We are studying Hosea, portions of chapters 11 and 12 (11:1-2, 7-10, 12:1-2, 6-14) for Sunday, May 31. These are two of the concluding, carefully hopeful final chapters of this short prophetic book. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The prophet Hosea was active in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 30 years or so before its conquest by Assyria, so from 750 or so BCE to 721 BCE. Commentators mention that Hosea was the only prophet actually FROM the Northern Kingdom. [Amos, whose work is in the north, came from the south.] So his prophetic poems were addressed to his own people.
We’ll want to remember that the social and political context of Hosea’s work is the age of anxiety that preceded the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in 721 BCE, and the deportation of the people to other parts of that empire. We sometimes call the northerners the “lost tribes” for that reason – because their specific exilic history is lost to us, unlike that of the Kingdom of Judah in Babylonia later on. We understand the society to have been prosperous, but in an unequal way – some people were luxuriously rich, others desperately poor, and the rich were indifferent to their responsibilities for those poor widows and orphans and neighbors. So different from now.
Politically people were anxious about foreign policy and the threat of the Assyrian Empire, and about the series of coups that were roiling their domestic political scene. Religiously, people were deeply involved in the worship of the fertility/prosperity cult of Baal, maybe alongside worship of the God of Israel.
The Northern Kingdom is sometimes referred to as Ephraim, as in the beginning of Hosea 11. Ephraim was one of the two children of Joseph; its territory lay immediately north of the territory of Benjamin – so, not that far north – and included the towns of Bethel and Shiloh, both important religious centers. Ephraim on a map is far from the largest territory in the North, so why the North came to be referred by that tribe’s name … who knows?
The book of Hosea is one of “The Twelve,” what I learned in Sunday school to call “the Minor Prophets,” the twelve short prophetic works that all fit on one scroll, when we had these texts as scrolls. The rabbis of the Talmud say that “the Men of the Great Assembly” wrote “the Twelve,” presumably from notes of their actual work, which would make the composition of the book sometime in the last part of the 500s BCE. Christian commentators generally attribute the book to Hosea himself, but identify isolated verses, for instance Hosea 11:10, as the work of later redactors aware of the experience of the exile. Either way, the book speaks to the post-exilic experience, and beyond.
It is prophetic poetry, so we have the characteristic imagery of poetry to guide us, or to contend with, however we feel about that.
Hosea 11:1-11 is in the lectionary for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year C. [Hosea 1:2-10 is in the lectionary for the Sunday before. An opportunity for a series, on judgment and compassion, exile and return.] Hosea 12 is one of those things you wouldn’t know about the Bible if all you knew was the lectionary.
CLOSER READING: The first verse of the text, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” is the source text for Matthew 2:13-15; this probably says more about the way Matthew uses these prophetic texts than anything else, since here in context it’s clearly a reference to the past, and to the Exodus.
There are major text critical issues in verses 2-4, which may be why the lesson planners dropped them out. The NRSV resolves them all in favor of making the God of Israel sound like a tender nurse to the infant Ephraim. Rashi gives us more a God who sends prophets to call Israel (v2) and is compassionate with beasts of burden (v4). Either way, God is portrayed as loving and caring for this people, and trying to get them to recognize God’s love and care rather than turn their affections to false gods.
We skip out vv5-6, which read like an immediate prophecy of punishment; in this context, the “return to the land of Egypt” sounds something like a reset, although the violence that precipitates it (v6) doesn’t sound pleasant.
Vv 1-6 read like the voice of God. V7 reads like the voice of the prophet.
Vv8-11 then sound, again, like the voice of God, saying, “wait, on second thought …” In 8-9 God expresses aversion to the consequences of punishment, compassion – which brings us back to the maternal imagery we began with – and says “No” to the destruction, on the grounds that God “is God and no mortal.” Which means – God doesn’t do that kind of thing? Doesn’t need to? Doesn’t have fits of temper like people do? Recognizes that God vs. mortals is not close to being a fair fight? Not clear.
Maybe because “the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.” God might even be saying “I will not come into a city,” depending upon how the reader reads the Hebrew, which according to Rashi means God will not come into a different city, but will stick with this one. Still – the point seems to be that God is not going to destroy this people that God loves so much. That’s just not in God’s character.
But that doesn’t seem to mean that everything is going to be business as usual, either, since the people are going to need to “return from the west” (v10). Hopefully, in a more appropriate frame of mind.
Chapter 12 starts again with the problem – in the JPS version, Hosea 11:12 begins chapter 12; in any event, these three verses seem to fit together, from “Ephraim surrounds me with deceit” through “now oil is carried to Egypt” – which seems to be a reference to a payoff to buy military protection, so, to ancient world international relations, and the deal does not seem to have the approval of the God of Israel.
Our lesson skips verses 3-5 (4-6 in JPS) and picks up with the instruction “return to your God, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God” in verse 6 (7).
There’s what seems to be a brief exchange, then, with Ephraim, who is described in verse 7 as dishonest and greedy (cheating customers with false weights), and who speaks in verse 8 saying, basically, “I’m rich, and I’ve never been convicted of a crime.” Technically.
So then God’s response in verses 9-14 is to say, in effect, “think again.” Re-education camp for you – back to the wilderness.
Verse 10 reads like God’s voice; verse 13-14 like the prophet’s voice; so somewhere between verse 10 and verse 13 the speakers trade places; who exactly levels the charge against Gilead [a prosperous region] and Gilgal [a religious center associated with images], we can’t quite tell – it could be God, it could be the prophet.
The point about the family history of Jacob running off to Aram in v12 may be the same point being made about Egypt elsewhere in the text: in the past, Israel had to learn a lesson by being in this foreign place, so now again, Israel will need to learn the lesson again, by going back to that foreign place. Aram is roughly, geographically, Assyria, so the upcoming Assyrian exile will reprise Jacob’s flight to his Uncle Laban’s house. If history is any guide, Israel will not have a fun time there; Uncle Laban was no paragon of virtue, and if anything was a bigger cheat than Jacob. So … this may be the poetic justice in store for the dishonest-scales-wielding Ephraim. Maybe that makes sense of verse 12.
Or maybe something in verse 12 tells us about God – that if Jacob was willing to work for 14 years herding sheep for Rebecca whom he loved, how much more will God be willing to go out to the wilderness with this people, to bring back the beloved?
Verse 12 just seems out of place. I am not the only one who thinks this. But I don’t have a good theory about it.
I would be happier with this lesson if we got to read Hosea chapter 14, the prophet’s vision of a happy ending, where Ephraim says all the right things, and God says all the right things, and they live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, the real “ending” of the book of Hosea seems to be like one of those interactive stories or dramas, partially up to the reader.
Those who are wise understand these things;Hosea 14:9
those who are discerning know them.
For the ways of YHWH are right
and the upright walk in them,
but transgressors stumble in them.
And as someone with mobility issues …