I have been discussing the wrath of God in the Old Testament and have mentioned a point that here that I want to reemphasize, a point rarely observed by Bible readers (in fact I think I didn’t take much notice of it until recently). In the Bible God sometimes punishes people because they misbehave toward others – kill, exploit, oppress, and so on; other times he punishes them because they do not worship him properly or at all.
This is a difference worth considering, because it goes to the heart of a fundamental matter: is God more worried about how people treat one another or about what they believe and do in relationship to him? Is it all about him, or is all about our fellow humans?
Most Christians, I suppose, would say “both”! But it’s interesting that different parts of the Bible tend to focus on one or the other, sometimes exclusively.
I have talked, e.g., about the prophet Amos, who predicted the coming destruction of Israel because the elite among them had mistreated the poor and marginalized. Amos is one of our earliest prophets of Scripture, from the 8th century BCE. His contemporary was Hosea, whose book is another absolutely terrific and compelling work, another indictment of the people of Israel – but this time not for social and ethical iniquity but for failure to worship God properly. The people of Israel have turned to other gods, and Hosea declares they have “prostituted” themselves and will be severely punished for it.
It’s a powerful condemnation. Here is how I describe it in my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2018).
No prophet of scripture emphasizes the deep and profound love of God for his people, and his bitter sense of betrayal for their unfaithfulness, more than the eighth-century Hosea. Here God is portrayed as the lover of Israel, which has rejected his adoration and become a whore.
This post deals with a fundamental aspect of the Bible’s understanding of God. Some find it common-sense and passionately embrace it. Others find it highly disturbing. Want to keep reading? Join the blog! Click here for membership options a contemporary of Amos and was prophesying in the north during almost the same time as Isaiah in the south during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, and of Jeroboam II in Israel. He shows no knowledge of the destruction of Assyria in 722 b.c.e., and so appears to have stopped his prophetic ministry sometime possibly soon before that.
Like the other prophets we have considered, Hosea maintains that the people of Israel have sinned against God and that as a result, he will harshly judge them. In this case the problem is not principally that they have behaved in unethical ways and perpetrated social injustice and oppression. It is rather that they have rejected the worship of God and indulged, instead, in the worship of other gods. “My people consult a piece of wood and their divining rod gives them oracles. . . . They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains and make offerings upon the hills” (4:12–13). They have, in a sense, prostituted themselves, wantonly going after lovers other than Yahweh: “for a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God” (4:12).
In a powerful and gripping set of images, Hosea speaks of the nation of Israel as the onetime spouse of God and mother of God’s people, who has, however, rejected her husband. The result will be a horrible punishment for both the nation and its people:
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. Upon her children also I will have no pity, because they are children of whoredom. For their mother has played the whore. (2:2–5)
Hosea as well uses the image of a legal indictment that God levels against his people. He had made a covenant with them, and they violated it: “the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty. . . . Therefore the land mourns and all who live in it languish” (4:1–3). As a result of this indictment, God “will punish Jacob according to his ways.” In places the imagery Hosea uses to describe God’s incensed reaction is harsh and violent, seen nowhere more clearly than in 13:4–9. God brought the people out of Egypt and fed them in the wilderness. But they then forgot him. And so,
I will become like a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart; there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them. I will destroy you, O Israel; who can help you? . . . They will fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.
As is even more fully the case of the later Jeremiah, sometimes God commanded his prophet to carry out certain actions in order to convey his prophetic message. Such prophetic acts also occur in Hosea, in graphic and heart-rending terms. At the beginning of the book, in order to illustrate his message, God instructs Hosea to marry a woman who would not be faithful but would become highly promiscuous, to show how Israel has treated God: The LORD said to Hosea, “Go take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD” (1:2).
And so Hosea does what he is told, in obedience to God (but miserably for himself) marrying an unfaithful woman named Gomer who bears him three children, each of them given a symbolic name. The first is a son and is named Jezreel, in remembrance of a bloody incident carried out by the king Jehu about a century earlier at a place called Jezreel. Gomer conceives a second time and gives birth to a daughter who is named Loruhamah, which means “not pitied.” God would no longer have pity on his people. She then bears another son named named Loammi, which means “not my people.” No longer would Israel be the people of God.
As with the other prophets we have seen, there are faint—very faint—glimmers of hope even in this graphic description of the prostitution of Israel after other gods. The Lord indicates that he will remove his estranged spouse into the wilderness, and there he will “speak tenderly to her” and rehabilitate her (2:14–23). In illustration of this message Hosea is instructed to go after his wife, who has become so promiscuous, and lure her back into their relationship. That too will be what happens when Israel returns to God, who originally called her his own: “Afterwards the Israelites shall return and seek the Lord their God . . . they shall come in awe to the LORD and to his goodness in these latter days” (3:5).
But before that, there are some ugly and bad times ahead: acts of prostitution, as Israel continues to adore and worship other gods more than Yahweh, and misery, as God exposes Israel for the prostitute she is and gives her in full measure the punishment that is her due.