Saturday, April 16, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (23)

Sometimes — though I believe it is fairly rare in this life — God steps in and judges individuals and nations directly. Miracles of destruction are often the means.

Most times, however, the world being ordered as it is, we find ourselves living with the natural consequences of a bad choice (or series of bad choices), and in hindsight can often even see the steps by which we deceived ourselves into doing things that have a downside far more significant than whatever passing twinge of desire we were seeking to fulfill at the time.

Examples could be multiplied.

Eating too many of the wrong things repeatedly — each bite comparatively innocuous in itself — produces long term health problems that cannot be walked back in a moment the way one’s fork can be turned aside. Neglecting a spouse repeatedly — on each occasion, a choice that might be defended as prudent or expeditious because of other pressing concerns — can lead to a divorce that turns one’s life upside down. On the national level, repeatedly capitulating to a vocal minority in order to make a series of comparatively small problems go away leads to civic strife and eventually civil war. France is apparently getting close.

In each case the consequences might be said by some to be produced by the judgment of God. Others would recognize that the choices themselves produced the undesirable consequences. This is the position in which Israel unwittingly found itself in the decades just before the fall of Samaria to the Assyrian army. Wind, meet whirlwind.

Hosea 8:7-10 — Disproportionate Consequences

“For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. The standing grain has no heads; it shall yield no flour; if it were to yield, strangers would devour it. Israel is swallowed up; already they are among the nations as a useless vessel. For they have gone up to Assyria, a wild donkey wandering alone; Ephraim has hired lovers. Though they hire allies among the nations, I will soon gather them up. And the king and princes shall soon writhe because of the tribute.”

The Wind and the Whirlwind

Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind almost requires no explanation; the metaphor has entered the vernacular. Reap the Whirlwind is the title of no less than four novels. The phrase has found its way into military speeches and all manner of other applications as an elegant way of saying that ill-advised choices produce the sort of unintended and wildly disproportionate consequences we have been considering.

In this case, Israel’s devotion to foreign gods would ultimately lead to Israel becoming foreigners in the nations of others. Their own God would give them up to the consequences of their actions. Everything that would happen to them would be a by-product of their own wrong choices.

The Headless Grain

“The standing grain has no heads; it shall yield no flour; if it were to yield, strangers would devour it.” I don’t think this line is intended literally. Hosea’s prophecy was given during the reign of Jeroboam II, which was far from the worst period in Israel’s history despite occasional foreign harassment. The prophecy anticipates the chaos that would follow Jeroboam’s death, and the series of cretins and misfits who would govern the nation in the years leading up to the Assyrian siege of Samaria, but thirty years would pass before all these things were fulfilled. In the meantime, harvests would come and grain would be eaten as usual, and Hosea’s words would be summarily ignored, also as usual.

One of two things is happening here, I think. Either Hosea is speaking of a harvest thirty years in the future, or else he is quoting a proverb. I think the latter is more likely. We might paraphrase it like this: “Headless grain yields no flour.” He is very likely referring back to a statement made a couple of sentences previously about the calf-god of Samaria. Worshiping idols made by men is an exercise in futility. They cannot save. They are like headless grain that leaves the farmer with no productive harvest. Even when they appear to produce results, the benefits they promise always end up in someone else’s pocket — or in this case, someone else’s stomach.

Swallowed Up

The next four sentences describe the northern kingdom’s futile efforts to salvage their sovereignty through strategic agreements and alliances with more powerful nations instead of by appealing to God for salvation from their enemies in time of trouble. The books of Kings and Chronicles are a sad commentary on the natural tendency men have to try to solve their own problems rather than admitting their need and humbling themselves before God. I am quite sure we do not have every instance of this sort of political maneuvering recorded, as many of the later reigns of Israel’s and Judah’s kings receive relatively brief treatment in scripture, but there is enough there to show us that attempts to negotiate your nation out of a bad spot rarely end well.

Alliances and deal-making were not new for Israel. They go back at least as far as the ninth or tenth king of Israel. We know this not from scripture but from a limestone Assyrian sculpture currently residing in the British Museum, which scholars refer to as the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. It depicts a Hebrew king called Yaw in Assyrian, identified as either Jehu or Joram (the king Jehu assassinated). Yaw is said to be “of the house of Omri”, which would be true for Joram but not for Jehu. Then again, there is no reason to believe Shalmaneser’s sculptors were overly-concerned with the minute dynastic details of a relatively insignificant vassal state to the south.

Prostrate Before Assyria

The obelisk refers to tribute brought or sent by Yaw around 841 BC (the year Joram was killed and Jehu ascended to the throne). Having ended previous alliances with Phoenicia and Judah, it turns out Israel had became officially subject to Assyria almost a full century before the fall of Samaria. The Assyrian cuneiform caption translates as follows:

“The tribute of Yaw, son of Omri: I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] spears.”

The king of Israel, or perhaps his ambassador, is depicted prostrate before the Assyrian monarch, not a terribly flattering commentary on Israel’s national relevance during those years. None of this is inconsistent with the scriptural accounts of the period, but it is a reminder that the writers of holy writ can’t be expected to sum up decades of history comprehensively in a few sentences, especially in areas irrelevant to the spiritual message of the books.

Biblical Examples of Futile Politicking

Kings and Chronicles also demonstrate the futility of negotiating foreign alliances as a substitute for repentance. Menahem of Israel paid 1,000 talents of silver to Tiglath-pileser III to maintain his throne, which provided only temporary relief. Hoshea, the last king of Israel, also became the vassal of Shalmaneser. It didn’t help his nation in the slightest. Ahaz king of Judah also entered into a short-lived and more successful alliance with the Assyrians, which ended with him remodeling the temple to resemble the one in Damascus, which had just been conquered by Assyria. To any devout Judeans, this would be both blasphemous and terribly demeaning.

And it wasn’t just that foreign alliances reliably failed in practice; God had also spoken out very clearly against them through his prophets. During the reign of Asa in Judah, conflict with Israel to the north compelled the king to seek the help of Syria, which Asa bought with the treasures of the house of the Lord. Hanani the seer came to Asa and told him, “You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.” The Lord, who had previously given Asa victory in battle, was neglected and ignored in favor of pragmatism and politics. So Asa’s reign also ended badly.

Three More Metaphors

Here in Hosea, the pointlessness and inadequacy of such a strategy is once again brought out through three more metaphors. First, Israel is compared to a useless vessel among the nations. From the perspective of the aforementioned Assyrian stele this seems an apt description. To the kings of the north, the efforts of Israel’s kings to prop themselves up by pandering to the more powerful political entities of the day must have appeared truly pathetic. Next, Israel is compared to a wild donkey wandering alone, with neither the protection of the herd nor the security of the stall. Finally, they are compared to a man who has to pay for sex: “Ephraim has hired lovers.” The prostitute is happy to take your money, but she will not respect you in the morning.

What Israel never realized is that each failed attempt to placate the tiger further compromised their position, made them look weak and vulnerable on the world stage, and invited other predators to help themselves to the takings. The only real solution would have been to turn to a God who loved them and had promised to protect them and care for them if only they would seek him out.

Writhing Because of the Tribute

Hosea finishes this portion of his commentary by saying “the king and princes shall soon writhe because of the tribute”. This was unquestionably the case with Menahem at least, and probably in every other instance when this doomed strategy was employed. The king exacted fifty shekels of silver from every wealthy man in Israel (roughly estimated to be something like two years’ wages) to buy the temporary friendship of Assyria. Apart from the sheer humiliation involved in such an exercise, it was also tremendously costly.

The lesson? When we reap what we sow, the harvest may be more than we can handle.

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