By Shelley Neese

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Hosea’s marriage to the harlot Gomer is narrated in the first three chapters. The broken marriage is an extended metaphor, a visual aid, to demonstrate Israel’s abandonment of Yahweh. In the remaining chapters of Hosea, the tone and style of the prophetic book changes as the prophet transitions from describing his marriage to giving his message. Here, Hosea no longer writes in autobiographical prose; he has transformed to both activist and poet. Gomer is not mentioned in the rest of the book. Adultery as a symbol for Israel’s infidelity remains the undercurrent throughout Hosea’s oracle, but the historical Gomer has disappeared.

Divorce court

Hosea 4 begins with a litany of accusations against Israel, much like a lawsuit in divorce court: summoning witnesses, identifying the guilty party, listing Israel’s offenses, and declaring her upcoming punishment.

Unlike the book of Amos, a prophet whose message targeted Israel’s elites, Hosea indicted “all the inhabitants of the land.” Everyone was guilty, including the priests and leaders. Hosea charged, “There is no faithfulness or loyalty and no knowledge of God in the land” (4:1). The Hebrew phrase da’at Elohim means ‘knowledge of God,’ not the kind of knowledge that is measured by intelligence, but by faithfulness to Yahweh.

Over the centuries, as the memory of their deliverance from Egypt grew dim, the citizens of Israel forgot the laws given at Sinai and the moral obligations placed on them as a kingdom of priests (Ex.19:6). It was as if the people were scratching out every line of the Ten Commandments. They worshiped idols, swore, lied, murdered, and committed adultery. Society became so violent that the prophet said, “bloodshed follows bloodshed” (4:2). King Jeroboam II’s death in 746 BCE led to a chaotic period in Israel with four kings assassinated in a row.

As God’s mouthpiece, Hosea’s job was to remind the people of the covenant stipulations. God’s love for the sons of Abraham would be eternal, yet the blessings and curses that they would experience were correlated with their obedience to the moral and spiritual obligations spelled out to them. Before Moses died, he had taught the Hebrews that God would judge them according to their treatment of each other, their obedience to the covenant, and their care and governance of the promised land. Moses anticipated a day when people would follow the gods of their neighbors instead of Yahweh (Deut. 11:16). He warned that the land was a gift, part of Israel’s dowry and if Israel broke the laws given to her, God would withhold the rains and cause the ground to be cursed.

Six centuries later, the people of Israel were practicing idolatry, just as Moses had foretold. They were bowing to the idols they had placed in their fields and homes. They were covering their bases, hoping that if Yahweh did not hear their prayers for a good harvest, then the Canaanite gods would listen and provide. God detested their wish to pursue both him and the idols. He shut their wombs and let their land go fallow. Yahweh had no intention of sparing Israel from his just punishment. He inspired Hosea to write, “They shall eat but not be satisfied” (4:10) and “I will destroy your mother” (4:5). Here, God was not referring to a specific mother. He was using “mother” to speak of the entire Kingdom of Israel. Perhaps Hosea was thinking of Gomer’s sign-children in the passage. The prophet showed that the next generation would suffer the consequences of Israel’s rebellion.

Spirit of prostitution

The Israelites of the Northern Kingdom in the eighth century BCE were taking part in the fertility rites of the agricultural deities of the surrounding nations. God accused them of giving way to a “spirit of prostitution” (4:12). Hosea indicted them, saying, “They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains and make offerings upon the hills, under oak, poplar, and terebinth because their shade is good. Therefore, your daughters prostitute themselves, and your daughters-in-law commit adultery” (4:13).

Archaeologists have yet to find an ancient Canaanite library, but cuneiform tablets discovered in Ugarit—a port city in Syria from this time—give us our closest parallel to Canaanite mythology. The Ugaritic hymns and poems describe fertility rites taking place under sacred oak trees, like what Hosea was describing. The prophet Isaiah also talked about the shameful acts committed under sacred oaks (Isa. 1:29). The theme of adultery and promiscuity in the book of Hosea was not just metaphorical, but literal. The Israelites were indistinguishable from their Baal-worshiping neighbors.

Hosea proclaimed, “Ephraim is joined to idols” (4:17). The Hebrew word for joined in this context is habur, meaning the people of Israel coupled with idols. Clearly, their intimacy with the false gods of their neighbors had no boundaries. This was the primary source of God’s jealous wrath. God’s jealousy doesn’t diminish his divinity; it shows the full impact of sin on both the seen and the unseen realms.

Many people have trouble reading passages in the Old Testament in which God displays emotion. However, the late Rabbi Abraham Heschel taught that the job of a prophet was to “dwell upon God’s inner motives” because the “God of Israel is never impersonal.”[1] A prophet, observing the sinful acts of his nation, was attuned to the repercussions of those actions on Yahweh. Prophets articulated Yahweh’s reaction in terms of human emotion, which included jealousy and rage, but also tenderness and love.

Hosea resumed his scathing formula, denouncing the priests of Israel and the royal house, calling them to account as worthless. Yahweh promised that since they rejected his ways, he would reject them (4:6), and in Hosea 5 Israel’s fate was sealed. The first tip of the domino was their political ruin, with the death of Jeroboam II. Then came their social ruin, with the depression of their once-thriving economy and the decline of their military. Finally, God sent their physical ruin when the Assyrian army killed, enslaved, or deported every Israelite in the Northern Kingdom.

God’s perfect justice prompted him to declare that he was the cause of Israel’s deterioration: “Therefore I am like maggots to Ephraim and like rottenness to the house of Judah” (5:12). He was likely pointing to the fact that, as sovereign of the Universe, he is in control of every empire. God was going to use the Assyrians as a tool of punishment.

Hosea’s oracle alternates between the synonymous terms Ephraim and Israel. Ephraim was the largest of the 10 tribes in the Israelite kingdom. The tribe of Ephraim housed Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom and the seat of its corrupt monarchy. Hosea specifically called out Ephraim to target the center of wayward Israel’s religious and political establishment. In the prophetic writings, Ephraim is commonly used to refer to the entire Northern Kingdom of Israel. Today’s equivalent would be when someone references Washington, D.C. as the source of America’s problems.

In Hosea 5, the message takes on the sound of war. The poetry and meter march along with the boots of the approaching Assyrian army. We read, “Blow the horn in Gibeah, the trumpet in Ramah. Sound the alarm at Beth-aven; look behind you, Benjamin!” (5:8). Hosea was referencing the nearness of the coming war. With the sounding of the trumpet, the Assyrian army would begin their advance through Israel.

Even with the enemy breathing down their neck, the Israelites did not turn to Yahweh for their rescue. No repentance was at hand. Instead, Hosea described an act of appeasement by Israel as she tried to save herself: “When Ephraim saw his sickness and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound” (5:13). Hosea omitted the names of the leaders, but 2 Kings adds historical color to Hosea’s oracles. According to 2 Kings 15, the evil Israelite King Menahem paid a heavy tribute to Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III to stay his hand. This misguided act of appeasement is likely what Hosea was referencing, albeit in a veiled manner.

The most striking thing about the Israelites’ defection from the faith of their ancestors is that they still prayed to Yahweh and offered sacrifices to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob while they were simultaneously taking part in idol worship and pagan rituals. God detested this form of synchronistic worship. Through the mouths of the prophets, Yahweh begged and demanded that his people cease and desist from writing their own rules to their artificial Yahwistic pagan religion. All that God required of Israel was their repentance and their return to him. “Return to me, and I will return to you,” Yahweh repeatedly promised.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, (United Kingdom: HarperCollins, 2001), 29.