Saturday, November 13, 2021

Mining the Minors: Hosea (1)

Time for a one-paragraph summary of our 59 posts in this series to date. Ready? Go!

The prophet Jonah preached to the Assyrians in Nineveh around 760 BC. Their repentance delayed the destruction of their empire by a century or more. That delay left Assyria available for God to use when he judged the ten northern tribes of Israel for centuries of injustice, pride and unrepentant idolatry. Less than a generation after the prophet Amos delivered the word that Israel was about to lose its kingdom for the foreseeable future and that its people would shortly be dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire, the city of Samaria fell to the Assyrian army.

We continue to move through the Minor Prophets chronologically. The next messenger on our list is Hosea.

Hosea is quoted eight times in the New Testament, a number worthy of at least one dedicated post. Stay tuned.

So far in our studies, the prophets have said little about the nation of Judah. Jonah was an Israelite. Any mention of Judah in Jonah is fleeting and ambiguous. Amos was a Judean, but after a two-verse message of judgment in chapter 2, he too says virtually nothing about his own people. Hosea continues this trend.

Don’t worry, Judah will get its turn.

The Meaning of “Israel”

In the Old Testament, the word “Israel” has various meanings. It is used to denote: (1) the patriarch Jacob; (2) Jacob’s immediate family over the next two generations; (3) a nation made up of twelve tribes during the periods of the Exodus and Judges; (4) a united kingdom under Saul, David, Solomon and (briefly) Rehoboam; (5) the northern ten tribes from the divided kingdom period (931-722 BC) onward; and (6) as a synonym for the nation of Judah from the post-exilic period to the late first century. By that time, Judah had absorbed significant numbers of citizens of the former northern kingdom, and many of these returned to Jerusalem with them.

This variety of possible intended meanings requires us to ask which way the prophets are using “Israel” wherever we encounter it. And it’s going to come up a lot.

In the Minor Prophets during this early period, the word “Israel” is almost exclusively used in sense (5) above, to denote the ten northern tribes of the divided kingdom. This is easily seen from repeated contrasts with the term “Judah” throughout Hosea.

Israel and Judah

Hosea’s ministry, like Amos’s, is primarily directed at Israel rather than Judah. In Hosea, Israel appears 44 times to Judah’s fifteen. The emphasis on God’s judgment of the northern kingdom is made even more apparent by 37 occurrences of the word Ephraim as a synonym for Israel.* (Correspondingly, Hosea uses Jacob twice as a synonym for Judah.) The word Samaria (Israel’s capital at the time) rates a further six references. I can only find one instance in Hosea where Israel means something other than the ten breakaway tribes, and that is the reference in 11:1 famously quoted in the gospels (“Out of Egypt I called my son”), in which Hosea has all the tribes in view. (The identification of the “son” God called out of Egypt cannot reasonably be restricted to Ephraim only, as Matthew’s unexpected usage demonstrates conclusively.)

Though Hosea’s major emphasis is on Israel, Judah does not escape entirely unscathed. Not only is the smaller nation warned not to fall into Israel’s sins (4:15), but they are alternately chastised for doing so in some measure (5:5, 10-14; 6:4, 11; 8:14; 10:11; 12:2), and even praised to the extent they do not participate in Israel’s apostasy (1:7; 11:12).

Ten Lost Tribes

Significant numbers of commentators today reject the idea of ten “lost” tribes, probably because of claims that modern European nations are descended from the Israelites dispersed by Assyria, which are generally considered fantastical. For example, F.F. Bruce writes, “Neither Paul nor any other NT writer knows anything of the fiction of the ten ‘lost’ tribes.” He goes on to cite numerous instances in which the NT writers number the tribes of Israel as twelve rather than ten. This so-called evidence is really beside the point (of course Israel’s sons were originally twelve!). It fails to address the issue of whether the Israelites exiled throughout Assyria have ever come home to Israel in anything like the numbers of their Jewish brothers under the Medes and Persians. Like many others, I will argue they have not.

Now, Bruce is correct in the sense that not only Ephraimites but also Judeans still remained dispersed throughout the world even in the first century. James writes to the “twelve tribes scattered abroad” long before the Romans scattered them once again in AD70. However, it can easily be seen that the genealogies of returnees from Babylon in Ezra and Nehemiah show a disproportionate number of Judeans, Benjamites and Levites, all of whom were taken captive from the southern kingdom by Babylon rather than Assyria. It is beyond dispute that there were also some from the northern kingdom among the returnees, but these were likely not the children of Israelites recovered from the earlier Assyrian captivity, but rather of those Israelites taken to Babylon with Judah in the second captivity.

The Point of the Exercise

Moreover, the prophets repeatedly speak of a future reunion of Judah and Israel which requires Israel’s return from dispersion throughout the world, and which was not fulfilled by the returns from exile recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah. Amos does it, Ezekiel does it, Hosea does it, and, most importantly, at least one post-exilic prophet does it too. Zechariah speaks of the “gathering in” of Ephraim from Egypt and Assyria. This gathering is not to Jerusalem and Judah, as in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, but rather to Gilead and Lebanon, their original home turf. The motif is clearly future; nothing approximating it has ever occurred in recorded history.

Rejection for the “ten lost tribes” theory may be in some measure a product of embarrassment at some of the more extreme ideas that have been floated around over the centuries about what happened to them. But it’s also a necessary part of Reformed theology, from which national restoration for Israel is excluded. The Reformed prefer to read all prophecies of blessing and return for Israel as applying to post-exilic Judah, or, alternatively, to spiritualize them away and apply them to the church. As a result, their commentators frequently understand the word “Israel” as meaning “Israel including Judah”. (What they do with the more specific references to Ephraim I’m not quite sure.)

Anyway, rolling two separate prophetic restorations of Israel into a single fulfillment really does not work. There are just too many references in the prophets which distinctly promise a latter-days return to the land for the ten northern tribes, from which they will never again be dispersed. We will examine a few more in coming weeks.

Hosea 1:1 — “In the days”

“The word of the Lord that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel.”

Background of Hosea

Secular critics often post-date the prophets, but in many cases the Spirit of God locates them precisely for us in history. He does that here. That leaves us with Higher Criticism on the one side and the inspiration of scripture on the other. I know where I stand on that question; I’ll stick with the claims made in the text and taken for granted by generations of readers, thank you very much, rather than the speculations of men assessing the truth of what the prophets wrote from thousands of years down the road.

According to the text, then, Hosea was a contemporary of Amos, but ministered at least forty and as much as sixty-six years longer, all through the reigns of three Judean kings and into a fourth, by some counts as late as 611 BC, making him a candidate for the award for longest-tenured of all the prophets. He lived through the final days of the Israelite kingdom.

Little is revealed about Hosea’s background. We have most of it in this verse; the rest is largely conjecture. Because his ministry was directed primarily at Israel, he is thought to have lived in the northern kingdom, where the illustrations provided by his life would have made the greatest impact on his neighbors.

Hosea as a Type of Christ

With respect to the prophetic office in general, Jeff Asher says, “All prophets, priests and kings were lesser messiahs and types of the Ideal Messiah. All the features that mark them for their offices are perfectly and ideally true of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are to look at a prophet and learn something about Christ.”

This is a good point. If it is true of Jonah (three days and three nights symbolically dead) and Amos (the rejected shepherd), it is even more obvious in the case of Hosea. We should keep that in mind as we consider God’s love for a straying people depicted in Hosea’s marriage, surely at great personal and emotional cost.

* “Ephraim” is another word with multiple meanings. It may refer to: (1) a son of Joseph adopted by Jacob as his own; (2) one of the original tribes of Israel; (3) the northern kingdom from the divided kingdom period onward. As the most significant of the ten northern tribes, “Ephraim” became convenient prophetic shorthand for “Israel”, just as “Judah” was used to describe the southern kingdom made up of Judah, Benjamin, much of Simeon (which lies within Judah’s territory and was eventually largely absorbed by it), and most of Levi. Throughout Hosea, “Ephraim” is consistently used in sense (3).

Picture of the prophet Hosea on the Käthchenhaus of Heilbronn by Joachim Köhler, CC BY 3.0

No comments :

Post a Comment