Historical Background:

The book of Hosea seems to have developed in a similar style to the Isaiah text. There are parts of Hosea that seem to be very early, reaching back to before the Assyrian captivity of the North in the 8th century, and there are also parts that make more sense if written during the Jews’ return to Jerusalem at the end of the 6th century. Like Isaiah, Hosea is likely a compilation text. The process of taking an ancient prophecy from long before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and combining it to other preserved texts along the same prophetic theme or adding statements that show God’s faithfulness. This process would not be against God’s inspiration of these texts. In fact, the compilation and reflection on these texts reveal God’s action more clearly. The literature’s formation would be seen as a part of God’s inspired process.

 

Literary Synopsis:

Hosea begins with the story about God calling the prophet to marry a prostitute. The unfaithful character of the woman is not resolved by Hosea’s faithfulness and is used as a mirror for how Israel is unfaithful to God even as he is faithful to her. Hosea’s children with his prostitute wife are used symbolically to preach. His first child, a son, was named Jezreel because God will punish Israel for the killings Jehu performed in Jezreel to become king of the north. Their second child, a daughter, was named No Mercy because God will not forgive the north for its idolatry. Lastly, Hosea and his prostitute wife bore another son and was instructed to name him Not My People because the northern kingdom had rejected the key identity marker of Israel, exclusive worship of their God as taught in the first commandment.

It is hard to tell if the indictment against Israel about children conceived from the whoring adultery of Hosea’s wife is simply polemical language or a reflection on the prophet’s family situation. But the text may hint that Hosea’s children are not his own children at all![1] The last piece of the story is that God calls Hosea to commit himself again to his prostitute wife as a reflection of how God still chooses to love Israel despite her adulterous behavior.

After this initial story about the prophet Hosea’s life as a living parable to Israel, the book shifts to become a set of poetic oracles condemning the act of idolatry. The type of idolatry addressed by Hosea is Baal worship.[2] A type of worship that Israel struggled with since they had come into the land and indicates that the majority of this prophetic text originates from before the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. This worship of idols is directly connected to Israel becoming dependent on the larger nations around them to protect them, such as the empires of Assyria and Egypt.[3]

Hosea focuses primarily on the northern kingdom of Israel, referred to as ‘Ephraim’ because the first king of the north, Jeroboam, came from the tribe of Ephraim. The southern kingdom is often mentioned as well by the moniker ‘Judah’ since the king of the south, who comes from the Davidic linage, is from the tribe of Judah. Such mentions of Judah are usually “tag on” warnings meant to warn Judah to change their actions wherever they parallel Ephraim’s. The book ends with a call from God for Israel to be wise and repent, learning live righteously.

 

Observations:

  1. It is Hosea’s focus on Ephraim that seems to indicate that much of the text originates before the Assyrian captivity of the northern kingdom in the mid-8th century BCE. But it is actually this indication that leads me to believe it was finalized in its finalized form as late as the late-5th century BCE. Let me explain. There are at least five texts that seem to reflect on the Jews’ return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity; four of which are specifically about Judah[4] and one that doesn’t specifically mention who are the ones returning, either from Ephraim or Judah. This last text makes much more sense as a reflection on God’s restoration of Judah to Jerusalem than the hoped for restoration of Ephraim.[5] If these particular Judah references are ignored, the remaining references to Judah seem to follow a pattern.[6] This pattern is that Ephraim is condemned for her sin and Judah is forewarned that their following after Ephraim is leading to a similar punishment from God like the Assyrian captivity. These texts are primarily about Ephraim with a quick inclusion of Judah as a prophetic warning for the south, which becomes most clear in the last inclusion of Judah in 11:12. In this last inclusion Ephraim is seen as completely lost but there is hope for Judah because the prophet says she still walks with God and is faithful to him. This blessed relation with God, centered in Jerusalem, is conditional on their heeding Hosea’s warnings based on overhearing the condemnation of Ephraim. It seems to me this is an early prophetic writing from the southern kingdom of Judah, possibly before the fall of the north to Assyria or after it (like Nahum, Joel, and Zephaniah), seeking to assess what it means for the northern tribes of God’s people to have been carried off into slavery. Yet, the references to Judah’s liberation and return seem like much later interpolations intended to reveal how God’s punishment has worked for the good of his people. So, like Isaiah, Hosea is likely an old prophetic memory of the people of Jerusalem reflecting on God’s punishment for idolatry but was later compiled in a way to reveal God’s purification and faithfulness to his people by his blessing of allowing them to return to Jerusalem after their punishment of the Babylonian captivity.
  2. Hosea has an interesting way of dealing with the Assyrian captivity. The prophet shows that Ephraim has been “mixing” themselves with Egypt and Assyria.[7] This is sexual imagery for worshiping the gods of these other nations, but it is also likely that his imagery includes Ephraim’s willingness to marrying and have children with these nations. Because of this sexual and religious mixing (or more accurately, religious sexual mixing) God destroys Ephraim by giving them to Assyria in captivity. This enslavement allows for Assyria and Egypt to merge in a recapitulative moment so that the Assyrian captivity becomes depicted as a new Egyptian enslavement.[8] This does offer some hope to the people of God because as the Creator of all things Israel’s god is able to liberate his people again in this new recapitulation of the Exodus story.[9] Even when Assyria is not mentioned, the Exodus motif uses lion imagery like Nahum, a likely reference to Assyria.[10]
  3. There is an astounding conversation about the importance of humans in creation and human sacrifice in Hosea. Hosea’s first child is named Jezreel as an embodied declaration of God’s demand for justice against the northern kingdom. At Jezreel, one of the kings of the north, Jehu, had slaughtered all the sons of the former king in order to secure his ascent to the throne, believing himself to be doing the will of God for the north.[11] Instead, Hosea reveals that murdering humans is the destruction of creation itself, the reverse of God’s creative action and will.[12] Seeing this uncreative action in his people, God chooses to use the human sacrifice of Jezreel to bring life to creation, and the Jezreel slaughter is connected to God’s people receiving mercy and purification.[13] Ephraim has bloodguilt on him because of the human sacrifice he participates in to the Baals,[14] expressed most fully in the Jezreel sacrifice of men for power in the name of God. The north has forgotten who the Creator god is through their worship of the gods of the nations. Their punishment is simply the consequence of their own actions enforced by the Creator, their true God whom they have forgotten. Human sacrifice is what humans do to one another in the name of the gods, and even the Creator god at times, but it is in fact the undoing of the Creator’s creation because formed those humans who have been sacrificed. Somehow the Creator is willing and able to use his creative power in such a way that the sacrifice of humans actually forms the justice against the violent and restores creation rather than ultimately un-creating it.
  4. There are seven references to Baal(s) in Hosea,[15] one even being about God![16] Since ‘Baal’ simply means ‘lord’ it seems there were instances where the Creator god of Israel was referred to by this title, and this context implies that Israel was worshiping the Creator god as one of the ‘Baal’ gods alongside the others. This Baal worship in Hosea is represented as sexual at least in part,[17] which would make sense of the narrative about the prophet Hosea as the framework for the text and the major theme of idolatry.
  5. Sex plays a major role in Hosea. The text begins by using sex between Hosea and his prostitute wife as a depiction of Israel’s worship of idols.[18] Worship is the interrelational, cultic actions in which God and his people interact in the presence of one another. The act of worship confers a particular identity on Israel as the people of God.[19] For Hosea, the sex act is seen as the complete manifestation of worship between humans, especially seen in its power to produce the identity of the procreated child. Sex is also likely chosen as a major factor because of the cultic sex practices occurring in the Baal worship which the Israelites are participating.[20] The children born of these idolatrous sex acts are manifestations of Israel’s disobedience to God’s teachings, and their rejection of God as the sole god of Israel.[21] As Israel, particularly Ephraim of the north, sexually “mixes” with other people groups God gives them over to the nations in slavery.[22] Their slavery is a result of their sex, which is the expression of their worship, and as such their children or lack their of will testify to the Creator’s discipline.[23] God desires for Ephraim to learn and grow, depicted as a child being birthed from the righteous sexual relationship between a husband and wife.[24] This motif about sex is extremely important for two reasons. First, from the originating prophecy, the Hosea prophet is judging and condemning the evils of Israel having sex with other nations particularly as a participation in idolatrous Baal worship. Second, after the return to Jerusalem, when this text was compiled and some additions were added, the compiler would use this prophecy to emphasize the need for Jews to abstain from sex with other nations in order to raise up a purely ethnic Jewish nation dedicated to worshiping God alone. Hosea’s 8th century BCE warnings against wrongful sex as idolatry would be extremely useful language for the urgent need of the Jews to procreate in order to rebuild the population after being decimated by the Babylonian invasions and exile.
  6. Within Hosea’s interpretation of sex there is are a number of references to the incident at Gibeah.[25] The sin at Gibeah is documented in Judges 19. It is the story in which the Levite and his concubine come to the city of Gibeah, a city in the tribe of Benjamin, near evening. No one from the city offered them lodging for the night, in fact a foreigner to the city, a man from the tribe of Ephraim, offered them hospitality for the night. The Benjaminites of Gibeah come out in the night to rape the Levite. The man from Ephraim protects the Levite but gives his own daughter and the concubine to the men of the city. In the morning after the terribly harmed concubine passes out and the Levite returns home with her on his donkey that day. He chops up her body, sending parts to all the other tribes as a witness to the evil of the city of Gibeah. The tribes of Israel respond to this story by cutting off the tribe of Benjamin from the people of God, swearing not marry them and intending to destroy them by going to civil war. Hosea uses the memory of this event at Gibeah to condemn the wrong sexual behavior of Ephraim. The prophet declares that Ephraim is following in the same type of sin as Benjamin, linking Benjamin’s sin with idolatry, most likely Baal idolatry’s sex worship.[26] For Hosea, Benjamin’s wrongful sex, both in intention and act, brought a punishment on their tribe that cut Benjamin out of the people of God, and for the prophet of Hosea this is a perfect picture of what is going to happen to Ephraim for their wrongful sex.[27] The compiler of Hosea later sees an important teaching for those returning to Jerusalem. Judah must learn from the mistake of Ephraim, if they have sex with other nations God will not bless their pregnancies and children for the growth of God’s people.[28] Through Hosea’s teaching the rapes of Gibeah, both the memory’s shame of homosexual intention and the defilement of a fellow Israelites’ daughter and concubine-wife, brings exclusion from the people of God and is linked to Baal idolatry’s sex worship.[29] The readers in the return to Jerusalem learn from Hosea that God’s blessing for their future is intimately linked to their sex acts since they are a form of worship with and for the Creator.
  7. A second thought on Hosea’s use of Gibeah is the possible implication on the connection between the Gibeah story and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.[30] There are striking parallels between the stories, including an almost exact sentence when the men of the cities demand the hosts provide their guests for the cities’ sexual pleasure.[31] I have meticulously followed how the prophets have referred to Sodom and Gomorrah when using them metaphorically. Whether as a descriptor or as a warning, none of the prophets until Jeremiah just before the fall of Jerusalem connected any sexual elements to the fall of these cities. Is it possible that as Genesis is compiled that the memory of the utter destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is merged with the memory of Benjamin’s punishment of excommunication from the people of God because of their sexual misconduct at Gibeah? This would mean the Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah was formed as a story to teach the Jews in their return from the Babylonian exile that homosexual acts have the potential to bring an utter destruction on the people of God leading to no future like what almost befell the tribe of Benjamin because of the evils of Gibeah.

 

***************************

This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.

 


[1] 2:2-5

[2] 2:8, 2:13, 2:17, 9:10, 11:2, 13:1

[3] 7:8, 11, 8:8-9

[4] 1:7, 1:10-11, 6:11, 12:2-6.

[5] 5:15-6:3.

[6] 4:15, 5:5, 5:10, 5:12, 5:13, 5:14, 6:4, 8:14, 10:11, 11:12. I don’t see the introductory time stamp reference to Judah in 1:1 as a part of the Hosea text that can reveal much about the literary structure of the text and therefore isn’t included as an example of this literary pattern.

[7] 7:8.

[8] 9:3, 11:5.

[9] 11:1-12:1.

[10] 13:4-8, see further 5:13-14.

[11] 2 Kings 10.

[12] 4:1-3.

[13] 2:21-23

[14] 12:14-13:3

[15] 2:8, 2:13, 2:16, 2:17, 9:10, 11:2, 13:1.

[16] 2:16.

[17] 2:2-13,4:12-14, 9:10-14.

[18] 1:2.

[19] 1:6, 7b-8. This is Moses’ argument for what defines Israel in Exodus 33:14-16.

[20] 2:13, 4:12-14, 9:10-14.

[21] 5:7, cf. 3:1-3.

[22] 7:8-13.

[23] 9:10-14.

[24] 13:9-16.

[25] 5:8, 9:9, 10:9

[26] 5:8-9 uses the term Beth-aven (‘house of idolatry’) which is connected to the sex worship that Ephraim is to be ashamed of participating in, seen in 4:12-19.

[27] 9:7-9, 10:9-10.

[28] 9:10-17.

[29] 10:7-10

[30] Genesis 19 and Judges 19.

[31] Compare Genesis 19:5 and Judges 19:22c. The only real difference is the Genesis adds the word “this night”, but Genesis also adds the words “to us” and “to them” even though they are already embedded in the Hebrew words in the Judges text.

Posted by Justin Gill

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