By Shelley Neese

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As a refresher, Hosea’s first three chapters use Gomer’s infidelity to symbolize Israel’s unfaithfulness, and Hosea 4 and 5 launch the message of Hosea. The book never mentions Gomer again, as the prophet spends the rest of the text oscillating between a message of grace and a report of judgment. Hosea 6-9, however, is almost all judgment. The prophet offers a litany of metaphors, similes, and analogies for the ways Israel has gone astray and foretells their coming punishment. More than the other Minor Prophets, Hosea catalogs the sins of the people with his own unique focus on their inner life, the relational aspect of Israel’s approach to God.

Madmen

Hosea 6:4-11:7 is one long decree, written mostly in first person, but occasionally the prophet slips into third person. When Yahweh recounts his long relationship with Israel, he speaks in first person: “Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season, I saw your ancestors” (9:10). Here, Yahweh obviously is the speaker, but four verses down, it is Hosea’s voice that is uttering a prayer to the Lord (9:14). In one instance, the voice changes from first to third person within two sentences: “For the sacrifices of my offerings they sacrifice flesh and eat it, but the Lord does not accept them. Now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins” (8:13). These abrupt changes in perspective can be disorienting.

Some Bible scholars propose that the changes in point of view prove that there were later redactions in the written text. However, the job of a prophet was to be so in tune with reflecting the will and words of Yahweh that the text sometimes conflated the voice of the prophet with the voice of God, mixing and switching speakers. Many of the prophets spoke of the poor reception they encountered in their communities. Their fellow countrymen thought of them as madmen and fools. Such was the burden of the prophet’s vocation.

Hosea provides insight into his experience with reproach: “The days of punishment have come; the days of recompense have come. Israel will cry out, ‘The prophet is a fool; the man of the spirit is mad!’ Because of your great iniquity, your hostility is great” (9:7). Hosea did not write about his encounter with God, but the prophet Isaiah described a painful bodily experience that accompanied his visions from the Lord. When Isaiah received his oracles, he sometimes cramped, lost vision, and struggled to breathe (Isa. 21). Jeremiah described a feeling of drunkenness and looseness in his bones (Jer. 23:9).

The reception of the prophetic word and the experience of uttering God’s message was a mystery, defying the rules of both composition and outline. The prophetic utterances of Hosea reflect what Rabbi Heschel calls a “sublime intensity.”[1] Speaking through Hosea, God confirmed that he spoke to the prophets frequently at this chaotic point in history. Hosea explained that Yahweh was the source of his “multiplied visions” (12:10).

Literary tools

Metaphor, simile, and analogy were Hosea’s preferred tools for deploying his message. He peppered them throughout his recitation of judgment. Sometimes he seems to be stacking these figures of speech on top of each other, without precision.

Chapter 7 sags from the weight of similes and metaphors. Hosea used the morning dew as a metaphor to describe Israel’s capriciousness, saying, “Your faithfulness is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away” (6:4). God compared Israel’s fidelity to “a defective bow” (7:16). The people were evil, like bandits and thieves (7:1). The prophet described Israel’s immoral passions as a burning oven that a baker has forgotten to tend (7:4). The simile then shifts from Israel being the fire to being the uncooked flour cake (7:8), and Israel’s decay is compared to the slow graying of hair, a sign of approaching death (7:9).

Animal similes were among Hosea’s favorite figures of speech. He likened Israel flirting with Assyria to a donkey in heat (8:9). She was flitting about like a senseless dove (7:11). Israel’s misguided military alliances with Assyria and Egypt left her like a bird trapped in a net (7:12). Hosea compared he entire kingdom to a trained heifer about to be yoked by the burden of Assyria’s oppression (10:11). Hosea 13 presents God as a lion, a leopard, and a mother bear (13:7-8).

Using metaphorical language, Hosea clearly enumerated Israel’s exact sins to avoid any confusion about her transgressions. More than any other eighth-century BCE prophet, he focused on the sins of the spirit. The people’s failure to pursue the knowledge of God was foremost on his grievance list. Yahweh blamed the people for running from him, transgressing against him, speaking lies against him, and ignoring him (7:13-14). These were the glaring signs of a broken relationship, a failed marriage. This personal relationship with God was one element of the Jewish faith that set it apart from the laws and rituals of Israel’s neighbors. Sins of the heart mattered to God. His law code even counted sins that had no outer repercussion on other human beings.

This heart-based style of worship is reflected in God’s words through Hosea: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6). Hosea recalled the period of Israel’s judges and Samuel’s inquiry about the importance of obedience over burnt offerings (1 Sam. 15:22) What both Samuel and Hosea preached is that the people had not just failed to keep the opaque commandments like mixing wool and linen, they had disregarded the entire beating heart of the law. Samuel and Hosea were not denouncing sacrificial worship —Samuel himself was a participant in ritual sacrifice— but ritual acts were devoid of meaning if repentance and humility did not accompany them.

Coming exile

Hosea reminded Israel that their sin would lead to exile, which would take place at the hands of the Assyrians. Although the 10 northern tribes would be dispersed throughout the Assyrian Empire, Hosea used Egypt as a symbol for exile and captivity. He wrote, “they shall return to Egypt” (8:13). Hosea, master of both Israel’s history and the teachings of Moses, was referring to a curse God had delivered in Deuteronomy. On the plains of Moab, before entering the Promised Land, Moses had warned the people that if they disobeyed God’s law, they were accountable for breaking the terms of the covenant and they would forfeit the land God had given them. Moses had warned, “The Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt” (Deut. 28:68). In the long story of the Israelites, Egypt was symbolic of every imperial oppressor.

Hosea bore the responsibility of being the final prophet to encourage Israel’s change of course prior to the Assyrian attack, so he called for repentance. The Hebrew word shuv means to “turn around” or “repent,” and it occurs 22 times in the book of Hosea.

Hosea whispered a poetic reminder to turn back to God:

Come, let us return to the Lord,
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth (6:1-3).

Hosea assured that if the people sought Yahweh, they would find him. I hope that, by studying the prophets, you are also feeling a tug to seek Yahweh. Seek him, and you will find him.

[1] Heschel, The Prophets, 401.