Saturday, May 07, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (26)

Sometimes even the best resources come up a bit short.

I doubt there has ever been a time in history when so many Christians have had access to so many translations of scripture and such a plethora of fine interpretive tools. All the same, if we are honest, there are still times we have to admit we are not 100% sure what the text is saying.

This is one of those.

I’m not saying the next few verses of Hosea are so obscure we can’t understand them at all; we can pick up the general thrust of the author’s intent from the context. The overall message of the futility of Israel’s religious institutions and the certainty of God’s coming judgment is crystal clear. It’s just that some of the specifics are a little more obscure than we might like.

So don’t expect a lot of dogmatism this week ...

Hosea 9:5-6 — Away from Destruction

“What will you do on the day of the appointed festival, and on the day of the feast of the Lord? For behold, they are going away from destruction; but Egypt shall gather them; Memphis shall bury them. Nettles shall possess their precious things of silver; thorns shall be in their tents.”

This question is rhetorical and carries the “futile worship” theme of verse 4 to its obvious conclusion: if the ordinary daily offerings will no longer be available to Israel when dispersed throughout the Assyrian Empire, how much more the holidays and feasts?

An Egyptian Burial

The book of Ruth tells the story of a woman whose family left Israel for Moab during a famine. Most commentators suggest something like that was happening here; attentive citizens of the northern kingdom were reading the tea leaves, coming to the conclusion that Assyria would shortly conquer their nation, and making themselves scarce. The most common suggestion is that these folks were running to Egypt. That is certainly one possibility, though we have nothing in the historical books from the reign of Jeroboam II to confirm it.

However, it should be noted that Hosea does not say that in “going away from destruction” his fellow Israelites were running south to Egypt. He simply states that “Egypt shall gather them; Memphis shall bury them.” They might run wherever they liked (other than Judah, of course, where they would have had some protection for at least a century or so), but Assyria would not stop projecting its power at the southern border of the northern kingdom. These refugees and nomads would ultimately find themselves dispersed through the Assyrian Empire, many of them winding up in Egypt whether or not that was their original intention. God had ordained judgment on Israel, and running from it to other nations would provide no escape. Memphis may be singled out because the city was notable for its burials; commentators refer to it as a “necropolis”.

Precious Things of Silver

The reference to precious things of silver suggests Hosea is specifically addressing the more affluent Israelites with these questions, as he does many times throughout the book. The poorer Israelites would have been unlikely to own precious things of any sort. In any case, fleeing Israel would not protect the elite or preserve their wealth. The word “tents” rather than “houses” suggests a people on the run. In the end the nettles and thorns would grow over their abandoned goods and possessions.

Hosea 9:7-9 — No Profit from the Prophets

“The days of punishment have come; the days of recompense have come; Israel shall know it. The prophet is a fool; the man of the spirit is mad, because of your great iniquity and great hatred. The prophet is the watchman of Ephraim with my God; yet a fowler’s snare is on all his ways, and hatred in the house of his God. They have deeply corrupted themselves as in the days of Gibeah: he will remember their iniquity; he will punish their sins.”

This is the bit that splits the commentators right down the middle.

False Prophets and True

Normally a deep dive into the Hebrew might help, but with regard to this sequence of statements about prophets in the northern kingdom, not so much. Basically there are two theories: the phrases “the prophet is a fool” and “the man of the spirit is mad” refer either to false prophets or true.

Now, the historical books have plenty to say about false prophets in Judah during the days of Jeremiah and in Israel during the days of Ahab, when they often greatly outnumbered the true prophets of God, but nothing at all about false prophets in the northern kingdom during this particular period. In Hosea there is a single reference to stumbling prophets in 4:5 and another to faithful prophets in 6:5. The prophet Amos (Hosea’s contemporary) was gainsaid not by false prophets but by a lying priest. Of course that doesn’t mean large numbers of false prophets didn’t ply their trade in the northern kingdom, but we have no external way to confirm it. Further, if these are false prophets Hosea is referring to, how can it be said that the prophet is “the watchman of Ephraim with my God”?

Keeping Watch Over the House

It seems most likely to me that the line “The prophet is a fool; the man of the spirit is mad” describes the way the Israelite leadership regarded Hosea and other men who spoke for God during this period. Israel was so profoundly sinful and hateful that they could not take in God’s message, so they accused his prophets of being out of their minds instead. That makes the phrase “The prophet is the watchman of Ephraim with my God” Hosea’s corrective to the conventional wisdom about prophets, which makes perfect sense. In reality, God had made Hosea and others his watchmen to sound the alarm for a sinful nation. This is precisely what God says to Ezekiel about his mission: “You, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.”

Of these watchmen God had appointed, Hosea says, “a fowler’s snare is on all his ways”. The word “ways” refers to paths. The true man of the spirit in Israel had traps set for him everywhere he went, just as the Jewish religious authorities set endless traps for the Lord Jesus hoping to catch him in his words. It was impossible for the prophetic ministry to be effective when the office of prophet was not recognized or respected in Israel. The prophet was in a Catch 22 because of the hard hearts of his audience. If he told the truth, he was considered crazy. If he told people what they wanted to hear, he would be unfaithful to his God. It was not an easy job.

I suspect the words “in the house of his God” do not refer to any of the counterfeit temples in Israel, but rather to the household of Israel more generally, just as Ezekiel was made a watchman for the house (or household) of Israel. The hatred for God’s truth was not merely expressed in temples but throughout the nation.

The Days of Gibeah

There are several suggestions as to what this “deep corruption” associated with Gibeah means. Some think it refers to Saul’s disobedience and loss of his kingdom associated with it. But that incident turned on a failure of faith in one man. It was a pivotal and consequential sin, but you would hardly refer to it as “deep corruption”. Further, it is not the “day of Gibeah” but “days”.

It seems far more likely to me this is a reference to the events described in Judges 19, where the men of Gibeah had become so depraved that they behaved like the Sodomites who surrounded Lot’s house plotting an evening of homosexual gang rape. It is not a specific incident but the general level of depravity in Gibeah during the time of the Judges to which Israel is now being compared. As in the days of Gibeah, sexually debased behavior had become acceptable to the mainstream of Israelite society. Hosea very appropriately finishes with “he [God] will remember their iniquity; he will punish their sins”.

Indeed. How could he not? Our God is nothing if not consistent.

No comments :

Post a Comment