Saturday, February 26, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (16)

I grew up believing that my parents owned the house we lived in and the property on which it was built. But I did not keep my illusions for long.

Shortly I discovered there was a third party involved in this arrangement, and a great big interest-bearing loan with a 20 year term that enabled Mom and Dad to keep a roof over our heads. In the early-to-mid-80s, those interest rates were often in excess of 15% for months on end.

Back then, there appeared no prospect that I would be able to do what my parents had done in the first few years of my own marriage. For me, property ownership was right out of reach.

Anyway, enough of my problems; we have plenty of Israel’s to consider in Hosea 5.

Hosea 5:8-9 — The Declaration

“Blow the horn in Gibeah, the trumpet in Ramah. Sound the alarm at Beth-aven; we follow you, O Benjamin! Ephraim shall become a desolation in the day of punishment; among the tribes of Israel I make known what is sure.”

Gibeah, Ramah, Beth-aven

Gibeah was located in the territory of Benjamin south of the border between Israel and Judah. Beth-aven was north of the border in Israel. Ramah ... well, we don’t know for sure. There were at least four Ramahs: one each in Asher and Naphtali in the north, and one each in Simeon and Benjamin in the south. I am going to assume Hosea is referring to the one in Benjamin, which makes the most sense in context. If you check this linked map from a Bible atlas, you will see that puts all three cities less than ten kilometres apart, right near the borderline between Israel and Judah.

Any Assyrian invasion of Israel would inevitably affect both nations. For Judeans near the border, it would be like living in Niagara Falls, Ontario, with invading armies across the river in Niagara Falls, New York. The Assyrians came from the north, but were no respecters of territory. In any case, they had plans to conquer Judah as soon as they subdued Samaria. With Bethel under attack, Judeans could have no confidence their own cities would not shortly be besieged.

Follow You, Follow Me

Like it does today, the blowing of horns signified an emergency warning to Israel. But if the phrase “We follow you, O Benjamin” seems a little out of place to you, welcome to the club. The tribe of Benjamin was part of the nation of Judah, not Israel, though it bordered on Ephraim. So what’s this about following Benjamin in the middle of an Assyrian invasion of the north?

There is a probable answer available to us simply by consulting a variety of other translations, which repeatedly render the same Hebrew phrase as “Look behind you, Benjamin!” If we understand this as a warning to Benjamites near the border to watch their backs rather than encouragement to lead another nation’s forces into battle (an exceedingly unlikely event, and one that never happened historically), it makes a great deal more sense.

Hosea 5:10 — The Sin of Ahab

“The princes of Judah have become like those who move the landmark; upon them I will pour out my wrath like water.”

Technically, Ahab didn’t have to move a landmark to seize Naboth’s vineyard, but both the intent and effect of his actions were the same. He wanted something that wasn’t his, and obtained it by dishonest means.

Moving a Landmark

The word translated “landmark” means literally a property line or boundary limit, not something you notice in passing as you zip by it on the highway. To understand why moving one was so offensive, you need to be a little familiar with how land ownership worked in Israel.

The arrangement in Israel was very different from the one my parents entered into in order to own property in Canada. The land of Canaan was God’s, and each family among his people got their share in that land regardless of their means. No mortgages, and no title deeds in the hands of institutions. When practised as God intended, the Jubilee prevented even the worst incompetent or slacker from losing title to his family’s property. God’s plan was that all his people would have what they needed. Thus, in the book of Ruth, even when Naomi returns from Moab after sojourning there for years, we read in chapter 4 about “the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech”. That land had not been forfeited when Elimelech and family left the country. It had not gone anywhere. Naomi would have sold it (temporarily, under Jubilee rules) to avoid having to live in poverty. Instead, it was redeemed by a kinsman who married Naomi’s daughter in law, and it stayed in the family where it belonged.

A Nation from Far Away

So then, we see the importance of property ownership to the ongoing welfare of Israelite families. This may be why the Law of Moses pronounced a curse on men who moved landmarks in order to fraudulently lay claim to their neighbor’s land. Those who did such things were bringing upon themselves the judgment of God, which judgments are spelled out in gruesome detail in Deuteronomy 28, including this one: “The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young.”

Sound familiar? I thought so too.

Hosea says the princes of Judah were willingly putting themselves under this sort of curse. They had become “like those who move the landmark”, and would incur God’s wrath because of it.

The book of Proverbs warns, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls … lest the Lord see it and be displeased.” If enemies were to be treated with compassion, how much more should Judah have empathized with their kinsmen and taken up their cause. It is thought that this judgment on Judah was a result of its leadership’s attitude toward their brothers in Israel during the Assyrian occupation and afterwards. Rather than grieve for their neighbor’s loss, they saw Israel’s national annihilation as an opportunity to take advantage and help themselves to Assyria’s leftovers.

Another Possibility

There is a second possible (and metaphorical) sense in which the princes of Judah may have become the moral equivalent of landmark movers. 2 Kings 16 gives the account of the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. He was a wicked man who would never have thought to consult God in times of peril; he sacrificed his own son as an offering to idols instead. In those days, Israel was allied with Syria and declared war on Judah. Under siege in Jerusalem, Ahaz sent messengers to the king of Assyria looking to establish an alliance, and he sweetened the pot with treasure from the house of the Lord. As a result, the Assyrian army swept in, attacked the Syrians and took their people captive, but also did significant damage to Samaria and Israel in the process.

So then, despite receiving a message of comfort and assurance from God himself through Isaiah that Judah was not in any danger from the Israelite/Syrian alliance, Ahaz chose to rely in the power of Assyria rather than the God of Israel. Naturally, in asking for Assyria’s help, Judah placed itself directly under Assyria’s power.

Not only that, but the “princes of Judah” may be held directly responsible for turning the attention of the Assyrians southward toward Israel, which they would utterly destroy as a nation within 65 years. If that isn’t the moral equivalent of moving somebody’s landmark, I’m not sure what is.

Hosea 5:11-12 — Insects and Infestations

“Ephraim is oppressed, crushed in judgment, because he was determined to go after filth. But I am like a moth to Ephraim, and like dry rot to the house of Judah.”

Figures of Speech in Scripture

As a child I remember hearing on more than one occasion that it was the day of the Lord that would come like a thief, not the Lord himself. I’m sure my instructors were well-intentioned, concerned for the Lord’s reputation. They did not want innocents drawing unsavory associations from a simile merely intended to communicate the unexpectedness of the Lord’s return. However, once I was old enough to read scripture for myself, I found the Lord himself is also coming like a thief, and he doesn’t mind plainly stating it for us. My instructors were trying to put words in the Lord’s mouth, which is never a good plan.

Figures of speech in scripture generally exist to convey a single idea. The writers have a specific point of comparison in view. Their images are not intended to be unpacked and applied beyond the scope of the writer’s obvious intended meaning.

For example, sometimes a sheep is a simile for a self-willed, iniquitous sinner. One may go astray like a sheep. Other times a sheep is a spotless sacrifice. The Lamb of God would take away the sin of the world, just as the lamb of an Israelite sin offering atoned for specific sins. Same figure of speech, but a very different meaning. Obviously neither we nor the Lord Jesus are like sheep in every way: we are not covered with wool, we do not graze in the field, we do not have four legs, and so on. Going beyond the relevant point of comparison adds nothing useful to the Holy Spirit’s message, and may become ridiculous.

The Point of Comparison

So then, when we find the Lord comparing himself to an insect and a wood-destroying fungus (or possibly the equivalent of cancer), we should not be taken aback. These are his words, after all. We are simply looking for a single intended point of comparison, rather than examining every aspect of the thing used as a simile.

What do they mean? Well, moths, dry rot and cancer all rob something of its structural integrity and usefulness, and do so in ways that often go undetected until it is too late. A motheaten garment is no longer wearable. A house full of dry rot is no longer livable; it is deteriorated and potentially dangerous. But its owners probably never saw it coming, any more than did the people who used to wear the clothes that sat in a dark closet for too long being nibbled away at. And cancer? Well, some of us know all about that.

The only real difference is that while a few recently-hatched clothes-moth larvae can ruin a garment in one night and a few food-moth larvae can render a bag of flour or oats inedible in no time at all, dry rot and cancer generally take a while to develop. Judah’s ruin would come just as inevitably as Israel’s, but not quite as speedily.

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