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Hosea and God’s Love

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This past week, the liturgy has been offering selections from Hosea, the 8th century prophet who becomes the human expression as it were of Yahweh’s jealous and compassionate love. 

We might find “jealousy” to be a negative quality.  But it is the way we render the Hebrew word  ; the Greek Septuagint renders it with a word from which the English “zealous” derives, zhloteV .  Besides, the jealousy of God derives from the fidelity that is required from the covenant, not from a disordered passion.  The way Hosea graphically illustrates the covenant-relationship of Yahweh and Israel  in terms of family relationships has given writers from Jeremiah and Ezekiel to John of the Cross the inspiration of painting a portrait of God as a lover, father, husband and shepherd (the most apt image for a human being that is friendly with animals).

A lot of people identify Hosea as the prophet who married a prostitute under Yahweh’s command.  But no one would identify him as the prophet who made it possible for us to speak of God’s fatherly love.  The key chapter is Hosea 11.  It is a very badly transmitted text of Hosea.  There was even a textual critic who declared the chapter irredeemably corrupt.  The “corruption” of Hosea’s book is due to its having been heavily used.  What some exegete’s call the influence of Jeremiah in the transmission of the text is not due to this latter prophet’s “writing” Hosea, but of the way he read the 8th century prophet.  I would even say that the prophecies of Jeremiah about a future act of Yahweh in restoring his people after it suffers the punishment due to its sins, is due to his reading of Hosea and especially of Hosea 11:8–9

How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah! How can I treat you like Zeboiim! My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy. (RSV)

Jeremiah was one of the prophets in attendance when Josiah began his reform after the book of Deuteronomy was found while the Temple was under repair. I would suggest that with the discovery of Deuteronomy some other scrolls brought it by refugees coming from the North after the destruction of Samaria in 721 BC also came to light. One of these is the scroll of Hosea. The excitement of Jeremiah about the reform of Josiah made him think that even Ephraim will one day return (see Jeremiah 31). “Ephraim” is Hosea’s pet name for Northern Israel (Hos. 4:17; 5:3.5.9.11.12.13.14; 6:4.10; 7:1.8.11; 8:9.11; 9:3.8.11.13.16; 10:6.11; 11:3.8.9.12; 12:1.8.14; 13:1.12; 14:8). But while history will show us that Ephraim will never return from exile, those same prophecies became an inspiration for Jeremiah and perhaps also Ezekiel to think of a time after Judah’s exile that God himself will return to restore his people to its land, and place them under the care of one shepherd.

The jealous love of Yahweh is understandable in the light of Hosea’s life with a temple prostitute who was his wife.  It was, under Yahweh’s direction, a “sacrament” of the way Israel has been treating the covenant forged at Sinai.  But the spousal image is not so much shocking but the way Yahweh calls Israel “my son” in Hosea 11:1.  Yahweh does not have a consort with which to conceive a son.  The myths of the other gods would have something like that, but not Israel’s God.  So how does Israel’s Yahweh have a son?  Could this have been a remnant of an old Canaanite myth involving El and Asherah giving birth to Ba’├íl?   Note that the Canaanite El has the image of a Bull, and Northern Israel had two golden calf shrines, one at Dan and the other at Beersheba.   But whatever the reason for the way Hosea expresses his oracle about Yahweh’s fatherhood, it would later on have an effect on the way the Jews will address God (cf. Isaiah 63:16; 64:8). 

The title “Holy One” which Yahweh utters through this 8th century prophet, will become a favorite title in Isaiah (Ezekiel will use “Holy Name”; in Daniel, it is a title for angels).  While some commentators think that the title “Holy One” is associated with Yahweh’s justice, there is an ancient psalm known to both Northern and Southern Israelites that make use of the title in a way that highlights God’s fidelity to his people, a fidelity that makes him forgive them inspite of their repeated provocations (Psalm 78).  God declares himself “the Holy One” in the midst of his people who draws back from punishment even when punishment is required.  Later, the “Holy One” will appear once more in the person of a carpenter from Nazareth and wherever he goes, evil withdraws, the sick are restored to health, lepers cleansed and those thought to be beyond salvation are restored to their place among God’s people.

Originally posted 2008-07-10 18:01:17. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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