This poem of YHWH’s anguished love for the beloved child Israel stands as one of the most poignant testimonies to divine love in the Old Testament, if not in the entire Bible.
Quite possibly the earliest expression of God’s love in the Bible, it is also the most passionate, as it portrays God’s heart in conflict with his plans, his compassion averting his anger. When Israel was still in Egypt, God loved him and called him his son; yet from this very beginning, Ephraim has turned away to other lords (ba?alîm, Hosea 11:2). Metaphors of YHWH as father and shepherd explore the full range of God’s love and care, which Israel has spurned. The metaphors appeal to the audience’s sympathy, evoking an identification with God’s hurt. Under any other human covenantal arrangement of the time, such rebellion would spell certain doom. Faced with such a prospect, YHWH is moved to question what he is about to do. The questions push him to a new conclusion about his identity, as well as the enduring nature of his love.
Hosea’s exploration of divine love has its beginnings in a fraught political context, in which Israel’s bid to secure its place among the nations had led to fatal political alliances. These alliances were sealed by treaty oaths in which vassals swore to “love” their new overlords in exchange for promises of military protection.1 In these treaties, love was synonymous with loyalty, the proof of which consisted primarily of steep annual payments of tribute to Assyria. When Israel rebelled against these arrangements and withdrew this “love,” its overlords brutally retaliated, and by 722 BCE, Israel was completely destroyed.
In Hosea 11:5-7, it is God who hands Israel over to this destruction, and God’s love thus initially looks like the quid-pro-quo arrangement known from the human realm of treaty alliances. God expects Israel to return his love — in effect, to be loyal. The metaphors drawn from the Israelite household in verses 1-4 reinforce this expectation. J. Andrew Dearman reminds us that metaphors are not simply rhetorical flourishes but, rather, cognitive instruments, helping us to understand or see unfamiliar or difficult concepts by speaking of them in terms of more familiar experiences.2
In this poem, then, God’s actions as an adoptive father and tender shepherd allow the audience to imagine God in terms of the human experience of the relationship between father and child. Even so, while there is great tenderness in the portrayal of YHWH’s care of Israel in these verses, it is important to remember that fatherhood in the ancient Israelite household demanded absolute filial obedience. In fact, Deuteronomy 21:18-21 required parents to have rebellious sons stoned to death. So at first glance, it would appear that the metaphor of fatherhood only adds a sense of tragic pathos to the picture. God has loved Ephraim/Israel, yet God must do what any betrayed father must do.
Even the tender imagery in Hosea 11:3-4 does not mitigate the father’s resolve. More familiar translations (NRSV, NIV, NAB, CEB) emend the text to portray God as a father intimately involved in the care of his infant/toddler. This reading of the text is widely accepted, and preachers may well wish to explore this imagery of divine fatherhood.
However, preachers may also wish to reflect on the meaning of the un-emended Masoretic text. Astonished that Israel has gone after other lords, YHWH insists that it was he who had led (Hebrew tirgalti) Ephraim, drawing him along with “human cords” and “loving bonds,” easing the yoke off his jaws, and bending down to feed him (NKJV, CSB, NASB, ESV, NET). Rather than portraying a father caring for an infant, this imagery is drawn from the sphere of animal husbandry as it portrays God training and caring for a calf or lamb.3 At the same time, the imagery bears an interesting resemblance to a seventh-century monument depicting an Assyrian king holding two rebel vassals on a leash, as if they were subdued dogs. If the Assyrian imagery is brutally dehumanizing, the imagery in Hosea emphasizes YHWH’s loving, even liberating care, as he removes the yoke from Ephraim’s jaw. After all, YHWH had called Israel to be a son, not a slave. The contrast between the bonds of YHWH’s covenant and that of Israel’s chosen lords could not be more sharply drawn.
As tender as this imagery is, however, it only serves to deepen the tragedy of Israel’s destruction. YHWH has lavished Israel with loving kindness, only to be repaid with rebellion and betrayal. We can sense the pathos of a father handing over his beloved son to destruction, but the metaphor has reached its limit. It can allow us to imagine the depth of the loss, but it does not give us a way out. While these metaphors have the capacity to evoke deep pathos, such metaphors rooted in familiar experiences may also confine and restrict our thinking, limiting us to what we already know.
It is only when YHWH begins to reflect on the consequences of his actions that a new way becomes possible. In Hosea 11:8-9, four questions challenge the expectations embedded in the metaphors dominating the first seven verses of the poem. None of the questions are abstract or hypothetical, and all are addressed to Israel directly, as if God must consider the consequences of breaking a bond defining both deity and people. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” At the prospect of this loss of Israel to God, God’s compassion is kindled. The warmth of God’s love and mercy quell the heat of God’s anger, and God resolves not to destroy Ephraim.
When Hosea explores divine love metaphorically by way of family relationships and animal husbandry, he reaches the limits of human understanding. Questions allow him to press through to a radically new understanding of divine love. In the end, the answer to God’s questions can be found in God’s qualitative otherness: “For I am God, not man, the Holy One of Israel in your midst” (Hosea 11:9b). If YHWH is god and not man, then metaphors drawn from the realm of human experience may help us sympathize with the divine dilemma but they cannot account for divine love. Rather, only God’s holiness — God’s separateness and radical difference from the ways of the world — can account for a love that keeps God present to Israel even as Israel turns away.
1 William L. Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963), 77-87.
2 J. Andrew Dearman, The Book of Hosea (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 11.
3 For a helpful discussion of these two alternative readings of Hos 11:3-4, see Dearman’s commentary on these verses.
Faithful God, you have continued to love your people despite our faithlessness to you. Receive our thanks for never giving up on us. Amen.
Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love ELW 708, GG 203, H82 602, NCH 498, UMH 432, TFF 83 Jesus loves me ELW 595, GG 188, NCH 327, UMH 191, TFF 249
Jesus loves me, Monte Mason