Saturday, May 14, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (27)

It’s hard for the natural mind to imagine being better off dead, isn’t it. Outside of Christ, I certainly can’t picture how death would ever be a preferable state.

This is not necessarily the case at other times and other places. Sometimes children are born into situations so appalling it would genuinely have been better for them not to have lived at all. That may sound like mere hyperbole, but scripture gives plenty of examples.

Alas Indeed

When the Lord Jesus spoke of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, he commented, “Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days!” He knew what the Romans would do to Jewish women and their offspring who could not easily make their escape. Of Judas he also said, “It would have been better for that man had he not been born.” From the Old Testament, Job’s misery was so great that he cried to God, “Why did you bring me out from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me.” And even godly Jeremiah, living at what appeared to be the tail end of the Davidic dynasty in Judah, could say, “Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me.”

Better off dead. Hard to believe, but there you go. And if you have ever read a little Assyrian history, you know why. Ashurnasirpal II, for example, left a whole series of tablets behind describing atrocities committed by his soldiers against the children in cities they conquered, including flaying off their skin, burning them alive, and making pillars of their skulls. Hosea will say this in chapter 13: “Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword; their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.”

When our fellow human beings are completely without mercy, sometimes a miscarriage is the only mercy available.

Meanwhile, we are still back in the middle of chapter 9 …

Hosea 9:10-14 — Flying Glory

“Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers. But they came to Baal-peor and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame, and became detestable like the thing they loved. Ephraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird — no birth, no pregnancy, no conception! Even if they bring up children, I will bereave them till none is left. Woe to them when I depart from them! Ephraim, as I have seen, was like a young palm planted in a meadow; but Ephraim must lead his children out to slaughter. Give them, O Lord — what will you give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.”

Grapes and Fig Trees

Clarke’s Commentary paraphrases the line about grapes in the wilderness: “While they were faithful, they were as acceptable to me as ripe grapes would be to a thirsty traveller in the desert.” Coffman comments, “Men of the stature of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were among the noblest ever to grace the ranks of mankind.” Barnes says, “God gave to Israel both richness and pleasantness in His own sight.” All of these may be true statements in one degree or another, but it seems to me they are not necessarily the intended thrust of the figures of speech when the two are taken together, as they probably should be.

Grapes in the wilderness are not only refreshing but also impossible, or at least extremely unlikely. They don’t grow there. Israel made its way through the wilderness without any sign of grapes until the spies entered Canaan. The evidence they had arrived at the Promised Land was the fruit of the vine. Likewise, fig trees do not produce fruit in their first season. On average, they take three to five years to produce fruit. It seems to me both metaphors speak not to the richness and pleasantness God found in the patriarchs or conferred upon them, but rather to the sheer unlikeliness that he would ever choose Israel in the first place.

This is what Moses sought to impress on Israel as he charged its second generation not to disobey God as their fathers had done: that they had not been chosen by God because they were special in any way. “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.”

Not only were Israel few in number, but Jacob’s children had become idolaters in Egypt, worshiping the gods of their captors. There was nothing lovely or refreshing about them. They were quite undesirable. So, far from having affection for them inspired by their character or behavior, Moses says God “set his love on you”. God’s deliberate choice of an insignificant group of rebel slaves was all of grace and all due to his own promise-keeping, loving character. This is what makes the next few statements so appalling.

Consecrated at Baal-Peor

Baal-peor marks a significant departure for Israel. The magnitude of this particular error may be missed amidst all the other rebellious acts chronicled for us during the wilderness period. At Peor the chief men of Israel fell prey to the sexually-charged deceptions of Balaam, committed adultery with the daughters of the Midianites, bound themselves to foreign gods and brought a plague into the camp … until Israel was delivered by summarily executing the culprits. It was a bloody and disastrous interlude, and one not to be forgotten.

Later commentators do not miss the special wretchedness of this major betrayal. Joshua asks rhetorically, “Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the Lord?” One would hope so. The psalmist gives more explicit detail: “Then they yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices offered to the dead.” Hosea writes that they “consecrated themselves to the thing of shame”. The leaders of Israel set themselves apart as “holy” to Baal!

Here, Hosea holds the incident at Peor up as emblematic of the nation’s centuries of idolatrous history. That treasonous, adulterous spirit still held sway in Israel hundreds of years later. The children had displayed the same spiritual genetics as their fathers, and had become detestable. God could not continue to bless.

Better Off Dead

Much of the rest of this chapter will be given over to the impact of the Assyrian invasion on Israel’s children. I won’t go over each reference to the death of Israel’s children individually, but merely point out that this was a tragic but necessary part of God’s judgment designed to bring the nation to the point of repentance. Nothing less would suffice. Indeed, it would be impossible for God to truly give over his people to the consequences of their actions if he excepted them from all the things their Assyrian conquerors normally did to those they conquered.

Nevertheless, you can hear the Lord’s sympathy for those poor Israelite children and their mothers in these verses: “Give them, O Lord — what will you give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.” Why? Because a child not born was a child who did not experience the horrors to come. Miscarriage in those days would be a mercy.

Something similar was said by a prophet concerning Abijah the son of Jeroboam. When his mother appealed to God concerning her son’s sickness, she got this response: “He only of Jeroboam shall come to the grave, because in him there is found something pleasing to the Lord, the God of Israel, in the house of Jeroboam.” In this case, rather unbelievably, the times were so bad that a premature death was actually a sign of God’s approval. Abijah’s sickness to death earned him a proper burial and an escape from far worse a fate.

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