Saturday, April 23, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (24)

The apostle Paul taught the Corinthian Christians to examine themselves before eating and drinking in remembrance of the Lord Jesus. Repentance and confession would naturally follow; after all, self-examination that doesn’t result in a change of heart and conduct is a worthless exercise.

Short version: sin must be dealt with before worship or fellowship can truly take place.

Paul was not introducing the Corinthians to a novel concept. In Leviticus, the sin offering doesn’t appear until chapter 4, after burnt offerings, grain offerings and peace offerings have been dealt with. However, in practice the sin offering invariably came first. We see this in both the consecration of the priesthood and high priest, as well as in the rituals involved in the annual Day of Atonement. I find myself doing the same thing when I pray: there is a strong instinct in me to get any unconfessed sin on the table and dispensed with before anything else.

So then, first and foremost, altars were for dealing with sin. After that, fellowship and worship could take place without the worshiper incurring judgment.

Hosea 8:11-13 — Many Altars to No Effect

“Because Ephraim has multiplied altars for sinning, they have become to him altars for sinning. Were I to write for him my laws by the ten thousands, they would be regarded as a strange thing. As for my sacrificial offerings, they sacrifice meat and eat it, but the Lord does not accept them.”

Altars for Sinning

The ESV translation of this first line (“Because Ephraim has multiplied altars for sinning, they have become to him altars for sinning”) is a little unfortunate in that it may appear redundant or even trite. We can hardly fault the translators; they were simply following the Hebrew, in which the phrase מִזְבֵּחַ חָטָא (“altars” / “sin”) repeats itself. However, I feel the NIV (“Though Ephraim built many altars for sin offerings, these have become altars for sinning”), while less literal, does a better job of bringing out the way Hosea’s original audience would have heard his words. The KJV and NASB do something similar.

The idea is that the people of Israel had constructed many altars to deal with the matter of placating heaven with respect to human failure, but because of their wilful ignorance of what actually constitutes sin in the first place and/or their unwillingness to give it up, all they ended up doing was multiplying their guilt. Their offerings not only failed to produce a state in which they could approach their God and have fellowship with him, they actually made the situation worse.

An analogy is found in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The latter is said to be justified, the former is not. The Pharisee’s trip to the temple to pray only compounded his problem, adding pride to his list of infractions. Likewise, Solomon writes that it is better to draw near to listen than to offer the sacrifice of fools. Absent the right condition of heart, multiplying altars and trips to the altar is indeed a fool’s errand. As Isaiah put it, “Who has required of you this trampling of my courts?” Far from placating God and making atonement for sin, a disingenuous approach to the altar is a source of further offense.

Laws by the Ten Thousands

Familiarity with the word of God is only useful if we actually do something about what we read. Here, God complains “Were I to write for him my laws by the ten thousands, they would be regarded as a strange thing.” The word for “ten thousands” in Hebrew is indefinitely large, which is probably why the ESV makes this a conditional future statement, as the Law of Moses only contains something like 613 rules. Other translations put the statement in the past tense, as if God had already revealed his will in such great abundance as to preclude any misinterpretation on the part of those who actually cared to read it. Whether past or future, the point seems to be that no amount of revelation of God’s will helps those who pay no attention to it, whereas a few words are sufficient for the humble, searching heart.

The words “strange thing” translate the ordinary Hebrew word for a foreigner. Israel found no personal connection to the law of God. Its people were so disconnected from their own need and so unaware of their own state that they may as well never have had the law in the first place.

Food without Fellowship

Eating and fellowship are intimately connected in scripture. It is no accident that the early church celebrated the Lord’s supper as a “love feast”. Some of the offerings made under the Law of Moses were entirely for God. Others were eaten by the priests. Still others included a portion for the person bringing the sacrifice. These speak of the fellowship with God that is intended to follow the making of atonement for sin. However, if no atonement has been made because a sacrifice was offered in ignorance of its true purpose, no fellowship can occur. This was the case with Israel: “As for my sacrificial offerings, they sacrifice meat and eat it, but the Lord does not accept them.” The formalities and rituals were all observed, but they failed to serve the purpose for which they were designed.

Hosea 8:13-14 — Back the Way You Came

“Now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt. For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces, and Judah has multiplied fortified cities; so I will send a fire upon his cities, and it shall devour her strongholds.”

Returning to Egypt

Since there is nothing in the historical books of the Bible to connect post-exilic Israel and Egypt, it is tempting to try to apply the prophecies of a return there to Judah instead. The voluntary Judean return to Egypt a century later is described in Jeremiah, and indeed, Judah is certainly mentioned right here in the immediate context. However, chapter 9 will shortly confirm it is the northern kingdom and not Judah that Hosea has in view.

Some of the citizens of the northern kingdom dispersed throughout the Assyrian Empire ended up in Egypt after the fact. Assyria would conquer and control much of Egypt for a 14 year period roughly fifty years later, making this not just possible but highly likely. We first find this return prophesied by Moses in Deuteronomy, where he says that “the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other”, then follows it with “And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” The Assyrians, like many other ancient empires, were fond of resettling conquered territory and peoples, presumably in order to keep any one group from amassing strength in numbers.

This is surely what happened to many Israelites within a few years of their initial deportation from their own land. It is a sad commentary on the wilfulness of man. God had never intended his people to return to lives of impoverishment and slavery.

Palaces and Strongholds

There are some wonderful things said about the city of Zion in the Psalms and elsewhere. New Jerusalem is also a city. These positive expressions of urban glory might lead us to think everything scripture has to say about cities is on the positive side. But history shows us that urbanization comes with plenty of negatives. Get enough people together in one place and you will almost certainly have problems managing it.

One of the biggest temptations for ancient city dwellers was to begin to regard themselves as invincible. A great big wall between you and an invading army will generally do that, especially if you have successfully repelled repeated attempts to break through it. This was the misplaced confidence of Belshazzar, who feasted and got drunk with Medes and Persians massed outside his city walls, only to be killed the same night. Here, Hosea condemns both Judah and Israel for putting their trust in fortified cities rather than relying on God for their protection.

When Israel entered Canaan, God was with them. Fortresses fell to them one after another. They were the besiegers, not the besieged. But with the passage of time and the accumulation of fortresses, the two nations began to glory and place their confidence in the defenses they had erected, and God was left out of their calculations. “Israel has forgotten his Maker,” says Hosea.

God would shortly show Israel how human schemes compare to heavenly protection. They did not fare well.

Eighth century BC altar from Tel Be'er-Sheva by Tamarah, CC BY-SA 3.0

No comments :

Post a Comment