Saturday, November 20, 2021

Mining the Minors: Hosea (2)

Jonah is a historical account that includes a mere eight words of actual prophecy (five in Hebrew), while Amos is a series of prophecies that includes a mere eight verses of history.

This mixture of historical narrative with the word of the Lord (as well as occasional visions and discussions between the Lord and the prophet) is typical of all the prophetic books of scripture. Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah each contain lengthy narrative passages, usually describing the prophet’s personal situation and/or events going on around him.

Historical Narrative in the Prophets

The most obvious purpose for a narrative interlude is to contextualize a particular prophecy. But there is probably more to it than that. The reader can often infer a fair bit about the historical circumstances in which any word from God was given from the prophecy itself — the nation, surrounding nations, times, culture, and specific problems encountered by God’s people — but without the personal information we would not know much about the men through whom the prophetic word came. More importantly, we would not know much about their relationships with their God and ours.

We may be inclined to think of the Hebrew prophets as stony oracles thundering out the words of the Almighty, and sometimes they were. But they were also men in the process of coming to know and love their God more deeply; to enter into a fuller understanding of who he is and how he operates. All the prophetic books may be viewed with this thought in the background: that the nation was learning (or not learning, as the case may be), but the prophet was learning too, and his personal journey is in many cases of more immediate interest to modern readers than details of judgments long past. In Elijah’s, Jeremiah’s or Jonah’s wrestlings with God, we see ourselves more clearly. More importantly, in God’s dealings with his prophets, we see the heart of God revealed more openly, just as they did.

A Living Illustration

There was a significant cost to being a prophet, and it wasn’t just the abuse they encountered from their nations and often their own immediate families. Serving God was no easy task. He might ask just about anything of his servants. How would you like to walk naked and barefoot for three years? Or lie on your side tied up for 430 days? Or be struck mute? Or lose the love of your life? God often required his prophets to serve as parables or illustrations of the prophecies with which he entrusted them. Illustrations help to make one’s point; a sermon without an illustration or two can be a pretty dry affair. There are people in the audience who only remember the illustrations and miss the rest.

That was me as a child.

Being a living illustration was painful stuff, but it vividly reinforced what God was trying to communicate, merged prophet with prophecy, and perhaps most importantly of all, taught God’s prophet to feel the deep sense of loss and grief that God was feeling in being compelled to judge his people.

Hosea was assigned a comparatively easy task. He was told to marry an attractive woman — attractive enough that her defining characteristic was her ability to seduce men.

You can sense the grief coming already, can’t you.

Hosea 1:2 — A Wife of Whoredom

“When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ ”

Costly Compliance

So Hosea is asked — no, commanded — to take at least the next couple of decades of his life and entrust them to a woman who would be guaranteed to break his heart, to have children with a totally unfit mother, and to put all his desires for a fulfilling home life aside in order that God might use him to tell a story to the people around him; a very sad story.

That is a tall order. Remarkably, there is no record of Hosea offering resistance or objecting to what God required of him. He went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she became his wife.

We have no clue how Gomer felt about this, but it was probably less relevant in those days than today. She was being offered a roof over her head, clothes on her back and food on her table. These were not small benefits in Israel more than 700 years before Christ. Moreover, the marriage issue was probably settled between Hosea and Gomer’s father. As an unmarried daughter in the ancient Middle East, Gomer would have had very little say in it.

The Whore Before

Our information here is sparse, and commentators sometimes feel the need to speculate, which requires the next generation of commentators to speculate about the validity of their speculations. An example: It is commonly suggested that Gomer was not yet sexually active when Hosea married her, and that her infidelities came after her children were born. This is not a notion that arises from the text itself, but rather from a desire on the part of the commentators to make the picture God was creating in Hosea’s marriage conform precisely to their understanding of the spiritual reality it was intended to depict.

But forcing the text to say something it doesn’t is quite unnecessary: parables are only approximations of the spiritual realities they depict. The comparisons they call to mind do not generally benefit from being scrutinized down to the fine details. God’s command is to take “a wife of whoredom”, not a virgin with secret proclivities. God knew Israel’s idolatrous nature when he called her, and it seems to me Gomer must have been sufficiently notorious for Hosea to take note of her as a woman who met God’s unflattering criteria. Perhaps he had to ask around. A daughter of dubious virtue doesn’t exactly make a father’s chest swell with pride. Diblaim and his wife were likely delighted to be rid of Gomer regardless of Hosea’s terms.

In any case, there is no need to reconstruct Gomer’s sexual history speculatively in order to conform it to the mistaken notion that Israel began its history as a spiritual virgin at Sinai and only became idolatrous later. Ezekiel reveals his nation worshiped idols while still in Egypt and apart from God’s grace would have incurred the same sort of judgment that he inflicted on the Egyptians.

Hosea 1:3-5 — Jezreel

“So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

“And the Lord said to him, ‘Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.’ ”

Children of Whoredom

The “him” in “bore him a son” is only a supposition made by the translators of my ESV. And perhaps they are correct in surmising that the first child of this new marriage was indeed genetically Hosea’s notwithstanding his wife’s inclination toward sexual incontinence. Perhaps Gomer was (briefly) thinking of turning over a new leaf, though there is nothing in the text to rigorously confirm Hosea’s fatherhood: the Hebrew syntax underlying the phrases “bore a daughter” and “bore a son” in verses 6 and 8 is exactly the same as in verse 3. Is it a stretch to suggest that “children of whoredom” means not merely “children of a whore”, but children at least some of whom were conceived through infidelity? Two verses in chapter 2 imply these children were not Hosea’s (“they are children of whoredom for their mother has played the whore”). That seems an unlikely way to describe legitimate children of a woman who only cheats on her husband once they are in the world.

Anyway, at bare minimum Hosea could have no confidence in Gomer’s faithfulness. He had been told the story up front. He may have loved his children, but he couldn’t be completely sure whose they were. His situation was very similar to that of his God, who had looked for a righteous, natural seed in Israel and instead found “alien children”.

At least Hosea got to name his. The first child he called Jezreel, the name of a famous Israelite city and its surrounding valley notorious for its association with the house of Ahab.

The Bow of Israel

There are many references to Jezreel in the Old Testament, but the phrase “blood of Jezreel” is quite specific: it calls to mind Jehu’s massacre of undeserving (although not entirely innocent) Judeans.

The backstory is this: King Ahab had married a Baal-worshiping Phoenician princess of Sidon named Jezebel, who promptly institutionalized the worship of her god in her new home in Israel. Even after Ahab’s untimely death, as queen mother Jezebel still wielded tremendous corrupting influence with her son Jehoram, the new monarch of the northern kingdom. But God had plans for Israel that did not include the continuation of Ahab’s dynasty. At the direction of the prophet Elisha, a young prophet-in-training was sent to anoint Jehu, one of the commanders of Israel’s army, as the nation’s new king.

In his zeal, Jehu took the prophecy of his coming kingdom as marching orders rather than just interesting information. He rode to Jezreel by chariot, where Jehoram was healing from war wounds, with the army behind him. The ailing Jehoram rode out to meet him along with his ally, Ahaziah king of Judah. Recognizing Jehu intended to take the kingdom by force, Jehoram reined his horses around to flee. Jehu drew his bow and shot his king in the back.

Hence the reference to the “bow of Israel” in Hosea. Being the principal instrument of war in its day, the bow was already a symbol of power, but I suspect it also symbolizes Jehu, the instrument of God’s judgment on the house of Ahab. In any case, God intended to break that bow. Jehu had gone too far.

The Blood of Jezreel

You see, once Jehu was on a roll there was no stopping him. He killed the king of Judah, the queen mother, Ahab’s seventy sons in Samaria, all Ahab’s close friends, advisors, great men and priests, forty-two of Ahaziah’s relatives who had come from Judah to Israel to visit him, and all the prophets and worshipers of Baal in Israel. God was pleased with what Jehu had done to the house of Ahab — that judgment was well and truly deserved. He rewarded him with a kingdom “of the fourth generation”, the longest dynasty in Israel’s short history.

However, God was not so pleased with what Jehu did on his own initiative. The murders of Ahaziah and his Judean relatives on foreign soil were well outside Jehu’s God-given mandate. His zeal in destroying the royal family of Judah allowed Athaliah, Jezebel’s half-Sidonian daughter, to murder what remained of her husband Ahaziah’s family and seize power in the southern kingdom for seven years, becoming the only queen in the nation’s history and doing long-term damage to Judah’s moral infrastructure. Her wickedness and promotion of Baal worship in Judah were at least on par with her mother’s. She came a hair from wiping out the messianic bloodline. And it was Jehu’s bloodthirsty uprising in Israel that enabled it all.

So Jehu’s family had some accounting to do as well. The house of Jehu had to be punished for the blood of Jezreel. Hosea’s firstborn was named to signify this.

Three Predictions

If you’re keeping track, there are three predictions associated with the birth of Hosea’s son Jezreel: (1) God’s judgment of the house of Jehu for the murder of Judean royalty; (2) the house of Jehu to be broken in the Valley of Jezreel; and (3) the end of the kingdom of Israel.

Now, not all these predictions were fulfilled simultaneously. The nation of Israel did not end with the elimination of Jehu’s dynasty. It drizzled on for thirty more years under five different dynasties, only one of which lasted to a second generation. The death knell for the kingdom of Israel sounded in roughly 722 BC, with the fall of Samaria to Sargon II. The judgment on Jehu’s house had fallen a generation earlier, six months into the reign of Jehu’s great-great-grandson Zechariah. Scripture tells us he was struck down by a man named Shallum the son of Jabesh at a place called Ibleam. It wasn’t much of a coup; Shallum’s reign lasted merely a month.

The Valley of Jezreel has another name: Megiddo, also known as Armageddon. Where is Ibleam, where Zechariah was killed? No points for guessing; fulfilling his word is what God does.

Yes, the “bow of Israel”, the house of Jehu, was broken right at the southern tip of the Valley of Jezreel. One prophecy, three predictions, and God is already three for three.

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