Saturday, July 30, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (38)

The photo to the right reproduces my favorite classical attempt to represent Jacob’s struggle with the angel by French painter Pierre Patel (1604-1676). If you squint, you can just about see two figures wrestling on the bottom left. Patel’s design displays a certain cautious reverence sadly lacking in other painters of the period.

One of Hosea’s main themes in chapter 12 is the patriarch Jacob. The second and fourth divisions of the chapter use different aspects of Jacob’s life to instruct any willing ears in Israel or Judah.

Hosea 12:2-6 — Second Division: Judah and Jacob

“The Lord has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us — the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord is his memorial name: So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.”

Grasping the Heel

The first reference to Jacob (“I will punish Jacob”) is clearly not to the patriarch but to the nation(s) that bore his name. Jacob was long in his grave at this point. Jacob is one of several people in scripture whose names God changed, in this case from Jacob (“holder of the heel”) to Israel (“he strives with God”). Hosea says both these names were accurate: “In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God.” The first describes Jacob’s natural tendency in the flesh to be a manipulator and a cheat; the second, the persistent spirit for which he is commended by God. So then, in calling Israel “Jacob”, God is implying the nation is behaving carnally as Jacob did in his youth, rather than as Israel did once he began to have dealings with his God.

Jacob met God at Bethel twice, first in a dream in Genesis 28, then in Genesis 35 when God came to bless him and change his name. God restated the promises made to Abraham and Isaac, in fulfillment of which Israel became great, to Jacob in Bethel, including this one: “The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.”

The Man Who Would Not Quit

Hosea goes on to say, “There God spoke with us,” which is most likely a reference to that same conversation with Jacob, though there was a sense in which God had spoken to the nation through the prophet Samuel many times in Bethel; it was one of the regular places in which he judged Israel. The great irony is that in the very place where God had made his promises to the nation through its father, Jeroboam I had set up the golden calf which was the primary cause of God’s anger with Israel and the major reason for the nation’s descent into idolatry. Jeroboam probably chose that location precisely because of its association with the God of Israel. There was no better rival to the temple in Jerusalem in all the northern kingdom. It surely made it easier to conflate the calf god with the God Israel had traditionally worshiped.

The point of referring to Jacob is that he was a fighter. He would not quit. He was determined to have the blessing of God even at the risk of personal injury and long-term disability. Hosea is looking for that spirit among Jacob’s descendants. This is his appeal: “Hold fast” — just as their forefather did. “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.”

A Quarrel with Judah

How Judah in particular comes into this I really do not know. The commentators are quite unsatisfactory on that point. When Hosea last mentioned the southern kingdom at the end of chapter 11, it was positively: “Judah still walks with God and is faithful to the Holy One.” It is such an abrupt turn that some ancient authorities wrestled verse 2 into the form “The Lord and Judah have an indictment” (presumably against Ephraim, though he is not named). Most Hebrew language experts roundly reject this reconstruction.

How we got from there to here (“The Lord has an indictment against [literally, “quarrel with”] Judah”) is a bit of a puzzler, unless some time had passed between chapters 11 and 12. Perhaps this message addresses Judah’s conduct under a corrupt king. You may recall that Hosea prophesied during the reigns of four different Judean monarchs, not all of whom were godly men. Ahaz, for example, even sacrificed his son as an offering as the Canaanites were inclined to do.

So then, Judah’s sin remains unspecified. Hosea’s contemporaries must surely have understood the charge in a way we can’t today.

Hosea 12:10-13 — Fourth Division: Israel and Jacob

I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables. If there is iniquity in Gilead, they shall surely come to nothing: in Gilgal they sacrifice bulls; their altars also are like stone heaps on the furrows of the field. Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep. By a prophet the Lord brought Israel up from Egypt, and by a prophet he was guarded.”

In this fourth division of the chapter, Hosea now shifts his emphasis from Judah back to the northern kingdom. Jacob remains the focus of his lesson.

Iniquity in Gilead

When Assyria began to systematically dismantle the kingdom of Israel, Gilead was closest and least defensible territory, so it naturally went first. Tiglath-Pileser III turned the area into the Assyrian province of GalĘżazu around 733 BC.

You probably recall Gilead’s history: Two and a half tribes requested permission to settle an area outside the borders of Canaan east of the Jordan River. Moses granted this request on the condition that they fight alongside the other tribes to conquer the land originally promised them by God.

This was perhaps not the wisest choice the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh might have made. The Moabites and Ammonites lived in the area. When they grew strong, both nations harassed the Israelites in Gilead repeatedly, and crossing the Jordan may have discouraged other tribes from coming to their aid. Later, the area fell into Syrian hands. Finally, the Transjordan became Assyrian territory. Ezekiel 48 gives allotments for a future tribal resettlement of Israel in which the two-and-a-half tribes finally receive land alongside their brethren from the other tribes.

Hosea says, “If there is iniquity in Gilead, they shall surely come to nothing.” This was certainly the case, and the prophet’s word proved true in very short order.

Stone Heaps on the Furrows

Gilgal rates 39 mentions in the Old Testament, and not all the locations match. Because the name means literally “circle of standing stones”, it is reasonable to suppose, as some scholars do, that there was more than one Gilgal in Israel. This one appears to be associated with the northern kingdom rather than Judah.

It is unclear whether the statement about the altars being like stone heaps is present or future. If present, the meaning may be something like this: A field is furrowed in order to sow it in hope of growing a bountiful crop. Generally speaking, farmers prefer not to have stone heaps cluttering their furrows as it makes it difficult to do anything useful with the land. Hosea uses this as an illustration of Israelite idolatry: it was both counterproductive and ultimately futile. The “field” belonged to God. So long as the altars existed, the field could never produce a crop that would satisfy its owner.

On the other hand, if the statement is future (“their altars also will be like stone heaps on the furrows of the field”), the implication would be that the foreign gods Israel worshiped were unable to save, and that the altars built in their name would soon be torn down and scattered in the fields, ruining both field and altar. This would certainly be a case of “coming to nothing”.

In either case, the futility of worshiping false gods is evident.

Jacob in Aram

Judah was advised to hold fast to love and justice as their forefather Jacob held fast to the blessings and promises of God by faith. They were to emulate Jacob.

Israel, on the other hand, would not be given a choice. Like it or not, they would emulate Jacob, who fled to the land of Aram out of fear of his brother. Israel too would flee. Israel too would find themselves living in the north for many years, far from the land of promise. And yet I think there is a hint here that God has a purpose for the ten tribes in this coming period of exile. Jacob had to work hard for Laban over many years, but God had a purpose in all that, and he brought Jacob and his family back to the land of promise in due course. When he returned, Jacob had become much greater than when he left. He had also learned important spiritual lessons. So too with future Israel.

The Prophetic Ministry

Framing these comments about Gilead, Gilgal and Jacob are two assertions about the prophetic office. When a true prophet speaks, he does not merely give an informed opinion: God is speaking through him, and his word is not to be treated lightly. When Hosea speaks, YHWH himself is behind it (“I spoke”, “it was I who multiplied visions”). The Hebrew is very emphatic: “It is I and not another.” It is through the prophet that YHWH makes his will known. Moreover, it is through the prophet that YHWH leads and guards his people. Their safety and direction come from hearing and obeying the prophetic word. It was YHWH who brought Israel out of Egypt, but he did it through a prophet (Moses). It was YHWH who protected Israel, whether through Moses or Joshua, who also was occasionally given to prophetic utterance.

The chapter finishes with the statement that “Ephraim has given bitter provocation; so his Lord will leave his bloodguilt on him and will repay him for his disgraceful deeds.” If it is understood that God himself is speaking through Hosea, this affirmation concerning Ephraim’s guilt and punishment comes with real force.

No comments :

Post a Comment