Reading the Prophets of the Apocalypse: a book review

Evangelicals have a history of misinterpreting the apocalypse. Some of us mine the ancient texts for clues to our march toward destruction. Some of us throw up our hands and prefer to speak of the eschaton in general terms.

9780825427619Kregel Academic has these helpful exegetical handbooks which walk pastors and students through a genre of Scripture with some suggestions for digging deep into the text—studying, interpreting and proclaiming. I have reviewed a previous volume of the Old Testament Exegetical Handbooks before in a related domain,(Interpreting the Prophetic Books, 2014). But Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature is different because there is no apocalypse section of the Old Testament but  it is in parts of the prophetic books and extrabiblical literature. Richard Taylor highlights where apocalyptic appears in the Prophets (especially the latter half of Daniel and Joel but also passages in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi) and other Apocalyptic literature (e.g. The Book of Enoch, Jubilees, 4th Ezra, 2nd Baruch, the Testament of Moses, etc).

Taylor is the senior professor of Old Testament at Bethel Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His research interests include Aramaic studies and Syriac literature. He is well acquainted with these texts and the thought world of the Ancient Near East.

As with the other Kregel handbooks, Taylor walks readers through the exegetical process necessary for understanding and teaching . Chapters one through three provide background, orienting us to apocalyptic literature. Chapter one discusses what apocalyptic  is, what are its distinctives, and what we know and don’t know about the Jewish communities which produced it. Chapter two examines major apocalyptic themes in biblical and extrabiblical sources and discusses the characteristics of the literature in more detail (e.g. literary expression, revelatory content, dreams and visions, symbolism, pseudonymous authorship). We see in the apocalyptic literature a developed angelology, dualism, cataclysmic, Divine Judgment and eschatological hope. Chapter three discusses preparing for interpretation (such as understanding metaphor and knowing what linguistic resources and secondary literature are helpful).

Chapters four through six describe the exegetical process, and how to preach from these texts, respectively. Taylor focus is on helping exegetes come with the right orientation toward the text. So he helps us attend to the genre and metaphorical language, to look for interpretive clues and a focus on the macrostructure instead of minutia. He also warns us of the pitfalls of ignorance, misplaced certainty, our tendency to manipulate certain details (to make our current experience fit the text, or read the signs of the times)(128-131) In chapter five Taylor walks through an exegetical and homiletic outline for Daniel 7. The final chapter examines sample texts, Daniel 8 and Joel 2:28-3, discussing difficulties, structure, and application.

As with the Prophets volume, this book is great for students and working preachers. I have used the Kregel Prophets volume in my own personal study and in communicating about the text. This resource helpfully augments that.  I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review

Joel: An Introduction

The book of Joel is an enigma, smothered in mystery, wrapped in a tortilla and served to someone, somewhere. Maybe not a tortilla, but some sort of flatbread. Maybe no wrapping at all.

Its superscription identifies the book’s contents as, “The word of the LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1). However, it does not give us any historical indicators or points of reference. Joel’s name is a combination of the Divine names YHWH and Elohim, his father’s name means ‘youth of El.’ This is loaded with symbolism for ‘a prophet of the LORD.’ But at least in the superscription, we are given no indication if Joel prophesied to the Northern or Southern Kingdom (later references in the book and mentions of the temple indicate Judah).

This lack of historical indicators and the vagueness of the prophet’s origin make it difficult to know when this book was written. Scholarly opinion ranges from the early monarchy to the post-exilic period. An early date points to references to the temple (Joel 1:9, 13,14,16; 3:18). A late date points to the fact that there are no references to any monarchs, north or south. The early part of the book describes a locust plague  (1:1-2:27), the latter part of the book (2:28-3:21) is apocalyptic with a post-exilic flavor. So some critical scholarship questions the overall unity of the book. I don’t have a firm opinion on the date of Joel either way. I do think there are strong thematic links between the first and second halves of the book. The whole enchilada is meant to be read together regardless of the different tastes of its ingredients (thus, wrapped in a tortilla).

This lack of specific historical indicators serves us well as contemporary readers. When we read of the ecological crisis brought on by an army of locust and the ravages of war, we can enter into Joel’s metaphor. We can identify in our own personal and corporate lives, ‘the years the locust have eaten’ (Joel 2:25). When we read its apocalyptic promise of renewal, restoration, vindication, and God’s spirit poured on all flesh, we are filled with the hope of God’s work in our own contexts. As Christians, we read Joel’s promises through the lens of Jesus—the Word-made-flesh who inaugurated the coming of God’s kingdom, and Pentecost (cf. Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2), but we press forward toward the day when God’s kingdom comes in fullness and his justice reigns on the earth.

So as we look at Joel, pay attention to the ways in which the crises of Ancient Israel mirror our own economic and ecological context. These three short chapters have something to teach us.


References

Fuhr, Jr., Richard Alan & Gary Yates, The Message of the Twelve. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2016.

Garrett, Duane A. Hosea, Joel. Vol. 19A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.

Stuart, Douglas. Hosea–Jonah. Vol. 31. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.

Lessons from Bad Religion (Hosea 9)

Marriage vows presume that both spouses know, with all that biblical innuendo, and love the other; however Hosea described God as a jilted lover—unloved by the people He covenanted to be with, Israel. There was no knowledge of God in the land (cf. Hosea 4:1c). Hosea named the people’s wanton abandonment of God as the root of their problems, though clearly Israel had other sins (e.g. violence, injustice). Derek Kidner observes”Sin can be against oneself (1 Cor. 6:18) and against one’s neighbour; but the flouting of God is always the length and breadth of it.”1 The big sin of Israel was their bad religion: the worship of idols.

Politics and religion weren’t easily divided in the Ancient world. Kings were masters of coopting religious language to effect their imperial aims (not much changed there). Priests—purveyors of religious devotion—called afternoon showers signs of God’s blessing instead of speaking truth-to-power and naming where things went amiss. But kings and priests were not alone in rejecting their covenant God. The people of Israel likewise rejected YAHWEH and chased after the gods of the nations.

N.T. Wright writes, “You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship.”2 One of the problems with idolatry is that we become bad versions of ourselves. Bad religion makes us bad people. We are as in danger of spiritual malformation as Israel was. Hosea 9 begins with this snapshot of religion gone bad:

Do not rejoice, O Israel!
Do not exult as other nations do;
for you have played the whore, departing from your God.
You have loved a prostitute’s pay
on all threshing floors. (Hosea 9:1)
Threshing floors were large communal properties, flat ground, where the farmers gathered to thresh and winnow the grain. Because of the economic importance of agriculture, these threshing floors doubled as open-air facilities for religious rituals, business transactions, and public gatherings. The Ancient Near East worship of the surrounding neighbors took the shape of fertility cults. Temple prostitutes were employed for their services—drunken orgies of delight were meant to appease Baal and ensure the fertility  and prosperity of the land.
Israel was simultaneously obsessed with sex and their own economic security. Imitating the nations, their worship employed sex with prostitutes as a technique to ensure a good harvest and prosperity for the nation. But economic security was meant to be a byproduct of faithfulness to Yahweh, and not a result of religious technique and ritual. False worship led to using people (in this case, prostitutes) to achieve economic growth. The unhappy result for Israel was crop failure and famine (9:2), military defeat and exile (9:3-7, 15-17). Hosea warned of the coming judgment but Israel decried this prophet as a mad fool (9:7).
We may cringe at the particulars of ANE religion, but are we really that far removed?  Are we not, as a nation, likewise obsessed with sex and economic security? We just elected a president who promises to fix our economy and bragged on video about sexually assaulting women. But Trump’s presidency is merely symptomatic of our American idolatry.   One curious feature of our democracy is that our government of the people, by the people and for people elects a leader every four years, which reflects the soul of the nation. We may decry Trump’s orange glow, petulance and his tiny hands forming a Vitarka Mudra, but he is a mirror to us of our own inner life. Like our president, we are fearful and angry at the world, worried about the economy, distrusting both the media and the establishment, and we prefer our own alternative facts to the true truthiness of truth.
If Wright is right and we are becoming like what we worship, what does this say about us? Israel’s worship of idols caused them to forgot their God which also caused them to forget the image of God in their women. They used them for sexual pleasure (and to procure financial gain). What is the god envisioned in America’s cultural landscape? Is it the god of the prosperity gospel, promises riches to those where to sow the right seeds? Is it the hedonist god of celebrities—narcissistic and decadent? Does the god of our nation value the dignity of all human persons as co-bearers of God’s image? Or are some humans viewed as less worthy than others? Does our god thwart justice for women, orphans and aliens dwelling in our land?
It is not enough for us to assert we are a Christian nation. In the years leading up to Israel’s exile, when they were an Assyrian vassal state, Yahweh was still nominally Israel’s God.3 In reality the people (and their leaders) were worshipping at a different altar. If the God who is revealed to us in Scripture was at the center of our national life, our priorities (political or otherwise) would look vastly different. Like Israel of old, bad religion has poisoned the well and there will be reckoning.

God break down our idols that we who are made in your image, can represent you and be your Presence on the earth. In our hearts and in our land, let us make You great again.


1. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 208
2. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 148.
3. Interesting to note that the oracle of Hosea 9, never mentions Baal worship, just bad religion.

Lessons for a Bad People (Hos. 4-5)

Abraham Heschel observed, “The striking surprise is that prophets of Israel were tolerated at all by their people. To the patriots, they seemed pernicious; to the pious multitude, blasphemous; to the men in authority seditious” (The Prophets: An Introduction, 19). Hosea’s message was not a popular one. The  prophet had hard words for Israel. He had to tell them they were wrong.  After the third chapter, Hosea never mentions his wife’s adultery and prostitution again, though adultery and prostitution remain his major theme. He focuses his prophetic critique on Israel’s adultery—their unfaithfulness to God.

Chapter four opens with this charge against the Israelites:

Hear the word of the LORD,  people of Israel,
for the LORD has a case
against the inhabitants of the land:
There is no truth,  no faithful love,
and no knowledge of God  in the land! -Hos 4:1 (HCSB)
A three part charge: (1) no  truth, (2) no love, (3) no knowledge of God in the land. The next two chapters, “Chapters four and five evoke courtroom imagery as evidence of these charges set forth.” (Richard Alan Fuhr, Jr. & Gary Yates, The Message of the Twelve, 73). Hosea describes Israel’s guilt—they were a bad people; however we can’t listen to Hosea’s declamation dispassionately. We too are implicated in Hosea’s threefold charge.

אֱמֶת

emet-truth, trustworthiness, and faithfulness. There was a lack of truthfulness in Israel. The people abandoned the truth and failed to act truthfully.  “There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery” Ho 4:2. The princes of Judah (the leaders of the Southern Kingdom) are also guilty of the same lies as the Northern Kingdom in moving the boundary markers (cf. Hos. 5:10).  The truth is short-shrifted as Israel chooses to chase the lie of idolatry.

What about us? Wouldn’t the prophet indict us as well? We are only a decade past the types of predatory sub-prime lending that led to a global economic collapse and the 2016 US election ended with the Electoral College disagreeing with the Washington Post about which major candidate’s lies were most significant. We decry fake news but we are each skilled at finding media outlets which gives us our preferred version of events. Untruth rules the age. Most of us are more worried about being taken in then we are about trustworthiness, and while “truth in advertising” may be the law of the land, doesn’t that sound more like a punchline?

חֶסֶד

hesed-faithful love:  The Hebrew word hesed is a covenant word. It is variously translated as loyalty, loving-kindness, faithfulness (or faithful love, as above), graciousness, goodness and mercy. This is the word used throughout the Old Testament to describe the relationship that Yahweh has with His people. Sally Lloyd-Jones’s The Jesus Storybook Bible gives one of the greatest descriptions of  hesed, “a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (JSB,36).

But despite God’s covenantal commitment to his people, there was no hesed in Israel—no faithful, covenant love for God. When Hosea uses the language of adultery, he is describing  Israel’s broken covenant in chasing after other gods. Because Ancient Near East religions utilized temple prostitutes in their worship, Hosea’s language is a metaphorical description of Israel’s spiritual idolatry, and a literal fact. Baal worship involved “participating in Canaanite fertility rites and worship” (Fuhr & Yates, 74). Israel broke their relationship with God by chasing foreign gods and wanton sex:

    My people consult a piece of wood,
and their divining rod gives them oracles.
For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray,
and they have played the whore, forsaking their God.
They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains,
and make offerings upon the hills,
under oak, poplar, and terebinth,
because their shade is good.
    Therefore your daughters play the whore,
and your daughters-in-law commit adultery.
I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore,
nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery;
for the men themselves go aside with whores,
and sacrifice with temple prostitutes;
thus a people without understanding comes to ruin. ( Ho 4:12–14 NRSV).
Again:
    17Ephraim is joined to idols—
let him alone.
18When their drinking is ended, they indulge in sexual orgies;
they love lewdness more than their glory.
19A wind has wrapped them in its wings,
and they shall be ashamed because of their altars. (Ho 4:17–19, NRSV).
Also:
    Their deeds do not permit them
to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the LORD. (Ho 5:4, NRSV).

Sex and religious ritual may no longer be intertwined to the same degree in our Post-Enlightenment age; but we too have forsaken our relationship with God to chase idols. This is, in Hosea’s phrase, the spirit of whoredom. It manifests itself in three ways (at least!):

  1. Alternative spiritualities– Dissatisfied with what we encounter in churches, we chase new spiritual options. For some this means choosing another religion, for many it means a choose-your-own-religion spiritualism. We blend aspects of Eastern religion, humanism, New-Age-mysticism and therapeutic pop-psychology. We end up rejecting a relationship with the God of the Bible, for some nebulous god of our own making.
  2. Materialism- Believing what we see, touch and feel, and feeling angry about injustice done in the name of religion, we deny the reality of anything that can’t be measured. We declare the supernatural a farce. We stand on evidentialist grounds (and we know that there are angles all around).  We no longer have a relationship with God, because, for all practical purposes, we live like He doesn’t exist.
  3. Whatever gets us through the night- Good old American individualism and pragmatism encourages us to find whatever it is that works for ourselves. Certainly consumerism feeds into this (retail therapy!). As does the pursuit of all kinds of pleasure, and our self-medicating strategies of distraction. If we think of God at all, it is not because we love and honor Him. We want to know what He can do for us.

Whatever causes us to sever our connection to the Triune God is adultery/idolatry. Hosea could name the god that Israel chased (Baal). Our gods are called Legion for they are many.

דַּעַת

da‘at-knowledge: “There is no knowledge of God in the Land.” They do not know the LORD (Hosea 5:4b). Israel was ignorant and lacking in a basic understanding of God:

    My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children. (Hosea 4:6, NRSV).
Ignorance is not bliss. Israel was supposed to represent the LORD to the nations, declaring to all peoples the goodness and greatness of God. They could not mediate God’s presence to the world because they no longer knew who this God was.
Coming to terms with our own ignorance and lack of knowledge may be the most difficult charge for us to grasp; Yet where there is no truth, and no love, there is no knowledge of the Other.

❇❇❇❇


What is the lesson Hosea had for his bad people? Heschel writes, “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind” (Heschel, 12). On Hosea in particular, he writes,”It is Hosea who flashes glimpses into the inner life of God as He ponders His relationship to Israel. In parables and in lyrical outbursts the decisive motive behind God’s strategy in history is declared. The decisive motive is love” (Ibid, 47). Hosea writes to make vivid God’s broken heart for Israel (and us) and call us to return to him. The charge has been spoken and our guilt laid bare. Yet this accusation is not meant to compound our sense of alienation. It is spoken with restorative intent:

    I will return again to my place
until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.
In their distress they will beg my favor:
Come, let us return to the LORD;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up. Hosea 5:15–6:1, NRSV.
The word for Israel and for us is love.

Lessons From a Bad Husband: Hosea 2-3

We already knew that Gomer was a bad wife. Hosea told us. A lot.  The words he lobbed at her in the first three chapters of the book bearing his name included things like: promiscuous, adulteress, harlot, unfaithful. He let her know how, and how often, she failed at their marriage. But was Hosea a good husband? Was he the faultless party stuck in a faulty relationship? We are accustomed to thinking of the prophets as the good guys of the Bible. They are, of course, but they were also human. If Hosea wasn’t bad, out right, he definitely was a hard guy to be married to.

Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society. Women did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as the men of that culture. One of the main problems with patriarchy is that it emphasizes that men bear God’s image, while forgetting that women, are also mutual image bearers (Gen. 1:27). Did Hosea ever see the Divine flicker in Gomer’s eyes? Perhaps; however, his prophetic poems compared his love for her to God’s love for Israel. Gomer, fickle and unfaithful was merely the mirror of Israel—a people who abandoned the LORD by chasing lesser gods. Hosea casts himself as an Analogy of Divine Being, and his wife,  as a stunted and fallen people.  How would you like to be married to that?

Did Hosea forgive Gomer for her past? Did he shame her throughout their marriage? Was he paranoid whenever she left the house? Was he jealous whenever she spoke to another man?  Hosea’s love for Gomer did reflect God’s love, but only through a glass darkly. Anytime God is created in man’s image (i.e. anthropomorphism), the analogy  breaks down somewhere. Hosea’s love for Gomer was only a shadow of  strong covenant love of Yahweh, not a detailed exposition of it.

An altogether, human Hosea was bound together with Gomer and their children within a family system. Therapist Lynn Hoffman defined a system as “any entity the parts of which co-vary interdependently with one another, and which maintain equilibrium in an error-activated way” (cited in The Family Crucible by Augustus Napier &  Carl Whitaker, Quill, 1978, p 47). In other words, the prophet and his wife, as co-participants in their family system, each bore some responsibility for their broken marriage. Gomer cheated on Hosea, but an emotional distance and lack of intimacy between them preceded any act of infidelity. There were ways in which Hosea’s love was not divine. He failed her too.  If their relationship could be restored, Hosea, and not just Gomer, would need to do the heart work.

 💔

Hosea was a jilted lover. He was angry and hurt by Gomer’s behavior. His reactions are understandable.  Hosea 2 relays the dissolution of his marriage, his  anger and heartbreak. This was a wounded man:

Say to your brother, Ammi, and to your sister, Ruhamah.

Plead with your mother, plead—
    for she is not my wife,
    and I am not her husband—
that she put away her whoring from her face,
    and her adultery from between her breasts,
or I will strip her naked
    and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
    and turn her into a parched land,
    and kill her with thirst. (Hosea 2:1-3)

These verses, and the next several, tell how Gomer betrayed him, and how he would make her pay.  Hosea spoke these words to their children. Triangulation occurs when “two parents are emotionally estranged from another, and they overinvolve their children in their emotional distress (84, The Family Crucible). Hosea draws his kids into a triangle (another bad dad moment?), then in his next breath he says, “I will not show my love to her children, because they are the children of adultery. Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace” (Hos. 2:4-5a). Hurt prophets hurt.

Hosea was a wounded animal lashing out. He was bitter and vindictive as he recounted how he would thwart Gomer and make her pay for her unfaithfulness. A bad wife was cast out by the just indignation of this (also bad?)husband.

💓

The first prophetic word the Lord said to Hosea was, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD” (Hosea 1:2). Hosea 2 expresses a double entendre containing God’s judgement on Israel for their sins. Hosea’s relationship to Gomer embodied a nation’s spiritual condition. What began as a diatribe against his wife became the word of the Lord against Israel:

I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals,
    when she offered incense to them
and decked herself with her ring and jewelry,
    and went after her lovers,
    and forgot me, says the Lord. (Hos. 2:13)

Yet if judgment and rejection were the final word, the book of Hosea would be depressing. Anger and sorrow are swallowed up by hope as Hosea describes Israel’s future—a restored relationship with God:

“In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked. In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord.

“In that day I will respond,” declares the Lord— “I will respond to the skies, and they will respond to the earth; and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’ ”(Hosea 2:16-23).

Hosea 3 describes how God calls Hosea to reconcile with his wife. Recalling His first word to Hosea, the Lord said, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”(Hos 3:1, NIV). Hosea pays six ounces of silver and a butt-load of barley to get her back. He calls her to faithfulness, and pledges to her his own. Gomer must remain chaste for a season, the way Israel herself will be chastened by war and exile, but in the end,  God’s goodness awaits (Hosea 3:4-5).

💝

Prophets make vivid God’s heart. If Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was a mere sham act for effect, then it really didn’t image God’s love. Hosea was far from perfect, but he came to love well. Abraham Heschel writes:

It seems absurd to assume that the prophet’s marriage was performed for effect, as a mere demonstration, as an action intended for public information. We must not reduce the fullness of an act to its operational meaning. We cannot adequately understand a person by the impressions he produces in other people.  A person is not a puppet, and martyrdom is not a masquerade. One thing is clear: the primarily given and immediate spiritual datum in the story of the marriage is the prophet’s experience. The event stirred and shocked the life of Hosea regardless of its effect upon public opinion. It concerned him personally at the deepest level and had a meaning of highest significance for his own life.

As time went by, Hosea became aware of the fact that his personal fate was a mirror for divine pathos, that his sorrow echoed the sorrow of God. In this fellow suffering as an act of sympathy with the divine pathos, the prophet probably saw the meaning of the marriage which he had contracted at the divine behest (The Prophets: An Introduction, Vol. 1, 55-56).

Hosea 3 doesn’t  actually name Gomer and the prophet doesn’t mention her adultery again in the rest of the book, though he continued to speak about Israel’s adulterous heart. Maybe they lived happily ever after? Perhaps the point had been made, and Hosea (and the Lord?) saw no further need to subject his family system to further shame. In reflecting on Heschel’s words, I wonder if Hosea’s increasing circumspection about expressing family matters in public is that as he came to understand more fully the love and sorrow of God, he grew more loving towards Gomer. So instead of public shame, he protected her honor. Maybe, just maybe, this bad husband began in earnest to image the love of God to her.

Lessons From a Bad Dad: Hosea 1

There are bad dads and then there are bad dads. Some fathers subject their kids to cruel disciplines to teach them a lesson. Hosea was cruel to his kids to teach his country a lesson. He named his kids awful things, so his country would know how bad things had gotten. He was a very bad dad. Okay, so God was the one who told Hosea what to name his kids, but this fact makes me glad I am neither a prophet or the son of a prophet. If you don’t know the story, here are the details from Hosea 1:

When God first spoke to Hosea, he told him to find a prostitute for a wife (more about this in a later post). He married Gomer, daughter of Diblaim and together they had three children. The first was a son. Hosea called him Jezreel and God’s behest. The name was a double entendre. It referenced the valley of Jezreel, the place where Jeroboam II’s great grandfather, Jehu, deposed the previous royal family, the house of Omri. Evil queen Jezebel’s body was torn to shreds by dogs at Jezreel, the king and the rest of the family were massacred,  just as the prophet Elijah foretold (2 Kings 9). This was God’s judgement on Israel’s kings for leading the Israelites into Baal worship. When Hosea named his son Jezreel, he was warning Jeroboam. A similar judgement would await him if he and his family didn’t repent of their own idolatry and wicked dealings. The name Jezreel also means YHWH scatters (or sows). It foretold future judgment—a nation scattered to the wind and carried into exile by the Assyrian army.

The next time Gomer got pregnant, she gave birth to a bouncing baby girl. God told Hosea to name her Lo-Ruhamah, meaning Not-Shown-Mercy or Unloved. Knowing Gomer’s history, Hosea’s friends may have wondered if the name indicated the child was not really his; yet the reason for the name Lo-Ruhamah wasn’t personal but theological. The Lord would “no longer show mercy on Israel or forgive them.” The child, in name, became the embodiment of Israel’s broken relationship with God. When Gomer weaned her daughter, she became pregnant again with another boy. Hosea called him, “Lo-Ammi”—Not my people. So, Hosea named his kids after a national Massacre (like calling your first born Wounded Knee), Unloved and Not Mine!

I don’t know how Hosea’s kids turned out, but eventually these younger two get a name upgrade: “Say to your brother, Ammi, and to your sister, Ruhamah”(Ho 2:1, NRSV), meaning ‘my people’ and ‘loved one.’ The older son, Jezreel hears how his name, YHWH sows, will come to describe God himself re-sowing Israel.   The scattered will be gathered, the unloved will be shown mercy and will be valued, a rejected people will find themselves back in their Lord’s embrace.

Still, Hosea and Gomer’s three children spent the first several years of their lives enduring constant negative messaging from their father (and Heavenly Father?). This is significant time for early childhood development. Healthy attachment sets children on the path toward future success. Did Massacre, Unloved and Not Mine experience the love of their parents? Did Hosea hug and nurture his sons and whisper to them how much he loved them? Did he tell his little girl she could become anything she wanted to be? Did he swell with pride at every developmental milestone? And smile as they mispronounced words and laugh at their nonsense rhymes? When his children grew, did they feel their father understood and respected them? Did Hosea’s stern demeanor soften as he aged? Or did his prophetic austerity make him always enigma to them?

We don’t have enough information to know what kind of father Hosea really was. We only know he named his kids horrid things as an object lesson (I’ve been a pastor and I know how easy it is to carelessly turn your kids into object lessons).  My guess was he really was a bad dad, the way we all were when we first became fathers. He, like us, was human, and thus a mess of contradictions. Thankfully the final word Hosea hears God declare over his children speak of restoration, hope, return, renewal, love, life.

Hosea’s names for his kids shock us today.  I don’t think the names were any less of a shock in his own time. Hosea wanted to make vivid for his compatriots the reality of God’s judgement and their brokenness and alienation from God. Does Hosea’s kids’ names make vivid our own sins too? Will it shake us to repentance? Can we learn from this bad dad?

What is our Jezreel? In what ways do our leaders repeat sin and unhealthy patterns of the past?  Manifest Destiny and the American Militarism? The idolatry of consumerism? How are we cut off from God’s mercy? How do we fail to trust God, and continually reject Him by our actions? In what ways are we not God’s people?

Hosea: An Introduction

Jeroboam II was king in Israel. His  purpose as leader was to “Make The Northern Kingdom Great Again!™” His own name hearkened back to Jeroboam, the leader who had wrested control of the ten tribes from the oppression from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam  (1 Kings 12).  Like all the northern leaders, the book of Kings describes Jeroboam II as evil. Listen to his-reign-adapted-refrain, “He did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin” (2 Kings 14:24). But in terms of his aim at Making Israel Great Again™ he was a great success. It is too bad his restoration project never took him beyond the flawed leadership of his nation’s past.

Jeroboam II reigned for 41 years (though some of his reign may be a co-regency with his father Joash). He was able to restore, through war, land which had previously been taken from it—territory from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of Arabah (2 Kings 14:25). Jeroboam’s success came because God saw Israel’s suffering, and saved them by through his hand (2 Kings 14:26-27). It was still some decades before the nation of Israel would succumb to Assyrian might and Jeroboam II’s reign was a prosperous one.

Enter the prophet.

hosea
18th Century  Russian Icon of Hosea, source: Wikimedia commons

Hosea son of Beeri, father of three and married to  a prostitute, arose sometime in Jeroboam II’s reign and called the nation to task for their sin. What were Israel’s sins? Unlike his contemporary Amos, Hosea did not single out the rich for their oppression of the poor (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, 13).  Hosea issues sweeping allegations against the entire nation; however while it is possible to distinguish the sins of Israel from those of the common man, the state—its institutions and political and religious leaders—are explicitly critiqued in Hosea’s condemnations. He exposes the violence of kings, the lack of knowledge of God, idolatry, and Israel’s dishonest dealings.

Prophets warn of judgement, but as Abraham Heschel notes, doom and destruction are never the point. “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind this austerity is love and compassion for mankind” (The Prophets Vol. 1 , 12):

The prominent theme is exhortation, not mere prediction. While it is true that foretelling is an important ingredient and may serve as a sign for the prophet’s authority, his essential task is to declare the word of God to the here and now; to disclose the future in order to illumine what is involved in the present. (ibid.)

In other words, the prophets articulated judgement, but the hope was that their words lead to the people’s repentance. As we’ll see, hope has the final word in Hosea’s presentation.

What does Hosea have to teach us?

He is a voice from the past with a troubled family life. He comes across as a jerk. He married a prostitute to teach the nation a lesson and then shamed her for being a prostitute. He purposely named his kids awful things which caused them to be made fun of on the playground. Total jerkface.

And yet, Hosea exposed the lies of the culture. He spoke truth to power and exposed the dangers of systemic violence, injustice and idolatry. We, like Hosea, have a leader committed to making our nation great again.™ Perhaps the parallels end there. But if we too are a nation marked by violence, idolatry, injustice and exceptionalism, then the prophet has a lot to teach us. . .