Back in the eighth century BC, history’s first Olympic games began in Greece. Rome was established on the Apennine Peninsula and in the old city that was born in the Ararat Valley later became Yerevan. In the British Isles, the newly settled Brits began to push out the Iberians. In those years, the Prophet Hosea – commemorated by the Church on 30 October was roaming the land of the Israeli Kingdom.
His ministry did not leave a deep imprint on world history; the story of man’s salvation starts from this part of the Eastern Mediterranean. In it, the Prophet Hosea was its principal actor. He is one of the minor prophets. In the Scripture, only one book of fourteen chapters is dedicated to him, and he remains mostly invisible to the hearts and minds of the Christian faithful. Although not many may get round to reading the Book of the Prophet Hosea, let us still take a closer look at this part of the Divine Revelation, however small it may seem.
Sadly, there is almost no surviving evidence about the life of the prophet Hosea. As follows from the first verse of his book, he pursued his ministry during the reigns of the Jewish kings Oshea, Jofam, Ahaz and Zechariah, and of the Israeli king Jeroboam II. The time frame is from 781 to 687 for the Jewish kings and 783 to 743 for Jeroboam. It is also clear that Hosea’s ministry continued under the successors of Jeroboam II, Zechariah, Shallum, Pekahiah, Pekah and Oshea. The final name is on this list is the last king of Israel before the Assyrian conquest in 722. The Prophet Hosea lived to see the tragic end of the Northern part of the once united kingdom, and wrote in his book, “Ephraim feeds on the wind; he pursues the east wind all day and multiplies lies and violence. He makes a treaty with Assyria and sends olive oil to Egypt. (Hosea 12:1) He makes it clear that the people of Israel stopped laying their trust in the Lord; instead, they engaged in political manoeuvring and deception to secure their desired benefits. Saint Cyril of Alexandria observed that they were trying to buy peace with the Assyrians, while at the same time entering an alliance with Egypt, its enemy. As we are aware, these policies ultimately led to the final demise of the Israeli Kingdom. The army of the Assyrian King Sagon II took prisoner the greater part of the Israelis, and the fate of the rest is still unknown. Today, they are referred to as the ten missing tribes. As we remember, after the reign of King Solomon, the Kingdom split into two parts. The Northern part became the Kingdom of Israel, and the southern the Kingdom of Judah. The Kingdom of Judah was comprised of only two tribes – Judah and Benjamin, and the remaining tribes joined the Kingdom of Israel. The nine lost tribes were Zebulon, Issachar, Asher, Neffalim, Danah, Manasseh, Ephraim, Rubbim and Ghada. The tribe of Leviticus was left without a homeland as it was performing a priestly role; furthermore, it was divided between the Northern and Southern kingdom, and thus followed the fate of all the rest. Historians have made multiple conjectures about the fates of these ten tribes, but none have found any evidence to support them.
Concerning the prophet Hosea, his book contains only one biographical detail found at the beginning of his book. The Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.” In the next verse, we are told the name of this woman, Homer. We might wonder why the Lord would have given such an unexpected command to a righteous man – to marry a promiscuous woman. A promiscuous woman had been unfaithful to her husband or seen in the commission of adultery. This detail is critical to the understanding of the prophet’s preaching. We also understand that the Lord addresses Himself directly to Hosea and him alone; and so his instruction should not be understood as a digression from the Ten Commandments.
From this verse and the later verses from the third chapter of the book, we see the unravelling of a tragedy that showcases the adultery committed by God’s chosen people with the Pagan gods. The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” (Hosea 3:1) Some believe that this passage refers to the prophet’s second marriage after Homer’s death or divorce. However, if that were a new woman, Hosea would give us more details, as he had done on Homer. As we see from the context, the prophet shows us the unfailing love of God to His only chosen people.
In the second chapter of the book, we are told that the prophet’s wife continues with her adulterous ways, which could not leave Hosea indifferent, as he was human. Which was exactly why the Lord had commanded him to “love the woman” despite her promiscuity. In the place of the Prophet Hosea, the woman’s promiscuity would have wrought most others into sin. The Book of Sirach warns us: “Do not keep company with a prostitute, in case you get entangled in her snares. Do not dally with a singing girl, in case you get caught by her wiles. Do not stare at a pretty girl, in case you and she incur the same punishment. Do not give your heart to harlots, or you will ruin your inheritance. Keep your eyes to yourself in the streets of a town, do not prowl about its unfrequented quarters. Turn your eyes away from a handsome woman, do not stare at a beauty belonging to someone else.” (Sirach 9: 3-8). Yet righteous men are not affected by sin. The blessed Saint Jerome of Stridon writes that marriage did not deprive the prophet of his purity, but instead let the promiscuous woman become pure. Remarkably, Augustine Aurelius draws parallels between the above events in Hosea’s life a woman pouring perfume on the feet of the Saviour (Matthew 26:6–7; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 7:37–48; John 12:1-8). He shows how that pouring perfume over the feet – an impure custom common among the lovers of luxury and reprehensible to Christians – acquires a different meaning in the context of the Gospel. “What is reprehensible to others, is an attribute of ultimate dignity for a man of God and a prophet.” We see how Homer corrects her ways after her return to Hosea, as the prophet tells her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” (Hosea 3:3)
These same images are fully applicable to our relationships with God. When we fall into sin, we become intimate with it, but the Lord loves us all the same. The raisin cakes with which the Prophet rebukes the Israelites were likely a part of pagan sacrificial meals, but they also are symbolic. For example, the Holy Venerable Ephraim the Syrian interprets them as symbols of the demon’s teachings that may be visually attractive. He warns us that just like the repeated consumption of even a most delicious product may make our mouths sore, so should we keep at bay our evil thoughts and the motions of our passions connected to them.
In his three prophetic speeches from Chapter 3 onwards, Hosea predicts troubles for the people of Israel under the successors of King Jeroboam and speaks of repentance. Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.” (Hosea 6:1)
Finally, let us pay attention to the messianic verses in the book of Hosea. In Chapter 6, the prophet refers to the resurrection of all men and the end of our slavery to sin after the resurrection of Christ. “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.” (Hosea 6:2).
One of the best know parts of the Book of Hosea quoted by Matthew the Evangelist (2:15) is the prophecy on the return of the Holy Family from Egypt. “out of Egypt I called my son.” (Hosea 11:1) We can all recall these lines from John Chrysostom Paschal Sermon, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” – – But Saint John Chrysostom was quoting from the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:55), and the Apostle, in turn, quoted from the Prophet Hosea (Hosea 13:14). Towards the end of the book, the prophet describes the future delivery from captivity as the defeat of death. The book of Hosea is not read at church, but we do have readings from the Epistle of John in the paschal matins.
With this article, I hope to encourage the interest of the Orthodox faithful in the books of the Old Testament. The study of these books can become a true adventure, a wonderful discovery of events, people, prophesies, ideas and teachings. Little by little, they come together, like the pieces of a puzzle, as we anticipate the coming of Christ into our world. Each book heightens our expectation of the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah. After the prophetic ministry of Malachi, four hundred years of silence ensue, as we read about the bravery of the best members of the Chosen people with bated breaths. Finally, when we reach the end, Turn the page and enter the long-awaited new testament period.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds