Hosea's central concern is Israel's loyalty to its God. He denounces Israel for worshipping other gods, in particular the Canaanite god Baal, * and pleads with Israel to return to the faithful worship of its God alone. To gain his audience's attention and to make his message vivid, Hosea used the metaphor * of marriage to describe Israel's relationship to God. God is pictured as a husband and Israel as his faithless and promiscuous wife. Israel, the disloyal wife, is urged to repent and return to her husband. The marriage metaphor is enacted by Hosea himself in chs. 1–3 , when Hosea marries Gomer, described as a prostitute ( 2.2 ) and an adulteress ( 3.1 ). And Hosea uses the marriage metaphor repeatedly in the speeches in chs. 4–14 , which make up the bulk of the book. A prophet * fond of metaphors, Hosea also compares Israel's disloyalty to a barren tree ( 9.13–17 ), a stubborn heifer ( 4.16; 10.11–15 ), and a rebellious son ( 11.1–7 ).
Hosea's prophecy can be divided into two parts, the first a collection of narratives * in chs. 1–3 that describes Israel's disloyalty in terms of Hosea's faithless wife. Narratives about prophets, such as these, typically take up less space in a prophetic book than the prophet's speeches themselves, and they frequently describe prophets acting out the message they wish to deliver. The second and larger part of Hosea is a collection of prophetic speeches (chs. 4–14 ) that condemn Israel's deceit, predict God's punishment, and express hope for Israel's renewal. It is difficult to know where one speech ends and the next begins, but a dominant pattern can be detected in which indictments of sin are followed by sentences of judgment. In the brief speech that begins this collection, for example, an indictment listing Israel's crimes ( 4.1–2 ) is followed by a sentence describing God's punishment ( 4.3 ). Much less common are speeches predicting Israel's restoration ( 11.8–11 ). Hosea's own speeches may have been supplemented at points by later editors who wished to relate Hosea's message to the southern kingdom of Judah or to the Judeans in exile ( 11.10–11 ).
Hosea lived and prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel, also called Ephraim, at the time of the divided monarchy when Israel and Judah were separate kingdoms. Hosea was the only native northerner among the prophets, the rest of whom all lived in or came from Judah. His career covered the last 30 years of the kingdom of Israel (750–721 BCE), when Israel was under the constant threat of Assyrian imperialism and was wracked by a series of violent coups in its own capital, Samaria. Hosea deplores the internal political violence of this period ( 7.5–7 ) and Israel's attempt to protect itself by international alliances ( 7.11 ), and he believes Israel's impending doom in the face of Assyrian expansion to be God's punishment for its social and religious corruption.
Hosea is especially critical of the religious scene in Israelite society during this period. His frequent references to Baal ( 2.8, 13, 16 ) indicate that many Israelites had turned from their own God to worship this Canaanite deity. This attraction to Baal-worship among the Israelites was an old and continual problem, as the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal a century earlier shows (2 Kings 17–19 ). The Israelites believed that Baal, like Israel's own God, could deliver the rains and agricultural productivity on which their economy and survival depended. The calves that Hosea criticizes ( 8.5–6 ), though possibly pedestals or throne images for Israel's God, are also associated with Baal in this period, and Hosea regards them as idols of Baal.
Hosea begins a collection of twelve short prophetic books, often called the Minor Prophets because of their brief length when compared to the longer books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. These twelve books are arranged roughly in chronological order, starting with eighth-century prophets, as Hosea, Amos, and Micah are explicitly identified. The collection then moves to prophets of the seventh century and concludes with those of the sixth.