Saturday, February 05, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (13)

Years ago, the wife of a friend from my college days came home with a rather unusual proposal concerning their marriage. She worked as a nurse in a cancer ward, and had fallen in love with a patient diagnosed as terminal. Her plan was to bring this fellow home and move him in upstairs so she could care for him, while her husband took his things and moved downstairs to live in the basement.

Needless to say, my friend did not think much of that idea.

A Modern Parable

As embarrassing and distasteful a situation as that may have been, let’s try to do something good with it. It certainly provides an apt illustration of what was going on in Israel during the days of the prophet Hosea. The nation had fallen into idolatry, but had not given up all the rituals and routines of its covenant relationship with YHWH. Like Judah, Israel had both priests and prophets ministering. However, the priests were a poor imitation of the Levitical priesthood in Judah, ordained from every tribe at random, and the prophets were 99% false. The temples and their services seem to have been modeled on those of the true temple in Jerusalem, but were supplemented with regular trips to the high places and groves of Canaanite idolatry and participation in the cult prostitution that went with it. It was these latter indulgences that had become the big draw for a debased nation determined to have its cake and eat it too.

In short, as far as the northern kingdom was concerned, YHWH was welcome to move into the basement while the people carried on up in the hills with their true love. And that was a state of affairs that could not continue.

Hosea 4:7-11 — Glory into Shame

“The more they increased, the more they sinned against me; I will change their glory into shame. They feed on the sin of my people; they are greedy for their iniquity. And it shall be like people, like priest; I will punish them for their ways and repay them for their deeds. They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the Lord to cherish whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding.”

The More They Increased

Verses 4 through 6 are an indictment of Israel’s corrupted priesthood that finishes with “Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” A generation raised on the bankrupt religious rituals of Israel’s priesthood could hardly be expected to turn out better than their parents, and God would have nothing to do with them for reasons we will see shortly.

Now we read “The more they increased, the more they sinned against me.” Here, I think “they” must refer back to the priests rather than to the children who had learned their corrupt ways, though it is probably fair to say both groups were multiplying numerically. Certainly the priests were, if Abijah’s accusation was accurate that priests were being ordained in Israel with no qualification beyond the ability to meet the price of the ordination sacrifice. Once the law limiting the priesthood to the tribe of Levi — and more specifically to the family of Aaron — had been done away with, it isn’t hard to see how any man who could afford it would jump at the chance to enjoy the benefits of being a priest.

Feeding on Sin

How do priests “feed on the sin” of God’s people? Well, they profited from it. The word chaṭṭâʼâh may be translated either “sin” or “sin offering”. Here I think it is likely the latter that is intended, or perhaps it is just a convenient play on words that works either way. One of the benefits of being a priest was that you were allowed to eat the best of what was sacrificed, including a subset of the various sin offerings mandated in the Law of Moses. Hosea’s accusation is that “They feed on the sin [offering] of my people; they are greedy for their iniquity.” In other words, the priests were more than happy to see the people sin; it meant steak dinner was on the way. They couldn’t wait for the next round of wickedness, guilt and atonement-making, in order that they might personally profit from it.

This is the precise opposite of the role God had intended for the priesthood, which included teaching the laws of God to the people. To have priests enthusing about the abundance of sin around them was the last thing God ever wanted for his representatives.

Like People, Like Priest

If God’s so-called representatives are taken from just anywhere, and do just about anything, there is no meaningful distinction to be made between priests and congregants. I was just reading that 120 priests, officials and employees of Germany’s Catholic Church have engaged in a mass self-outing to protest discrimination in the church against their sexually-sinning minority. One wonders why anyone should be expected to consider such individuals moral authorities or teachers of anything useful. Likewise, in Israel the people were whoring after other gods, and the priests were whoring after the perqs of a debased priesthood.

Here is a lesson I learned long ago: Satan is world’s oldest and greatest cheat. He will tempt you to replace the God of heaven on the throne of your life with virtually anything, but it never turns out the way you think. Put anything in the place of God and you are guaranteed to lose it. This is what happened to the Israelite priesthood: they cherished “whoredom, wine and new wine”, and found themselves both dissatisfied and stupefied. We might say they got the hangover without the buzz. Moreover, the multiplying priesthood would cease to multiply forever. Once taken captive by the Assyrians, there would be no more priesthood, no more temples and no more hilltop sacrifices to foreign gods. God would change their glory into shame.

Hosea 4:12-14 — A People Without Understanding

“My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have left their God to play the whore. They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains and burn offerings on the hills, under oak, poplar, and terebinth, because their shade is good. Therefore your daughters play the whore, and your brides commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for the men themselves go aside with prostitutes and sacrifice with cult prostitutes, and a people without understanding shall come to ruin.”

Inquiring of a Piece of Wood

Sin makes you stupid. You may feel yourself terribly clever, but departing from the rules established by the Creator of the Universe is generally a bad idea. It is hard to imagine that any created being has a more accurate idea what will work out best for him (or her) than the One who designed him in the first place. Sin makes you come up with crazy ideas like suggesting your husband and lover learn to coexist under the same roof ... that your husband is paying half the mortgage on. Or worse.

If we wanted to confirm this, we could simply turn to Romans 1, where those who refuse to honor God or give thanks to him “became futile in their thinking”. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” This is what sin does. It disconnects the intellect from reality, while fooling the sinner into thinking he is still making perfect sense. Anyone else can see it, but the sinner cannot. He has devolved into a cautionary tale without even realizing it. Here, when the people left their God to play the whore, they became idiots. They started talking to dead trees and expecting answers. If that’s not the bottom of the human condition, it’s got to be somewhere very close. Sort of like not being able to distinguish between male and female.

All Bets Are Off

“I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore,” says the Lord. This is a remarkable statement that once again takes us back to the Law of Moses, where we find that the daughter of a priest who plays the whore “shall be burned with fire”. Any consequence that serious tells you God cared a great deal that the priesthood not be profaned (or made common) by the dissolute conduct of a family member.

Now God says in effect that all bets are off. He has no intention of singling out for capital punishment the daughters of men who are themselves regularly engaging in profane acts. What would be the point? There is nothing left in Israel’s phony priesthood to be profaned; they have already profaned themselves.

I know the passage is disputed territory, but I have always loved the Lord’s response concerning the woman caught in the act of adultery: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Somehow, the scribes and Pharisees had caught a woman in the act of adultery without a partner. That was a truly impressive accomplishment! Where was the guilty man? The logical conclusion is that he was one of their number and had been quietly excused.

The Lord Jesus would have none of that. He was not in any way passing off the woman’s conduct as acceptable, but he would not validate the right of a corrupt society to selectively prosecute its sinning members. In this he was acting consistently with his own words in Hosea: “The men themselves go aside with prostitutes and sacrifice with cult prostitutes.” This being the case, it would have been highly inconsistent to single out and punish the foolish daughters of depraved fathers. From whom do you think they learned their behavior? God would not do it.

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