Saturday, August 06, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (39)

The Bible condemns a proud, independent spirit from Genesis to Revelation and everywhere in between. And where men prosper, pride often follows.

This sort of defective thinking first shows itself in Cain, who found ways to work the earth with some degree of success despite the curse. Cain knew what sort of sacrifice was acceptable to God but thought offering the evidence of own his success in his chosen field a better idea. Pride.

Then in Revelation, we find a church reveling in its own works, measuring success by material prosperity rather than by obedience and devotion to God. Pride.

This was Israel’s problem as well. They had been too blessed, entirely failing to appreciate God’s generosity, compassion and patience with them.

Hosea 13:1-3 — From Exaltation to Death

“When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling; he was exalted in Israel, but he incurred guilt through Baal and died. And now they sin more and more, and make for themselves metal images, idols skillfully made of their silver, all of them the work of craftsmen.

It is said of them, ‘Those who offer human sacrifice kiss calves!’ Therefore they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes early away, like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor or like smoke from a window.”

Hosea’s penultimate chapter is from end to end a relentless indictment of the northern kingdom’s sin, along with repeated assurances that God’s punishment was inevitable.

Ephraim and Jeroboam

He starts with a reminder of the heights from which Ephraim had fallen (“When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling; he was exalted in Israel”). Sometimes “Ephraim” is used to describe the entire northern kingdom of Israel, as opposed to Judah. Here “Ephraim” refers to the tribe (“he was exalted in Israel”). There was a time Ephraim had commanded respect among the tribes of Israel. This was true no more. Jeroboam I, Israel’s first king, was an Ephraimite. Just as Saul and David did, Jeroboam undoubtedly promoted his own closest relatives to the highest places in the kingdom, increasing the status of his tribe among the people. And when he spoke, there was trembling. People listened and let Jeroboam set the agenda. He must have had great charisma; ten of twelve tribes followed him in dividing the kingdom. He was the unanimous choice of all as a rival to the house of David.

But Jeroboam incurred guilt through Baal and died, at least figuratively speaking. In promoting his calf-idols as replacements for the worship of YHWH in Jerusalem, and in ordaining priests from every tribe to serve at the high places, Jeroboam lost his right to rule. His line was cut off because of his promotion of idolatry. Ephraim as a respected governing entity died with him. A man from the tribe of Issachar murdered Jeroboam’s heir to the throne, after which the tribal affiliation of Israel’s various kings is never again mentioned, though Jewish historians insist Jehu was from the tribe of Manasseh. So then, the name “Ephraim” denotes not just the northern kingdom as an entity, but particularly the spirit of Jeroboam and the counselors who led him into sin. It is highly likely these men were Ephraimites as well.

Idolatrous Economics

In the book of Acts, Luke draws the reader’s attention to the economic importance of idol worship. It was always a giant money-making scam. You will recall the panic in Ephesus when the apostle Paul began to teach that gods made with hands are not gods. Demetrius the silversmith appealed to his fellow workmen with the line, “Men you know that from this business we have our wealth.” A moment’s consideration assures us this was always the case with idolatry. Idols were either cast from silver or gold or carved from fine wood and overlaid with precious metals. They were costly to acquire and well worth stealing, as both Rachel and the tribe of Dan would attest. Here through Hosea, God acknowledges the skill of the craftsmen who make and sell metal images, but in doing so “sin more and more”.

Police today will tell you most criminal acts are about either sex or money. Idol worship involved both, appealing to the most fundamental sinful human desires.

Human Sacrifice?

The line “Those who offer human sacrifice kiss calves!” is a disputed reading. A quick survey of the English translations of the sentence shows wide variety, from the ESV’s “human sacrifice” to the NASB’s “Let the people who sacrifice kiss the calves!” It is not clear whether the quotation is descriptive or instructive, and it is not at all clear that human sacrifice was necessarily its subject. That is not to say that Israel never engaged in the sacrifice of human beings; they certainly did. The question is whether that is the prophet’s intended meaning in this particular instance.

One problem in assuming Hosea condemns human sacrifice here is that the subject and object of the sentence are ambiguous in the original language. It may be “people who sacrifice” or “people who are sacrificed”. A second difficulty is that the word translated “human” is adam, the generic Hebrew word for human beings. Elsewhere, where scripture inveighs against the brutal practices of the Canaanites, the Hebrew word for the victims offered in fire to Molech is always zera, meaning “seed” or “children”. These sacrifices were peculiarly horrific in that the offeror was sacrificing something of the greatest possible personal value to show his devotion and the urgency of his request. It would have been quite inadequate to seize a poor person, a felon, or even someone else’s virgin daughter off the street to serve as your sacrifice. The issue was not human sacrifice per se, but the sacrifice of the most helpless and vulnerable by those into whose care God had entrusted them, all in hope of bettering their parents’ lives.

Accordingly, I think “human sacrifice” is probably not the intended sense.

Kissing the Calves

Be that as it may, the point here is that the kiss signifies worship and devotion. Israel offered its worship to mere objects, crafted metal that could not answer, save or reward. Such an offeror becomes as fleeting and insignificant as the idol he is worshiping, described in four distinct similes: mist, dew, chaff and smoke. Each is visible for mere moments, then disappears forever.

Hosea 13:4-8 — A Heart Lifted Up

“But I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior. It was I who knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought; but when they had grazed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up; therefore they forgot me. So I am to them like a lion; like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs; I will tear open their breast, and there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild beast would rip them open.”

God now appeals to Israel’s history. Why seek after other gods now, when the only God who had ever guarded, guided or delivered them from their enemies was YHWH? When they were in the most desperate need, it was always to YHWH they turned. Besides him they had never known a savior. All the “gods” of other nations had fallen before him. And yet still God’s people turned away from the only possible source of help.

What was the problem? It was affluence. Israel became full, their heart was lifted up in pride, and they forgot the God who had delivered, protected and blessed them. They became haughty and independent, and they made gods for themselves after their own likeness and in their own character. As a result, YHWH would have to destroy the kingdom to save some of its people. He would tear Israel to pieces. The northern kingdom would never exist again apart from in union with the house of David.

Again, we have four distinct similes: God describes himself as being like a devouring lion, a lurking leopard, a mother bear robbed of her cubs, and a wild beast that tears open its prey. In each case, the imagery is violent and the damage catastrophic.

Pride goes before destruction, right?

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