02. Reflections on Old Testament Prophets (Hosea)

Loss of loyalty (Hosea 4:1-4; 7:1-2; 12:8-9)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (May 21, 2007)

The prophet Hosea entered the scene in Israel in the mid-eighth-century B.C., a few years after Amos.  By Hosea’s time the sense of crisis Amos identified as below the surface had become apparent to everyone (see II Kings 14:23–17:41).

Following the death of King Jeroboam II in 746 B.C., five of Israel’s next six kings died by assassination.  Israel scrambled to retain its kingdom in face of the growing threat from the Assyrian empire.  Ultimately, in 721 B.C., Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom.

Hosea provided an analysis of Israel’s crisis–and a proposed solution.  He proclaimed a message of hope even in the face of the likelihood that the society as a whole–and, most importantly its leadership class–would not respond to his call to return to the Lord (Yahweh).

In a nutshell, Israel’s crisis stemmed from their loss of loyalty to Yahweh and Torah, Yahweh’s blueprint for societal wholeness.

The beginning of chapter four sets out the problem.  Yahweh finds “no faithfulness, no loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land” (4:1).  The key word here is loyalty (or, “steadfast love,” see 2:19 and 10:12, NRSV).  This “loyalty” refers to the people’s commitment to the covenant with Yahweh: the Lord freed the people from slavery, gave them Torah, and placed them in the promised land, all for the purpose of ultimately blessing all the families of the earth.

In return, Yahweh expects the people to create a community characterized by generosity.  To have “knowledge of God” is to know God as the liberating God who sees the well being of vulnerable people as the surest indication of the spiritual health of the community.

When the people don’t know God

When the people don’t have this knowledge, what happens?  Swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and adultery (all directly forbidden in the Ten Commandments).  That is, “bloodshed follows bloodshed” (Hosea 4:2).  Covenant disloyalty leads directly to social injustice and violence.  Or, we could say, wherever we see bloodshed we know that God is not known.

Hosea makes two more key points here.  First, when the people don’t know God, “the land mourns” and “the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing” (4:3).  In light of this remarkable statement, we could also say wherever we see the flora and fauna destroyed in the name of “progress” we know that God is not known.

Second, Hosea puts the lack of knowledge of God at the feet of the “priest” (4:4).  Hosea holds the leadership class of Israel responsible for the covenant disloyalty.  If the people do not know God, the religious leaders surely have not been faithfully performing their calling.

The people deceive themselves

Our other two short passages (7:1-2 and 12:8-9) reinforce the close connection between Israel’s unfaithfulness and the crisis they face.  Yahweh would heal Israel (“Ephraim” is another name for the northern kingdom), but the injustices of the society limit what Yahweh might accomplish.  “Their [unjust] deeds surround them” (7:2), and even if they may try to deny it to themselves, they need to remember that Yahweh knows these deeds.

Amazingly, in face of Hosea’s critique (and Amos’s), the powerful people in Israel maintain their “righteousness” (12:8).  Hosea uses the metaphor of a merchant using false balances (12:7) to portray Israel’s leaders.  In response, they claim that their wealth is a sign of God’s blessing.  “No offense has been found in me that would be sin” (12:8).

Yahweh’s response is to evoke the key past events, “I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt” (12:9).  God says: I made you, I saved you, I gave you life.  If you persist in your self-deception, your nation will end up in rubble.

The book of Hosea, like Amos, ends with a promise of restoration for those who turn to Yahweh.  For those who continue to deny their injustice and disloyalty, there is no hope.

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