Hosea was a prophet from the Northern kingdom of Israel whose ministry followed that of Amos, commencing around 750 BCE and continuing until just before the fall of Samaria, the capital of Israel in 721 BCE. Israel had enjoyed continuing prosperity and trade with surrounding nations. Such prosperity had contributed toward an increase in injustice and immorality, and increasing reliance on military power. Religious syncretism continued to draw Israel’s people into the comforting thought that they could worship Yahweh but also pay homage to the Canaanite fertility gods, including Ba’al. Following the earlier Northern prophet Elijah, Hosea held to the prophetic word that loyalty to Yahweh was not to be divided.
The book that bears Hosea’s name is, like that of Amos which we have read over the last two weeks, one of the twelve ‘minor prophets’. Hosea is remarkable among the prophets in that his life becomes a metaphor of his people’s apostasy and God’s response. God either commands him to take a wife of ‘whoredom’ as the NRSV has it, or he finds himself in such a circumstance. The fact that he chose a prostitute for a wife or found that his wife had become adulterous served to show that the people had prostituted themselves with other gods. Some scholars suggest that participation in the Canaanite religious rituals included temple prostitution, something that deeply offended the proscribed sexual ethics of the established and patriarchal religious cult of Israel.
Hosea makes little distinction between the political and religious life of the people. They are interwoven and both deserve judgment.
In accordance with the divine command, Hosea chooses Gomer, and they have three children whose names embody the judgement of God. From chapter 2:4-5, it is possible that the children, especially the second and third, are not Hosea’s, but rather the fruits of attachments that Gomer had with other men. The first child is Jezreel, whose name means, ‘God sows,’ to embody the punishment the people are soon to reap. The city of Jezreel had been the scene of much violence, including the murder of Naboth by Ahab (1 Kings 21), the killing of Ahab’s wife Jezebel and his sons and of Canaanite devotees (2 Kgs 9:37; 10:1-11). It had become a byword for violence and torture, hardly a happy name to give a first-born son. The second child is named Lo-ruhamah, ‘not pitied,’ to signify an end to the Lord’s pity and forgiveness of his people Israel. It is as though God has had enough of the people’s straying; his compassion has worn thin.
Some scholars think it likely that v. 7, which exempts the southern kingdom of Judah from the judgement, may have been added later (presumably by a Judean editor). It is also possible that the reforms of the southern kingdom exempted them from the harsher criticism due their northern neighbours.
The third child’s name, Lo-ammi, is especially disturbing, as it means, ‘not my people.’ God’s saying to Israel ‘You are my people’ and Israel’s response ‘You are our God’ are formulae of the covenant between God and Israel. But this third child’s name indicates God’s covenant with the people is now at an end. Their apostasy means a breaking of the covenant from their side, so that they can no longer be seen as God’s people.
Yet in the very next verse (v. 10) the tenor of the passage shifts abruptly, promising that at the very place where it was said the people were no longer God’s, they would once again be called ‘children of the living God.’ It is as though the end of the covenant is too terrible to contemplate. Perhaps there is also a sense that the overarching love of God cannot be shut out even when the people fall away from their part of the covenant. The poem in Hos 2:2-23 presents another version of what is happening here in terms of a marriage between Yahweh and Israel. It is the theological interpretation of Hosea’s more dramatic and personal experience. It ends with Yahweh’s compelling determination to court Israel again, in spite of Israel’s wayward behaviour (see especially 2:14-23)
Hosea as a prophet is a striking figure. He takes upon himself something of the people’s sin, something of their pain. Through his marriage to Gomer and the birth of the children, he enacts the longsuffering love of God, who bears with his erring people far beyond their deserving, and who in the end opts for compassion and forgiveness as the way to life.
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