Amos and Hosea

See also: Amos (art), Hosea (art)

In earlier times, prophets such as Nathan and Elijah addressed themselves primarily to the kings. But by the eighth century, prophets such as Amos and Hosea began to address the whole nation, warning Israel that abandoning its covenant with God would lead it to doom. The oracles of these prophets are preserved in writing, hence the term “writing prophets.” The people naturally wanted to know whether the worst would come to pass as predicted, which must have been one motivation for writing them down.

Amos and Hosea both worked during the reigns of Jeroboam II (Israel) and Uzziah (Judah) in the middle of the eighth century. Whereas Amos was from the southern kingdom, and a non-professional prophet, as “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” Hosea was a northerner and might have been a prophet by vocation (Amos 7:14). Their rhetorical emphases are also quite different. Whereas Amos denounces international injustice in his oracles against the nations, and social injustice, for which he blames the exploitative elite of Israel, Hosea shockingly dramatizes Israel’s infidelity through the drama of his marriage to Gomer. However, despite their differences in background and approach, both Hosea and Amos shed light on topics of fundamental importance to the nation of Israel: both how God deals with Israel, and how Israel needs to respond to God.

The prophets represent God as a loving, grieved, justly wrathful, and ultimately merciful father to his people. In the latter part of Hosea, God speaks of Israel tenderly, as if weeping over a child gone astray: “When Israel was a child, I loved him… it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms… I led them with cords of human kindness… I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them” (11:1-4). As Amos indicates, a parental relationship implies both exclusivity and authority: God says, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I punish you for all your iniquities” (3:2).

Because God is good and holy, the prophets emphasize, he could not possibly turn a blind eye to the wickedness that they witness among his people. That means they can expect to be justly punished, with the terrifying Assyrians as the proximate cause. Amos says: “The lion has roared; who will not fear? An adversary shall surround the land, and strip you of your defence; and your strongholds shall be plundered” (3:8,11). Particularly relevant for Americans, Amos has a special word of warning for “those who are at ease,” who “lounge on their couches” (6:1,4).

Israel needs to know that its coming misery is the consequence of its bad actions: “Because you trample on the poor,” Amos says, you will not be around to enjoy the houses you have built, or the grapes you have planted (5:11). In Amos’s eighth chapter, he warns those of us whose thoughts wander to our true god, that is, prosperity, during church services, and who indulge in sharp business practices at the expense of lower-income people. The result of all this will not be pretty: The end will come, the songs will become wailings, the land will tremble, the feasts will become mourning, the loins will bear sackcloth, and so on… and to top it all off: famine and death (8:2-14).

Most terrifyingly, Amos describes God himself personally wreaking violent destruction:

I saw the Lord standing beside the altar, and he said: Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake, and shatter them on the heads of all the people; and those who are left I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape. Though they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; though they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down. Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search out and take them; and though they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the sea-serpent, and it shall bite them. And though they go into captivity in front of their enemies, there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them; and I will fix my eyes on them for harm and not for good.  (Amos 9:1-4)

Although Hosea is perhaps less overwhelming than Amos in his account of sinners in the hands of an angry God, he nevertheless does not fail to describe God personally meting out justice for a sinful nation. Although the two prophets are guided by different controlling themes–(in)justice for Amos, and (in)fidelity for Hosea–the bottom line for Israel is the same: prompt and utter destruction.

Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns; and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. I will put an end to all her mirth, her festivals, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her appointed festivals. I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, of which she said, “These are my pay, which my lovers have given me.” I will make them a forest, and the wild animals shall devour them.  (Hos 2:6,11,12)

Since Israel sought after sources of life, fertility, and prosperity other than God, that is, after “whoredom” as Hosea would put it, the punishment will be precisely death, barrenness, and devastation:

Ephraim is stricken, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit. Even though they give birth, I will kill the cherished offspring of their womb. I will come against the wayward people to punish them; and nations shall be gathered against them when they are punished for their double iniquity.  (Hos 9:16, 10:10)

God will be to them as a devouring lion—an image which would have resonated with those in the path of the Assyrian army:

So I will become like a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart; there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them. I will destroy you, O Israel; who can help you? (Hos 13:7-9)

And yet, anyone reading the Bible must know that this cannot be the end of the story. Elsewhere, Israel has been promised that God’s “anger is but for a moment” while “his favor is for a lifetime” (Ps 30:5). God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” (Ps 103:8), so while the latter lasts for a thousand generations, the former lasts for a mere(!) three or four generations (Ex 34:6-7). Thus, Israel can expect—somehow—both justice and mercy.

Hence, the prophets do not fail to emphasize God’s mercy too. Amos refers to the fundamental, unchangeable fact of the Exodus as a basis for his ultimate expectation of a restored Israel (2:10, 9:7). “On that day,” God promises, he will “raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches… The mountains shall drip sweet wine” (9:11,14). In a metaphor of tenderness that resonates with Amos’s earlier metaphor of Israel as child, he finally refers to the nation as a plant, delicate and vulnerable. God says that he will will “plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them” (9:15). Hosea uses the plant metaphor too, in another beautiful passage:

I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily, he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon. His shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive tree, and his fragrance like that of Lebanon. They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon. (Hos 14:4-7)

How can we not hear a reference to the harmony of the primal garden (so different from the pagan images of primordial chaos) in this description of God’s future mercy?

Hosea’s primary metaphor of God’s merciful restoration of Israel, however, is that of faithful covenant love, which in human terms is best visualized through marriage. Israel, the wayward bride, will return, Hosea writes:

Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now’… From there I will give her her vineyards… There she shall respond as in the days of her youth… And I will take you for my wife for ever:  I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.
(Hos 2:7,15,19)

Hosea also returns to the parent-child metaphor to suggest how painful it is for God to see his people go astray and bear the consequences:

How can I give you up, Ephraim?… My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. (Hos 11:8-9)

How then are the people to respond to the God to whom the prophets bear witness? They need to embrace true worship and reject false worship. What does that mean? Hosea points a finger at “lack of knowledge”; they have “forgotten the law of your God” (4:6). In contrast, “Those who are wise understand these things; those who are discerning know them” (14:9). Amos takes the same general position but states it differently: “Seek the Lord and live… Seek good and not evil” (5:4,6,14).

Amos actually models worship for us in his beautiful hymnic doxologies, praising “the one who forms the mountains… the one who made the Pleiades and Orion… he who touches the earth and it melts” (4:13,5:8-9,9:5-6). However, grimly but unsurprisingly for those who have been following the story so far, Israel’s turning away from the goodness and rightness of God is associated with the usual Canaanite suspects: Kaiwan the star-god, Moloch, Rephan, Ashimah of Samaria, and of course the Baals (Amos 5:26, 7:43, 8:14; Hosea 2:8,13,17).

We churchgoers might breathe relief at having avoided those particular snares, but in fact the greater part of the prophets’ message is not aimed at pagan syncretism, but rather the hypocrisy and insincerity of the religiously orthodox. Amos says that the people’s formally correct worship is conducted on the backs of the poor: “They lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed” (2:8). Thus, God is not impressed, to say the least: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (5:21).[1] Hosea makes the same point: God desires “steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6), which Jesus not incidentally quotes twice in Matthew’s gospel.[2] Insincere, hypocritical worship appears to be inextricably tied to exploitation of the poor, cited by both Hosea and, especially, Amos.[3]

Perhaps it is the guilty conscience brought on by exploiting the poor and offering sham worship that leads the people to turn to drink. Amos addresses the “cows of Bashan who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!” (4:1) For his part, Hosea points to those who “have forsaken the Lord to devote themselves to whoredom. Wine and new wine take away the understanding” (4:10-11). The covenant infidelity the prophets denounce is closely associated with, if not necessarily caused by, everyone’s evergreen favorites: wine, women and song, or sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Reference List

Barton, John. 2012. The Theology of the Book of Amos. Cambridge University Press.

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Begg, Alistair. 1988. “A Funeral Song (Amos 5:1-17).”

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Blenkinsopp, Joseph. 1983. A History of Prophecy in Israel: From the Settlement in the Land to the Hellenistic Period. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Clines, David J. A. 1978. “Hosea 2: Structure and Interpretation.” In E.A. Livingstone, ed., Studia Biblica 1978, I. Sheffield: JSOT Supplement 11, 83-103.

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_______. 2014. “Commentary on Amos 5:18-24.”

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______. 2010. “Hosea 4-14 in Twentieth-Century Scholarship.” Currents in Biblical Research 8(3): 314-375.

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[1] “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others (Matt 7:21, 23:23).

[2] Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. (Matt 9:13, 12:7)

[3] Christians must note that this polemic is picked up by James in his epistle (2:6-7, 5:1-6).

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