Hosea—A Bibliography for Study and Preaching

While I’ve been preparing for the Hosea series of sermons (and blog posts!) I have had the wonderful chance to work through a few books, and I thought I should share a few I’ve found helpful. Looking for a commentary on any given text can be tough, because there is simply so much material available. I haven’t read all of the following cover to cover, but have used each at some point in my preparations on Hosea over the course of the last few months.

I worked through Luther Mays’ commentary of Hosea (1969) first, from the wonderful Old Testament Library series. I found it to be an excellent wonderful theological guide to reading Hosea. The themes of covenantal faithfulness resonate throughout the commentary. Mays is thorough, but typically is not overly so, and his commentary doesn’t burden the reader with too much technical language. It is perhaps a bit dated, (1969), particularly as regards the Caananite Baal cult and other archaeological data, but nonetheless the theology Mays read out of Hosea holds up well. He does not delve deeply into the many text-critical issues at play in Hosea, but I imagine most readers will find that a plus. He is certainly not ignorant of the issues and takes them well into account, but aside from very brief discussions at key places he judges that exhaustive textual discussion would overly burden the commentary, and I think that is correct. As the commentary stands, I think it provides a good level of theological material, such that will challenge most readers in a way that they can appreciate. Most other scholars seem to believe that Mays’s work is the landmark text.

The commentary by Andrew Dearman (2010) is perhaps the most well rounded and up to date volume that I worked with as I prepared to preach from the book. Dearman takes form critical matters seriously without swimming in them too much, and the same is generally true for his treatment of ancient Israelite religious matters.  This commentary has a great balance, and doesn’t feel too heavy for the average user, but is also well-informed and dialogues with other treatments of the book well. There is also a kindle version available, which is the only of the commentaries listed here for which that is true. The kindle version doesn’t include (at this point) page numbers, which is a bit annoying, particularly if you want to cite the book.  Nonetheless, I think this is a great buy, and if I was starting over I think I’d pick this up first.

Gale Yee’s commentary on Hosea in the twelfth volume of the New Interpreter’s Bible (1996) challenged me in some very helpful ways. While being extremely readable, Yee’s commentary provoked me to thinking through something of a feminist perspective of Hosea, particularly helping me see a new perspective on some of the rhetoric about Yahweh as husband. While I don’t know that the commentary would be sufficient by itself, it would make a fantastic second voice for a full conversation about Hosea. This volume includes commentary on each of the Minor prophets, as well as Daniel, from good solid scholars, and at $40 on amazon might be the best deal dollar for dollar, particularly in you’re going to work on the other minor prophets as well. As a side note, I think this whole set of commentaries has really been done well.  The lineup of contributors is impressive, and the format is excellent.

 

Douglas Stuart’s commentary on Hosea (1987) is in a volume that also includes commentary on Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and Jonah. Hosea gets the lion’s share of the substantial book, though, and Stuart is very thorough in his treatment of Hosea. Writing from a very fixed perspective, Stuart heavily emphasizes that Hosea is a reformer, seeking to call the people back to the covenant made years ago as represented by the book of Deuteronomy.  I appreciate Stuart’s perspective, but at several points felt as though he was a bit overconfident in his argumentation of the point—perhaps even condescending, although he certainly isn’t the only scholar to be guilty of such. On balance, I think the commentary is a nice contribution, and I found it helpful, although a little annoying.  That in itself is not a serious criticism, because if you aren’t willing to learn from annoying sources occasionally, you just aren’t going to learn.

The mammoth commentary on Hosea by Anderson and Freedman (1980) in the Anchor Bible Series could be quite helpful to some, but this is a heavy (literally and metaphorically) book with a good bit of technical discussion in it. I think the authors offer some great analysis and fresh insight, but this book is just simply going to be too much for most readers of the text. If I was doing a paper on a specific text, I’d definitely check it, and on particularly difficult passages for preaching there is some very helpful work here. However, at 600 plus pages, I simply can’t imagine reading through this whole work. If you can, more power to you.

I only briefly looked at James Limburg’s commentary on Hosea (1988) in the Interpretation series. While I typically have enjoyed commentaries in that series, and have written elsewhere of my appreciation of Limburg’s work on Ecclesiastes, I was really quite disappointed with this volume.  It was too stiff, and I just didn’t get the same vibe of creativity here as I did with his ecclesiastes work.  Alas.

Hosea and Gomer—Background of Hosea 3:1

Perhaps because they differ greatly from the rest of the book, the sections of Hosea which tell of his personal family life seem to be better known than the poetic passages. The relevant texts are Hosea 1 (particularly Hosea 1:2-3), and Hosea 3.

When we look at those texts, we’re immediately presented with the question of whether the two texts refer to the same woman. We are given a name in the first chapter, but not in the third, and it is easily conceivable the narratives tell of two different women. After all, it seems that God’s command to Hosea in 3:1 initiates a new action on the part of Hosea. The use of “again” (עןד) in 3:1 seems most naturally to modify  “The Lord spoke to me” (so NRSV), although it could conceivably modify “go” (ESV), or even “love” (NIV—this reading seems unlikely to me, and indeed the translation of the whole verse in the NIV seems to sidestep the legitimate ambiguity.) I read the first part of the verse as saying, “The Lord said to me again, ‘Go, love a woman who has a lover and commits adultery…'”

Although that reading may suggest that Hosea is being told to love a completely new woman, I think that on the whole the analogy depends on this being the same woman from chapter one. Just as the Lord is loving Israel despite her infidelity, I think Hosea is being told to love his wife even though she has been unfaithful to him.  the analogy doesn’t make sense if Hosea is starting a new relationship—that certainly isn’t what God is proclaiming he is going to do!  So we’re on perhaps difficult methodological ground here. Although the intent of the passage was to make clear the Lord’s action by way of Hosea’s action, for us we almost need to reverse engineer the metaphor and interpret the reality of Hosea’s action by what it is said to have represented in the Lord’s actions.  Thus, I felt comfortable letting my sermon on Hosea and Gomer grow out of this verse, because on the whole I think the data bests suggests that Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim mentioned in chapter 1, is the same person being referred to here in Chapter 3.

Reversal—A Sermon on Hosea 2

Hosea the prophet lives in a time of false security, when his nation manipulates politics to acquire a sense of independent security, and manipulates religion in an attempt to acquire economic stability. Their political/military life and their worship both lead them away from dependence on God, from faith. For both of these he speaks words of judgment, fiery words which call Israel (and now, the church) to see her sin for what it is, and to learn true repentance.

We normally think of repentance as being about the past. We avoid it because we think it means a reliving of our worst mistakes, but nothing could be further than the truth. In repentance we confess and name our sin—not as a way of reliving it, but as a way of moving away from it. Repentance is about freedom from the past. Repentance is a consequence of hope.

It grows out of two convictions about the future, convictions which Hosea leads us into by sharing God’s mind with us.

First, God owns the future. God declares the future through Hosea, not because he has some secret power of prediction, but because the future consists of the actions of God. God does not predict sports scores or the playing cards of a magician’s trick, but is simply stating what he intends to do, with the knowledge that he can and will in fact do these things. While humans have plenty to say about what will happen in the mean time, the future—the ultimate future—will be as God wills.  And so, God can declare that Israel will be exposed, that they will be stripped of all that they hold dear, that they will be confronted by the futility of their quests for power, security, and independence from him—not because it’s a magical prediction, but because God himself will act to do these things.  “I will strip her naked…I will expose her as in the day she was born…I will make her like a wilderness…I will turn her into a parched land…I will kill her with thirst…I will hedge up her way with thorns and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths…I will take back my grain, my wine, my wool and my flax…I will uncover her shame…I will put an end to her celebrations…I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees…” God can make these announcements because they are his actions. God is free and powerful to act in whatever way he wills. God owns the future.

Second, God wants us to share his future. Hosea’s word is ultimately one of invitation—God intensely desires for Israel to join him in the future. All of the judgments issued are for this purpose, and point toward the day of its completion, the day when Israel is restored to God. God acts to provoke a repentant response in Israel, so that she will come to freely love him and live in a covenant with God marked by peace, righteousness, justice, love, mercy, and faithfulness.

What’s remarkable about Hosea is the kind of language that God uses to describe his passionate desire for Israel to have a part in this future. God won’t force Israel into repentance, but he will do almost anything else. Besides the prophetic word of warning, God flirts with Israel, gives her gifts, tries taking them away, exposes her other loves as frauds, finally draws her back out into the wilderness—like a husband who takes his wife back to the site of their honeymoon. He speaks softly to her, whispering, “we can just start over.”

His goal is the day when she responds with repentance, when she sees that he alone truly does own the future and yet offers her a place in it. His goal is a day of dramatic reversal, when all the pronouncements of judgment find their fulfillment—which is not to say, the destruction they foretell. No, Hosea’s warnings only find their fulfillment in the repentance they are meant to provoke, whether or not that occurs before or after the impending calamity. His goal is the day when Israel responds with repentance, and all that is wrong can be made right.

Hosea plays off of the warnings of chapter 1 to describe he dramatic reversal, flipping each name from its message or warning to one of hope. The stigma of bloodshed that brought about the name “Jezreel” will be replaced by the word’s linguistic meaning—”God sows”—and God will plant the people in the land, establishing her with peace and abundance from his own hand, not as a result of her political or religious manipulation. To those whom he gave the name, “no mercy”, he will now have mercy, and to those whom he called “not my people”, he will again say, “you are my people.” The renaming is completed, not by a word from God, but one from the people, as they finally and dramatically will say, “you are my God.” God paints the picture of this future, seeking to inspire hope in Israel—for where hope lives, repentance is possible.

Repentance happens in the lives of those who understand that God owns the future, and who believe they have a place in God’s future. Reading Hosea now, some 2700 years later, and reading it on the other side of Jesus, we know that God has taken a dramatic step to bring about this future. While we wait for the final scene to begin, God has invited us to share in his future…now!

God declares that his rule will be over all the earth, and in repentance we begin to live in that future now; we join God now, leaving the past behind and orienting ourselves by a future that redeems the present.

And so it is that within these words of warning there is also a seed of hope, the promise of God’s willingness to honor repentance, his burning desire to take back what belongs to him and make right what has been broken. I urge you to heed the warning that the future belongs to God, to take on the hope that he has a place for you within it, and to let it that hope bring forth the repentance by which God may enact his reversal.

Location in Hosea

Read through Hosea a few times, and you’ll soon pick up on how frequently Hosea’s prophecies are rooted in particular places. There are about 34 references to 20 different places in the book—a fairly dense concentration for a book of only 14 chapters! Some of them are familiar because of references in other biblical books, but others are fairly obscure to us, and we can only guess to their import by looking at the kinds of things Hosea has to say about them.

What’s interesting to me is the effect of rooting these poetic poems, which could be simply abstractions, in the concrete world of these specific places. Often that means the poem is bound to a narrative, or even a set of narratives, that comes with the location. All of this works throughout Hosea to give the book a sharp historical focus and feel, even if the specific force is lost on us as readers separated by a great distance. What’s important is to pick up on the sense of place in the poetry. When you read the book as a whole, and get beyond the strange archaic place names, the continuing cadence of places helps pull the poetry out of the sky, planting it firmly on the earth.

Here’s a list of all the places that show up in Hosea, with some brief references to what makes some of them significant. This list doesn’t include Israel, Ephraim, Judah, Assyria, or Egypt, since they are all significant enough either as places or players in the drama that I want to give them their own space. Continue reading “Location in Hosea”

Names—A Sermon on Hosea 1

At the market, a man picks vegetables, tying to decide between the vegetables. He thumps a melon, scans the cucumbers, and inspects the onions. He notices a cute little girl playing with her brother near his basket and smiles at them. He turns to their parents who are standing nearby and, in the chatty way that people sometimes talk at the market, asks a normal question: “Your kids are beautiful. What are their names?”

The parents expression darkens—the mother turns away, finding something else to do. The father’s eyes narrow, and he steps closer. Pointing straight at the little girl, he says, “We call her ‘unloved’. Unloved.” Not knowing how to respond, the man shuffles his feet a bit, and finally says, “And the boy?”

“Not mine.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought…”

“No, that’s his name.  His name is ‘not-mine.’ ”

Hosea is a shocking story. It does not allow for passive bland reading, and I assure you it does not consist of passive, bland writing. It opens with the story of Hosea’s family—a family whose very existence could not but shock literally everyone who met them. The book of Hosea consists mostly prophetic poetry. Not the poetry which many of us have in mind—the dry tedious metered verses we labored to understand as school kids. This is the kind of poetry that Walter Brueggemann describes as “shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, dangerous, imaginative possibilities.” (Finally Comes the Poet, 6) Hosea is full of wrecking-ball language, the kind that comes to destroy the peace of the present for the sake of the future.

The book opens with a narrative, but the story is just as disturbing as the poetry that follows. In fact, we might think of the story as a setting for three brief, super dense poems—the names of the children. After all, even within the story, it’s the word—the word from the Lord—that really matters. Continue reading “Names—A Sermon on Hosea 1”

Historical Background of Hosea—Baal and Idolatry

The second major background factor that we need to grasp somewhat to read Hosea well is the worship of the Canaanite god Baal(s). (The first is the Assyrian crisis, discussed here.) The name “Baal” shows up seven times in Hosea (2:8, 2:13, 2:16, 2:17, 9:10, 11:2, 13:1); four of those instances are in chapter 2. Besides these explicit references, the worship of such gods is a prominent theme in Hosea, and it would be well for anyone reading the book to have some sort of an idea of what is going on.

“Baal” was something of a general name for a variety of deities, some of which were conceptualized as being particularly localized, some of which were seen as more general gods in the polytheistic mindset of ancient Canaan. How the various religious shines serving deities known as Baals should be identified as a consistent religious movement is something of an open question (at least in my mind).

Baal with thunderbolt. 15th-13th century BC, found at Ugarit. (Now at Louvre)

Scholars gained substantial knowledge of Baal in the archaeological site of Ugarit, which was a Canaanite city northwest of Israel up until around 1200 BC. At the site were, among many other finds, documents from the Baal cults themselves—documents which were much more sympathetic to the god and its worshippers than were the Bible and its prophets! As should be obvious even reading the Bible, the religious landscape in ancient Israel contained devotees of other gods besides Yahweh, and often a syncretistic outlook which sought to incorporate the Lord into a wider pantheon.

Basically, (severe oversimplification ahead) Baal was the god who ensured that the land yielded its crops. Baal was the rain/storm god, the god of the fertile land.  Baal and his female counterpart(s) were worshiped in a cyclical patter following the seasons of the year. By ritual and sacrifice, worshippers sought to ensure that Baal would bring the rains necessary to grow crops—it was all about making sure they had food to eat.

There has been a good bit of speculation and thought of how some of the rituals associated with Baal and his female counterpart Asherah contained an explicit sexual element. As a symbol of fertility, worship at the various shrines may have included some sort of sexual ritual. In the ancient worldview accompanying such religion, the sympathetic practice of a “magical” sexual rite may have been parallel with nature, particularly the fertilization of the earth (Asherah) by the rain (Baal). The rituals were a way of manipulating the gods, thereby manipulating nature. Baal worship was all about using ritual to control the forces of nature and get what you want.

We should note at this point that commonly worship of the Lord devolves into the same thing. Hosea seems to observe such in his own day, and rails against that just as much as he does explicit worship as Baal. Worshipping Yahweh as though he were Baal is just as bad as worshipping Baal himself.

Thus, the material against idolatry in Hosea actually fits well with the themes related to Israel’s attempts to provide itself security in the face of the the threat from the rising Assyrian empire. Both are about the illusion of control—one the manipulation of politics to attain security, the other the manipulation of religion to attain abundance.

Neither is acceptable to the Yahweh of Hosea.