Over the next month I’ll be working through Hosea in sermons and some blog posts. The short book of powerful prophetic poetry (accompanied by two brief narrative sections), cannot be read in strict isolation. It contains virtually no historical context, and without at least some knowledge of the setting the prophetic words are almost impossible to consider rightly. There are at least two elements which need to be briefly described and grasped on some level before Hosea can really come to life for us. First, we must get a sense of the rise of the Assyrian empire, and how Israel responded to that rise, which is the subject of this post. Secondly, we must consider the nature of the Baal worship that Hosea so sharply criticizes. While other historical and cultural factors certainly add color to our reading of Hosea, these two simply cannot be ignored if we are to grasp the essence of the book’s message. On the bright side, if you get these two down a little bit, Hosea is going to make enough sense to you for you to absorb some of its raw and powerful poetic punch.
The resurgence and expansion of the Assyrian empire in the ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries BCE dominated the geo-political world of the Ancient Near East. In what historians refer to as the Neo-Assyrian period, a succession of ambitious and capable rulers built an empire capable of efficiently expanding through vicious military campaigns. Israel, located to the south-West of Assyria, would become Assyrian prey early on, paying tribute first of all in 841 BCE during the reign of Israel’s king Jehu.
Paying tribute essentially meant that the nation was formally submitting to the authority of the Assyrian emperor. By paying up, the smaller nation became a “vassal” to Assyria, or fell under Assyrian protection (think of a Godfather scenario if it helps you). Of course, the primary protection offered was from Assyria itself. Assyria was either your best ally or your worst nightmare. In order to avoid the Assyrian onslaught, neighboring kings such as Israel’s were forced to make massive payments. As a result, the nations were constantly balancing the burden of making the tribute verses the temptation to rebel and seek security elsewhere.
For the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Jehu in 841 was to pay the tribute Assyria demanded, but it seems that at some point soon after Israel slipped away for nearly a hundred years without paying up. Tiglath-Pilezer (Pul in the Bible) reasserted the empire’s dominance by collecting tribute from Israel during the reign of Menahem, sometime around 742 BC.
Each time a new ruler came to either nation, the opportunity arose for Israel to rethink the relationship with Assyria. Further, the rising and falling of Egyptian power during that same time frame appeared at times to provide an alternative to Assyrian allegiance. There was a substantial ongoing rivalry between the Egyptian and Assyrian rulers, and Israel was sandwiched pretty squarely between the two. Depending on what they thought were their best interests, the rulers of Israel sometimes used Assyria as a shield against Egypt, and sometimes flirted with Egypt as an ally against Assyria. The result of all that was that for the last 120 years of its existence, ancient Israel vacillated between accepting and living under Assyrian rule and rebelling against it. Eventually Assyria got tired of the games and in a couple of different stages wiped Israel off the map.
Hosea was active as a prophet over the 25 years or so of this process, from about 750-722 BC. That was an extremely fluid period of time for Israel politically, with seven different kings sitting on the throne of during that period of time. Four of those were assassinated, and the throne of Assyria also changed hands three different times. This was in no way a period of political stability.
Hosea begins his prophetic period during a time of relative stability during the reign of Jeroboam II, which ended with his death around 746 BC, a year after Tiglath-Pileser III rose to power in Assyria. Jeroboam’s son Zachariah took the throne, but within six months was assassinated by Shallum, who briefly took the throne before being assassinated himself within a month by one of the army’s generals who didn’t accept his claim to the throne. Menahem, who took the throne from Shallum, soon began paying tribute to Assyria, to the tune of some 37 tons of silver. He ruled for about ten years before dying and being succeeded by his son, Pekahiah. Pekaniah ruled for two years before Pekah murdered him and took the throne. Pekah, apparently supposing that the tribute being paid was too high, allied himself with Rezin, king of Damascus to the north, to try and rebel against Assyria and throw off the tribute. They attempted to force Judah’s king Ahaz to join their rebellion, sparking what we call the Syrio-Ephraimatic war between Israel/Syria and Judah. Ahaz, however, appealed to Tiglath-Pileser in Assyria, and the Assyrians sometime in 733/732 invaded Syria, sacking Damascus and capturing Rezin, as well as taking major portions of land away from Israel. In the midst of this crisis, Hoshea assassinated Pekah, seized the throne, and reestablished the tribute to Assyria, effectively getting the Assyrians off Israel’s back.
After Tiglath-Pileser’s death in 727, and the ascension of his son Shamaneser V to the throne, King Hoshea seems to have believed that the time was right for revolt again, perhaps because the country had regained some military capability after the 732 disaster. This deadly miscalculation brought the Assyrian army again to Israel, and although Shalmaneser himself died while besieging Samaria, Sargon II completed the job. Thousands were taken into exile, and the northern kingdom of Israel was no more.
All of this is wound into the prophetic poems of Hosea. Israel is sometimes cozying up to the Assyrian Emperor, and at other times believing that they will be strong enough on their own to resist the powerful empire, or that with the help of Egypt or another ally they might achieve security. Hosea provides a theological interpretation of this developing crisis, and the word which he provides from the Lord here offers instruction to any who suppose their own means of security to be sufficient. While later posts and sermons can unpack some of those more theological thoughts, I might make one general note here.
In Hosea’s view, the world in which we can make ourselves completely safe through political manipulation, military power, or financial accumulation does not exist. As much as we want to believe that is the world we live in, ultimately, it is an illusion. Part of Hosea’s prophetic role was to proclaim that the things Israel counted on for security could not protect them from God’s judgment.