshea. It is related to the other biblical names of Joshua and Jesus. Its root words mean salvation, savior, or deliverer. To save, of course, means to deliver.

Hosea was a native of the northern kingdom of Israel.[7]See “our king,” Hos. 7:5. Thus he was a home missionary, whereas his older contemporary, Amos, from down in Judah was a foreign missionary.

Hosea was a tender-hearted and gentle person. He was much more like his successor, Jeremiah, than he was like Amos.[8]R. B. Y. Scott, The Relevance of the Prophets: An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets and Their Message, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968), 97. A long-time friend and colleague, F. B. Huey, Jr., called Hosea the apostle John of the Old Testament.[9]Huey, 27. It seems, then, that Amos would be the Old Testament’s John the Baptist.

In Amos, the people sinned by violating the Lord’s law. In Hosea, they sinned by violating the Lord’s love. In Amos, justice; in Hosea, love.

It is a fascinating study to compare Hosea with the prophet who followed in his footsteps a century later, Jeremiah. Both were sensitive. Both expressed deep feelings. Both loved their spiritual heritage, the historical traditions of their people. Both can be characterized by such terms as “warm humanitarian” and “patriotic.”[10]Roland Kenneth Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969), 870.

Since Hosea was from the northern kingdom, he ministered at home. He worked among his own people. He of course cared about them. Hosea realized that the Lord loved the people, too. Hosea’s great word was (c)hesed, covenant love or loyal love. The Lord had this kind of love for his people. They must show it to him in return. However, Hosea was also alert to the people’s sin. And he knew that the Lord’s judgment inevitably would come.

We do not know any more facts about Hosea’s personal life, but this has not stopped the speculators. There has been no end of suppositions. The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, for instance, said that “there is no doubt about his being a farmer.”[11]Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith (New York: Collier Books, 1949), 120. See also J. Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel (Philadel­phia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962), 208. “No doubt” is a curious phrase to use for someone about whom we have so little information (though Hosea certainly did know farm life). The lines of 10:11-13c “are united by a profusion of farming imagery and vocabulary. Out of fifteen printed lines or partial lines in the RSV, thirteen   include distinctive agricultural terms.”[12]H. D. Beeby, Grace Abounding: A Commentary on the Book of Hosea (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989), 3.

On the other hand, several have thought Hosea to be a baker. He was always talking about a hot oven and a cake not turned (Hos. 7:4, 6-8). (Personally, this writer thinks that when his wife, Gomer, left him, he had to take care of the three children, including cooking their meals. That was where he got his experience in the kitchen.)

A. J. Heschel offered this satirical analysis of the numerous suppositions about Hosea:

From his use of certain striking figures of speech it has been suggested that he was a baker, lived as a farmer on the land, was associated with the priesthood and the sanctuaries, had a strongly developed sex instinct which he vigorously re­ pressed. With the same right we could suggest that he was a lover of the desert and an expert on lions, panthers, and bears.[13]Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 39.

Hosea did not give any account of his call to be the Lord’s prophet. Boo Heflin has suggested that “he received his call in the silent heart­ break of a broken home.”[14]Boo Heflin, “An Introduction to the Prophet Hosea and His Message,” unpublished material distributed at Southwestern’ s an­nual pastor’s conference, (June 1975), 2. One day, as he was sitting home grieving, wondering where his wife Gomer was, wondering when she would come back home, wondering if she would come back home to him, Hosea saw it: The way Gomer had treated him[15]The intriguing and important matter of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer will be dealt with in the exposition of chapters 1-3. was a picture of how Israel was treating the Lord. The Lord loved his people; they were unfaithful to him. The Lord’s heart was broken, too.

 

The Times: Political

We will not suggest that, as in Charles Dickens famous phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”[16]Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, (New York: Walter J. Black, Inc.), 1. Only the latter half of that statement fits. The good times were in the past: the times of political stability and peace, flourishing agriculture and trade, and widespread prosperity. Those had been the times of Jeroboam II, the leading light of the long-lasting Jehu dynasty.

Jeroboam II was the most important king in the north, or at least one of the most important. He ruled for forty-one years. Length of reign was often an indication of importance (2 Kings 14:23). He was an able king, but not a godly one (14:24). He revived Israel every way but spiritually.[17]The Daily Walk (April 1987): 17.

Syria was weak during this time, never to be a problem again, and Jeroboam II took advantage of the situation. His days were the Golden Age of the northern kingdom. He be­ came the Solomon of the north. He led the nation to unprecedented prosperity. That is the good news. The bad news is that the prosperity was enjoyed only by the upper classes. Very little of it trickled down to the poor. The lower classes were considerably oppressed.

There was much outward religious expression, but there was little social justice. This is significant background, because the prophets Amos and Hosea began serving during Jeroboam II’s administration.

Second Kings 14:25, 28 indicate Jeroboam II expanded the borders,[18]It is most likely that the victories of Jehoash (2 Kings 13:25) and Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25, 28) were won in alliance or at least understanding with Assyria.” H. L. Ellison, The Prophets of Israel: From Ahl)ah to Hosea (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969), 57. at Syria’s expense. He went a long way toward regaining the ideal borders of Israel of the times of David and Solomon.[19]G. H. Jones, 1 and 2 Kings (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans 1984) 2:515. He and Uzziah in the south were able to reform a sort of mini-united kingdom.

Jeroboam II was so significant that he is rivaled in importance during the history of the northern kingdom only by Omri. But the book of Kings dismisses Jeroboam II in only seven verses. And it points out that whatever success he enjoyed came because YHWH allowed him to have it.

Like Amos, Hosea was called during the reign of Jeroboam II, in the middle of the eighth century B.C. Hosea’s predecessor/contemporary, Amos, had charged that the leaders of the country were sluggish (Amos 6:1). They did not care about the fate of the poor (6:6). Yes, many people were well off, but many more lived in want. The well-being at the top never reached those on the lower rungs of the economic and social ladder. Many people were falling through the supposed safety net of society.

According to Amos, the new wealthy class spent its wealth on luxury and status symbols. Such people were able to build summer house and winter houses (3:15). They used expensive hewn stones in their construction (5:11). They decorated their mansions in elaborate ways. They had furniture inlaid with ivory and covered with silk (3:11-12, 15). They ate only the best cuts of meat. They drank wine out of large bowls. John R. W. Stott put it this way: Under Jeroboam II, “peace brought prosperity, prosperity luxury, and luxury license.”[20]John R. W. Stott, Understanding the Bible, rev. ed., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 67.

Meanwhile, back in the ghetto …the rich had gained much of their wealth at the expense of the poor. They oppressed them. They cheated them. They wrung “protection money” out of them (5:11). They forced on them inferior food and goods.

The rich had the material resources to win their court cases against the poor. They bribed the judges if necessary (5:12). There may have been actual slavery. At least there was economic control (2:6-7). This is how the rich used their wealth to keep the poor in subjection. James L. Mays has called the attitude of the rich “heedless hedonism.”[21]James Luther Mays, Amos: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969): 116.

Remember that Israel was a covenant community. At least it was supposed to be. There were no class distinctions. At least there were not supposed to be. Everyone was equal before the Lord, before the law, and in relationship to each other. That was still the theory. However, it is easy to see that it was a sham. It was ignored in practice. “The upper classes in Samaria, Bethel, and other cities in the north lived as if there were no covenant obligations at all.”[22]Arvid S. Kapelrud, “New Ideas in Amos,” Supplements to Ve­tus Testamentum, XV, Volume du Congres (Geneve, 1965): 199.

In Hosea’s day, the nation rested on insecure foundations. To the east, the Assyrian empire was growing steadily stronger and stronger. The shadow of the tyrant was beginning to fall over the northern kingdom.

Only Jeroboam II is mentioned in Hosea among the kings of Israel. He was the Louis XIV of Samaria. Unfortunately, Hosea lived long enough to witness the chaotic days after Jeroboam II There was a revolving door process of weak, wicked rulers. During a twenty­ year period, no king reigned securely and most reigned briefly. Those were times of usurpation by assassination.

There were six kings during Hosea’s time, none with any administrative or diplomatic skills. The first one after Jeroboam II lasted six months. He was assassinated. His successor was also assassinated after only a month. A third had to submit to Assyria. He was the only one in the series to die a natural death. However, his son was assassinated. And that assassin was in turn assassinated by Hoshea, who turned out to be the last king.

Four of the final six kings of Israel died violent deaths. One of the other two ended his days in captivity. Many people see this progressive deterioration of the nation in Hosea’s various oracles.

Roy Honeycutt dated Hosea’s ministry from 748 B.C. when Jeroboam II died to the fall of Israel to Assyria in 722.[23]Roy L. Honeycutt, “Hosea,” The Broadman Bible Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972) 7:2. A few people have felt that his ministry lasted only about half that long.[24]John Mauchline, “The Book of Hosea: Introduction,” The In­terpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956) 6:563; Stephen Winward, A Guide to the Prophets (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1968): 49; Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel: From the Set­tlement in the Land to the Hellenistic Period (Philadelphia: The West­minster Press, 1983), 97-8.

 

The Times: Religious

We have already said some harsh things about the upper classes of Israel in Hosea’s day, but do not think that those people were irreligious. Quite the contrary. They were quite religious. All of the people were. The rich people were especially religious. They could afford to be (and it paid them to be).

The temple at Bethel was supported from the royal budget (Amos 7:13). Religious services were well-attended (9:1). The festivals were popular.[25]Hosea may well have preached to people gathered for their li­centious festivals. People were always making religious pilgrimages (4:4; 5:5; 8:14). They even tithed. They tithed promptly and with a ready spirit (4:4-5)-you cannot get any more religious than that.

Those people held huge religious convocations and conferences with inspiring programs and moving music (5:22-23). They faced the future without fear (5:18a; 6:1; 9:l0b). They did this because they were confident that they were the objects of the Lord’s favor. They knew that, whatever happened, the Lord would protect them.

Yes, those “best” of times were times of religious interest and activity. Of course, all of the religious enthusiasm was either external, not touching the heart or the daily life, or else it was generously mixed with the paganism that we associate with Ba’al. You will remember that the first king of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam I, had established shrines of Ba’al in the name of Yahweh at both Dan and Bethel.

The name Ba’al means “lord,” “master,” “owner,” and even “husband.” He was the Canaanite storm god, the god of rain. He was thus the god of fertility.

So we know the Canaanite religion as a nature religion. It was closely tied in with the seasons of the year. This meant that Ba’al was a dying and rising god. Each summer he was killed by Mot, the god of drought (and death). Ba’al’s consort, Anat, would in turn slay Mot. This broke the drought. Ba’al rose from the dead with the fall rains for the crops.

When the Israelites left the desert for the settled agricultural life of Canaan, new ideas such as these had strong appeal for them. Some of the people came to think of the Lord as the God of the desert but Ba’al as the god of the farmlands. Some people even began to call the Lord (Yahweh) Ba’al, and to confuse Yahweh and Ba’al. They tended “to baalize YHWH himself and to conduct his worship with rites belonging to the worship of Baal.”[26]Bulber, 118.

This is the point at which enter the sacred prostitutes. Since the union of man and woman released the mystery of life in the beginning of the birth process, those people thought that the same thing must be true of the gods. The union of god and goddess must make fertile the flocks and herds, fields and orchards. Sacred prostitution was thus a sort of sympathetic or imitative magic. The worshiper acted out what he wanted to happen. He demonstrated what he wanted the gods to imitate.

The immoral rites at the shrines were not merely sex orgies. They were worship. They made the crops grow, supposedly better than fertilizer. Some cynic has said that this was not worship, it was whorship. No wonder Hosea “mentioned no aspect of Israel’s life in the land without denouncing it.”[27]P. Humbert, “Osee le prophete bedouin,” Revue d’Historie et de Philosophie Reliqieuses 1 (1921): 97-118; quoted by Frank S. Fricke, “The Rechabites Reconsidered,” Journal of Biblical Literature 90 (1971): 279.

 

The Collection

Hosea is like the other prophetic anthologies. It is a collection of brief oracles. Apparently a later disciple gathered the smaller units into larger complexes. This “Baruch”-type friend or disciple of Hosea who did this work often used key words to tie the oracles or collections together. He used catch words. (People today still do the same thing.) For example, he used the word “therefore,” or the phrase “in that day.”

The literary forms in the collection we call by the name of Hosea consist of the speech of judgment, including the indictment and the sentence of judgment; the salvation oracle, sometimes called the oracle of promise; and the summons to repentance.

Douglas Stuart, in the Word Biblical Commentary saw the various pericope, the sections, as either evidence, curses, or blessings. Two­ thirds of the Hosea material is in the category of evidence.[28]Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 17. The covenant has been broken­ in fact, shattered. Hosea stated the charges against the guilty people.

The evidence Stuart referred to of course leads to the curses, which make up one-fourth of the material. Stuart pointed out that these are not original curses; they are the curses of the Mosaic law.[29]Stuart, xxxii-xlii. Since the covenant had been abrogated by Israel’s rebellion, the Lord had no option but to unleash the stipulated covenant punishments.

But Heschel made the following interesting point:

The theme of Hosea’s prophecy is apostasy. Most of his utterances are variations on the same theme. It is remarkable in his treatment that the subject of preoccupation is not the apostate, the backslider, but God the abandoned one.[30]Heschel, 59.

The blessings make up only about one-tenth of the material. There are seven sections of blessings. Because of the nature of the situation, none of these blessings are for the present or for the immediate future. They are only for the distant future.[31]Stuart, 7, 18-19.

Honeycutt felt that much of this material was oral before the fall of Samaria.[32]Honeycutt, 6. Judean editors preserved it.[33]James D. Newsome, Jr., The Hebrew Prophets (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), 36. Stuart thought that some of the material may have been oral and some written from the beginning.[34]Stuart, 8.

A word also needs to be said about the Hebrew text of Hosea. Stuart said that “with the possible exception of the book of Job, no other OT book contains as high a proportion of textual problems as does Hosea.”[35]Stuart, 13; see also Beeby, 3; and Harrison, 872. The Septu­agint is quite literal and is therefore a great deal of help. This explains why the various translations differ so widely,[36]Christoph Barth, God With Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromily. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991), 322; see also Harrison, 872. and why it is important to study Hosea with different translations at hand.

Why are there such textual difficulties? There have been several suggestions:

  1. The disorder resulting from the Assyrian conquest.[37]Barth, 322. The textual difficulties “reflect the chaotic final days of Hosea’s reign.”[38]Newsome, 36.
  2. “The prophet’s style, which seems to reflect a temperament highly emotional, sensitive, and restless.”[39]J. Philip Hyatt, Prophetic Religion (New York: Abingdon­ Cokesbury Press, 1947), 20.
  3. The intense emotion in these messages.

One scholar has called the anthology of Hosea a “succession of sobs.”[40]A. B. Davidson; quoted by Clyde T. Francisco, Introducing the Old Testament. rev. ed. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1977), 150. How do you outline a succession of sobs? No one sobs in logical outline form.

Clyde Francisco said that this material is like the diary of a soldier on the battlefield, written between shells.[41]Francisco, 150. No wonder it speaks to us today.

 

Conclusion

Someone said that Amos only made one convert when he preached in the northern kingdom of Israel: Hosea. That may be an exaggeration. One hopes that it is. But it may not be far from the truth. Serving the Lord in eighth-century Israel was not a productive or “successful” matter. As one studies the messages from that time, may the Lord help him or her to make a better response today.

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