Saturday, January 29, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (12)

We can get into a chicken-and-egg sort of argument about whether choosing an idol instead of the one true God leads to immorality (which it does, because all other moral systems are necessarily inferior), or whether it’s the selfish pursuit of desire that leads inevitably to an idolatrous pathway that will permit it (which is also true, as Israel proved in the wilderness).

Let’s just say that however it may begin, immorality and idolatry have a tendency to create the spiritual equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. One feeds the other.

Hosea has already denounced Israel for its idolatry. We will therefore not be surprised to find every other form of wickedness and abuse following right behind.

Hosea 4:1-3 — Filing a Complaint

“Hear the word of the Lord, O children of Israel, for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away.”

Back in the wilderness when the children of Israel received the law of God from Moses, it came with a severe caution about getting overly confident in their new living arrangements in the land of promise. God said, “You shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations [the idolatry and sexual sins practiced by Canaanites and Egyptians] … lest the land vomit you out.” Far from being the proud owners of their splashy new digs, they were to consider themselves “strangers and sojourners” in Canaan, and were always to remember that their continued welfare depended on how they conducted themselves. “For the land,” God said, “is mine.”

It probably wouldn’t hurt us to remember this is not just true of Canaan.

The Controversy

Thus when the prophet Hosea refers to the citizens of the northern kingdom as mere “inhabitants of the land”, he is not telling them anything of which they had not been previously informed, though the people had entirely forgotten it. The Hebrew word for “inhabitant” carries no sense of permanent ownership or entitlement; in fact, it is used of sojourners and nomads and even the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. We all know what happened to them.

Concerning these inhabitants of Israel, Hosea says, “They break all bounds.” Here he is referring not just to the specific set of laws detailed in Leviticus 18, where the aforementioned “eviction warning” is repeatedly stressed, but also to the third, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. (The word “swearing” means oath-breaking, not foul language.)

Violating the Lease

The Hebrew word translated “controversy” may refer to an argument or to a formal lawsuit. If this is what Hosea has in mind, then God’s complaint is justified on the basis of the evidence. There existed a written contract between God and the land’s inhabitants. We all have a translated copy of it in our Bibles and can see for ourselves that the “tenants” were in violation of their lease.

But Hosea is not just compiling a list of lease violations here. There was also in Israel a complete absence of any positive qualities that might serve to mitigate God’s judgment against them: “There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land.” Its people had become entirely worthless. Nothing about their conduct would lead an onlooker to conclude they had any sort of covenant relationship with God.

Idolatry will do that.

The Consequences

Hosea is calling to mind the anthropomorphic language of Leviticus, where Moses tells the people the land will “vomit you out”. Here it is “the land mourns”. Now, geographic territories neither mourn nor vomit, but the idea is that there was a responsive relationship between the moral state of those who lived in Canaan and the physical conditions they would experience. This too was spelled out by Moses. Rainfall, plentiful harvests, the removal of harmful beasts — all these blessings and more were conditioned on obedience. Fail to honor God and obey his commandments, and it would be as if the land itself was repulsed by its inhabitants.

Hosea is looking ahead here, though only a few years. The northern kingdom had yet to experience the material losses and physical changes to which he refers. In fact, under Jeroboam II, the nation was doing quite well, which may explain why they felt free to carry on in self indulgence, violence and excess. Given the expansion of their territory, they probably felt that the local “gods” they were propitiating with their sacrifices were well pleased with them.

So then, Hosea’s use of the present tense is probably intended to convey the inevitability of the consequences they were bringing on themselves, rather than suggesting that they had already entered a time of deprivation.

Hosea 4:4-6 — A Rejected Priest

“Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest. You shall stumble by day; the prophet also shall stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.”

Let No One Contend

The language of this first sentence is translated all kinds of ways, and I’m not sure we can be dogmatic about what it is intended to mean. However, I like this rendering from the ESV because it makes the most sense to me in context: “Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest.” God has filed a claim that Israel has violated his covenant, and he is determined to head off any attempt at a counter-suit or a legal rejoinder. No claim may be made against God that he has failed to keep his side of the bargain. The fault is all Israel’s.

Who is the Priest?

When the first King Jeroboam of Israel made golden calves and caused the northern kingdom to practice idolatry, he could not succeed in his scheme without first establishing in Israel a counterfeit version of the Judean priesthood. His calf-gods needed to be serviced, after all, and so Jeroboam placed in Bethel “the priests of the high places he had made” in order that there would be a familiar set of religious rituals and leadership to go with the new “gods” he was introducing.

Later, Abijah would accuse Israel of having “driven out the priests of the Lord, the sons of Aaron, and the Levites, and made priests for yourselves like the peoples of other lands.” He complained, “Whoever comes for ordination with a young bull or seven rams becomes a priest of what are not gods.” There’s no reason to think this was an inaccurate description of how Israelite priests were ordained. Amaziah, who was confronted by the prophet Amos, was one of these infamous “priests of Bethel”, as distinct from a member of the genuine Israelite priesthood, which had carried on in Jerusalem in Judah. This was the sort of “priest” that functioned in the northern kingdom in the days when Hosea prophesied … a priest in name only.

A Kingdom of Priests

When Peter speaks in his first letter of Christians being “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession,” he is not pulling these turns of phrase out of the air. That role is not unique to believers of the present era. Israel had a similar calling, to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, and “my treasured possession”. The language Peter uses comes straight out of Exodus 19. It was not just that Israel were to be a nation with priests — that could be said of every nation on earth in those days. Rather, it was that they were a nation of priests. That is to say, the entire nation was corporately engaged in acting as a functioning priesthood. Israel as a nation was to be to the world around it what the individual priests were to the nation of Israel: they were to teach the world what God is like.

So then, there is a sense in which it is the northern kingdom as a whole God is addressing here, not just the individual priests in Bethel. The sins of the spiritual leadership were the sins of the people. The “idolatrous priests” of Beth-Aven who rejoiced over their golden calf will certainly be mentioned in chapter 10, but it seems to me that in chapter 4, God is perhaps not only addressing individuals, but speaking to the nation in its capacity as his kingdom of priests, condemning its utter failure to carry out its calling to be a testimony to God in the world.

In the northern kingdom, the salt had lost its savor, and was only fit to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. The south would come to the same end, but not for several generations.

I Will Destroy Your Mother

It’s not difficult to understand that Hosea was using the word “mother” metaphorically; the question is as a metaphor for what. It is something God was going to destroy, so I suspect Hosea meant the northern kingdom as a separate political entity under a non-Davidic king. The golden calves, the religious apostasy and the false priesthood were all consequences of the first Jeroboam’s insecurity about his ability to hold his new kingdom — which, ironically, only existed because God had given it to him.

Jeroboam’s invitation to “Behold your gods, O Israel” was the product of fear and faithlessness. The real idol for Jeroboam was political power. Perhaps this was the “mother” that God would destroy forever: the point of origin of Jeroboam’s false priesthood.

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