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Introduction to Hosea: Historical Context

Abstract

The Book of Hosea portrays the dangers of the observance of religious ceremony without genuine devotion and commitment to the Lord. When this is true it all too easily leads to compromise, selfish ambition, and lack of integrity in one’s personal activities and dealings. If this becomes characteristic of society at large, dishonesty and corruption become endemic. When these characterize an entire nation, that nation is in imminent danger of God’s judgment.

Such was the situation in which God’s prophet Hosea ministered. Nevertheless, Hosea’s message was more than solemn warnings. It contained a note of hope: with sincere repentance and asking God’s forgiveness, accompanied by renewed commitment to the Lord, God’s people may find forgiveness and restoration to God’s favor and blessings.

Introduction to Hosea

Historical Context

Setting

The opening words of Hosea’s prophecy place his ministry in the context of the eighth century B.C. The recording of four eighth century kings of Judah provides information as to the length of Hosea’s prophetic ministry, while the mention of just one Northern Kingdom, Jeroboam II, indicates something of the prophet’s particular focus. This becomes apparent when we note that names for the Northern Kingdom such as Ephraim, Israel, and Jacob occur some seven dozen times, while that of Judah a mere fifteen times and that always in connection with one or more of the names for the Northern Kingdom.

The mention of the Southern Kingdom kings from Uzziah to Hezekiah assures us that Hosea’s ministry lasted through a great portion of the period. For Uzziah reigned some 52 years (c. 792-740 B.C.), while the reigns of the three successors lasted throughout the rest of the eighth century B.C. Jeroboam II of the Northern Kingdom likewise enjoyed a long reign (c. 792-752 B.C.), but the six unmentioned kings who succeeded him often vied with each other for power throughout a period of growing political friction and weakness, which culminated in the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria in 722 B.C.1 Since Hosea does not mention this event and because the prophet’s focus is on the reign of Jeroboam II, a date for Hosea’s prophecies from c. 760-725 B.C. (shortly after the beginning of the independent reign of Hezekiah in Judah in 729 B.C.) would appear to be reasonable.2

This was an era of dramatic change for the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah as well as for the surrounding nations of the ancient Near East. Externally, after the death of the powerful Assyrian king Adad-nirai III (783 B.C.), who claimed to have extended Assyrian influence as far as the Mediterranean Sea, Assyria was ruled by a series of weak kings who were unable to do much more than preserve the Assyrian homeland (783-745 B.C.). Therefore, Assyrian domination in the west waned. For Israel and Judah it was an era of unparalleled prosperity for both kingdoms, economically and politically. Together they could claim much the same territorial dimensions as in the days of Solomon before them. As for Jeroboam, Kaiser remarks, “In less than twenty-five years Jeroboam II was able to take a nation that was just about ready to die and turn it into one of the great powers of his day.”3 This included Israelite thrusts into Transjordan and a possible joint Israelite-Judahite campaign into Syria (2 Kings 14:25, 28).4

During Uzziah’s long 52-year reign the Southern Kingdom enjoyed economic prosperity and political power. Uzziah (or Azariah) improved Judah’s military strength, which included the fortifying of Jerusalem (2 Chr. 26:11-15) and launching successful campaigns against his neighbors to the west, east, and south (2 Chr. 26:6-8).

Unfortunately, this high water mark of prosperity for the twin kingdoms would not long endure. In the north, with the death of Jeroboam II in 752 B.C. kings of lesser ability, who often vied with one another for local, if not national, supremacy, ruled the kingdom. Jeroboam’s son Zechariah reigned only six months before being assassinated by Shallum, who in turned reigned but one month before being killed by Menahem. The latter’s ten year reign (752-742 B.C.) was characterized by spiritual weakness and renewed subservience to the rising power of Assyria.

In Assyria a usurper now occupied the throne as Tiglath-pileser III (2 Kings 16:6), also called Pulu (or Pul, 2 Kings 15:19).5 His reign (745-727 B.C.) marked the beginning of a new day in the ancient Near East, when Assyrian resurgence would blossom into the mighty Neo-Assyrian Empire (745-612 B.C.). Tiglath-pileser’s armies soon ravaged much of Syria, Menahem and Israel paid him a heavy tribute to keep him for engulfing the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 15:19-20).6

Internal squabbling compounded Israel’s difficulties in the face of Assyrian aggression. Although Menahem ruled from Tirzah, a strong rival named Pekah ruled in Gilead. Pekah’s strength was such that after Menahem’s death, he was able to overthrow Pekahiah, Menahem’s son and successor, and claim sole rulership of all Israel (740-732 B.C.). Pekah’s independent rule was faced with a growing Assyrian menace. For Tiglath-pileser III began a second western campaign in 734 B.C. to break-up a western anti-Assyrian coalition. Among the chief dissidents were the Aramean king Rezin and Pekah of Israel. By 732 B.C. the Assyrian thrusts not only brought about the surrender of Damascus but also reduced the entire west to vassalage.7

If Israel’s position was extremely tenuous by 732 B.C., Judah was scarcely in a stronger position. While prosperity had continued somewhat during the reign of Azariah’s son Jotham, so that he could turn his attention to the internal needs of the country, with the accession of Jotham’s son Ahaz Judah was also caught up in the swift current of Assyrian expansion. Although Ahaz wisely resisted joining a western anti-Assyrian coalition led by the Aramean king Rezin and Pekah of Israel, in order to gain relief from their attack against him (2 Chr. 28:5-8; Isa. 7:1-6), he stripped the temple of its gold and silver and petitioned Tiglath-pileser for help (2 Kings 16:7-9).8 Ahaz’s request was honored and Tiglath-pileser launched the aforementioned second western campaign, which eventually brought the surrender of Damascus. Ahaz and Judah were also brought under Assyrian vassalage.9

In the north, Israel remained under Assyrian vassalage. When Tiglath-pileser died in 727 B.C., however Hoshea found opportunity to forego sending tribute to Shalmaneser V (727-722 B.C.) and sought help from So, King of Egypt (2 Kings 17:3-4).10 The plan backfired and soon Samaria was attacked and after a three-year siege, the Israelite capital fell and its citizens were deported (2 Kings 17:5-6).11

Attempts to correlate Hosea’s prophecies with specific political events, however, have proven to be elusive at best.12 Some prophecies appear to be related to the earlier part of his ministry such as the predicted judgment of the line of Jehu (1:4). Since Zechariah was assassinated in 752 B.C., six months into his reign, this prophecy must have been given during the later period of Jeroboam’s reign. Likewise the charges against Israel in the first section of the book (chs. 1-3) seem best related to the reign of Jeroboam II. This was, as we have seen, a period marked by great economic and political success but growing spiritual apostasy. The subsequent chapters of Hosea’s prophecies tend to reflect the growing crises in the affairs of the Northern Kingdom both externally with Assyria and internally during the years of hostility between bitter political rivals vying for power in the Northern Kingdom. By the end of the book the demise of Israel appears to be imminent.13

Authorship

The author identifies himself as “Hosea, son of Beeri” (1:1). Unfortunately nothing else is known positively as to the identity of either man. A Jewish tradition suggested that Beeri is to be equated with a Reubenite leader who was taken captive by the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III. Thus the genealogical record contained in 1 Chronicles 5:6 tells of a certain “Beerah, whom king Tiglath-pileser carried into exile. Beerah was the tribal leader of Reuben.” Another Jewish tradition held that Beeri was a prophet. Assumedly it is his prophecy that is preserved in Isaiah 8:19-22.14 According to Laetsch an ancient Christian tradition held that he belonged to the tribe of Issachar.15 As for Hosea himself Harrison observes that “from the reference in Hosea 7:4ff. it has been assumed that he worked as a baker. From the various agricultural allusions in the book it could be maintained with equal seriousness that Hosea was a farmer. However, a peasant origin seems improbable in the light of his knowledge of history, his grasp of political affairs, and the eloquent, well-chosen imagery with which his style abounds.”16 Other than these hints all that we know of Hosea comes from his prophecy. There we learn that he was married to a woman named Gomer and had three children (ch. 1).

Hosea was God’s man for a difficult era spiritually. “Prosperity had brought an unprecedented degree of cultural corruption. The much-sought-after political power had opened Israel to foreign cultural influence, including the demoralizing influence of Canaanite Baal worship (2:7, 17; 11:2) with its fertility cults and bacchanalian orgies (4:10-13).”17 Hosea was a man of deep spiritual conviction who throughout his long ministry became progressively concerned both for the Lord’s person and testimony as well as his troubled people. Hosea’s heartfelt concern over Israel’s spiritual complacency, religious syncretism, and critical position in relation to the major powers of the ancient Near East may be felt in the advancing flow of his messages. As Pusey remarks, “Corruption had spread throughout the whole land; even the places once sacred through God’s revelation or other mercies to their forefathers, Bethel Gilgal, Gilead, Mizpah, Shechem were especial scenes of corruption or of sin. Every holy memory was effaced by present corruption. Could things be worse? “18 Nevertheless, he remained faithful to God and his calling through it all. The exact time of his death is unknown, although it seems likely that he did not live to see the fall of Samaria and the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.

A Jewish legend states that Hosea died in Babylon and that his body was buried at Safed, northwest of the Sea of Galilee, on the highest point in that region. According to another tradition he was a native of Gilead and was buried there. To this day the grave of Nebi Osha is shown near es-Salt, Ramoth-Gilead, south of the Jabbok River.19


1 Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. (Interpreting the Minor Prophets, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], 21) suggests that “the six Israelite rulers who followed Jeroboam II may have been omitted from this list because of their relative insignificance.” More probably Hosea viewed all six as somewhat illegitimate in that none of them had an unclouded claim to the throne. In that case rightful succession to the throne of Israel ended with Zechariah, the fifth and last king of the house of Jehu (Hos. 1:4). Furthermore, each king in a sense was a usurper who only further fragmented the Northern Kingdom.

2 Duane A. Garrett (Hosea, Joel, NAC [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997], 22) is probably correct in remarking that the length of Hosea’s ministry suggests, “that he became a prophet at a reasonably young age.” Garrett, however, concludes that his ministry may have lasted until about 710 B.C.

3 W. C. Kaiser, Jr., A History of Israel (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 352. See also W. T. Pitard, “Arameans,” Peoples of the Old Testament World, eds. A. J. Hoerth, G. L. Mattingly and E. M. Yamauchi; (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 222. Something of the Northern Kingdom’s reinvigorated economy may be attested in the well-known Samaria Ostraca. For details, see A. J. Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 329-30. For the texts, see ANET, 321.

4 For details, see M Haran, “The Empire of Jeroboam ben Joash,” VT 17 (1967): 296, J. A. Montgomery (The Books of Kings, ICC [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1967], 446) suggests that in 2 Kings 14-28 Judah should be read as Yaudi, a city in northern Syria known in the Assyrian inscriptions as Samal. See further W. Beyerlin, Near Eastern Religious Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 260; C. H. Gordon, The Ancient Near East (New York: Norton, 1965), 219

5 Babylon was always an important administrative center, hence allowed to have its own Assyrian monarch. Here Tiglath-pileser was called Pulu. Shalmaneser V and Esarhaddon would later be known by special names in Babylon (see CAH, 3:32).

6 For the Assyrian text, see ANET, 283; COS, 2:287. T. R. Hobbs (2 Kings, WBC [Waco: Word Books, 1985], 198-200) suggests that Tiglath-pileser was coming to the aid of Menahem against a third party. Whether the 743 B.C. invasion is reflected in Hosea 8:7-10 or refers to Tiglath-pileser’s later invasion (734-732 B.C.) is uncertain.

7 Tiglath-pileser claims that with the overthrow of Pekah he placed Hoshea on the throne as his client king (see ANET, 284).

8 Ahaz also faced a threat from the Edomites on his eastern border (2 Chr. 28:17) and the Philistines on the west (2 Chr. 28:18) at this time.

9 Tiglath-pileser III records Ahaz’s submission (see ANET, 282).

10 Although several theories as to the identity of So have been proposed, he is probably to be equated with twenty-fifth Egyptian dynasty Pharaoh Piankhy. For details see Richard D. Patterson, “The Divided Monarchy,” in Giving the Sense, eds. David M. Howard Jr. and Michael A. Grisanti (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003), 196-97.

11 The Babylonian chronicles credit Shalmaneser with the capture of Samaria. See A. K. Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (Locust Valley, N.Y.: J. J. Augustine, 1975) 73. However, Shalmaneser’s successor Sargon II claims the capture of the city (see ARA, 2:26-27; COS, 2:298).

12 As Douglas Stuart (Hosea-Jonah, WBC [Waco: Wood Books, 1987], 9) observes there appears to be a basic (if not total) chronological arrangement of Hosea’s prophecies in the book.

13 See the discussion in Marvin A. Sweeney, The Twelve Prophets, Berit Olam, ed. David W. Cotter (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 5-6.

14 See Midrash Rabbah, eds. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, trans. J. Israelstam and Judah J. Slotki (London: Soncino, 1939), 4:86.

15 See Theo. Laetsch, The Minor Prophets (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956), 9.

16 R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 859.

17 Willem A. VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 106.

18 E. B. Pusey, The Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953), 1:12.

19 Laetsch, Minor Prophets, 10.