Commentary on Hosea 11:1-11
At first glance, the parent-child metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel in the book of Hosea seems much more palatable than the marriage metaphor in chapters 1-3.
The image begins with the God’s adoption of Israel, liberating them from bondage in Egypt. Yet, this relationship also quickly turns sour: “the more I called them, the more they went from me” (verse 2). No longer a spurned lover, God is now a disregarded parent.
Israel’s inherent rebellious nature soon becomes clear as God offers a general indictment against Israel’s idolatry. To further the charge, verses 3-4 offer testimony to God’s loving care for the child, characterized by teaching, comforting, healing, and nourishing. The Divine Parent raised this son, taught him to walk, held him in times of distress, and healed the child when he was hurt.
As in other portions of the prophetic material, God recites the salvation history of Israel, not simply to offer hope, but to highlight the causes for judgment (cf. e.g. Amos 2:9-11, Micah 6:4-5). Despite God’s loving care and instruction, the people turned away, ultimately choosing subjugation to Assyria instead of the loving embrace of God (verse 5).
In place of Egypt, Assyria will now be Israel’s taskmaster and will bring a whirling, dancing sword to it city sword to devour its false priests. In the midst of this punishment, the people may once again call upon the God of Israel, but YHWH refuses to hear them. If we were to stop reading at this point in Hosea, it seems that God has abandoned the child completely. The Divine Parent seems to have abandoned the adopted son to pursue his own exploits and reap the results.
As in Hosea 1:10, however, the tone dramatically shifts in verse 8. The God who indicted Israel turns to a pattern borrowed from the lament tradition, introducing a series of questions with the interrogative “how.” In verses 8-9 we see a rare glimpse into God’s inner emotional turmoil over the actions of God’s child. Israel’s child and the thought of punishing this child literally causes God’s heart to turn over upon itself, a trope for the idea that God has once again changed God’s mind regarding the imagined punishment.
While God feels the anger and bitterness that any parent disrespected by a child might, God rises above the desire to punish Israel. God decides to act as a God, and not a human. God will not violate God’s own holiness by submitting to the human emotions of rage and vitriol (verse 9).
Instead, God will lead the people from captivity. The imagery of the lion and birds here is quite poignant. Lion imagery was often associated with kings in the ancient Near East, especially with the kings of Assyria, with whom the people of Israel were most often entangled. YHWH, however, is the real king of the ancient world. Likewise, the bird imagery reflects Israel’s migratory status. After the destruction of Samaria in 722 BCE, the northern Israelites were forced into exile, some fleeing south to Judah (and possibly Egypt) and others taken captive by Assyria and displaced into various regions of the empire. This convergence of lion and bird imagery is both a boon and a threat. As a Lion, God has the power to redeem the people of Israel from their imperial captors. The lion imagery, however, reinforces the notion that God has chosen not to act as a typical lion might. This Lion rescues the migratory birds, though it seems within the Lion’s right and power to simply devour them.
Historically, this passage probably reflects various stages within the Hosea tradition. It is likely that, in conjunction with other passages within the book, the earlier texts of God’s wrath speak to Israel’s situation prior to Assyria’s sack of Samaria in 722. It is also likely that verses 10-11, therefore, represent either an exilic or post-exilic layer of redaction that testifies to God’s desire to bring back dispersed Israel to once again inhabit their own land.
As with the marriage metaphor in chapters 1-3, the use of the Divine Parent metaphor here illustrates the depth of God’s emotional responses to the prodigal Israel. God is a tender and instructive parent, offering wisdom and healing to God’s children at every turn. But as the child rejects his parent, Hosea 11 reveals God’s deep anguish and anger. God’s conflicting emotional commitment churn within God’s heart, but ultimately God chooses to express salvific care to the nation of Israel, once again rescuing them from captivity and establishing them in their own land.
It can be quite easy in our preaching and teaching to overlook the more harsh elements of this metaphor: God’s desire to punish us when we go astray, God’s intention to release us to the destructive powers of the world, and even God’s emotional indecisiveness. These human qualities, however, invite us to sympathize with the Divine. They vividly portray God’s pain at our slight indiscretions as well as our outright rebellion against God’s teachings.
Moreover, they highlight God’s choice to remain a Holy God who will not submit to the base, but understandable human desires for retribution. Hosea 11:1-11 offers the portrayal of a spurned God who ultimately chooses to continue to exhibit mercy and protection for disobedient children.