The Prophet Hosea
The Book of Hosea begins, “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea. . . .” The books of Joel, Micah, and Zephaniah in the Book of the Twelve are introduced in the same way, immediately identifying that which follows as a word from God.
Hosea is identified in relationship to his father, like Joel, Jonah, Zephaniah, and Zechariah in the Book of the Twelve, rather than in connection with his hometown, like Amos, Micah, and Nahum. He was called to be a prophet while of marriageable age (1:2), thus presumably while still young, perhaps as a late teenager. He was married to a woman named Gomer who gave birth to two sons and a daughter (1:3-9). Chapter 3 indicates that Hosea bought a woman and took heras his wife; this was apparently Gomer, whom he took back after she had been unfaithful to him. All the evidence in the book suggests that the prophet lived his life in Israel, the Northern Kingdom. Places named are in the north: Samaria, the capital city (7:1; 8:5-6; 10:5, 7; 13:16), Bethel (or Beth-Aven; 4:15; 5:8; 10:5; 12:4), Gilgal (4:15; 9:15; 12:11). References to “the land” (4:1) and “our king” (7:5) indicate that Hosea was a citizen of the land to which he delivered his message.
Behind the sayings in the Hosea book is a person of unusual imagination. The imagery used to speak of God and people is astonishing in its power and variety. Two major metaphors describe the God/people relationship: God as husband and the people as unfaithful wife (chapters 1-3, and throughout the book) and God as parent and the people as rebelling child/children (11:1-4; cf. 11:10). In addition to these there are a number of other pictures used for God and people. Some are personal ones: God is a farmer, the people a trained heifer (10:11); God is a hiker, coming upon his people as one comes upon sweet grapes in the wilderness (9:10); God is a bird catcher, the people like a dove without any sense (7:11); God is a physician, the people a sin-sick patient (14:4); God is the one who provides shade and protection (14:7). Other pictures for God are taken from animal life: God is like a moth (5:12), a lion (5:14; 11:10; 13:7-8), a leopard or a bear robbed of her cubs (13:7-8). Imagery is taken from plant life: God is like a cypress tree (14:8). Or images come from other natural phenomena: God is like dry rot (5:12) or the showers in the springtime (6:3) or the dew (14:5).
Pictures used to describe the people are equally varied. From the personal sphere: The people are like a sick person (5:13; 14:4) or a gray-haired old man who does not act his age (7:9) or a man who has hired a prostitute (8:9) or even like an unborn child who does not have the sense to emerge from the womb (13:13). From animal life: The people are like a stubborn heifer (4:16; cf. 10:11), a lamb (4:16), a silly dove (7:11-12), a wild ass (8:9), or a flock of birds (11:11). From plant life: The people are like grapes (9:10), a vine (10:1), or a garden (14:7). From other spheres: The people are like a heated oven (7:4-7), a half-baked cake (7:8), a defective bow (7:16), the morning mist, dew, chaff, or smoke (13:3).
Like Jesus who told stories and used a variety of images, the prophet finds pictures for God and people everywhere.His imaginative creativity in speaking about God stands as an example for artists, musicians, theologians, and all others who try to express traditional biblical teachings in fresh and effective ways.
Behind these sayings is also a person of unusual sensitivity. Because of his own heart-wrenching experiences with his family, Hosea is able to describe the anguish in the heart of God like no other prophet. Abraham Heschel said, “Amos dwells on what God has done . . . Hosea dwells on what God has felt for Israel” (The Prophets, p. 60). The anguish of God over a faithless people is like that of a husband over a wife who is ungrateful and unfaithful (2:8, 13). The pain in the heart of God is like the pain in the heart of a parent who has invested decades in child rearing only to have that child turn out to be a rebel (11:1-4).
The fact that the introductory sentence first names four kings of Judah suggests that the book was edited in Judah some time after the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C. had confirmed Hosea’s announcement of the end of Israel. Uzziah ruled from 783-742 B.C., Jotham from 742-735, Ahaz from 735-715, and Hezekiah from 715 to 687. We may ask why only one king from Israel, Jeroboam II who ruled from 786-746, should be mentioned, with no mention of the other half dozen kings who ruled in the north up until its fall in 722. Once again, this omission would seem to point to a final editing in Judah. Since Israel began to fall apart politically after the death of Jeroboam, the editor may have been saying that the kings who followed were not even worth mentioning!
The administrations of Jeroboam and Uzziah were times of peace and prosperity for Israel and Judah; this period is described in connection with the setting for Amos (see Amos 1:1, part 2.). With the death of Jeroboam in 746, however, the process leading to the fall of Israel began. A powerful new ruler, Tiglath-Pileser III, took the throne in Assyria (745-727 B.C.). Eager to extend his empire, he was taking tribute from Menahem of Israel by 738 B.C., thus indicating Israel’s subjection to Assyria by that time (II Kings 15:19). He was succeeded by Shalmaneser V (726-722) who began the siege of Israel’s capital. Sargon II (721-705) finally captured Samaria and deported itsinhabitants, bringing the existence of the Northern Kingdom to an end just a bicentennial after it had begun at the time of Solomon’s death in 922.
During the decades leading up to its fall in 722, Israel was plagued by political anarchy. John Bright describes the nation’s leadership during this period: “Each turn of the helm brought the ship of state closer to the rocks” (A History of Israel, p. 273). A reading of II Kings 15-17 makes the story clear enough: Jeroboam’s son Zechariah ruled only six months and was assassinated by Shallum. Shallum ruled for a month, only to be assassinated by Menahem (745-736) who, as we have seen, became a vassal of Assyria. Menahem’s son Pekahiah was in office for two years (737-736) before being assassinated by Pekah.
Along with Remaliah of Syria, Pekah began to round up support for a rebellion against Assyria. In 735, when Ahaz of Judah refused to join this anti-Assyrian coalition, Syria and Israel marched on Jerusalem to try to force Ahaz to join. These events are called the “Syro-Ephraimitic war” (Ephraim as a name for Israel). Ahaz still refused, choosing rather to ask Assyria for help against Israel and Syria and to submit as a vassal to Assyria’s rule. In response to this appeal, the Assyrian armies moved into the west. Portions of the population of Israel were deported, most likely in 733 (II Kings 15:29, 37; 16:5-9; Isa. 7:1-17; see Bright, History, pp. 273-4). These events provide the background for a number of Hosea’s sayings collected in 5:8-9:9.
In 732 Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea, who first submitted to Assyria but then rebelled (II Kings 17:3-4). Hoshea was then imprisoned and thus presided over the downfall of the nation and the deportation of its inhabitants in 722 B.C.
In the pages which follow, we shall see that Hosea’s sayings often reflect the political crises through which the prophet lived. For example: The lack of stable government during these years is evident in 8:4 and 13:10-11. The inconsistent foreign policy, with Israel flitting now to Egypt, now to Assyria, finds expression in 7:11 and 12:1.
A careful reading of the Hosea book indicates that during these final chaotic years there was also a crisis in religion. The saying that introduces the central section of the book points to a general breakdown of morality in the land (4:2). Priests and prophets alike have failed in their tasks (4:4-6). The people havesubstituted trust in military strength (10:13) or in other gods (4:11-14; 10:1; 13:2) for loyalty to their Lord (6:4).
To summarize: During the days of Jeroboam II, from 786-746 B.C., Amos addressed a nation which was still enjoying smooth sailing on calm seas even though, as the prophet warned, the ship of state was headed toward the rocks. By the time of Hosea, the damage had been done. His words were addressed to people on a ship that was already beginning to sink.