The Theological Reading of Hosea

Hosea, as the first of the Twelve, should be understood in association with the “Twelve,” with the Former and Latter Prophets, and with the Torah of Moses (the Law).[1] Hosea opens, and Malachi closes the Twelve. These two books reflect a broad sweep of history and geography. Hosea addresses the pre-exilic concerns of the Northern Kingdom and of Judah (ca. 750 BC), whereas Malachi is situated in the post-exilic world of the province of Judea (Yehud), as a Persian province (ca. 450 BC). They charge Israel with spurning God.

Hosea’s images of God’s persistent love for his people/children in the contexts of a failed marriage (chs. 1-3) and of the open rebellion of God’s children (ch. 11) demonstrate that salvation is God’s alone. The imagery is found in one form or another throughout the Twelve. Malachi charges the post-exilic community with showing their “father” no respect (Mal. 1:6) and holds out hope for the small community of faithful children who serve him (Mal. 3:17-18). At the end of Malachi, the prophet calls on the people to remember Moses and to long for a Elijah redivivus, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal. 3:4-6; cf. Matt. 11:13-14). Malachi closes on a reminder of the special status of Moses as the servant of the Lord in anticipation of an Elijah-like prophet. The Law and the Prophets are linked together.

Covenant, Marriage, and Children

At the heart of Hosea’s charge against Israel is her not “knowing” the Lord (4:1). The knowledge of God signifies a dynamic and growing covenantal relationship that comes to expression in an integrated lifestyle that is consistent with the “covenant” relationship. The covenant is graciously initiated by God himself. It is like a marriage in which God as the Groom offers himself to Israel (the Bride). His presence is the assurance that he will protect and provide for his Bride. The image of Bridegroom and Bride readily metamorphizes to the image of Father and Children (Son). Both sets of images flow out of God’s covenantal commitment.[2]

God has spoken through Hosea whom he commanded to marry “an adulterous wife” and have “children of unfaithfulness” (1:2). The word of God to Israel is symbolically represented in Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and in the naming of his children (1:2, 4, 6, 9). The marriage to Gomer seems to be reprehensible. How can God command Hosea to marry a whoring (zenunim) woman? “Whoring” is a metaphor for unfaithfulness or worldliness (Deut. 31:16).[3] Gomer, representing Israel, had many interests, but little commitment. She was open to opportunities, promoted her self-interest, and looked out for herself. The image of prostitution/adultery powerfully and harshly suggests Israel’s apostacy and lack of commitments (4:10-14), her corruption (5:3), and lack of knowledge of the Lord, “Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of whoredom is within them, and they know not the Lord” (Hos. 5:4). The people and the land are defiled because of whoredom (1:2). They have turned away from their God (1:2; cf. Isa. 1:4. 21), and he will leave them to their own devices (2:13). Their future is exile, wandering, and subjugation (10:5-6).

Hosea charges Israel with idolatry, hypocrisy, arrogance, and immorality, “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; … bloodshed” (4:1-2).. The nation of Israel must go into exile as Moses had threatened (Deut. 31:19-30). The coming exile is symbolized by the name of the first child, Jezreel (1:4). The people will no longer be treated as the people of God, symbolized by the second child, Lo-Ammi (1:9), and could not expect God’s compassion and forgiveness, symbolized by the naming of the third child, Lo-Ruhamah (1:6).

God’s Hiddenness and Holiness

God’s separation and rejection (5:6) is only for a time. He did not “divorce” his people. The marriage/covenant relationship will not be broken. At the time of Israel’s exile, he had planned to “allure” his Bride (2:14) and restore what was lost (2:15). She will return to her senses and call him “my husband” (2:16). God promises to inaugurate an era greater than the first creation and a covenant relationship greater than the former covenant. He promises a world of lasting peace, safety, righteousness, justice, love, compassion, and faithfulness (2:18-20). In the enjoyment of God’s presence, the Bride would get to “know” her husband (2:20).

The Lord invites his people to know him through his loving and lasting commitment with them. This era is marked with God’s evident provisions and protection (2:21-23), and the people will be loved, forgiven, and known as “children of the living God” (1:10; Jezreel, 2:22), Beloved (Ruhamah), and as “my people” (Ammi, 2:23). Though the people will have to wait till the time that God restores the covenant and its privileges to them in Exile, they must return to “the LORD their God and David their king” (3:5). After all, God hates the realpolitik that had permitted Israel to survive politically and economically (5:13; ch. 7). He is not readily fooled by her religiosity or “repentance” (6:1-4; ch. 8). True repentance must include a return to God and the evident transformation of life, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6).

When judgment overtakes Ephraim, God will not show mercy or compassion. He will abandon his people, because they have been unfaithful (chs. 9, 10). But how can God abandon his people? After all, they are his children. The “Son” image (11:1; cf. Matt. 2:15) complements the Bride image. God also reveals himself to be a parent whose training and love for his child did not lead to commitment (11:1-5). Punishment is theirs, and even when they call on the Lord, he will not respond (11:7). They are thoroughly corrupt and defiled (ch. 12). God only requires his people to “return to (their) God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always” (12:6). But, how can they? How can they search for “the Most High?” (7:16), being rotten to the core, “Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, the house of Israel with deceit. And Judah is unruly against God, even against the faithful Holy One” (11:12).

The key to the dilemma lies in the very being of God. He is “holy,” that is the Wholly Other One. He is just and loving, angry and compassionate (11:8-9). His being is revulsed by sin, and he compassionately welcomes his people, “I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath” (11:9). He is the God of the Exodus (12:9-13; 13:4-6), of the Exile (12:14; 13:7-13, 15-16)), and of the restoration (11:10-11; 13:14).

Hosea ends his message with an invitation to return “to the LORD (their) God” (14:1), because he forgives and welcomes his children back (14:2), promising “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them” (14:4). He will love and satisfy his people (14:5- 8) promising “I will answer him and care for him. I am like a green pine tree; your fruitfulness comes from me” (14:8). This promise has been confirmed in history, and especially in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is a loving Father who has revealed himself throughout time in showing compassion for rebellious people.

The message of Hosea anticipates developments in the Writings. Israel and Judah did go into exile, but God preserved a remnant from Israel and Judah. After the Exile they returned to Jerusalem to worship God (1 Chron. 9:2-3). The Chronicler witnesses to the history of God’s people migrating from the Northern Kingdom to Judah over several centuries. They crossed over to the Southern Kingdom to worship God and to serve David their king (2 Chron. 15:9; 19:4). But after the Exile, they awaited a greater fulfillment of the promises. Their experience of God’s glory was like nothing, “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?” (Hag 2:3). God’s children had to await an even greater manifestation of God’s glory. The prophetic word always entails a divine constraint. The message once proclaimed, written, and reckoned to be a part of Scripture has an inner power to accomplish God’s purposes in his way and at his time. The Word has a surplus from which each generation may draw hope and comfort. In the revelation of God’s glory in Jesus Christ, the figuration clarifies God’s providential purposes while raising even greater expectations. Click To Tweet

The Word has a surplus from which each generation may draw hope and comfort. In the revelation of God’s glory in Jesus Christ, the figuration clarifies God’s providential purposes while raising even greater expectations. Seitz’s comments is appropriate, “the canonical form of the twelve Minor Prophets is concerned both to protect the original witness and to comprehend how that witness is meant to speak meaningfully across the ages, through time.”[4] In the fullness of time, the Father sent the Son and the Spirit to reveal the glory of God and to corroborate the prophetic word. The Son entered history and took upon himself humanity, so that fickle and faithless people could be reconciled to God (Rom. 5:1). Through Jesus’ death and resurrection the covenant has become a new covenant in his blood, and estranged people may be reconciled and justified.

Paul argues that Gentiles, too, together with God’s ancient covenant people, Israel, constitute the One people of God under the One Shepherd. The benefits of Israel (Rom. 9:4-5) belong to Gentile believers as well,

What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory    even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea: “I will call them `my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her `my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and, “It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, `You are not my people,’ they will be called `sons of the living God.'” (Rom. 9:23-26).

Like Hosea, Paul closes with an invitation to contemplate on God’s wisdom, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom. 11:33).

Wisdom

The final words of Hosea reveal the prophetic path of wisdom. He calls for reflection and wise discernment, “Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them?” The prophet Hosea suggests the import of wisdom theology with its two destinies, “The ways of the LORD are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them” (14:9; cf. Psa. 1). Hosea has specified the Way of the Lord, “maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always” (12:6; cf. Gen. 18:19; Mic. 6:8) and has thus invited people to return to the Lord and to his Way. Hosea opens the door to the third division of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Writings (Ketuvim). In the Writings we find wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), that tease out approaches to living in God’s presence with justice, righteousness, and faithfulness, “For I desire mercy (chesed), not sacrifice, and acknowledgment (da`at, knowledge) of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6).

By citing Hosea 6:6 twice, Matthew specifies our Lord’s mission to earth (Matt 9:13; 12:7). He, unlike the Pharisees, reveals God’s commitment to humanity by turning to sinners and the marginalized. Jesus embodied the spirit of Moses and the Prophets and confirmed the message of the Prophets when he spoke of the weightier matters of the law, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23; emphasis mine). Whereas Judaism called for a return to and observance of the Law, Jesus had taught his disciples to associate the Law of Moses with the Prophets and with himself as the authoritative interpreter of the Word. The faithful hearing and application of Scripture requires wisdom, but more than that. In the light of the glorious revelation of the Word, God’s revelation in the Son and the Spirit bring together the Two-Testament Bible and assures every generation of the enduring power of Scripture.

Hosea’s parting words readily are associated with Malachi’s vision of a new age and with the prophetic imagery of a New Jerusalem, a New Heavens and Earth. While Hosea does not develop his messianic expectations, he hints at a future world in which people will serve the Lord and his messianic king, “Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days (3:5). In Paul’s appropriation of Hosea’s message of the transformation from alienation to reconciliation, he argues powerfully for the inclusion of the Gentiles. They were not the people of God and were unloved, but now have become the people of God and are loved in Jesus Christ (Rom. 9:23-26; cf. 1 Pet. 2:10). Nevertheless, Paul, following Hosea, holds out hope for the inclusion of Israel. In a sense they are still “loved” by God, “As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs” (Rom 11:28).

Conclusion

A canonical reading of Hosea encourages a deep and a wide reading. In its search for the revelation of the living God, it employs a great variety of exegetical tools, hermeneutic perspectives, and interpretive techniques. Exegesis opens the many layers of interpretation. In its ever-deepening penetration of the meaning of the text, it searches for patterns, that is canonical patterns or figurations. These patterns are discovered by a retrospective and prospective reading of texts that suggest a meaningful figuration.[5] The exploration of a Two-Testament Bible further encourages a broad reading which may be designated as catholic/ecclesial reading that supports a canonical cohesion.[6] Canonical interpretation opens the text to see the glory of the Triune God in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Word of God incarnate. Thanks be to God.

*This is part three of a three part series. See parts one and two.


Endnotes

[1] For an example of reading the Old Testament from a canonical point of view, see A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised Beforehand, ed. Miles V. Van Pelt (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016). See also Mark S. Gignilliat, Reading Scripture Canonically: Theological Instincts for Old Testament Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).

[2] See further Willem A. VanGemeren, “Salvation is the Lord’s: Prophetic Perspectives.” In The Doctrine on which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 99-14.

[3] Hosea’s image of whoring/adultery associates with the imagery of Moses (Deut. 31:15), Isaiah (1:21; 57:3), Jeremiah (ch. 3), Ezekiel (16:15-35; ch. 23), with Jesus (Matt. 12:39; 16:4) and the Apostles (2 Pet. 2:14; Rev. 18:3; 19:2).

[4] Christopher R. Seitz, Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007). 150. See also Christopher R. Seitz, The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets: The Achievement of Association in Canon Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009).

[5] Frances Young, “Typology,” in Crossing the Boundaries: Essays in Biblical Interpretation in Honour of Michael D. Goulder, eds.  S. E. Porter, P. Joyce, D. E. Orton (Leiden, New York, Köln: E. J. Brill, 1994), 29-48.

[6] See Christopher Seitz, “Canonical Approach,” in in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 101-2.