YEAR B: EPIPHANY 8
(Sunday between February 25 and February 29)
The book of the prophet Hosea is probably best known for the (auto)biographical stories in chapters 1 and 3 where the prophet is told by God to marry a prostitute and have children by her. In chapter 3 after what appears to be a disruption to the marriage, the prophet is to take her back as his wife. All this is meant to be a model of God’s relation with Israel. Whatever may have been the personal life of the prophet (as suggested in chapters 1 and 3), Hosea 2 is a poetic version of what is alluded to in the prose accounts surrounding it. Hosea 4-14 then consists of a collection of judgment and salvation oracles uttered by the prophet without any overriding internal structure.
Hosea 1:1 locates the prophet Hosea in the period or just after the reign of Jereboam II, ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, between approximately 755 and 740 BCE. The prophet is portrayed as speaking within the northern kingdom and to have come from that kingdom. This was a very prosperous time in Israel and Judah. They were relatively free of domination by major powers such as Assyria and the economy was going well. Amos prophesied to the northern kingdom at about the same time as Hosea, although his major interest was on the injustice and corruption that was allowed to flourish. Hosea’s message was much more focussed on religious issues. The chief complaint is against syncretistic cultic practices within the kingdom. This relates especially to the absorption of fertility cult practices from the worship of Baal into Yahwistic practice and belief. The prophet charges that Israel has forgotten Yahweh's gracious acts (11:1-4; 13:4-8) and are no longer Yahweh's people (1:9). There is no sign of repentance (5:15-6:6; 7:14-16) and the nation is under a curse (7:13). However, Yahweh is still willing to have his people back (2:14-23; 3; 11:8-11; 14:1-7). Hosea develops the theme of captivity - exodus - wilderness wandering. He speaks of judgment in exile to come as an "Egyptian captivity" (7:16; 8:13; 9:3, 6, 17; 11:5) and yet of the possibility of a second exodus (2:14-23; 11:10-11; 14:4-7). Hosea is the first prophet whom we know to use such language.
Hosea 2 must be read in its entirety if the passage set for today is going to have its full impact. The chapter is the earliest and one of the most extended metaphorical uses of the language of love and marriage to describe the relation between God and his people to be found in the Bible. We have on the surface a story of the relationship between a husband and wife. We naturally read the chapter in the context of Hosea's personal situation in chapters 1 and 3. However, at various places in the text the identification of the woman with Israel and of the husband with the Lord is made patently clear. It is stated that the wife is an adulteress who chases after her lovers whom she believes bestow gifts upon her (v 5).
The remainder of the chapter is divided into three sections. Each explores a different response by the husband to the situation. The husband's first response (vv. 6-8) is to foil his wife's plans (vv. 6-7a). While the wife speaks of a return to her husband, no real change takes place for she still does not know that it is the Lord and not Baal who gives her gifts of bread, water, wool, flax, oil, drink, gold and silver, (v. 8). There is a play on the Hebrew word ba’al, which can be the name of the god as well as the word for ‘husband’.
The next section (vv. 9-13) details a more severe response by the husband. He will now take away the gifts that he has given her and reveal his wife's foolishness before her lovers. The identification of the woman with Israel and of the husband with the Lord is clearer still in this second response. The response in the last section of the chapter (vv. 14-23) contrasts sharply with the earlier responses. This includes the reading set for today. The husband now will re-woo his wife. He will return her gifts and she will finally answer him as in the days of her youth (vv. 15b-16).
This sudden shift from punishment to the desire to woo again has puzzled some scholars. Some want to assume that the wife expresses repentance just before the third response although there is no indication in the words of the text that this is so. When we read each section we also find each begins where the previous one left off and addresses a problem which still remains at the end of the previous response. So rather than seeing the three responses as a sequence of actions, it is possible to see them as a series of options which the husband contemplates. In the end the husband rejects the first two responses, which involve punishing his wife in various ways for her activities, and elects to deal with her forgetfulness of him by starting afresh and wooing her once again. The identification of the husband with the Lord is complete in the third response. Here the Lord's relationship with Israel is fully played out in the metaphor of a marriage.
But what does the third solution to the situation say about God in all this? First, in a general sense the marriage metaphor enables the reader to recognize the passionate and compassionate side of the Lord more than any other metaphor used in the Old Testament. By using the metaphor of marriage and the love relationship in vv. 14-23 the prophet speaks of the relationship between God and God’s people in terms of mutual love and reverence, intimacy and obedience. Secondly, along with compassion and passion on the part of the husband we see a sense of commitment that goes beyond necessity (vv. 19-20). The language is that of betrothal, the formal initiation of a marriage. Thirdly, the connection between judgment and grace played out in the passage, is developed under what can be described as ‘divine not human logic’. Maybe it is only through human passion, a gift of God, with its seemingly illogical aspects that we can begin to understand something of the divine response to humans even in their rebellion.
Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents page