Saturday, January 22, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (11)

It took me a few years of serious Bible study to recognize that local context is of considerably greater importance than larger context in correctly discerning the intended meaning of any particular word or phrase.

For example, you may have observed that John uses the phrase “the Jews” in his gospel with a different shade of meaning than do Matthew or Mark, and that Luke uses the same phrase differently in Acts than in his gospel. Likewise, the words “we” and “our” refer to different people in 2 Corinthians than they do in some of Paul’s other epistles.

Failure to note such distinctions inevitably leads to muddled interpretations. Today’s reading in Hosea contains a phrase that will confuse us if we do not attend carefully to its local context.

Hosea 3:4-5 — Tales of the Latter Days

“For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.”

The phrase is “the children of Israel”, and our question for today is what Hosea means by it. I take the position he means the northern kingdom, not the entire divided nation.

Failing to Draw Distinctions

A few quotes should suffice to illustrate how common it has been in Bible commentaries to muddle together the various exiles, captivities and dispersions, and to conflate the destinies of two groups of related people whose paths through history diverged a short time after Hosea wrote about them.

Here’s the Benson Commentary:

“And this prediction [verses 4 and 5] was remarkably fulfilled ... upon the two remaining tribes, after the destruction of their temple and commonwealth by Nebuchadnezzar, and during their captivity in Babylon. This prophecy has also been fulfilled upon the whole nation of the Jews, from the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus unto this day.”

Or there’s Matthew Poole:

“How long we cannot tell, nor list to dispute whether seventy years of Babylon’s captivity, or whether these seventy and the one hundred and thirty years of the ten tribes’ captivity before the two tribes went captives, i.e. two hundred years; or whether till Messiah’s coming, or the general and last conversion of the Jews; long it was to be no doubt.”

And finally, Keil and Delitzsch:

“We must not restrict the threat contained in this verse to the Israel of the ten tribes alone, but must also understand it as referring to the Babylonian and Roman exile of the Jews.”

All these commentators fail to distinguish between the Assyrian dispersion of Israel, the Babylonian captivity of Judah, and the AD70 destruction of Jerusalem and dispersion of the Jews for the better part of twenty centuries. For them, it is all one, and Hosea’s prophecy applies equally to all.

The Fate of the Northern Kingdom

Now, it is manifestly the case that the nation of Judah, like the nation of Israel, has also dwelt many days without king or prince (approaching 2,100 years in total), as well as without sacrifice or pillar, first for a seventy year period in Babylon, then for the entire period from AD70 to today. Judah has also dwelt without ephod or household gods during the same periods.

However, as true as many of these statements may be of Judah’s captivity and eventual diaspora, that is not what Hosea is talking about here. We need to keep distinct in our minds both the subjects of the dispersions and the reasons for each dispersion.

This prophecy, then, is specifically concerned with the fate of northern kingdom. Why do I say that? Several reasons:

1/ The Latter Days

First, the presence of the phrase “the latter days” ('aḥărîṯ yôm) makes it at least conceivable that a very distant fulfillment is in view. The expression occurs 32 times in the Old Testament, starting with Jacob’s prophecy in Genesis 49. Depending on how you interpret it, that prophecy appears to cover most of Israel’s history from the time they first entered the land of Canaan as a nation all the way to the millennial reign of Christ.

The “latter days” is frequently used in the Prophets to designate a period far in the future: Isaiah and Micah use it in a millennial context, Ezekiel uses it to refer to the tribulation period, and the reference in Daniel covers a lengthy period including the great tribulation. Because it is compounded with the reference to “many days” (another phrase used by both Ezekiel and Daniel to denote the time of the end), I am inclined to think Hosea is using it to refer to a very distant period as well.

If that is the case, we can eliminate any potential fulfilment in the Jewish captivity in Babylon and their subsequent return to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah.

2/ The Nature of the Dispersion

Secondly, there are significant difficulties associated with looking for the fulfillment of this particular prophecy in the Jewish return from Babylonian captivity. But if we are correct in assuming that the references to “many days” and “latter days” denote a period far in the future, these problems disappear.

For one, there is the statement that “the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king”. The returning Jews had no king over them, only a governor, and have never had one since. If the prophecy is alleged to apply to faithful Jews seeking David’s Greater Son during their years under Roman rule, it is difficult to see how it could be considered fulfilled given Messiah’s resounding rejection by the nation as a whole.

Moreover, there is the statement that they would be “without sacrifice or memorial stone” for many days. This seems to be the sense of “pillar” here, as opposed to the pillars of the temple. A memorial stone was the most rudimentary sort of altar, on which men like Jacob poured out drink offerings to God. In Hosea’s prophecy, even this most basic, individual acknowledgement of YHWH would be denied the children of Israel during their period of estrangement.

This statement simply does not work if we try to refer the prophecy to the Babylonian captivity of the southern kingdom. The facts are that, though king-less, the Jewish returnees from Babylon rebuilt their temple and enjoyed their sacrifices and priesthood for a period of something like 400 years. They continued to have them right up until the priests proved themselves unfit for their office by orchestrating the crucifixion of the one they purported to worship.

3/ The Reasons for the Dispersion

A third and very important reason to recognize a prophetic fate for the northern kingdom distinct from the south is this: the northern kingdom certainly fell hard into idolatry, but it never specifically rejected its Messiah. That is something the descendants of the Jews and the few Israelites who came back with them from Babylon have to answer for. The northern kingdom was long dispersed by that time, and you will search Ezra and Nehemiah in vain for evidence of a significant presence of the descendants of Israelites deported by the Assyrians among the Babylonian returnees. The vast majority of those who made their way back home were from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi.

The national rejection of the “King of the Jews” was the great sin of the first century. It is not remotely Hosea’s subject at any point in the book. Hosea is concerned with Israel’s repeated affairs with foreign gods. Over a century later, Judah would go into captivity for following Israel into its idolatrous practices. But conflating either of these times Jacob’s children were ejected from the land God gave to them with the Jews’ final diaspora not only introduces an issue quite foreign to Hosea’s message, but also trivializes the Jewish rejection of their Messiah.

4/ The Phrase “Children of Israel” in Hosea

All that acknowledged, the primary reason I think Hosea has only the northern kingdom in view boils down to this issue of the importance of local context in the interpretation of scripture. Throughout our Bibles, the words “children of Israel” (Hebrew, bēn yiśrā'ēl) normally include, at least potentially, the entire twelve tribes descended from Jacob. This is the phrase’s meaning everywhere from Genesis to Judges to Nehemiah. Even Daniel, a Jew, distinctly uses bēn yiśrā'ēl to refer to all twelve tribes. The Greek equivalent, λαός Ἰσραήλ, is used in Acts much the same way. By the time Luke wrote it, Israel as a separate nation had long ceased to exist, Judah having absorbed refugees from its tribes, and the word “Israelite” was again being used to describe any citizen of Hebrew descent in the Roman provinces of Judea and Galilee — basically as a synonym for “Jew”.

In Hosea’s time, however, this was not the case. Hosea consistently contrasts the northern and southern nations in the divided kingdom of his day. In Hosea, the “house of Israel” is not the “house of Judah” (1:7), “Israel” is not “Judah” (4:15, 8:14), “Ephraim” is not “Judah” (5:13, 6:4, 11:12), and the “children of Israel” are not the “children of Judah” (1:11). In Hosea, bēn yiśrā'ēl refers specifically to the northern kingdom as distinct from the south. If the prophet wants to refer to both nations as a united historical entity, he uses “Jacob” (10:11, 12:2).

So when Hosea prophesies that the “children of Israel” shall dwell many days without king or prince, he is not talking about either Judah’s seventy year Babylonian captivity or the post-AD70 dispersion of the nation of Israel across the world which continued until 1945. He is talking specifically about the conditions the vast majority from the ten tribes will experience continuously during the period from the beginning of their Assyrian captivity through to the early days of Christ’s millennial reign on earth.

A Better Fit

No, the details of Hosea’s prophecy in chapter 3 do not fit well with either the Babylonian captivity or the final Jewish diaspora of AD70, notwithstanding the opinions of numerous Bible commentators. Hosea’s wife Gomer provides a much more accurate illustration of the Assyrian dispersion of the northern kingdom than any alternative or combination of alternatives. Like Gomer awaiting Hosea, these await a formal, national reconciliation with their God. The Jews already had one, and sadly blew it.

Consider: the “lost” descendants of Israel’s ten tribes in exile are truly a nation “without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods”. They don’t even possess the enfeebled Messiah-less Talmudic Judaism of the modern Jew. Wherever they may be today, it can be confidently asserted that they are not currently a religious people in any consistent, formal way, and are probably as thoroughly secularized today as most of the Western world. It is even possible many have responded to the gospel, becoming reconciled to their God as individuals while awaiting national restoration. Unlike Jews all through history, who have retained their very distinct identity and made enemies wherever they have resided, these descendants of the northern kingdom are not even a people in any recognizable way. They are unidentifiable as “children of Israel” by anyone but God himself.

Disconnected from Israel’s history and religion, and even from the foreign gods they once chose to worship instead, these “children of Israel” await a time when God will restore them to himself and reunite them with their Jewish brothers and sisters.

That’s a better fit, don’t you think?

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