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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Importance of Metaphors

The power of Hosea's prophecy comes in large part from his stock of striking metaphors. Israel is compared to a “cake unturned” ( 7, 8 ), a “wild ass” ( 8, 9 ), or a “luxuriant vine” ( 10, 1 ). These metaphors have an emotional effect because of the associations they carry with them, and this enhances their power of communication. Nowhere is this more evident than in chapter 11 , which begins “When Israel was a child I loved him.” The reference is to the Exodus, but the effect is very different from the rather violent accounts in the Pentateuch. By comparing Israel to a child, Hosea paints a vivid picture of God as the loving parent, teaching the infant to walk and lifting it up. By implication, Israel should have the same kind of elemental bond with the Lord that a toddler has with its parents.

Development of this metaphor leads Hosea to one of the most remarkable passages in the Old Testament. The thought of destroying his or her own child is repugnant to any normal parent. The Lord, too, asks “how could I give you up, O Ephraim?” ( 11, 8 ). Following the thrust of the metaphor the answer is inevitable: “I will not give vent to my blazing anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again.” The rationale may surprise us, however—“for I am God and not man.” Human parents are fallible and may be overcome by anger; God is not subject to weakness. The difference between God and humanity is that we fall short of what we know to be best, while God has no such limitation.

Hosea, like all the great prophets, was a realist. He recognized that Israel would be destroyed, and whatever actually happened was the work of God (a point which will be made again by Amos). The same God whose heart is stirred to pity in chapter 11 declares that “My eyes are closed to compassion” in 13, 14 . There is an apparent contradiction here. The mood of the prophet might naturally swing with changing circumstances, but if the Lord is “God and not man,” we expect consistency. Hosea was not a systematic theologian, however, and all his insights do not fit neatly together. He was a shrewd enough observer to realize what would befall Samaria at the hands of the Assyrians—little ones dashed to pieces, expectant mothers ripped open ( 14, 1 ). Yet he affirmed that God still loved Israel like a child, or, in the imagery of chapter 2 , that after God had divorced Israel he would start over again with a new courtship. In this his faith is like that of a modern Jew who still believes in the love of God after the Holocaust. The conviction that God is love, despite all the evidence for random brutality and hatred in the world, is also an integral part of Christian faith.

One of Hosea's harshest words of judgment is given an ironic twist in the New Testament. In 13, 14 the Lord asks, through the prophet, “Where are your plagues, O death! where is your sting, O nether world!” The point of the passage is that God is about to use the sting of death against Israel. In 1 Corinthians 15, 54f , Saint Paul quotes this passage. In this case, however, the question is a mocking one—the sting of death has been broken by the resurrection of Christ. While Paul changes the meaning of the passage he quotes, the new meaning is not altogether alien to Hosea, since he too looked beyond the death of the nation Israel and hoped for its “resurrection.”

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