Sacrifice and Covenant in Hosea and Ezekiel

I have been writing about sacrifice in the Old Testament in the context of the covenant between God and Israel, which was compared to a marriage. In this context idolatry was seen as the spiritual equivalent of adultery.

Last Sunday I wrote about how the life of the Prophet Hosea was a sort of living parable of the relation between God and Israel. He married a faithless wife who bore him three children; he cast off the wife and children and waited faithfully for their return. In the relation between God and Israel, Israel is cast off by being sent into exile, deprived of temple and sacrifice. Their return means return from exile, return to the land.

In the prophecy of the renewed covenant the Lord declares, 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. (Hos 2:21-22)

Hosea’s prophecy related specifically to the northern Kingdom of Israel, but the prophet Ezekiel spoke of the same reality of exile and return, with respect the Kingdom of Judah, in the same language of adultery and renewal of marriage.

In a rather vivid prophecy (Ez 16), the Lord has Ezekiel speak of God taking Judah as an abandoned orphan girl and clothing her with the finery of a queen, making her to be his bride. But Judah plays the harlot, making use of all her finery in the worship of idols. In other words, the temple in Jerusalem, with all its sacrificial ritual, is compared to the finery of a queen in the presence of her husband the king. The experience of exile, then, is compared rather brutally to the experience of being stripped naked and cast out.

Once again, exile is not the last word but the Lord declares, I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were a girl, and I will set up an everlasting covenant with you … I will re-establish my covenant with you, that you may know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be covered with confusion, and that you may be utterly silenced for shame when I pardon you for all you have done, says the Lord God. (Ez 16:60,62-63)

The language of Hosea is tender, while the language of Ezekiel is harsh, but the message is the same. The people of God is taken into a covenant relation with the Lord, which is a pure act of mercy on the God’s part, and is abundantly blessed and the blessing they have received from God is expressed most of all in the beautiful sacrificial worship in the temple, through which they give thanks to him.

Or maybe it would be better to say that they should have given thanks to God through the sacrificial ritual, but instead they failed to recognize the gift of God and turned to idols to seek the blessings of fertility, both of land and of people, from those idols. They responded to the gifts of God with pride rather than thanksgiving and desired the gifts themselves, rather than God the giver.

This deviation is subtly illustrated by a Psalm contains a prayer that is, we might say, too perfect in its worldly desire. May our sons be like plants well nurtured from their youth, our daughters like carved columns, shapely as those of the temple. May our barns be full with every kind of store, may our sheep increase by thousands, by tens of thousands in our fields; may our oxen be well fattened, may there be no breach in the walls, no exile, no outcry in our streets. Happy the people so blessed. (Ps 144:12-14) It is a picture of perfection for an ancient agrarian people. Is this the prayer of the people of God? Is this what it means to be ‘blessed’?

St. Augustine brought out the ambiguity in the passage. Immediately before this the Psalmist prayed, Rescue me from the hands of foreign foes. Their mouths speak untruth; their right hands are raised in lying oaths. (Ps 144:10) St. Augustine sees the too perfect prayer as the ‘untruth’; it is a false picture or ideal of blessing. He then sets the final verse of the Psalm, Happy the people whose God is the Lord, (Ps 144:15) in opposition to Happy the people so blessed.

The foreign foes of Israel sought the blessings of prosperity from their idols. The people of Israel and Judah followed their ways. The Psalmist tells them that the true blessing is the blessing of belonging to God, the Creator, through the covenant.

We could turn again to the example of marriage. The happy wife is not the trophy wife of the rich husband, but the wife who is secure in the love of her husband and whose husband is secure in her love.

That is the context that helps us understand rightly what are perhaps the most famous words found in the book of Hosea, For it is mercy I desire, not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than holocausts. (Hos 6:6) Jesus referred to these words when he said, Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. (Mt 9:12-13) (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.

Recommended Posts