Hosea - Introduction
The book of Hosea stands first in that part of the latter prophets called the Book of the Twelve, also known as the Minor Prophets because of their relative brevity in comparison with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Along with his contemporary Amos, Hosea was the first of the “writing prophets,” those prophets whose speeches were collected and edited as literary documents.
The book consists primarily of speeches critiquing the political, social, and, above all, religious life of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in the final days before its conquest and destruction by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Hosea often refers to the Northern Kingdom under the titles of “Ephraim,” its largest tribe, and “Samaria,” its capital (see 4.16n. ). Over the course of three decades (ca. 750–720), Hosea interpreted the unfolding disaster as a divine punishment—the Assyrians were merely God's tool—for violation of the exclusive demands of the LORD. With frequent allusions to Israelite historical traditions, Hosea portrayed Israel's entire history as a spiritual decline from an ideal time, its “youth” in the period of the Exodus from Egypt ( 2, 15;11, 1 ).
Hosea is best known for his metaphors, drawn from the natural world, agriculture, and, especially, kinship structures: Israel as the LORD's wife, Israel as the LORD's son. These familial metaphors are introduced in two narrative sections about the prophet's own life at the beginning of the book ( 1.2–2.1; 3.1–5 ). The prophet's personal life is presented as a paradigm of the relationship between the LORD and Israel.
Not all aspects of Hosea's life are clear, and it remains debatable whether one can deduce actual biographical facts from the descriptions in chs 1–3 . But insofar as these chapters construct a biographical story for prophetic purposes, it can be said that Hosea deals with Gomer as the LORD deals with Israel. Gomer is “a wife of whoredom” ( 1. 2 ), best understood as “a promiscuous woman.” She bore three children, of whom Hosea was presumably not the father ( 2.4–5 ). After a period of marital separation, Hosea took her back ( 3.1–5 ). In a similar way, Israel, the LORD's unfaithful wife, will be separated from her husband and home but, just as Hosea bought back Gomer ( 3.2 ), the LORD will restore Israel. Hosea's image of Israel's sexual misconduct may be more than symbolic (e.g., 4.13–19; 9.1 ). Canaanite religious practice may have included sexual rites in imitation of the gods, who, presumably, generated terrestrial fertility through sexual intercourse.
Hosea began his career in the final days of Jeroboam II ( 1.1 ), whose long reign capped a century of political stability and economic prosperity in the Northern Kingdom under the Jehu dynasty. Jeroboam died in 747, about the time that, in Assyria, Tiglath‐pileser III came to power (745) and initiated a program of imperial expansion. A prolonged national crisis ensued, which ended with the demise of the Northern Kingdom. Israel floundered under the Assyrian onslaught: Of the six kings who reigned in the next two decades, four were assassinated as the nation veered between appeasement, at the cost of heavy tribute, and rebellion, seeking futile alliances with Syria and Egypt. When Hosea's prophetic career ended is uncertain, though his oracles appear to allude to events right up to the Assyrian siege of Samaria in 722 ( 13.10–11,13, 16 ).
During this national crisis, Hosea issued an unrelenting critique of existing political and religious institutions. Through dynastic kingship, political alliances with other nations, and, above all, illicit religious practices, Israel had violated the divine claim upon it for exclusive dependence upon and worship of the LORD. As divine punishment, Israel would be stripped of political and religious institutions too corrupt to be reformed and its land left desolate and barren. Israel would, in essence, find itself again in the wilderness.
The severity of the prophetic critique, however, is juxtaposed with the language of divine longing and compassion ( 11.1–11; 13.4–7 ). In the short term, Hosea presented the annihilation of the northern state as inevitable. Drawing, however, on a pattern discerned in Israel's sacred traditions, Hosea ultimately offered hope. In this new wilderness, as in the Sinai desert, Israel would recognize its dependence on the LORD and be restored to a harmonious state with God, and with the natural world ( 2.14–23 ).
After the destruction of Samaria, Hosea's words were preserved and transmitted in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Some or all of the references to Judah may have been added in this era as Hosea's words were reinterpreted to address an analogous situation there (e.g., 1.7; 3.5; 11.12 ). At the same time, it is possible that Hosea himself, though a northern prophet, addressed Judah as well.
The book has two major sections, which appear to be roughly chronological. Chapters 1–3 contain the material about Hosea's marriage and can be understood against the background of the last days of Jeroboam II, since 1.4 announces the demise of the Jehu dynasty of which Jeroboam was the final ruler. The second major section, chs 4–14 , consists entirely of prophetic speeches that seem to allude to the chaotic days following the demise of the house of Jehu and the prolonged Assyria crisis. Boundaries between individual speech units in this second section are hard to discern. It seems to fall into two parts (chs 4–11; 12–14 ), rhetorically couched as legal indictments of Israel for breach of covenant ( 4.1; 12.2 ), and ending with images of restoration ( 11.1–11; 14.1–7 ).