The Valley of Jezreel

HOSEA 1 The Valley of Jezreel, located be-tween the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, divides Galilee in the north from Samaria' in the south. It is part of a larger valley that constitutes the only east-west passage across the Holy Land. It is also a fertile stretch of land that formed an important junction in the trade route between Egypt in the south and Damascus in the north.2 All of these factors, plus its relatively flat geography, have made it tremendously important and have contributed to its violent history.

During the conquest, when this area was occupied by Canaanites,3 the Joseph tribes were unable to wrest Jezreel from its occupants. The problem was that the flat land allowed for the effective use of chariots, which the Israelites did not have in their arsenal (Jos 17:16). During the Judges period Sisera, the general of the Canaanite king Jabin, had dominated this region with his 900 chariots (Jdg 4:3). Jezreel is of great importance in Hosea, a book of prophecy directed against the northern kingdom of Israel.

    • In Hosea 1:4 the prophet, adhering to God's direct instruction, named his first son Jezreel in an ironic allusion to the slaughter at Jezreel carried out by Jehu against the house of Ahab, and particularly against Jezebel, for their support of the prophets of Baal (2Ki 9:1-10:11). The irony is that Jehu's own dynasty would be wiped out because of its continued adherence to the cult of Baal. Hosea 1:5 proclaimed that God would break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.

This obviously pointed to a military defeat for the northern kingdom.This prophecy came to pass in 733 B.C. when Tiglath-Pileser Ill conquered the area.

    • Even so, Hosea promised that God would one day redeem Israel. Making use of the fact that Jezreel means "God sows," 2:17-22 promised that one day God would make Israel flourish again like a lush garden.

Baal and the Fertility Cults

HOSEA 2 The worship of the Canaanite storm god Baal was an object of singular condemnation by Hosea and other prophets.The vehemence of the prophetic condemnation of the cult reflects just how extensive and pernicious the problem was. We learn about Baal first through Biblical texts. Examples include:

    • Numbers 25 (the narrative of Baal of Peor, showing the prominence of sacred prostitution within the cult).

    • First Kings 18 (the contest involving Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, illustrating the popularity of the Baal cult and its use of self-laceration for demonstrating devotion to Baa).

    • Hosea 2 (v. 8 indicates that the people associated Baal with prosperity, and vv. 16— 17 suggest that many people identified Baal and Yahweh almost as one and the same.)

We also learn a great deal about Baal from ancient texts in the form of cuneiform tablets, especially those from Ugarit and from Phoenician inscriptions. The hymns and epic poems of Ugarit provide us with something of the"theology"of the Baal cult.,

The basic meaning of the word baa! is "lord,"and this appropriately suggests Baal's importance in Canaanite religion. He was called "prince Baal (Lord) of the earth." Al-though the god El was nominally the supreme deity in Ugaritic mythology, Baal purportedly exercised a direct role in ruling the pantheon and effectively supplanted El. Baal's consort (partner) is usually identified as the goddess Anat, although sometimes another goddess, Asherah, assumes that role. Baal was declared king after having supposedly defeated the god Yam ("sea") in battle. In another myth he was slain by the god Mot ("Death"), but with the aid of Anat he revived and defeated Mot.

Not only was Baal exalted as a chief deity, but he also functioned specifically as the Canaanite storm god, the "rider of the clouds.", The birth of healthy offspring and the staving off of famine were major concerns in the ancient Near East, and consequently fertility took on religious significance. In Egypt the god Osiris was identified with the Nile and its perennial flooding —the basis of Egypt's agricultural life. In Mesopotamia the cult of Tammuz and his consort, !manna, represented the power of fertility and included the practice of sacred prostitution.

For Israel—an agrarian society situated in a dry climate—the veneration of a god who could send rain proved to be an irresistible enticement. One Canaanite myth attributed agricultural fertility to the"rain of Baal." Hosea 2:5 indicates the acceptance of Baal's role at every level of life: "food" and "water" for sustenance,"wool and linen"for material goods and"oil" and"drink"for cultic rituals or personal luxury. Although sacred prostitution was not a part of every fertility cult, Israel incorporated this aspect as well (4:10-14), and the sexual temptation of the cult proved too much for many Israelites to withstand. The situation was exacerbated by an enormous number of local shrines where "the Baals" were worshiped under various titles (such as Baal Peor, Baal Hammon, Baal Zaphon, Baal of Lebanon or Baal of Sidon; see 2:13,17).6 This phenomenon is attested by the wide variety of representations of Baal in Phoenician inscriptions.

The fact that the Israelites identified Baal with Yahweh is telling. Although Baal worship, viewed from a distance, was obviously horrendous, those who were involved in it were so influenced by the dominant culture that they remained convinced that they were devout and orthodox followers of the Lord—when they were all the while worshiping Baal.

Beth Aven: A lesson in the difficulty of Biblical geography

HOSEA 4 Beth Aven is mentioned seven times in the Old Testament (Jos 7:2; 18:12 — 13; 1Sa 13:5; 14:23; Hos 4:15; 5:8; 10:5). In Joshua and Samuel it is an actual place-name, but in the book of Hosea Beth Aven ("house of wickedness") is a derogatory reference to Bethel ("house of God"). Thus, there appear to have been at least two sites referred to as Beth Aven. But the location of the actual Beth Aven has been a source of confusion. Joshua 7:2 suggests that Beth Aven was east of Bethel, usually identified as the modern Beitin.

Joshua 18:12 —13 stipulates that the northern border of the tribe of Benjamin ran from the Jordan past the region of Jericho to the "desert of Beth Aven" and from there on in a southerly direction to Bethel. Based on these descriptions Beth Aven must have been northeast of Bethel. But 1 Samuel 13:5 indicates that Beth Aven was west of Micmash, usually identified with modern Mukhrnas., The problem is that Micmash was south of Bethel, and it is of course impossible to see how Beth Aven could have been both northeast of Bethel and west of Micmash, which is south of Bethel.

It may be that there were two sites actually named Beth Aven, the one being the site referred to in Joshua, northeast of Bethel, and the other the one of 1 Samuel, west of Micmash. The situation is further complicated by the fact that, as mentioned above, Beth Aven was also used as a secondary name for Bethel itself!

Another proposal argues that there was just one village named Beth Aven; however, this proposal depends upon relocating several sites. If Bethel was actually located at a site called el Bireh (near modern Ramallah in the West Bank) rather than at Beitin, then Beitin may have been Beth Aven, as it can be said to be both northeast of el Bireh and west of Mukhmas. The locating of Bethel at el Bireh is not yet widely accepted, however.,

All of these sites are in the general area of the hill country north of Jerusalem, and so a general notion of the locations of Beth Aven and the other sites is not in question. Even so, this illustrates the difficulty scholars frequently encounter in precisely identifying Biblical sites. Modern readers of the Bible do well to bear in mind that the exact locations of many sites mentioned in the text are uncertain.

Hosea's use of the Old Testament

HOSEA 12 Hosea was one of Israel's first prophets whose message was put into writing. Nevertheless Hosea's message, like those of Israel's other"writing prophets," cannot be understood in isolation from the law and the books of Joshua and Judges, books to which Hosea often alluded. For example, he used other Old Testament accounts as follows:

    • The promises to Abraham await their final fulfillment (Hos 1:10; cf. Ge 22:17).

    • God's dealings with Jacob are applicable and relevant for his descendants (Ge 25:25 —26; 28:11-16; 29:16-30;32:24-27; Hos 12:2-4,12).

    • Israel's bondage in Egypt was a type or representation of her coming bondage to the Assyrians (8:13; 9:3,6).

    • The exodus was a sign of God's great mercy and compassion (11:1;13:4-6), but also an event that soon would be reversed in Israel's exile and captivity (10:5-8; 11:1-5). This event would be repeated in the nation's restoration under the Davidic king (1:11; 2:15; 3:5; 11:11; 12:9).

    • The Ten Commandments were the fundamental rules by which the nation was to live and by which she would be judged (Ex 20:1— 17; Hos 4:1-2; 13:4).

    • God's covenant with Israel (8:1-3,12) was a source of great blessings (2.13,18-23; 13:4; 14:4-8) but would also bring curses on those who broke it (4:6; 8:1-10; cf. Dt 28).

    • Israel's tendency toward apostasy was reflected in the people's idolatry during their period of desert wandering and continuing into Hosea's day (Hos 9:10; 13:4-6).

    • The city of Gibeah was a notable example of wickedness in the past (Jdg 19:12-30) and in Hosea's day as well (Hos 10:9).

    • Sodom,Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim (locations uncertain) were notorious examples of God's judgment (Dt 29:23; Hos 11:8).

Hosea's allusions to Genesis through Judges are highly significant. First,they help to establish the fact that these books had already been written by the time of Hosea, in the eighth century B.C. (Many scholars consider these books to be from the sixth century B.C. and even later.) Second, Hosea's construal of these books helps us to understand early Biblical interpretation,which in turn gives us a better understanding of how the New Testament interprets the Old.