Idolatry, Adultery, and the renewal of the Covenant in the Prophet Hosea: Part I

Last Sunday I began writing about the role of sacrifice precisely within the context of the covenant between God and his people Israel.

The covenant between God and Israel, precisely because it is founded not so much on God’s sheer power and might, but on his goodness and kindness to his people, comes to be compared to marriage. God is seen as the Bridegroom and Israel as the Bride. As Bride Israel is embodied in the very land of Israel and the people then are seen as the children of the covenant.

The personal character of the covenant is expressed in the formula, I will take you as my own people, and you shall have me as your God. (Ex 6:7)

In the context of the covenant, idolatry, offering sacrifice to a god other than the God of Israel, is compared to the adulterous act of a married woman. This is precisely the language used by the prophets when they are condemning Israel’s infidelity to the covenant.  Today I want to follow this theme as it is shown forth in the prophet Hosea.

God called Hosea to become a living parable of his own relation to his people Israel; he called him to marry an unfaithful woman and to be faithful to her. The basic drama of Hosea is contained in the first three chapters where the story is told twice in slightly different ways. Hosea has three children by his wife Gomer and is commanded to give those children symbolic names Jezreel (a son), Lo-ruhama (a daughter), and Lo-Ammi (a son).

‘Jezreel’ requires the most explanation; it is the name of a city where Jehu, who usurped the kingdom of Israel at the command of God through the prophet Elisha, went overboard in massacring the whole house of Ahab, the previous royal family. (cf. 2 Kg 9-10) The crime of Jezreel is so great that the Kingdom of Israel is condemned to destruction on that account. (cf. Hos 1:4) The very name of Jezreel seems to become a symbol for the whole land of Israel, polluted by the shedding of blood.

The accounts in the Second Book of Kings, which speaks more positively of Jehu, and the prophet Hosea, who wrote three generations after the death of Jehu, are not easy to reconcile. On one hand Jehu seems to have violently destroyed the worship of the idol Baal, but at the time of Hosea, the active worship of Baal and the past bloodshed of Jezreel are the great sins that weighs upon Israel. The worship of Baal is compared to adultery or harlotry. The worship of Baal is also closely connected with the pollution of the land of Israel precisely because Baal was a god of fertility (i.e. was worshipped in order that the land might be fertile and give forth abundant crops).

Note that since the death of Solomon the kingdom had been divided between the Kingdom of Judah in the south (ruled by the descendants of David) and the Kingdom of Israel in the north, in which the only dynasties that were ever established, even for a short time, were that of Ahab and that of Jehu.

‘Lo-ruhama’ means ‘she is not pitied’. (cf. Hos 1:6)  ‘Lo-ammi’ means ‘not my people’. (cf. Hos 1:9)

The names of the children speak of impending destruction that will come upon the people who will be taken away into exile. The people will not be pitied and will be cast off as the people of God (at least so far as the exile is concerned). The expression ‘not my people’ speaks of the covenant coming to an end. In particular the people, who have given adulterous sacrifice to Baal, will no longer have a place to offer sacrifice to the Lord God of Israel.

Hosea says to his wife, Many days you shall wait for me; you shall not play the harlot or belong to any man; I in turn shall wait for you. (Hos 3:3) This is applied to Israel’s exile, without land, without king, and without sacrifice.

The exile that is prophesied sets up one of the greatest passages of the Old Testament about the renewal of the covenant.

I will espouse you to me forever; I will espouse you to me in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord. On that day I will respond, says the Lord; I will respond to the heavens, and they shall respond to the earth; the earth shall respond to the grain, and wine, and oil, and these shall respond to Jezreel. (Hos 2:21-24) In other words, the curse upon the land because of the sin of Jezreel will be undone.

The prophecy continues: I will sow him for myself in the land, and I will have pity on ‘she is not pitied’ and I will say to ‘not my people’, “You are my people,” and he shall say, “My God!” (Hos 2:25)

The final words here are an expression of the covenant and an expression of marriage. They are comparable to the words exchanged today between bride and groom: “I take you to be my wife”, “I take you to be my husband”. They express the mutual belonging of love in the relationship of a covenant. (To be continued)




Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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