As we continue to follow the prophets in the readings from Hebrew Scripture that the lectionary offers, we hear from Hosea this coming Sunday (Hos 1:2–10) and the following Sunday (Hos 11:1–11). The two passages offer quite a contrast.
In the first selection in the lectionary, the opening chapter of the book, we hear about the prophet’s own situation. Hosea receives direction from God as to how he is to behave. The actions he undertakes provide a series of signs to the people of Israel concerning their fate (1:2–10). The future looks grim. In the second section offered by the lectionary (11:1–11), the prophet speaks on behalf of God to the people, reminding them of God’s persistent love for them. There is hope for the future, he tells them.
Hosea was active as a prophet in the northern kingdom in the 8th century BCE, over six decades, from the reign of Jeroboam II to the time of Hoshea. He seems to reflect an awareness of the war between Syria and Ephraim, a northern tribe (see 5:8–15), but his oracles do not indicate any knowledge of the defeat of the northerners by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, and their subsequent exile (2 Kings 17).
The name Hosea means “salvation”, and the oracles in this book provide occasional glimpses of that desired outcome (1:7; 2:24; 6:2–3; 10:12; 11:3–4, 8–9; 13:4–5) before the final oracle assures Israel, “I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (14:4–9). The love song of chapter 11 represents the height of this aspiration. However, the predominant tone of the book is a relentless condemnation of Israel for her sins. This fate is signalled in striking fashion in the opening chapter, through the names of Hosea’s children. They indicate exactly what fate is in store for the people.
The opening chapter presents a challenge to orthodox views of morality and the nature of God. God commands Hosea to “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (1:2). Let’s note that: God commands behaviour that is generally regarded as immorality!
Hosea’s wife is named as Gomer, from the verb gamar, which means “to complete or bring to an end”. Is she the one to bring to completion the salvation to which Hosea looks? The promiscuity of Gomer is noted at 3:1; Hosea wins her back with “fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine” (3:2). Her behaviour seems to signal the infidelity and then return to God of the Israelites (3:3–5). Hosea regularly pleads with Israel to “return to the Lord” (2:7; 4:5; 6:1; 12:6; 14:1–2).
Not only does Gomer signify the behaviour of Israel; the names of her children are similarly significant. The first son, Jezreel (“God sows”) signals punishment (1:4). A daughter, Lo-ruhamah (“not pitied”) signals God’s continuing refusal to forgive Israel (1:6). A second son, Lo-ammi (“not my people”) seals their fate, it would seem: “you are not my people and I am not your [God]” (1:9). The names tell a story; a story that does not bode well for Israel.
Wrath infuses the whole book, from the opening series of names and in the indictment set out in legal form, “the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land” (4:1), with the threat from God that “I will punish them for their ways, and repay them for their deeds” (4:1–11). It is present as the prophet tells of the wrath poured out on Ephraim like drowning water (5:8–11) and in his words about God’s smouldering anger over idol worship (8:1–6). It climaxes in the threat of destruction and the removal of the king (13:9–11). Paradoxically, for a book bearing the name “salvation” (Hosea), the message is consistently about punishment for wrongdoing.
The metaphor of Gomer’s behaviour as a whore (1:2; 2:5; 3:1) permeates the book: the divine accusation is that Israel has “played the whore” (4:10–14; 5:3; 9:1), that “a spirit of whoredom has led them astray” (4:12; 5:5), that “they have forsaken the Lord to devote themselves to whoredom” (4:10–11), that because of this whoredom, the nation is defiled (6:10).
Yet in the opening chapter, Hosea strongly affirms that all is not lost; there is hope. “The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea”, says Hosea, “which can be neither measured nor numbered” (1:10a)—and more than this, “in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’” (1:10b). The new name for the people signifies the promise that Israel will be saved; “I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give to her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (3:14–15).
This fluctuation between the threat of punishment hanging over Israel, and the alluring words of love that God speaks to her, takes us into a deeper level of concern, for this is precisely the kind of behaviour that is experienced by women caught in abusive relationships. Is the Lord nothing more than a manipulative, power-wielding tyrant of a husband, inflicting damage, driving his woman away in fear, then pleading for his woman to come back to him, offering all manner of blandishments and promises of transformation? “Come, let us return to the Lord, for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up” (6:1)
How we answer that question determines how we read the second passage offered by the lectionary (11:1–11). Is this a truly loving, gracious, ever-forgiving God? or a violent, devious, never-changing tyrant?
Certainly, the larger context of the prophetic literature and of the whole sweep of the story told in scripture encourages us to see God in a good light. This is surely the God who is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6, and a number of other places in Hebrew Scripture). Hosea plays out in one specific time what God and Israel enact time and time again, over the centuries.
Indeed, the words of promise (“after two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him”, 6:2) were even cited by church fathers and scholars as the place in Hebrew Scripture which provides a prediction of the gospel affirmation, “he was raised on the third day” (2 Cor 15:4; and see Acts 10:40; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46).
These words were not, of course, intended to point forward in this way in the time of Hosea; they are poetically non-specific (“after two days… on the third day” is typical Hebraic parallelism with a linguistic variation), and are spoken by Hosea into the context of his own time, as an insight into the divine offer of hope that he senses, for the Lord “will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth” (6:3). This is forthtelling, and not foretelling.
So the “cords of human kindness … bands of love” (11:4) depict God in an anthropomorphic manner, loving Israel as a child (11:1), calling to them (11:1–2), taking them up into God’s arms (11:3), kissing them and feeding them (11:4, showing warm and tender compassion (11:8), withholding anger (11:9), welcoming them back as they return from their wandering (11:11). God is the patient, loving, caring parent. The chapter offers beautiful insights into how God deals with people, to set alongside our concerns about the nature of God.
As we noted in considering the prophet Amos, the king of Assyria began to deport Israelites to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron 5:26), perhaps in the 730s, while Hosea was still alive. Two decades later, after Hosea’s death, a new Assyrian king captured the northern capital, Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6). The northern kingdom had come to an end; the people taken into exile would never return to their land. They became known as “the lost tribes of Israel” (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ten-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel).