Commentary on Hosea 11:1-11
God’s identity as “Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2) provides the foundation for understanding Hosea 11:1-11. Egypt represents the past of oppression and bondage, the threat of annihilation, and the alienation of Jacob’s descendants from the land and life promised to their forebears. God delivered them from Egypt to become “My people” and to claim their exclusive worship and service (Exodus 20:2).
Desiring to return to Egypt, wishing they had never left, or seeking help from Egypt constitute rejection of God’s salvation, repudiation of their covenant relationship, and refusal to trust God for their survival. Exodus and Numbers tell of several occasions when the Israelites wanted to return to Egypt rather than continue to follow Yahweh (for example, Numbers 14:1-4). When Mesopotamian powers attacked the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Egypt appeared to be a surer source of help, but the prophets warned kings to rely on God rather than on alliances with Egypt (for example, Isaiah 31:1; Deuteronomy 17:16).
During Hosea’s ministry in the eighth century B.C.E., the threat of captivity came from Assyria. King Hoshea of Israel attempted to stave off the Assyrian advance by paying vassal tribute to Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17:3). Hosea 5:13 describes the futility of this ploy (Hosea 7:11). Israel “returned to Egypt” by turning to foreign alliances, and their punishment was a “return to Egypt” when Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom and took much of its population into exile. They had refused to return to the Lord, who had brought them out of Egypt (Hosea 11:5-7).
The Exodus is also the foundation for hope. God will call them out of the “Egypt” of exile. They will not be carried on eagles’ wings this time (Exodus 19:4) but fluttering and trembling like shy doves or small sparrows. The land of Israel is on the flight path for millions of migratory birds. The avian image also suggests great numbers of people. A dove proved to Noah the end of the great flood in Genesis 8:8-14. Although Israel had “returned (shwb) to Egypt” God will cause them to return (shwb) to their homes in the land.
Bringing young Jesus out of Egypt signaled that God was working salvation again (Matthew 2:15).
Out of love
The metaphor of Israel as God’s precious son first appears in the Bible in the context of the Exodus (Exodus 4:22-23). Allusions to God as father or mother are rare in the Old Testament, and the child or children represent the people. Individuals do not address God as “my Father” or “my Mother.” Jesus spoke of God as “my Father,” but taught his disciples to pray “our Father” (Matthew 6:9).
In Hosea 11:1-11 God speaks in the first person singular, except for verse ten. First person forms in Hebrew are “common gender,” neither masculine nor feminine. Interpreters disagree about whether to characterize the actions of God toward the son in Hosea 11:3-4 as motherly or fatherly. The precise meaning of the Hebrew text in these verses and others in the passage remains uncertain; every translation relies on some textual emendations.1
God initiated the relationship with young Israel by loving and choosing them. Immature, vulnerable, small, and weak, God called them out to raise and care for them. (Compare Ezekiel 16:6-7; 23:2-3.) God recalls teaching Ephraim (Israel) to walk, giving them a hug, healing their ills, binding and leading them for their own good, and feeding them (Hosea 11:3-4).
God also recalls how Israel resisted God’s loving care (Hosea 11:2b, 3c, 7). God kept calling, but Israel did not stop “sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (11:2b). They violated the first commands of the Decalogue in Exodus 20:3-6. Further, they did not acknowledge that Yahweh had healed them (11:3c). These acts of rebellion epitomize the indictments against Israel in this book.
Their persistence in turning away (shwb) from the Lord will have consequences (11:5-7), as detailed throughout the book of Hosea: conquest and exile by the power of Assyria. They deserve to suffer under the curses for covenant breaking (Hosea 8:1). Hosea 11:8 refers to scorched earth annihilation like that of Admah and Zeboiim. Deuteronomy 29:23 also cites the destruction of these cities along with Sodom and Gomorrah as examples of God’s wrath. But when Yahweh contemplates this judgment on the son, Israel, compassion swells to prevent Ephraim’s destruction (11:8). God has a change of heart, literally, “my heart turns over upon me.” In Hebrew the heart is the organ of one’s mind and will. God will not carry out the verdict.
Lest we think that God’s mercy and kindness have won out over the demands of God’s holiness, Hosea 11:9 makes a bold and nearly incomprehensible assertion—because Yahweh is God, not a human man, and is the Holy One in their midst, Yahweh will not destroy Ephraim. God is no less Holy when God chooses not to act in wrath against the unfaithful people. Yahweh’s leonine roar that signals judgment in Amos 3:8 and Hosea 5:14 is the voice calling the exiles of Israel home (Hosea 11:10).
Out of gratitude
God desires to be known and acknowledged, heard and obeyed. The Old Testament includes numerous spiritual and societal practices that would enable Israel to remember and commemorate their deliverance from Egypt. The story of the Exodus is told repeatedly in poetry and in prose, using imagery designed to capture imaginations and stir up hearts. The intimate portrayal of God’s love and anguish in this passage is unforgettable.
Know God as holy and tender. Acknowledge God’s gifts of undeserved salvation, constant sustenance, and open arms of invitation. Hear God’s will and walk faithfully where God leads.
- For a thorough discussion of the textual and translations issues, consult Hans Walter Wolff. Hosea, A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Hosea. Hermeneia. Trans. Paul Hanson and Gary Stansell. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1974. Pp. 190-204. The discussion above follows the NRSV.