Saturday, February 12, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (14)

I grew up with two brothers. In their teens, one was good natured, pleasant to be around and (at least outwardly) compliant with the house rules. The other was perpetually contentious and surly, constantly butting heads with our father and any other authority figures with the great misfortune to cross his path.

It is no surprise to find that the latter brother spent more time in my father’s office than the former. No particular prejudice was involved in that.

We’ll come back to that thought shortly. Meanwhile, let’s finish Hosea chapter 4 …

Hosea 4:15-16 — An Appeal to Judah

“Though you play the whore, O Israel, let not Judah become guilty. Enter not into Gilgal, nor go up to Beth-aven, and swear not, ‘As the Lord lives.’ Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn; can the Lord now feed them like a lamb in a broad pasture?”

Verses 1-14 of chapter 4 are addressed to the northern kingdom (“Hear the word of the Lord, O children of Israel”). Hosea now turns to the southern kingdom of Judah, and solemnly warns its people not to follow the example of their willful neighbors to the north. “Let not Judah become guilty,” he appeals. Again in verse 17 Judah is cautioned, “Leave him [Ephraim] alone.” There is nothing about Israel’s example that Judah should want to follow. A godly people could not righteously express their common bond with their neighbors when the neighbors were revelling in sin.

A Necessary Warning

You might think Hosea’s warning to Judah unnecessary, but the temptation to show solidarity with their sinning brothers had repeatedly led Judah into trouble in times past, just as an ecumenical spirit often leads churches into compromise when they ally themselves with churches and denominations that promote false doctrine. There are differences that can and should be overlooked, and differences that cannot. Here, where the issue at stake was idolatry, there could be no God-honoring declaration of fraternity or unity between the two nations.

That hadn’t stopped Jehoshaphat king of Judah almost a century previously. When Baal-worshiping Ahab of Israel proposed an alliance against the Syrians, he enthusiastically replied, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.” Well, no, he wasn’t, and God was not pleased. The battle went badly, and Jehoshaphat was very nearly killed. Upon his return to Judah, God sent him the son of a seer to rebuke him: “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord.”

If that were not warning enough, a generation later fraternizing with the neighbors got another Judean king killed. Ahaziah king of Judah had come down to visit Joram king of Israel. The two royal houses had become allied by marriage: Joram’s wicked sister was Ahaziah’s mother. So we read that the king of Judah “walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab was his wife”. This is the hazard of making alliances with wicked people because of shared history, sentiment or the desire to appear loving. In this case, being in the wrong place at the wrong time got Ahaziah killed, and the throne of Judah was usurped by the daughter of a foreigner, who came closer than anyone else to extinguishing the Messianic bloodline.

Judah needed to recognize that the division between the ten tribes of Israel and the two tribes of Judah was not instigated by man but by God himself. Unity is a great principle, but only when applied to things which are alike. Anyone who tried to bring these two nations together was setting himself against God, which is generally a dangerous practice. This is the appeal Hosea is making to a new generation of Judeans: “Bad company ruins good morals.” So, separate yourselves.

Gilgal and Beth-aven

So then, Hosea tells Judah to stay home: “Enter not into Gilgal, nor go up to Beth-aven, and swear not, ‘As the Lord lives.’ ” The location of Gilgal is the subject of scholarly debate (see linked map with three possible sites flagged). It’s even possible there was more than one Gilgal in the Old Testament. What is not debatable is that this particular Gilgal was a center of Israelite idolatry; Amos and Hosea both reference it on multiple occasions as a place where sacrifices were made and which was under the judgment of God.

Beth-aven was right next door to the home of a temple to one of Jeroboam I’s golden calf idols; the one closest to the border of Judah, and therefore the one most likely to tempt Judeans inclined to prefer worshiping close to home. Hosea says no Judean should do so.

Some commentators think Beth‑aven was simply another name for Bethel, and that Hosea is twisting the actual name of the city in order to change its meaning from “house of God” to “house of deceit” or “house of vanity”. There is an element of truth in this: it seems unlikely Hosea would use the phrase “house of God” to describe the home of a golden calf idol. “Beth‑aven” undoubtedly served his purposes better. Nevertheless, both Bethel and Beth-aven are mentioned in the book of Joshua. They were neighboring cities.

The expression “As the Lord lives” is an oath taken frequently in the Old Testament by both good men and bad when making solemn promises. Saul, David, Solomon and Elisha all used it. However, God was unwilling to have his name associated with Israel’s idolatry even if it was uttered by Judean lips. So Hosea says to Judah, “Swear not, ‘As the Lord lives.’ ” A solemn promise to the Lord made in the precincts of false gods was no more acceptable than a blasphemy; it implicated Judah in Israel’s false religious system. The Israelites may have taken the Lord’s name in vain, but Judah was not to validate their self-deception by implicitly endorsing the practice.

Heifers and Lambs

“Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn; can the Lord now feed them like a lamb in a broad pasture?” In keeping with the frequent use of wordplay in Hosea, Israel, home of the golden calves, is compared to a calf that won’t do what it is supposed to. There is maybe a hint here at a lesson we find spelled out clearly in Psalm 115: “Those who make [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them.”

Some children are like stubborn heifers and some are like lambs. Back to my two brothers, mentioned in our introduction. Dad loved both, and wanted the best for both, and he never played favorites with his children. But there was no possible way that he could express his love to both sons in precisely the same manner. The differences in their conduct made that impossible. So too with Israel. God would far rather have given the northern kingdom his tender shepherd care than send them into exile, but their rejection of him made treating them like an obedient son an impossible exercise.

Hosea 4:17-19 — Getting What You Love

“Ephraim is joined to idols; leave him alone. When their drink is gone, they give themselves to whoring; their rulers dearly love shame. A wind has wrapped them in its wings, and they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices.”

Joined to Idols

Speaking of bad alliances, the word “joined” in verse 17 is the same Hebrew word used in Chronicles to describe an alliance. “Ephraim”, as mentioned previously, is in this context simply a synonym for “Israel” rather than signifying a specific tribe. It is simply used to distinguish north from south. Since Israel had allied itself with the Baals, any alliance with Israel was also an alliance with foreign gods, and utterly unacceptable to God. Judah was to leave Ephraim alone.

The level of Israel’s dissipation is evident in their eagerness to move easily from one sin to another. Having exhausted the opportunity to debase themselves in one manner, they would promptly find new ways to do it. Hosea describes this as “loving shame”.

There is maybe another lesson here in that if you pursue sin avidly enough, God eventually lets you have what you are after, even though it is not good for you. The rulers of Israel loved shameful behavior, and God would in turn make them ashamed. Beware of getting what you ask for. Balaam had a similar experience, as did Israel when they begged for a king like that kings of the nations around them … and that’s exactly what they got.

Winds and Wings

“A wind has wrapped them in its wings,” says the Lord through Hosea. Translators render this phrase in a few different ways, leaving the meaning a bit nebulous. The NIV, for example, says, “A whirlwind will sweep them away,” which could certainly describe the coming Assyrian invasion. On the other hand, the phrase can also be rendered “They have bound up the wind in their wings.” The image may describe the futility of idolatry, just as the writer of Proverbs says, “Whoever troubles his own household will inherit the wind.”

Either way, for Judah to ally itself with Israel or in any way imitate it would be to make a grave error. Unfortunately for Judah, this is exactly what eventually happened.

At least they couldn’t say they weren’t warned.

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