Israel’s unfaithfulness is rooted in her misguided belief that other gods have provided for her. This is the root of idolatry. By properly recognizing and responding to the gifts of God we can keep from idolatry.
Through this lesson students should:
Understand that the root idolatry is the belief that someone other than God provides for us.
Understand that God’s treatment of Israel is so that she might return to him again.
Discuss the ways in which we can keep from idolatry.
Catching up on the story:
Last week we met the prophet Hosea, to whom God spoke. Hosea was commanded to take for himself a promiscuous and unfaithful wife. The wife, Gomer, we identified, not as a prostitute, but as a woman who either had displayed unfaithful behavior. Hosea marries Gomer and proceeds to father three children with her. This marriage and the children’s names were symbolic actions, much like the symbolic actions that the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah would undertake.
The three children would each receive God-given names that would remind everyone of Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s response to that unfaithfulness. The first name, Jezreel, would remind Israel of her leadership’s violence. The second name, Lo-ruhamah, would remind Israel that because of her unfaithfulness God would no longer look on her with pity or compassion. The final child, Lo-ammi, would remind Israel that because of her unfaithfulness she would no longer be God’s people. By the end of the chapter, however, the tone changed and hope was introduced into the scene. God will not fully abandon Israel. They will one day have a leader and will receive God’s compassion and be called his people. Judgment does not get the last word.
Chapter two can be split up into two distinct sections, 2:2-13 and 2:14-25. We’ll look at the first section of chapter two this week and the next section next week.
Before we begin an in-depth look into this section a few things need to be said. First, much of the language here in Hosea is symbolic or metaphorical in nature. In this particular section, God is speaking as a deeply hurt and offended husband to Israel, his very unfaithful wife. God enlists the help of his children to plead with his unfaithful wife so that the punishment she will receive may not happen. This leads to the second thing: marriage in Hosea’s day was very different than in our own. Wives had very little freedom or autonomy apart from their husbands. Marriage, for the most part, did not take place because two people fell in love but because it was arranged. The male in the relationship usually had all the power and was free to do as he pleased, even when it came to satisfying his sexual desires. Women, on the other hand, were little more than the property of the men and any unfaithfulness could be dealt with in very harsh ways. The language in this passage uses imagery that might have been acceptable in marital relationships in Hosea’s day but is certainly not acceptable in ours today. The larger message of the passage, which will become clear shortly, is what is important. Hosea cannot and should not be used as an example of how husbands should be allowed to treat their wives in cases of marital unfaithfulness.
The passage begins with judicial type language. God, as the offended husband, urges his children to plead with their mother. These children are innocent but will suffer in the wake of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Israel has dissolved her end of the covenant relationship and has given up her place as God’s people. Israel has chosen to separate herself from God and so God can no longer call himself her husband. It must be stated, at this point, that the final intent, even of this judgment section, is not a complete dissolving of God’s relationship with Israel. The goal, as we will see later on in Hosea, is reconciliation and restoration (Birch, 28-29).
Verse three begins the difficult portion of the text. Here the language of marital unfaithfulness is mixed with that of idolatry and the temptation of Canaanite religion. If Israel does not return to God, God will strip her naked, exposing her shame to all around. The land will suffer drought and even the children will suffer because of Israel’s choices.
At verse five we get a “for” which helps us understand the specifics of Israel’s infractions. “For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers; they give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’” Why is this happening to Israel? It is happening because she has sought the means of life from someone and something other than the God who brought her up out of Egypt.
The “lovers” to which Israel has given herself are the fertility gods of Israel’s surrounding neighbors. Baal, the chief Canaanite god, was the storm god. “With his consort, the goddess Anat, the vitality of Baal played a chief role in the cycle of the seasons and the fertility of the land. Canaanite religion understood the rains as Baal’s seed bringing life out of the earth. In winter, Baal was thought to die and go to the netherworld, from which he was rescued by Anat, and their sexual coupling restored life to the earth for the spring cycle of fertility. Canaanite ritual may have included ritual sexual intercourse to enact this fertility cycle of Baal” (Birch, 32-33).
Israel found herself caught up in these fertility rites that relied on Baal to bring them rain and crops and the things of life. It is not just that Israel chased after other gods, it’s that they began to attribute to Baal the good gifts that only God could give them. This is the true crime of idolatry: it’s the denial that God is the one who sustains and provides for us. Israel wandered after Baal, believing that it was he who gave her the things she needed, not God. In the same way, human beings wander after all sorts of gods (e.g., money, acceptance, power, entertainment), believing that those things can provide what they need.
The First Therefore: 2:6-8
At verse six we get a slight shift in imagery. Israel is still an unfaithful spouse, but now she is a dumb animal too. God declares that because she is constantly seeking after others to provide for her only what God can, God will constantly keep her from “getting” to those gods and the good things they provide. She will always be seeking but never finding. She will pursue her lovers but will be unable to find them. The mood of the passage implies that this futile chasing will take some time.
Eventually, though, Israel will come to her senses. One day she will wonder out loud, “I will go and return to my first husband…” The realization is that chasing after other gods have done her no good; it has only led her to heartbreak and despair. So, she will return and she will begin to remember, as once she had forgotten, that it was God who gave her grain and oil and gold and silver; the very things Israel used to chase after Baal!
The Second Therefore: 2:9-13
This second therefore is a continuation of the result of verse five, “I will go after my lovers…” It collaborates with what is said in verses 6-9. God now plans on taking back the good gift he has lavished on Israel. The grain that was expected at harvest will not be there; neither will the wool, which would be used to make clothing. The result is that Israel, as a land, will be naked and barren. The festivals that Israel engaged in to secure its bounty will turn from a time of enjoyment to a time of mourning. The wild animals of the field will destroy the things that she thought were gifts of payments from her lovers, the vines and the fig trees. Israel’s worship will come to an end.
In this passage, Hosea has mixed the images of adultery with idolatry. What is important to remember is that the adultery image serves the idolatry image; it is a way of explaining the hurt and pain and betrayal that God has experienced at the hands of Israel. It was God who provided for Israel: he brought her up out of the land of Egypt, he gave her a good land flowing with milk and honey. Israel forgot all that and chose to believe that other sources were the giver of those good gifts.
This is not the end, however, for Israel and God’s relationship. As we will see next week God has not given up on her. He will begin to chase her down so that he can woo Israel back to himself.
The image of Israel’s idolatry in verse five is a powerful one for us: “For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers; they give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’” Living in the abundance of America we are constantly tempted to think or perhaps even say these lines. For many of us, riches and goods are all around us and we hear from almost every direction that if we want something good we have to go and chase it down and work hard for it. We may not be chasing after Baal, but we will chase after almost anything else that might promise us the good life.
The ultimate question is this: from whom does all that we have come, God or someone else? The temptation in our context is always to answer, at least privately, that it is from someone or something else. We are tempted to believe that we have houses and cars and enough food to eat because we have worked hard. When the reality is that they are gifts from God. When we are focused on embracing the God who has given us these gifts we will be less likely to chase after the other things which promise to provide for us but never will.
Critical Discussion Questions:
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
God is the Giver. God has provided so much for Israel. He is a hurt and wounded lover who only wishes that the one he loved will love him back.
He is a giver of all good gifts and he will not abandon us to the destruction that chasing after other lovers will bring us.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Our salvation is only found in clinging to the one who has provided life and breath for us. God wishes to care for us. God wishes to provide for us. That doesn’t mean that we will always be rich, but when we reject God’s gifts by believing that they come from someone or something else, we will face the consequences of our unfaithfulness.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
This passage forces us to inspect how it is that we have all the things we have. We are always tempted to believe that we have what we have because we have worked hard for them. The reality is that we are to believe that God has given them to us and that we should live with the appropriate response.
Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Hosea uses some rich imagery in his writing. Who is God acting as in this passage? Who is Israel in this passage?
Why does God instruct Israel’s children to plead with their mother in verse 2?
Reread verse 5. God is quoting Israel here. What does this quote say about who Israel believes provides for her? How might this be connected to Israel’s idolatry?
God’s actions toward Israel seem pretty harsh. What is the final intent of those actions toward Israel?
As Christians, we believe that all good gifts come from God. Are you ever tempted to believe that the good things we have in life we have provided for ourselves? How is this similar to Israel’s mindset in this chapter? How do you guard against this mindset?
How can we keep from the idolatry that says that God is not the one who has provided for us? What practical things can we do to ensure that we keep a proper perspective about the gifts God has given us?
Martin Luther described idolatry as whatever your heart clings to the most. What do you cling to the most in your life? Israel clung to Baal, hoping that he could provide satisfaction. Spend some time naming the Baals in your life.
Bruce C. Birch, Hosea, Joel, and Amos, ed. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 28–29.