Saturday, June 25, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (33)

One of the more ironic features of God’s judgment is that he sometimes gives men and women precisely what they are asking for, and it turns out to be not at all what they had in mind.

Israel craved meat and complained against God, so God gave them meat until it came out their nostrils and became loathsome to them.

Israel craved idols, so God gave them idols that were deaf, dumb and useless at protecting them.

Israel craved a king in order to be like the nations around them, so God gave them kings who drafted their sons into the army, who took their daughters into the royal palace as servants, who gave their fields and vineyards to others, who helped themselves to flocks and servants, and who made the people into slaves.

Beware of getting what you want from God when your desires are not in tune with his. Israel was about to learn this lesson. One of the things they often talked about was going back to Egypt …

Hosea 11:5 — Will They or Won’t They?

They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.”

Returning to Egypt

The theme of returning to Egypt recurs throughout the Old Testament. Having brought out a people for himself from Egypt with great signs and miraculous wonders that testified to the whole world of its day of his place far above all the false gods of men, YHWH told Israel it was not his intention or desire that they ever return to the country in which they had been enslaved (“You shall never return that way again”). To do so would undo the work of the exodus and cause the nations to question the power of Israel’s God.

The temptation to return to Egypt was a constant problem in the wilderness. Whenever anything went wrong, factions within the nation suggested appointing a new leader and returning to slavery, and invariably these rebellions met with acts of judgment. But despite their grumbling and unbelief, the Lord bore his people to their new home. There was never to be a time when Israel would make a national return to Egypt.

We Will Never Pass This Way Again?

So then, God’s revealed will for Israel was that they not return to Egypt. To do so voluntarily would be rank disobedience. But that does not mean no Israelite would ever walk the banks of the Nile again. Deuteronomy records God’s command not to return, but it also includes God’s prediction through Moses that under his judgment some Israelites would return in a future day in a very sorry state. “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.”

There is no contradiction here. Moses even refers back to what he said in chapter 17 (“a journey I promised that you should never make again”), making it evident he did indeed remember commanding the opposite of what he was now prophesying would occur.

Hosea and Israel in Egypt

Hosea makes mention on multiple occasions of this now-imminent judgment prophesied centuries prior by Moses. In chapter 7 he says, “This shall be their derision in the land of Egypt.” In chapter 8 he bluntly states, “Now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt.” In chapter 9 it is “Ephraim shall return to Egypt.” Later in chapter 11 he will say, “They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt”, which self-evidently requires them to have been taken there first.

So the judgment is well-established and repeatedly attested: some portion of the Israelite people will be resettled in Egypt by their Assyrian captors against their will. At this time, their condition will be so bad that even the comparative security of slavery would be a step up. In fact, they will even offer themselves for sale and find no takers.

This being the case, we might well ask why our passage from Hosea for today begins with the words “They shall not return to the land of Egypt”, when quite clearly some of them would.

Resolving the Apparent Contradiction

This apparent contradiction obviously confuses some commentators. My ESV offers an alternate reading which changes “not” to “surely”, reversing the prediction to align with the other four about Egypt. That is an unsatisfactory and unnecessary contortion: the Hebrew is lō', a very common negative particle consistently translated “no” or “not”.

A better explanation is that, being south and east of the attacking Assyrians and a great world power in conflict with Assyria, Egypt was a very natural place to flee for terrified Israelites who could afford to do so. So Hosea is probably simply saying, “You will not escape voluntarily with your riches to Egypt to live life under the protection of Pharaoh. Rather, you will be taken there by your Assyrian captors in abject poverty and against your will.”

It’s a simple formula. When you refuse to return to God, you are closing the door on all future options you might wish to pursue. You will be “returning” whether you like it or not: either to God in repentance, or to Egypt in rags.

Hosea 11:6-7 — Choices and Consequences

“The sword shall rage against their cities, consume the bars of their gates, and devour them because of their own counsels. My people are bent on turning away from me, and though they call out to the Most High, he shall not raise them up at all.”

Once again we see that Israel had plenty of choices … up until the moment they did not. Here they will be devoured “because of their own counsels”. Their arrogance and self-sufficiency led them to believe fighting was a better option than surrender, and as a result, they put the king of Assyria through three years of resistance that, like any other war fought far from home, was hugely expensive to conduct. Naturally, when the gates of Samaria finally fell, there would be no peaceful surrender for its people. They would be subject to all the wrath of a frustrated monarch determined to show the world that resisting his will was a very bad idea. The mothers and babies to be dashed to pieces at the end of the last chapter would bear the consequences of the unwise choices made by their rulers and husbands.

The final sentence describes another choice with consequences: turning away from God. Calling out for his help now would be utterly futile when they had resisted his call over a period of centuries. It is not that God refuses to hear truly repentant, desperate men and women. But people whose patterns of behavior are so ingrained they have permeated their entire culture cannot suddenly turn in the other direction en masse. Their hearts are hardened and even their calls to the Most High have become cynical white noise to which the heavens remain deaf.

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