Saturday, April 30, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (25)

The text over the photo to the right is nicked from a 1986 Steve Camp song entitled Threshing Floor, one of my favorite Christian lyrics ever, a great melody atop a characteristically elegant bottom end from legendary bassist Leland Sklar. Consider this post my homage to a job extra-well done. If “Pastor Steve” is still dishing it from the platform like this, I suspect the Lord would say he is doing okay.

But that raises a question: do most people even know what a threshing floor is? I imagine urbanized Westerners unfamiliar with the Bible probably don’t. I’ve certainly never seen one; they have been obsolete in the West since the 19th century.

There were two main types of threshing floors, indoor and outdoor, usually near a farmhouse or inside a barn or other building. Sheaves of freshly harvested grain would be opened up and the stalks spread around the floor. A pair of donkeys, oxen or horses would walk around in a circle, dragging a heavy threshing board behind them, tearing the ears of grain from the stalks. Finally, the broken stalks and grain were thrown up in the air with a winnowing fork or fan so that the lighter chaff would be caught by the moving air and fall a few feet away, while the heavier grain would land near the winnower’s feet to be sieved one more time. The grain was retained and the chaff burned up or otherwise disposed of.

It was a simple, efficient way of separating the good from the bad, of keeping what you wanted and getting rid of what you didn’t. Automation makes it unnecessary today, but threshing was done this way for centuries, and still is today in more primitive societies.

It is hardly surprising to find the threshing floor has become a universal metaphor for judgment.

Hosea 9:1-3 — Whores and Threshing Floors

“Rejoice not, O Israel! Exult not like the peoples; for you have played the whore, forsaking your God. You have loved a prostitute’s wages on all threshing floors. Threshing floor and wine vat shall not feed them, and the new wine shall fail them. They shall not remain in the land of the Lord, but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean food in Assyria.”

Exult Not

The word translated “exult” or “rejoice” is not specifically liturgical terminology. God told Moses his brother Aaron was coming to meet him, and that their reunion (after forty years apart) would be a source of gladness of heart (same word). However, the injunction to rejoice appears regularly in the Old Testament to describe the spirit of religious celebrations like the Feast of Booths when properly observed, and indeed any joy experienced in worship or fellowship with God.

Perhaps what is being said here is something like this: The “peoples” (or other nations) characteristically celebrated when they gathered to worship their gods. These offerings were occasions for festivity. They had the wrong gods, but they had an appropriately-festive emotional tone when gathering to them. That enthusiastic spirit would be foreign to Israel. At least the nations were loyal to their own false deities, while Israel had betrayed theirs and followed after the gods of other nations. There was nothing to celebrate when Israel gathered: they were traitors to their own God-given religious system. Their worship would fall flat in the same way that when the adulteress goes home to her husband from her lover, any attempt to behave as if the marriage bond is still intact will carry a false note and fail to satisfy either party. “Playing the whore” is the most apt metaphor under the circumstances.

Threshing Floors

Under the Law of Moses prosperity and worship were tied together. A people that worshiped their God appropriately would be blessed in their fields, and a people that gratefully brought the tithe of their bumper crop to the Lord for the maintenance of the priesthood would also be worshiping appropriately. This is all laid out in Numbers 18. The threshing floor and the regular trip to the altar were two component parts of a spiritual perpetual motion machine.

The threshing floor has all kinds of symbolic value in scripture. When Jacob, the father of Israel, died, he was mourned on the threshing floor of Atad for seven days. When Gideon sought guidance from God, he put out his fleece on the threshing floor. Uzzah died for touching the ark at the threshing floor of Nacon, and when David later numbered the people, the angel sent to destroy Jerusalem stood on the threshing floor of Araunah. David thought it fitting for that threshing floor to become a place of worship, and he sacrificed there. Later, Solomon would build the temple on that very site. In Jeremiah, the threshing floor is the place of Babylon’s judgment.

Man, Meet God

In scripture then, the threshing floor is the place where man meets God, whether in worship or blessing or judgment or revelation. The threshing floor is where wheat and chaff are separated and the truth is laid bare.

Of all places one might engage in prostitution, it turns out Israel loved a prostitute’s wages right on their threshing floors, the symbols of their God’s judgment and ever-watchful eye. What irony! Perhaps this is literal, and the practice of building altars on threshing floors had become widespread. Then again, perhaps “threshing floor” is a metaphor for temple, and the sense is that Israel engaged in idolatry right in the buildings dedicated to their God.

But the wages of prostitution are notoriously fickle. The threshing floor would not feed them, and the new wine would fail them. The place where God had desired to bless his people became for them a place of emptiness, loss and judgment. The people of Israel were thumbing their nose at God, but they would not have the last laugh.

Egypt and Assyria

As mentioned in our last study, this passage in chapter 9 makes it clear that Hosea is speaking of the northern kingdom returning to Egypt, and not Judah. Egypt was the place of slavery. The blessings of Canaan were no longer to be enjoyed by a rebellious people, and they would return to a state of deprivation, wandering and servitude.

The reference to unclean food is probably similar to the situation we find in the first chapter of Daniel. The Babylonian king’s food and wine would have been a source of defilement to the devout Judeans in Daniel’s circle, probably because these delicacies had first been offered to idols. So far as we know, the young initiates from other nations with other gods had no scruples about such things, and participated in the Babylonian king’s table without concern for their own spiritual betrayal. But God made a way for Daniel and his friends to avoid participating with the Chaldeans in activities that would have interfered with their separation to the God of Israel and would have compromised their testimony to his greatness in Babylon.

For obvious reasons, the soon-to-be-captive princes from the northern kingdom would not establish the same sort of clear testimony in Assyria as Daniel established in Babylon. They would succumb to the pressure to defile themselves, and their distinctiveness as witnesses to the one true God would disappear.

Hosea 9:4 — Trouble, Wickedness and Sorrow

“They shall not pour drink offerings of wine to the Lord, and their sacrifices shall not please him. It shall be like mourners’ bread to them; all who eat of it shall be defiled; for their bread shall be for their hunger only; it shall not come to the house of the Lord.”

Mourners’ Bread

The Hebrew word for “mourn” in this verse is 'āven, which means trouble, wickedness or sorrow. In our day, death is just considered another part of the “circle of life”. That is not the case: death is the consequence of original sin and the mark of a fallen world. There is nothing natural, normal or good about it.

Ceremonial defilement is connected with death under the Law of Moses, so it is not surprising to find that the normal Israelite process of mourning temporarily rendered the mourner “unclean”. This is the subject of Leviticus 21, where instructions are given to the priests not to make themselves unclean for anyone except their closest relatives. The reason given also has to do with bread: “they offer the bread of their God”. This was not necessarily literal bread (though bread was included in some offerings). The word “bread” is often used in both Testaments as a proxy for food more generally.

Mourners’ bread was eaten outside the camp by those who had defiled themselves by coming into contact with death in some form, usually by touching a body. Soldiers who had killed in war were also required to spend a week outside the camp purifying every garment or tool that may have become contaminated by contact with death. A person in this defiled state could not make an offering even if he had one he wanted to make. This matter of ceremonial uncleanness had to be dealt with first.

In this case, the people of Israel would be going into a new situation as exiles in the Assyrian Empire, where every day of their lives would be like living outside the Israelite camp in a state of defilement. They would live on (“their bread shall be for their hunger only”), but they would be corporately out of fellowship with their God and far away from all the religious rituals with which they were familiar under the law.

Cooking and Cow Dung

Ezekiel would later provide a graphic illustration of this same principle by lying on his side for 390 days while cooking his bread over cow’s dung rather than wood. The point the Lord was making through his prophet was this: “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations where I will drive them.” The forcible ceremonial defilement was intended to drive home the message that there was a vastly more important spiritual issue that needed to be dealt with. Israel needed to repent, be cleansed by God, and brought back into fellowship with him.

Something analogous happens to us when we come even unintentionally into contact with the wickedness of the world around us. Our minds and hearts can be affected by what we hear, see and experience. I remember once feeling defiled by the foul lyrics to a song playing at the gym while I was working out, and could not get the earworm out of my head. It made it next to impossible to think about the things of God in the same moment. We need the washing of the word of God and prayer to bring us back into a state in which we can worship and fellowship in good conscience.

But just imagine living like that all the time. It’s not a pretty state.

Image courtesy Surya Prakash.S.A., CC BY-SA 3.0

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