Hosea - Introduction
AS ITS TITLE SAYS ( 1.1 ), the book of Hosea presents itself as the record of the LORD's word to a prophet from the past, Hosea. The book's main themes are Israel's abandoning of the LORD, the LORD'S punishment of Israel for that abandonment, calls for Israel's repentance, and hope for an ideal future of reconciliation between the LORD and Israel.
Israel's abandoning of the LORD is expressed in terms of cultic, religious, social, sexual, and political offenses. Horrifying imagery, along with references to Israel's destruction in the land and its exile from it, as well as of the fall of the northern monarchy, express the theme of the LORD'S punishment of Israel. To be sure, no prophetic book concerns itself only with condemnation and punishment. All of them convey hope for the future. Hosea does so in highly poetic language. Yet hope for the future, for a restoration of the ideal relation between the LORD and Israel, demands that Israel turn from its ways and return to the LORD, so the call for repentance is an important theme in the book.
It is precisely the element of hope—hope against a background of apparent hopelessness—that has led to the book's wide use in Jewish liturgy. Thus Hosea 14.2–10 is read in the afternoon service of Tish'ah be'av (Sephardic and Yemenite traditions; others read Isa. 55.6–56.8 ) and on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Ha‐Shanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Hosea 2.1–22 is read as the haftarah for the parashah of Be‐midbar (Num. 1.1–4.20 ). Hosea 2.21–22 are recited as part of the ritual for donning tefillin (phylacteries).
Like other prophetic books, Hosea often employs sexual and family metaphors to express the relationship between God and Israel. Within the metaphorical world of the book of Hosea, God takes the role of an angry husband who condemns, severely punishes, and publicly dishonors his unfaithful wife, who fails to recognize how good he had been to her. After his violent and shaming punishment is carried out, he will be willing to accept her back. The basic imagery present here is quite common in the society within which the prophetic books were written (see also Ezek. chs 16, 23 ), and in the ancient Near East as a whole. To be sure, the text was not written to glorify or justify family violence or violence against women in general, but rather to explain the reasons for the disasters that befell Israel, to persuade the readers to live their lives in a way consistent with the will of the LORD, and to give them hope for the future. Nevertheless, this imagery carries connotationsthat are very troublesome for many contemporary readers, and especially painful for those who cannot but associate their reading of the text with their, or their acquaintances’, personal experiences (see chs 1–3, and particularly 2.3–15 ). The book is set in the last period of political strength of the Northern Kingdom of Israel—from our perspective, middle 8th century BCE—and the time of its destruction by Assyria in 722 (see 1.1 n. ). While the threat of Assyrian invasion hovers in the background, the book focuses on the behavior of Israel, which it evaluates and condemns in very sharp terms. It is a period of apostasy, of social disintegration, of wrongful leadership, of failed alliances, in sum a period in which knowledge of (and reverence for) the LORD are lacking.
The setting of the book of Hosea is one of the earliest among the book of the Twelve, and this may be one of the reasons for its place at the beginning of the collection (for a traditional Jewish text on the matter, see b. B. Bat. 14b).
The book contains an introduction ( 1.1 ), and a very significant conclusion that provides a key for its interpretation ( 14.10 ; see intro. to The Twelve). The rest of the book consists of two main sections: 1.2–3.5, in which narrative and imageries of whoredom are prominent, and 4.1–14.9, which consists of a set of readings that report prophetic announcements associated with Hosea. An alternative subdivision of 1.2–14.9 is: (a) chs 1–3; (b) chs 4–11 ; and (c) chs 12–14 .
[EHUD BEN ZVI]