Like the Book of Amos, the Book of Hosea is addressed to the people of the northern kingdom — Israel. Its fourteen chapters contain both a warning concerning future events and an interpretation of these events' meanings. Throughout the book, the prophet speaks to the people of Israel about the critical situation that developed during the years that immediately followed the death of Jeroboam II. When Amos prophesied the disaster that would befall the nation, he was promptly repudiated by those who were "at ease in Zion" and who were confident that no evil would ever come upon their land. However, when Hosea came on the scene only a few years later, these attitudes had changed. Events had occurred that shook the confidence of even the most optimistic persons. No longer was there a stable government on which the people could rely. The line of kings changed rapidly, and often the change was attended by violence. With invasion by the Assyrian armies imminent, Israel kept the peace only by paying an enormous tribute to the Assyrian rulers.
To raise this tribute, it was necessary to impose a policy of taxation that placed a difficult burden on the people, but there were always those who resented paying tribute to a foreign power. At times, this resentment led to open revolt. The Israelite king would be murdered and his assassin would take over the reins of government. The situation was chaotic, and no one seemed to know what to do. In their desperation, the priests increased the number of sacrifices, offered more prayers, and called more solemn assemblies, but none of these measures stemmed the downward tide. Under these strained and trying circumstances, Hosea performed his mission as a spokesman for Yahweh. The first part of Hosea records the tragic story of the prophet's unhappy marital experiences. Hosea's wife, Gomer, whom he married in good faith, proved to be an adulterous woman. Three children were born to her, but they were not Hosea's. Because of Gomer's unfaithfulness, the prophet divorced his wife and lived apart from her. Following her separation from the home, Gomer continued her adulterous life and eventually was scarcely different from an ordinary slave. But Hosea still loved her in spite of her unfaithfulness. To rescue her from her lovers, he sought her out and purchased her freedom.
Whether this story is to be regarded as a parable or as a record of actual experiences in Hosea's home life is a question concerning which there are different opinions. The material found in the book's third chapter suggests what Hosea regards as the meaning of his experiences in relation to Yahweh's dealings with the people of Israel. Yahweh chose Israel and entered into a covenant relationship with it, but Israel has been unfaithful to the covenant; it has forsaken the one to whom its loyalty was pledged and now serves other gods. The licentious practices followed by the worshipers of the Canaanite Baal gods have become a part of the religious life of the Israelites, and even their professed worship of Yahweh has been contaminated with the ideas and ceremonial rites of Baal worship. Because of this unfaithfulness on the part of Israel, Yahweh will permit the Assyrians to overrun the land and carry the people into captivity. But unlike Amos, for whom the coming captivity would be final, Hosea views the captivity as a means for bringing the Israelites to their right senses: After they have learned their lesson, they will return to their own land, and a king who is like King David will reign over them.
As this lesson, which comes out of his own bitter marital experiences, becomes more clear to Hosea, he records it from the perspective of his later years. Understanding that his own relationship to Gomer parallels the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, he realizes that Yahweh used this lesson to communicate his will and purpose to those who claim to be his people. From this point of view, we can understand Hosea's statement that Yahweh instructed him to marry an adulterous woman and later directed him to make provisions for her moral restoration.
The remainder of the Book of Hosea consists of a collection of miscellaneous statements expressing Hosea's convictions concerning the character of Yahweh and Yahweh's relation to the people of Israel. Hosea appears to have had the temperament of a poet; his thoughts are usually expressed in terms of strong analogies and striking figures of speech. But it is not always easy to understand what he is saying, for his statements are not arranged in chronological order, nor do they indicate the time or circumstances under which they were delivered. In spite of these difficulties, the materials contained in these chapters reveal some remarkable insights that contributed in no small way to the development of Israel's religious ideals.
Anyone who reads the Book of Hosea will be impressed by Hosea's conception of the deity. For Amos, as well as for most of his predecessors, Yahweh is conceived primarily as a god of justice. He gave laws for his people to obey, and disobedience of these laws must inevitably bring punishment sufficient to atone for the wrongdoing. But for Hosea, Yahweh is a god of love and mercy. Our best understanding of Yahweh's nature can be grasped by means of analogies drawn from family relationships. The love of a husband for his wife and the love of a father for his children are appropriate symbols for indicating the character of the deity. Speaking for Yahweh, Hosea declares, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." And again, "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim."
Punishment for wrongdoing is indeed necessary, but according to Hosea, the purpose of punishment is not to meet the demands of justice but rather to restore the ones who have done the wrong. This moral restoration is achieved by getting the wrongdoers themselves to recognize the error of their ways and then to repent in humility and turn from their evil paths. In other words, for Hosea, punishment is remedial rather than retributive, an expression of Yahweh's love for his people. Punishment should be used as a last resort to teach lessons that people have refused to learn in any other way. Israel will surely go into captivity, but it will not be a final or complete destruction of the nation. Rather, it will be an opportunity for Israelites to gain a clearer understanding of the character of Yahweh so that when they return to their land as free people, they will know how to worship Yahweh in an appropriate manner.
The responsibility for what has happened to the nation rests heavily on the priests, whose function was to guide the affairs of the nation, especially in regard to their religious duties. But this they have not done. They have been blind guides leading the people to believe that Yahweh demands nothing more than sacrifices, long prayers, solemn assemblies, and other forms of ritualistic observances. The truth of the matter, according to Hosea, is that Yahweh cares nothing at all for these services: "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." Yahweh's demands are moral. He desires the correct personal attitudes rather than external conformity to a given set of rules. If the people had a correct understanding of the character of Yahweh, they would not try to worship him after the manner in which the Canaanites worshiped their Baal gods. Because of this lack of understanding on their part, Hosea criticizes not only the priests but the people who have allowed themselves to be misled in this manner. The Israelites, and especially the priests, have had the chance to know better; their responsibilities include making the proper use of the opportunities given them: "My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests."
Failure to understand the nature of Yahweh has led to false ideas concerning the safety and security of the nation. Instead of putting their trust in righteousness, the Israelites have relied upon strength and military power. When it became evident that they could not match the strength of enemy nations who threatened to invade their land, there were those who advocated an alliance with some foreign power. One group urged an alliance with Egypt; another group insisted that the security of Israel depended on an alliance with Assyria. Hosea was convinced that both parties were wrong. He accused Israel's leaders of failing to understand the true cause of the nation's downfall. "Ephraim," says the prophet, "is like a flat cake not turned over." The people do not have any clear idea of what they are doing. Again, he says, "Ephraim is like a dove, easily deceived and senseless." The nation resembles a bird that is without brains. Its people have been following a stupid policy, trying to save their country by making it strong instead of making it morally right.
Hosea was the last of the prophets of the northern kingdom. Fortunately, the book that bears his name has been preserved. When the Assyrians overran the land, someone escaped to the south and brought the manuscript to the city of Jerusalem. An important document, it represents in some respects the highest achievements in the development of the religious ideals of Israel. Here, we find for the first time the conception of Yahweh as a god of love. Earlier notions emphasized power and justice as the essential characteristics of the deity. Hosea does not eliminate these qualities, but he makes them subordinate to love and mercy. The way in which he arrives at this new conception is of particular interest: From the account given in the first three chapters of the book, we can infer that he came to his conclusions partly as a result of his own experiences. While in one sense Hosea's newfound wisdom was a revelation from Yahweh, we must bear in mind that even a divine revelation can be communicated to human beings only through the use of finite channels. True, a perfect understanding of the nature of deity is beyond any human capacity; nevertheless, it is possible to know something about the nature of deity provided similarities or resemblances exist between the human and the divine. On this assumption, we can reasonably suppose that the most adequate conception of deity will be derived from those experiences that are regarded as the noblest and best that human beings have ever observed in their own lives.
Such an observation is what seems to have happened in the case of Hosea. The attitude that he displayed toward Gomer in spite of her unfaithfulness to him and the efforts that he put forth to bring about her restoration were recognized at a later time as the noblest and best of all that he ever did. Fittingly, he thinks of Yahweh as one who possesses in an even greater measure those qualities of character that are similar to the best he experienced in his own life. From this reasoning, it follows that Yahweh's attitude toward the erring people of Israel is like that which Hosea displayed toward Gomer. Yahweh's main concern for his people would be to bring about their restoration rather than mete out to them the exact amount of punishment they deserve. In other words, Yahweh's justice is always subordinate to his mercy. Justice in human relationships is based on the idea of equality, which means giving to each person exactly that which is due. According to Hosea, divine justice is determined not so much by what people deserve as by what is necessary in order to bring about the desired reformation on their part.
This new element in the conception of deity had many important consequences for the future development of Israel's religion. For one thing, Yahweh's punishments could be interpreted as remedial rather than retributive. From this point of view, the entire history of the Hebrew people would appear in a new light. The hardships and tragedies that befell them from time to time were for the purpose of teaching them lessons that they refused to learn in any other way. Even the captivity of the nation by a foreign power would not mean that Yahweh had forsaken them. His love for the Israelites was so strong that he would never give them up. Israel was slow in learning the lessons these experiences were designed to teach, but now that an understanding was beginning to break through, at least some hope for the future remained. Eventually, the divine purpose with reference to Israel would be fully realized.