Saturday, July 23, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (37)

Some chapter divisions in our Bibles are more helpful than others. Not every chapter stands on its own. The contents of many may be better understood by looking backward or forward.

I mentioned a couple of weeks back that I found chapter 12 of Hosea difficult to analyze. In this case it’s not the chapter divisions that are the problem; chapter 12 stands just fine as a discrete unit in a larger message. What I find hard to understand is the structure of the chapter itself.

Prophetic Ping Pong

Why has its writer elected to ping-pong back and forth between statements about Ephraim (the northern kingdom), Judah (the southern kingdom), Israel (the entire nation, currently divided but historically, and in God’s eyes, a single entity) and Jacob (the father of the nation, whose name appears both personally and nationally in the same passage)? The various pieces don’t seem to add up to any kind of integrated whole.

Anyway, it’s all rather mysterious to me, and I feel ill-equipped to deal with it, but here we are, so let’s carry on and see where we end up.

The chapter is composed of five distinct parts. First, there are three statements about Ephraim. These occupy the first, third and fifth spots. Each charges the northern kingdom with a different offense or offenses. Then there is a passage indicting Judah and associating the southern kingdom with the nation’s father, Jacob. Finally, there is a passage indicting Israel as a whole, also connected to Jacob the man.

Hosea 12:1, 7-9, 14 — Three Passages About Ephraim

(1) “Ephraim feeds on the wind and pursues the east wind all day long; they multiply falsehood and violence; they make a covenant with Assyria, and oil is carried to Egypt.”

(7-9) “A merchant, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress. Ephraim has said, ‘Ah, but I am rich; I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin.’ I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; I will again make you dwell in tents, as in the days of the appointed feast.”

(14) “Ephraim has given bitter provocation; so his Lord will leave his bloodguilt on him and will repay him for his disgraceful deeds.”

Verse 1

It is evident Hosea is singling out the nation’s leadership with each of these statements: the king, his nobles and advisors, and all who were decision-makers in Ephraim. The average citizen of the ten-tribe alliance had no ability to set policy, direct the mechanisms of state, or engage in political negotiations. Israel was no democracy, and while the average Israelite was an idolater and a sinner, he wasn’t personally responsible for driving the bus off the cliff. At best he was a grimy passenger.

The first statement about the leaders of Ephraim includes several charges. First, they “feed on the wind”, attempting to meet the nation’s needs in ways that are utterly futile. Then they pursue the east wind, which in scripture is always associated with destructive forces. So Ephraim moves from futility to self-destruction. Their politicking does not work and will end in the nation’s total undoing. Sounds very much like what is going on to the south of us at the moment.

Second charge: they multiply falsehood and violence. They used deceit and coercion to accomplish their purposes. Again, such tactics are becoming increasingly familiar to our readership.

Third charge: rather than appeal to God for help, they tried to solve their political problems with alliances, dealmaking and trade. However, bringing other nations into the picture would weaken and not strengthen Ephraim.

Verses 7-9

The word “merchant” in scripture is rarely a compliment. Ephraim’s internal dealings were full of greed and self-interest. False balances and oppression are odious to God, but the elite in Ephraim were unconcerned about the Lord’s opinion. They maintained an appearance of complying with the rules so they could justify their actions publicly if necessary, but the spirit of the law was irrelevant to them. The statement “they cannot find in me iniquity or sin” is a boast, but it is not against God; rather, it is against the corrupt system that was powerless to catch them engaging in their fraud. If legally challenged, they could claim they were operating between the lines even when the net effect of their labors produced social conditions that were wretched and immoral.

We have something comparable going on today in the West, as rich men play the markets to their ever-increasing benefit while the middle class disappears and the distance between rich and poor grows incrementally. Greed and usury are excused because “The market has spoken” and “It’s just how capitalism works.” What they don’t mention is that the market is rigged and much of the capitalism is of the crony variety.

God replies that he had known this people from the very beginning of their history. They had lived in tents before, and he could return them from the mansion to the tent in short order. The Feast of Tabernacles commemorated the passage from Egypt to Canaan so that when Israel had grown comfortable in the land that God had given them, their children would not forget where they had come from and the conditions in which their fathers had once lived. It was given “that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Israel had forgotten all of this history and the lesson the feast was intended to affirm. They needed a blunt reminder.

Verse 14

The word for “bloodguilt” here is literally “blood”: the Lord will “leave his blood” on him. These evil men would be unable to discharge their guilt no matter how many their sacrifices. As it turns out, Israel’s elite went into Assyrian captivity, while many of the poor were left behind in the land. The greatest punishment fell to those who most deserved it. From those to whom much has been given, much will be required.

This is where the chapter unhappily concludes. Next week we will jump back to the first of two passages that interrupt Hosea’s extended commentary on Ephraim.

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