by Donna Jean Walker Haerich
The Theology of Hosea, Part II
Following the first three vignettes Hosea presents, the rest of the book of Hosea appears to be a collection of pronouncements or oracles delivered by the prophet over an extended period of time. These various oracles form the framework for an overarching message of repentance and return. Hosea’s message, and even its format of presenting God as an aggrieved lover, will be repeated by later prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. With poetic pathos and feeling Hosea seeks to present a picture of God who is both awesome and compassionate, a God who desires intelligent obedience and not mere service by rote observance of proscribed rituals.
The lengths God will go to and the methods he will use to obtain his ends are not ones of force or power, but ones of tenderness and compassion. When God renews his covenant with Israel he “will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land; and make (her) lie down in safety.”(Hosea 2:18) The covenant God seeks to establish with Israel is none other than the everlasting covenant. I will be your God and you will be my people. I will take responsibility for your welfare; I will love and care for you. God will be faithful to his word – even if his people are unfaithful. God can be trusted to keep his promises even when his people break theirs. He offers hope and assurance for the future and looks forward to day when his love will be reciprocated. (Hosea 2:23)
Having presented a highly charged emotional and anthropomorphic depiction of God, Hosea now moves to the heart of his prophetic message. Beginning in chapter four, Hosea proclaims, “God has a case to settle with you, Israel. He is publically indicting you of breach of covenant.” (Hosea 4:1)
This court action is based on three charges. There is no loyalty among his people, there is no faithful love to be found and there is no knowledge of God in the country. (Hosea 4:1) The evidence presented to the court is that the people are worshiping Ba’al instead of Jehovah. This evidence is blatantly obvious. “They dedicated themselves to the Baal, and became abhorrence like the thing which they loved.” (Hosea 9:11) They flock to the high places, they make their children pass through the fire (a euphuistic way of saying they offer child sacrifice) and they engage in the fertility rites of the Canaanite religion. They multiply altars to expiate sin – an outward show of worship – they love to sacrifice – but it is all futile and useless. (Hosea 8:11-13)
By bringing this court action, Hosea zeros in on the covenantal nature of God’s relationship to Israel. The entire book of Hosea revolves around his covenant. For many, then as now, covenant is seen as a legal agreement which God enters into in much the same way as would a powerful overlord or master. They see God as offering his favors and protection in exchange for obedience. If you do as you are told, if you obey me, then I will bless you. If you disobey, and act contrary to my laws, you will be cursed. This gross misunderstanding of covenant and the erroneous teachings surrounding it has given laity and clergy alike an arbitrary God who dictates arbitrary laws and administers arbitrary punishments and rewards.
The covenant as pictured in the book of Hosea totally refutes this legal understanding. Covenant for Hosea is relational. “Faithful love is what pleases me, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6) The conditions of the covenant are based on cause and effect and on the nature of reality itself. Throughout his message, Hosea depicts the devastating results that occur when his people operate on their own. God’s wrath is portrayed as the inevitable consequences of their independent actions and of the horrible results of breaking covenant and turning away from God to other sources of help.
This deteriorated spiritual condition of the nation, God lays squarely at the feet of their priests and religious leaders. Priests “have justice in your care.” (Hosea 5:1) The priests have failed in their duty to educate the people as to their history and to the covenant entered into by their ancestors. The actions of God in redeeming them from slavery in Egypt, in caring for them during their wilderness journey and in giving them the land he had promised to their father Abraham, have not been persuasively passed on as a part of their religious indoctrination. People are perishing for want of knowledge about God. “A people with no understanding are doomed.” (Hosea 4:14) “Those who are wise understand these things; those who are discerning know them. For the ways of the Lord are right.”(Hosea 14:9)
In addition to the lack of faithful religious teachings and practices, their kings and governmental representatives have formed alliances with neighboring counties and incorporated their gods and practices into Israelite life. Ephraim says, “Indeed, I am rich; I have found power for myself.” (10:1) But, the oracle proclaims, Ephraim has deliberately followed a Lie. (Hosea 5:11) And once the people realized they were sick they compounded their problem. They sent to the King of Assyria who had no power to cure them. (Hosea 5:13)
In speaking for God, the prophet describes this lack of loyalty among the nation as a people with a divided, false heart. (Hosea 10:2) The more their wealth increased, the more altars to Ba’al they erected; the richer their land became, the finer they made their sacred phallic pillars. God says though Hosea, “My people are bent on disregarding me. “(Hosea ll: 7) “They consult their block of wood, and their stick to explain what they should do.” (Hosea 4:12) They compound their sin by casting images for themselves of silver. Not only do they offer sacrifices to them but they have the audacity to show these graven images affection. “Men bestow kisses to calves!” (Hosea 13: 2) No wonder, God can say of them,” they are like silly, witless pigeons.” (Hosea 7:11)
God’s reaction to their disloyalty is one of object frustration. When they say, “our god” to the works of their hands he looks at them with amazement. However his only recourse is to appeal to their hearts and minds. It is truth alone that he will use to destroy their defensives. “I hacked them to pieces by the messages of the prophets, and killed them with the words of my mouth.” (Hosea 6:5 JB) God’s weapon will be the sword of truth. How does the popular song go – “killing them softly with my words… “
God sees his people as sick and needing healing and the medicine he offers them is unconditional love. “I will heal their disloyalty, I will love them freely. (Hosea 13:4 RSV) “I shall cure them of their disloyalty; I shall love them with all my heart.” (Hosea 13:4 JB)
“You have ploughed wickedness, and reaped iniquity. You have eaten the fruit of falsehood BECAUSE you have trusted in your chariots.” (Hosea 10:13) “SOW saving justice for yourselves, REAP a harvest of faithful love; Break up your fallow ground – it is time to seek our YHWH, until he comes to rain saving justice down on you. “(Hosea 10:12) The laws of cause and effect are God’s teaching tools.
This union between God and his people, which in the New Testament will become the mystical one between Christ and his bride the church, is only one aspect of God’s love introduced in Hosea. The familial love of God as a doting parent presented in chapter eleven is one of the most beautiful and tender expressions of love in the Old Testament. There God is represented as holding the hands of a toddler as he learns to walk, lifting the child up to his cheek in affection. And watching sadly as his child, in innocence and rebellion, runs away from his call.
And it is in chapter eleven that God’s methods of disciple and correction are revealed. The prophet gives voice to the heavenly parent who says, “Israel refuses to return to me – they are bent on turning away from me.”(Hosea 11:5) He then portrays Assyria, who, like a wicked stepparent abuses and mistreats God’s beloved child. Violence and destruction are the consequences of their alliance with foreign powers. (Hosea 11:6) This is a condition that brings God to tears and he cries out, “Ephraim, how can I give you up – Israel, how can I hand you over? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:8)
The situation appears to be one in which Israel has made her choice. She no longer desires God’s nurturing, protective care. Like a rebellious teenager, she will make her own decisions and chose her own course of action. She deludes herself into believing that she is free. And God who values true freedom as his highest moral imperative does not react in anger or force. He repeatedly says to Israel, just as he did in the very first vignette, “I will not save them by the bow, or by the sword, or by war.”(Hosea 2:20) Evil will not be overcome by force or violence. Why? Let this reason echo from the roof tops – because “he is God not a man. “ (Hosea 11:9)
The ancient Mideast had many gods. And for the most part their actions and behaviors mirrored the behaviors and actions of their charges. The gods, like men, acted in self-interest and used their power to achieve their own agenda. Israel’s God is not like these human depictions of deity. Humans get even when crossed, humans scheme to get their own way, and humans take vengeance when their will is thwarted. Resentment, revenge, and hatred are human qualities. God is not like us –“God is not a man – he is the Holy One in our midst” – he is the Creator God not the Destroyer God. (Hosea 11:9)
The destruction that comes upon Israel will be a harvest of their own making. By worshipping the impotent gods of the surrounding peoples, they forfeit the care and protection of the only One who has power to save them. Nevertheless God is faithful; he will keep his promises, even when his children are unfaithful to theirs. He will not let them go. For a time, he will let them reap the consequences of their actions in hopes that they will see the error of their ways and return to him. And when they do come to their senses, when they cry out for help, God even gives them these words to say upon their return:
“Take away all guilt; Accept that which is good
We will offer the fruit of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses;
We will say no more, “our God” to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.” (Hosea 14:2, 3)
And on “that day” God will open his arms to receive them. He will heal their disloyalty and he love them freely, no strings attached! He will receive and restore his beloved bride to her rightful place at his side.
“Under My shadow Israel will flourish like a garden
She shall blossom like the lily
Her beauty shall be like the olive tree and
Her fragrance shall be as the wine of Lebanon. “(Hosea 14:3, 4)
“For the ways of the Lord are just.” (Hosea 14:9)