Infidelity in Hosea

Hosea is the first book of the twelve minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible. It is one of the shorter books of the Bible. The text suggests that Hosea was an active prophet during the reign of Jeroboim II, during the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (“Samaria”), which happened around 721 BC. The Talmud praises Hosea for being one of the greatest prophets of his day, despite being a prophet of doom. The name Hosea can mean “salvation” or “He saves”. It was the original name of Joshua, until Moses gave him the longer name of yehoshua, meaning “YHWH is salvation.”

At the outset Hosea is called by God to take a wife, Gomer, who God foretells will be unfaithful, to serve as an example to Israel. She gives birth to a son, Jezreel, as well as a daughter, Lohruhama, and another son, Loammi. This framing of the text is important as it serves as a metaphor for the relationship between the Lord and Israel. In allowing the children to be conceived, God blames the pitfalls of the kingdom of Israel on the Northern Kingdom, and He foretells of their downfall while He also chooses to favor the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

Israel is likened to a whore, or a cheating wife, for putting faith in Canaanite gods, particularly Baal and Ashur. Additionally, Israel (the Northern Kingdom, sometimes referred to as “Samaria”), along with Ephraim and Judah, all have sinned and produced strange children, bringing upon their own judgment. Hosea writes of a kind of divorce (Chapter 2) that comes about between God and Israel, though they may also be in reference to his immoral wife, Gomer. The fault of Israel is their own, according to the prophets.

The book of Hosea is a book about infidelity – both an unfaithful wife, as well as an unfaithful nation. When a nation turns its back on its origins, how long can it last? For Hosea, the punishment of Israel is only temporary, as God will again unite the nation of Israel and return to His people. He sees redemption and forgiveness further down the road, as notably, the people of Israel have the freedom to choose whether or not to follow the Lord. God is portrayed as merciful at the end of the book, as He longs to reunite with His unfaithful mistress, Israel. God is like a doctor who heals, a gardener who tends to his vineyard, or a shepherd who cares for his flock -all gentle metaphors that semm on initial passing vastly different from the image of God in the early Torah. Hosea prophecies of the downfall of Israel, much like Isaiah a full generation later, although Hosea still sees opportunity for Israel to repent.

For this reading I used the King James Version.

Notes on the Context of the Tanakh

The ancient national identity of Israel arose as a separate and unique group from the Canaanite and Philistine tribes of the ancient Levant (French meaning “rising” coming from the Arabic phrase for the ‘rising sun in the east’). Today the Levant roughly comprises Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Palestine (the territories), and Lebanon.

In the late Bronze Age, Canaan began to slowly decline, as it was overcome by the Egyptians, Philistines, Phoenicians, and Israelites. The tribal Israelites were unique in their practices of circumcision, lack of artistic displays of YHWH, and lack of pork consumption.

Leaving aside any account of the origins of the cosmos, the Israelite story begins Biblically with Abram, later called Abraham. Born and raised in the town of Ur of the Chaldees (likely a city in present-day Turkey or Iraq), he is called by God to take his barren wife Sarah (Sarai), his cousin Lot, and the rest of his family and travel to the land of Canaan. They travel south and stop in Haran (in modern-day Turkey) and remain there until Abraham turns age 75 and then they continue southward to the land of Canaan where he dwells in Shechem, a town in central Canaan. Due to a famine, they travel further on to Egypt, but are forced to return to the Shechem area. Then, Abraham and Lot have a falling out due to territory and property concerns -Lot heads east to the Jordan plains where the fields are well-watered, while Abraham takes his flock south to Hebron (located just south of Jerusalem today). However the Elamites (an early Iranian civilization whose capital was Susa) conquer Sodom and the surrounding region, including Lot’s pastures. Abraham then raises an army to free Lot and reclaim Sodom which wins him great fame in the region. He sleeps with his wife’s servant, Hagar, and gives birth to Ishmael, and miraculously his aged, barren wife Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

Through his son Isaac, and on to Joseph, a detour happens wherein Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt. He miraculously rises to become Pharaoh and the house of Isaac moves to Egypt, however future generations of Hebrews again become enslaved in Egypt until Moses and Aaron lead a dramatic flight of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt with the help of God. However, due to the their disobedience of God, the Hebrews are doomed to wander in the desert until God finally delivers laws to them through Moses, and Moses then delivers the Hebrews from the desert. As Moses dies and Joshua becomes the ruling warlord, the Hebrews conquer various cities, including Jericho. They return to the Shechem region (Abraham’s original homeland) where Joshua dies.

After the death of Joshua a series of Judges are brought forward to rule Israel, but as evidenced by the outcry of the Israelite people in the books of Samuel, the people demand to have a king like all other nations. Thus Saul, the tallest man, is chosen as King though he ultimately proves fruitless and a shepherd-boy named David is brought forward to join the King’s court as a harpist. He is called to the front in a war with the Philistines and he defeats Goliath, the most fearsome Philistine warrior. David is then crowned King against Saul, but this sparks a civil war, ultimately concluding in David’s kingship and the execution of Saul’s remaining descendants. Following David, comes a disputed reign between his two sons, Adonijah or Solomon, with Solomon being crowned King, and under his reign Israel flourishes and the Temple is built in 957 BC.

However, after Solomon’s reign the worship of other gods starts to happen in Israel and the kingdom ultimately tears itself apart, with the royal line of David continuing in the South under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, now as the kingdom of Judah (with only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin), while in the north Israel experiences a successive series of kings (they refuse to accept the rulership of Rehoboam) until the northern kingdom is ultimately conquered by the Assyrians. Rehoboam draws the ire of some for paying tributes to Egypt from the treasure of the temple, thus making Judah a vassal state of Egypt. In the following years, an internal struggle persists between kings either allowing for the worship of other gods or not: Hezekiah the 14th king of Judah institutes religious reforms forbidding the images of all other gods, but the policy is reversed by king Manasseh, only for it to be reinstated under king Josiah, but it is too late and God does not protect Jerusalem as the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar invade and sack the temple of Jerusalem in 587 BC. The Israelites are then led away into captivity in Babylon and dispersed throughout the empire.

Nebuchadnezzar puts Zedekiah in charge of Israel, and despite the noted Israeli prophet Jeremiah’s opposition, Zedekiah organizes a rebellion against Babylon that causes a second Babylonian invasion and the destruction of the temple. Many Jews flee to nearby cities and Zedekiah’s sons are all murdered and Zedekiah is brought to Babylon. This ends the kingdom of Judah until the Persian army (Achaemenid empire) under Cyrus conquers Babylon in 539 BC and allows all the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, which is eventually completed while Darius is emperor of Persia. During this period of Persian rule, the Jews begin to form a common identity and scriptural canonicity. For example, this epoch includes the major Jewish prophets: the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah ben Amoz) emerges from the period of Babylonian captivity in its dramatic praise of the coming of Cyrus, Jeremiah’s prophecy during the revolts against Babylon, and Ezekiel’s prophetic visions.

When Alexander the Great conquers Persia, Israel comes under the rule of the Hellenistic empire, but shortly thereafter Alexander passes away leaving no heirs and so his generals divide up the empire. Israel falls under the rule of the Syrian Seleucid empire. However the introduction of Greek cults into Israel sparks a revolution that overthrows the Seleucids as occupiers, and suddenly Israel becomes an independent kingdom again.

In 63 BC Jerusalem is conquered yet again, this time by Rome, under General Pompey. Now, Herod is appointed the ‘King of the Jews’ and there is a great deal of civil strife leading to the Jewish-Roman Wars, as Judea is oppressed with taxation and punishments which are particularly harsh and cruel, including a special tax upon Jews. During this time, the temple is again destroyed, this time by Rome. Additionally, Emperor Hadrian of Rome renames the region Syria Palaestina in an attempt to remove all reference to Jewish culture. In the province at the time are the Saduccee and Pharisee sects of Judaism, as well as minority populations of Samaritans and Greco-Roman Hellenes. It was amidst this revolutionary climate that emerged the life of Jesus and other rebellious and religious figures of the time, such as John the Baptist. The execution of the former sparks a new Jewish sect, focused on spreading “good news” (or “gospels”) that claim a fulfillment of messianic prophecies made during the days of the Babylonian exile.

Not long after the rebellious eruptions took place in Judea, the Roman empire experiences a long and steady decline and Christianity spreads rapidly throughout the region. Upon the collapse of Rome, Palaestina falls under the rule of the Byzantines, and then Jerusalem is conquered by the repressive Sassanid Persian empire, followed by a series of Arabic caliphates who conquer and rule Jerusalem from Medina, Damascus, and finally Baghdad. During this time a group of Jewish scribes called the Masoretes, establishes the definitive Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible.

In 1099, the first Crusade occurs, wherein Christians establish a Catholic kingdom in Jerusalem and kill or enslave many Jews and Muslims, until Saladin peacefully conquers Jerusalem under the Ayyubid empire. Note: Saladin’s court physician was Maimonides, a persecuted refugee from Cordoba, Spain. From there, Israel becomes the battlefront for the continuing Crusades, as well as warring empires, the Mongols and the Egyptian Mamluks. During this period in Europe, Jews are widely persecuted and blamed for the historical injustices committed on Jesus Christ, but they are also blamed for the failures of the Crusades. The Jews are banished from many Western European countries, like France, England, and Spain. Thus the Jewish diaspora continues and many Jews relocate to Eastern Europe, such as Poland, or the Ottoman Empire, or North Africa, and into assigned ghettos in the Papal states.

Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries the birth of Zionism becomes a phenomenon as many Jews relocate back to Jerusalem and the surrounding region, despite revolts from the surrounding Arabs. This process is followed by the atrocities like the Holocaust in the Second World War. In 1948, with the decline of the old empires, Britain mandates a state for the Palestinian region, and a war is fought for Israeli independence. Since that time there have been near constant military conflicts between the nation-state of Israel and its surrounding Arabic nations and territories.

Thoughts on Ezra-Nehemiah

As with other books of the Bible, such as Chronicles, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were once read as a single scroll by ancient eyes. In the third century AD, Origen, a Christian scholar from Alexandria, proposed dividing the scroll into Ezra I and II (or in Greek “Esdras”), however this never transpired, and even Jerome rejected this proposal in his Latin translation of the Vulgate. It was only later that Christian scribes divided the scroll into two separate books: Ezra and Nehemiah. From Chronicles to Nehemiah, the three books compose a concise history of ancient Israelite, from the time of Adam to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. 

To place Ezra and Nehemiah in context, recall the story of Chronicles which recounts the Israelites entire genealogical up to the Babylonian exile, in which the kingdom was split in two and Judea rebelled against Babylon and was placed in captivity and the Babylonians sacked the city of Jerusalem, destroying the temple. Then, with the rise of the small empire of Persia under Cyrus, Babylon fell to Persia around 539 BC, and Cyrus ordered that the Jewish temple be rebuilt and the Jewish exiles returned. For this reason, much of the Biblical writings look to Cyrus as a great man, a kind of savior (as evidenced in the book of Isaiah). Under the reign of Cambyses, the temple construction is halted due to Samaritan tensions and the Persians conquer Egypt. Under Darius, the edict to rebuild the temple is rediscovered. Xerxes reissues Cyrus’s decree, but spends the bulk of his tenure battling the Greeks in the Mediterranean (Persian Wars, as recounted by Herodotus). Under the reign of Artaxerxes I, the remaining Jewish exiles are returned to Jerusalem (including Ezra and also including the time-frame of Nehemiah’s mission). Then the temple is rebuilt under Darius II of Persia, though the empire of Persia experiences a rapid decline under Darius II, Artaxerxes II and III, and finally under Darius III Persia is conquered by Alexander the Great.

While the Babylonians led a repressive empire, enslaving the conquered, the Persians allowed the various peoples and cultures of their empire to flourish in their own ways, so long as they paid tribute and submitted ultimately to Persia. This imperial model was later mirrored by Alexander the Great, whose Hellenic empire absorbed the many cultures under its power.

In Ezra and Nehemiah we get a sense of the paranoid nativism among the Israelites, as they fear mixing their “pure” race and religion with the unclean women of Babylon or Persia. They were advised to remain separate by Persia. This is a distinct theme not found in other books, such as Ruth, in which we encounter a Moabite woman who finds praise in the eyes of the Israelites and ultimately becomes the great-grandmother of David.

The Book of Ezra focuses on the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, while the Book of Nehemiah focuses on the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Ezra’s role was to return to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile to refocus the laws of Israel on the Torah, the Mosaic law. Nehemiah was the diplomatic ruler -the governor of Judea under the rule of Persia.

The bulk of Ezra and Nehemiah are written in ‘Late Hebrew’, however there are also portions written in Aramaic, the language of the people (the language later spoken by Jesus). This is also the case with Daniel.

For this reading I used the King James Version.

Thoughts on Chronicles

In (re)reading the Books of Chronicles, I was reminded of the significant amount of time Homer spends listing the various kingdoms of the Achaean armies in the Iliad. In a way, Homer’s lists parallel the genealogical records of Chronicles. Both texts provide extensive lists as a matter of record. What is added to the text by the author’s recitation of an extensive list? In the Biblical book(s) of Chronicles the point of the text is to detail genealogical record from Adam to Abraham, Ishmael to Israel, Saul, David, and Solomon (Book I), and down through the transgressions of the tribes of Israel. The second part of Book I serves as a kind of summary of the David story, as detailed in I and II Samuel. Book II of Chronicles summarizes the latter kings of Israel up until the Judean rebellion and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the subsequent reconstruction of the temple by Cyrus of Persia.

One of the main themes of Chronicles is the struggle for the Israelites to find a house for the Ark, a housing place for God. In Chapters 15-22 of Book I, David prepares to build the temple in Jerusalem where the Ark will be held. He leaves his instructions upon his death to Solomon who will build the temple in Chapter 5 of Book II. In Chapter 10 of II Chronicles Rehoboam becomes king and a rebellion occurs in Judah against the Babylonian empire that divides the kingdom, north and south. The remainder of Chronicles concerns Jerusalem being plundered by the Babylonians, and the Jews enslaved for 70 years, until the arrival of the Persians under Cyrus who decrees that the temple be rebuilt, after Persia conquers Babylon. The instability of the house of God, the height of ancient Israelite culture, finds new hope in the figure of Cyrus, perhaps the most respected word leader of the ancient world, as evidenced not simply in the Biblical canon, but also in the writings of Herodotus.

For the ancients, Chronicles was a single scroll, and the original title can be roughly translated as “The Matter of the Days”. It was only later that Chronicles was divided with the formulation of the Septuagint -divided at the point at which Solomon becomes king of Israel upon the death of David. The modern title of the text comes down to us from Jerome’s translation of the Vulgate, as Chronikon.

For this reading I used the King James Version.

The Persian Fantasy of Esther

The Scroll of Esther is an unusual text for a variety of reasons. First, because the story is an odd burlesque tale of the ancient Israelites in Persia, and it makes no mention of God -one of only two Biblical texts to do so (the other being Song of Solomon). Instead, Haman (the brutal Persian oppressor of the Jews) notes the different “rules” followed by the Jews, without specifying anything particular about the Jewish religion. The second reason Esther is unique is because it is the only book of the Biblical canon that was not found among the texts at Qumran. In many ways Esther stands alone. Esther’s fabricated world of an oppressive Persian empire in which a noble Hebrew plebeian rises to power (by sexually pleasing the ruler) in Persia and saves her people; paints a pleasing picture of the goodness of ancient Israel, as well as the ancient hope for the coming salvation of the Persian empire, though the story surely never actually happened.

The story makes no attempt to correspond to the historical realities of Persia, and was likely written much later, though it remains consistent with the ancient Judaic diaspora narrative. In contrast to the text, the Persians were renowned for their empire of tolerance toward ethnic minorities, at least as far as ancient empires go, hence why the text is uncharacteristic of the time. In the fantasy-world of Esther the Persians are a decadent ruling empire, opening with a grand feast lasting 180 days. King Ahasuerus (likely either Xerxes, per Herodotus, or Ataxerxes) agrees to an unusual genocidal doctrine against the Jews in Persia, as proposed by his counselor Haman, until a Hebrew Persian-born commoner, Esther, rises up to become Queen of Persia and she saves her people from destruction. Haman (associated with the Amalekites in the text, though the Amalekites were the enemies of Israel several centuries earlier) decides to oppress the Jews, and demands that Jews, like Mordecai, bow before him. Mordecai declines to do so, and Haman condemns Mordecai to death by impalement.

Haman Begging For The Mercy of Esther by Rembrandt around 1635

At the same time, Queen Vashti, the King’s wife, refuses to join in the Persian feasting, so Ahasuerus, in a fit of fury, seeks another woman as his wife. Like Joseph, Esther mysteriously rises to power through the ranks of an oppressive empire. The King of Persia is pleased with her sexually after he brings various women to his bed each night. Finding his appetites satiated with Esther, the King appoints her as his new wife, and she appoints her step-father or guardian, Mordecai, to be a chief regent. In a strange twist of events, as is characteristic of the text, Mordecai, who was once condemned to death by impalement on a pike for refusing to bow before Haman, now turns on Haman. Upon discovering his evils acts, the King of Persia condemns Haman and his sons to death by impalement on the same pike that was meant for Mordecai, and Mordecai goes on to be a celebrated Jew in the kingdom of Persia.

Some have suggested that the only reason Esther was written, was to reaffirm the ‘feast of Esther’ or the Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrating the triumph of Esther over Haman. The festival typically takes place in early Spring and mirrors the fasting of Esther, Mordecai, and all the Jews of Persia as described in the text. Indeed, one can easily imagine the Book of Esther reinforcing the national Hebrew narrative of overcoming slavery. It is a beautiful and imaginative rags-to-riches tale that stands out as unusual among the early texts of the Biblical canon.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s translation.

The Harvest of Ruth

There is a vigorous debate among Biblical scholars regarding the origins of “The Scroll of Ruth.” Is Ruth, in fact, a late Biblical text, or not? Clearly the writer of the text intended for it to be akin to the Judges period in Israelite history, hence why it was placed with the former prophets, between Judges and Samuel in the Greek Septuagint, and consequently in the same spot in the latter Christian canonical order. The writer opens the text with: “And it happened in the days when the judges ruled…” (1:1, per the Robert Alter translation) mirroring the classical Biblical style, though the scroll was likely written much later, perhaps after the Babylonian exile, due to its unique narrative structure. It contains four chapters.

It tells of a man, Elimelech, who takes his family from Bethlehem to the plains of Moab due to famine. Moab is the land east of the Jordan River, east of Israel, in present-day Jordan. While on the plains Elimelech dies, leaving his wife Naomi (meaning “pleasant” or “sweet”) and their two sons who take Moabite wives: Orpah (“nape”, a slang for flight, or departure, per her actions in the story) and Ruth (unclear name origin, perhaps re’ut meaning “friendship”).

Then, both sons die, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law alone. Orpah decides to return to Moab but Ruth “clings” to Naomi. “Where you go I will go,” says Ruth in honoring her commitment. She returns to Bethlehem with Naomi in time for the barley harvest, causing a stir in the town. Naomi changes her name to “Mara” and twice refers to God as “Shaddai,” an archaic Canaanite reference.

“Ruth In Boaz” by German religious painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld in 1828

Ruth goes out into a neighbor’s field for the harvest in order to attract Boaz, a former family friend of Naomi, now called Mara. Boaz welcomes her into his home and allows her to glean the barley harvest from his field, knowing that she left her family for a strange land with her mother-in-law. One night, at the behest of Naomi, Ruth visits Boaz and uncovers his feet to persuade him to “redeem”, or wed her. Boaz seeks the approval of the town elders first to claim all the property that was once Elimilech’s, and he takes Ruth as a wife. She gives birth to a son, Obed, named by neighboring women, and meaning “worshipper.” Obed is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David.

The Book of Ruth is a text about “going” and “coming back” and “clinging” to one another. It is a simple book, and it appeals to a common humanism found in its characters. The setting of Ruth is bucolic, on the dry plains of Moab and in the remote town of Bethlehem (“house of bread”). Ruth is a foreigner from Moab and a hard worker, as evidenced by her long hours working in the barley fields. She decides to “go back” to Bethlehem from the plains of Moab with her mother-in-law Naomi, after Naomi’s entire family dies, and Ruth accepts the customs and the God of the Israelites. She finds favor in the eyes of a gentleman, Boaz, who honors her devotion and servitude, and he takes her for a wife. She gives birth to Obed, grandfather of David.

The book is simple, and beckons the reader to consider simple times amidst pleasant, amiable countrymen, wherein a stranger proves herself worthy through hard work and dedication, and she is rewarded with blessings. Both the books of Ruth and Esther are similar in the Ketuvim (“writings”) in that they are fantasy tales (one in Bethlehem and the other in Persia) of two noble women overcoming hardship and finding favor with their compatriots, as well as with their God.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s translation.