Saturday, March 26, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (20)

A simile is a figure of speech in which the words “like” or “as” are used. A metaphor is a figure of speech where the terms of comparison are simply offered without the prepositions. In English at least, Hosea 7 is chock full of both types of comparisons. The nation of Israel is compared to at least five different things: (1) adulterers, (2) a heated oven, (3) an insufficiently baked cake, (4) a senseless dove, and (5) a bow that fails the archer.

With such a diverse selection of imagery, you would think the prophet would have no trouble making his point. But when hearts are hard enough, nothing gets through.

Hosea 7:1-4 — The Adulterers

“When I would heal Israel, the iniquity of Ephraim is revealed, and the evil deeds of Samaria, for they deal falsely; the thief breaks in, and the bandits raid outside. But they do not consider that I remember all their evil. Now their deeds surround them; they are before my face. By their evil they make the king glad, and the princes by their treachery. They are all adulterers.”

Inside and Outside

The comparison of idolatry to sexual sin is not a new one in Hosea. I will not belabor it. In fact this is the 22nd (and third last) reference in the book to adultery, whoredom or prostitution, either literally or as a figure of speech connoting the worship of false gods. The historical narrative that drives the book is based on this image. Hosea seems to have almost exhausted that line of thought. Like men or women who cheat on their spouses, the entire nation has become disloyal and treacherous.

God starts by declaring once again that his object and desire for Israel is to heal and not to destroy. But he cannot heal the nation against the will of its people, and they are bound and determined to behave treacherously, not only toward God but toward one another.

Two kinds of evil are described here: there is the thief, who breaks in and does his damage surreptitiously, and there is the bandit, who assaults you with numbers and weapons in the open country. It may be that these were literal problems in Israel, or that they are metaphors for the various ways in which the more powerful members of a society exploit the weak. But God’s point is that whether evil is done in the open or in secret, it does not escape his eyes. “I remember all their evil,” he says, whether or not others acknowledge it. “Their deeds surround them; they are before my face.” Nothing escapes the scrutiny of the Most High, and nothing will escape his judgment.

The Glad King

Evil exists on a spectrum. The nineteen monarchs who ruled the breakaway nation of Israel for just over two centuries were not uniformly awful. As we might expect, there were degrees of wickedness to be observed from one reign to another. Nevertheless, toward the end of Israel’s existence there was a period of slightly over 40 years in which the rulers were worse than usual. The kingdom changed hands six times, four times by way of a murderous coup d’├ętat (see 2 Kings 14 on). Hosea lived through this entire period from the tail end of the reign of Jeroboam II until after the fall of Samaria to Assyria in 722 BC. We are told in verse 1 of the book that the portion of his ministry related to Israel took place during the reign of Jeroboam II, but from this chapter it seems it was apparent to the prophet (and certainly to God) that a great deal of political turmoil was about to follow Jeroboam’s reign. The chapter contains plenty of prophetic hints about what was to come.

Here God indicts the entire ruling class of Israel during Jeroboam’s time. He says, “By their evil they make the king glad, and the princes by their treachery.” Coffman writes, “The king and the princes, who should have been the leaders of the nation were, instead, wholehearted participants in the evil ways of the people. Corruption had reached the highest level of their society, and the total and complete ruin of the nation had occurred.”

Moreover, everything after Jeroboam was straight downhill.

Hosea 7:4-7 — The Heated Oven

“They are like a heated oven whose baker ceases to stir the fire, from the kneading of the dough until it is leavened. On the day of our king, the princes became sick with the heat of wine; he stretched out his hand with mockers. For with hearts like an oven they approach their intrigue; all night their anger smolders; in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire. All of them are hot as an oven, and they devour their rulers. All their kings have fallen, and none of them calls upon me.”

Metaphors and Details

I have mentioned before that the figures of speech used in scripture are not generally intended to be dissected down to the fine details. The writer who employs them will usually go ahead and tell us in what way this thing compares to that thing. It is also necessary to study the entire comparison being made, and not simply pick out a bunch of nouns. Here, Ephraim is not simply like an oven, but like a heated oven whose baker ceases to stir the fire. The details matter.

Unfortunately, we are over two and half millennia culturally, linguistically and geographically downstream from the writer, and more than a few of these turns of phrase are not so easy to understand, even for skilled translator. One good suggestion is that Hosea is describing the baker’s practice of kneading dough and letting it rise, often overnight, while the fire in the oven sat untended. (There is a reference here to a fire that smolders at night, then blazes to life in the morning.) In the same way, the potential for revolution lay smoldering even when the rulers of late-period Israel seemed to be firmly in control.

Hot as an Oven

It should be remembered that the princes in view in these verses were powerful men with agendas of their own. Several would take the opportunity to seize power after the death of Jeroboam, and we can be sure they did not hatch their various conspiracies on the spur of the moment. The suggestion here is that they waited for their opportunities and seized them when they occurred. On top of that, it is highly probable that the court intrigues were not limited to those who successfully seized power. There were probably half a dozen failed conspiracies and coups that never came to fruition for every one that did. It was not that one or two in the political class were evil men. God says, “All of them are hot as an oven, and they devour their rulers.”

This pattern of perpetual plotting and serial assassination may be observed throughout all the ancient empires, including Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome. Even dynasties that initially appear to be members of a single family line often included usurpers who killed their masters and took their family names to legitimize their rule. Judah stands as a remarkable exception: there, the Davidic family dynasty was miraculously preserved through the reigns of nineteen kings despite the efforts of conspirators like Athaliah to destroy it.

God had something in mind for a future Son of David that no combination of human and inhuman conspirators could keep from coming to pass.

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