By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Book of Hosea is one of the twelve short prophetic books which conclude the canonical Old Testament. For this reason, Hosea is often known as one of the ‘minor’ prophets, because this book, and the other eleven short books which make up ‘the twelve’, are less lengthy and sweeping than, say, the Books of Isaiah and Jeremiah (which precede them in the Bible).
There are several reasons why a study of the Book of Hosea is worthwhile. We’ll explore these below, and reveal the well-known biblical quotation which has its origins in this book of the Old Testament.
Book of Hosea: summary
The name Hosea is derived from Hoshea, which was also the name of the last king of Israel. Both names are ultimately derived from the same root which gives us the name Joshua (which means ‘Yahweh delivers’). The name of Jesus, which is derived from the Greek, is also etymologically related to Hosea.
In the context of the Book of Hosea, however, Hosea is a prophet who, according to the chronology given at the start of the book, was a contemporary of Jeroboam II, a king of Israel who reigned from 785 to 745 BC.
However, the Book of Hosea probably dates from the 3rd century BC, and is part of the twelve books of prophetic writings which were put together following the Exile. The Book of Hosea is concerned specifically with the Northern Kingdom of Israel, in contrast to Judea to the south.
Hosea relates how his wife was unfaithful, but – unusually for Old Testament men – took her back and forgave her all the same. The author of the book draws a parallel between Hosea’s forgiveness of his wife’s transgressions and God’s forgiveness of Israel for her transgressions:
Then said the Lord unto me, Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend, yet an adulteress, according to the love of the Lord toward the children of Israel, who look to other gods, and love flagons of wine. (Hosea 3:1)
In other words, Israel is likened to an unfaithful wife who has failed her ‘covenant’ with her husband: in other words, God.
Hosea and his wife, whose name is Gomer, have a son, which God commands them to name Jezreel in reference to a valley which held violent connotations in the context of Israel’s history. Many of the previous kings of the Northern Kingdom had shed blood in the region of Jezreel, so God’s choice of name was a reminder that the people of Israel would now pay for the bloodshed their ancestors had caused.
In this context, the meaning of Jezreel is significant: it means ‘God sows’. We’ll come back to sowing and reaping later, because this relates to the famous phrase which has its origins in the Book of Hosea.
Hosea and Gomer also have a daughter, whom God commands they name Lo-ruhamah, meaning ‘pitied’ or ‘unloved’. This offers hope that God will not love or pity the Northern Kingdom. They then have another son – of questionable paternity – and God tells them to name this son Lo-ammi, meaning ‘not my people’: another reference to the fact that he is (for now) disowning the people of the Northern Kingdom.
There then follows a series of meditations on the dark state of Israel during the time of Hosea. As the Dictionary of the Bible puts it, the prophet ‘utters denunciations of people, priests, and kings.’ Hosea 4:1 sets the tone:
Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land.
Hosea 4:6 sees God reject the people of Israel, because they have rejected – and forgotten – him:
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.
Many of the prophet’s subsequent thoughts are presented in the form of poems which look backwards to more peaceful and stable times for Israel, as well as forwards to what the prophet trusts will be more peaceful times again, following the upheaval that Israel must first endure. Specifically, the Oracle in these chapters is concerned with the Northern Kingdom.
Indeed, the remainder of the book, from chapter 4 to chapter 14, is concerned with the problems Israel is currently facing: problems which are attributed to a loss of godliness among its people.
Although God has renounced the people of the Northern Kingdom, he does not give up on them completely, and there is the promise that, in future times, he will welcome them back to him again.
Book of Hosea: analysis
As the authors of the Dictionary of the Bible observe, the Book of Hosea is slightly unusual in that Hosea’s divine revelation is mediated through his tragic domestic experience: namely, the infidelity of his wife, Gomer bath-Diblaim. This makes his prophetic utterances more personal, even while his marital strife is clearly being used for allegorical purposes to represent God’s relationship with the people of the Northern Kingdom.
Scholars disagree over the other details of Hosea’s life: the references to ovens and baking in his text have led some to suggest that he was a baker by profession, but his numerous allusions to the soil and earth perhaps make farming a more likely vocation.
Many scholars believe that he addressed his prophetic words to a small group of disciples; again, this makes him somewhat unusual among the prophets, in that he is not addressing his words to a specific individual or people.
But what about this famous biblical quotation which has its origins in the Book of Hosea? For that, we should turn to Hosea 8:7: ‘For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.’
This phrase or proverb, which means ‘actions have consequences’, has since become well-known, but few people know the biblical verse that originated the expression, nor the specific context – the coming destruction of Israel – in which the expression first appears.