Commentary on Hos 2:16-18, 21-22
Today we begin reading from another prophet – Hosea. Hosea belonged to Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and began his prophetic career in the last years of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC). Some believe that he was a priest, others that he was a cult prophet but the only information on his life comes from this book.
He was a man of great feeling and could go from anger to extreme tenderness. The prophecy is built around his difficult marriage to Gomer and this affected and deepened his teaching. Gomer was guilty of adultery (very humiliating to any husband but especially in those times) and comes to symbolise the sinful Israel. And just as Hosea could not give up his wife in spite of her infidelity so neither could Yahweh abandon Israel who was betrothed to him in spite of her faithlessness and treatment of the poor. There would be punishment but its purpose was to heal and restore the first love.
In fact, it was Hosea who began the tradition of describing the relations between Yahweh and Israel in terms of marriage and this is taken up in the New Testament by Paul and John.
Today’s passage is full of tenderness and a spirit of reconciliation. God speaks to Israel, his chosen people. “I will allure her,” says the Lord speaking of Israel, in the same way that a young man tries to attract the attentions of the young girl on whom he has set his eyes.
He wants to lead his people into the desert for, in the eyes of Hosea, like Amos before him, the years the Israelites spent in the desert were idyllic times when the people had a particularly close relationship with their Lord. Israel was then childlike, knowing nothing of pagan gods, loyal to Yahweh whose presence was manifest in the cloud. (In fact, it was not quite as idyllic as all that but we know how nostalgia, especially nationalistic nostalgia, can romanticise the past.)
Then, says the prophet, Israel will respond as she did in those early days of her existence, “when she came up from the land of Egypt”. Just as Gomer had treated her husband Hosea, so Israel has behaved like an unfaithful wife but now she will come back to Yahweh, her spouse, who, of course, has always been faithful to her.
“On that day, she shall call me ‘My husband’, and never again ‘My baal’.” There is an ironic play on words here. For a long time, the word ‘baal’ which means ‘master’ was applied to husbands and also to God. It had been from ancient times an element in certain proper names, without any idolatrous significance. Yahweh was the ‘master’ to whom the bearer of the name was thus dedicated.
But, after the corrupting influences of the Canaanites, the word ‘Baal’ came to be identified in people’s minds with the Canaanite gods. There was such a vigorous reaction against that worship that this Hebrew word for “master” was no longer be used of the Lord. So verse 19 (not in our reading) says: “Then I will remove from her mouth the names of the Baals [signifying the idols], so that they shall no longer be invoked.”
And then the Lord will take Israel back as his spouse forever. He will adorn his bride with right and justice. “I will espouse you to me forever.” Yahweh takes back his unfaithful wife with the fervour of first love and showers her with spiritual gifts – with right and justice, with love and mercy.
‘Right’ and ‘justice’ are two terms dear to Hosea and are used by him especially to condemn the popular social injustice and corruption of the legal processes. Here they mean right conduct in general.
The primary meaning of the word ‘love’ (hesed) is that of a bond, or contract. When used of human relationships it comes to mean friendship, union, loyalty, especially when these are the outcome of a treaty or formal agreement.
Used of God, the term refers to his faithfulness to his covenant and the kindness he therefore shows his chosen people (in Ex 34:6). Used by Hosea in the context of married love, the word assumes and from then on retains a still warmer significance: it means the tender love God has for his people and the benefits deriving from it.
But this divine hesed calls for corresponding hesed in man towards Yahweh, consisting of self-giving, loving trust, abandonment, deep affection, ‘piety’, a love (in short) which is a joyful submission to the will of God and an active charity to fellow men. This ideal, expressed in many of the Psalms, will later be that of the Hasidim, or ‘Hasidaeans’, cf. 1 Macc 2:42ff (where, however, it takes rather extreme forms).
“I will espouse you in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord.” ‘Know’ here means much more than an intellectual knowing. It implies a deep and intimate relationship of love and unity. God ‘makes himself known’ to man when he engages himself to him by covenant and shows his love (hesed) for him by the benefits he confers. The word ‘know’ is used in the Bible sometimes to express sexual unity as when Mary told the angel that she “did not ‘know’ a man” but it also refers to active acknowledgement of a covenant partner.
Similarly, man ‘knows God’ when he loyally observes God’s covenant, shows gratitude for God’s gifts, and returns love for love. In the wisdom literature ‘knowledge’ in this sense and ‘wisdom’ are practically synonymous. The two words ‘know’ and hesed are closely interlinked.
Passages like this, of course, are laying the ground for the love of God for us which was shown in such a dramatic fashion by Jesus, the Incarnate love of God. The whole of the Gospel is suffused with this love and we are called to be filled with that love which is extended to God, to every single person without exception and also to ourselves.