The affluence of Israel opens the day. In Hosea’s lifetime, the security and prosperity was as good as it got, and the ‘divided kingdoms’ covered nearly the same ground as the boom years of Solomon, and the affluence of trade while Assyria and Egypt were busy on other borders. What did we do with the good times – altars and pillars, edifices.
Two Sundays ago in preaching, I quoted Northrop Frye, United Church minister and literary critic, in The Great Code:
The supremacy of the verbal over the monumental
Has something about it of the supremacy of life over death
Those who cobbled together wealth for monumental buildings did not defer to one ultimate divine, let alone to a common ruler. Litigation sprung up like weeds in the furrows! If each one pursues whatever can be wrestled from the other, some win big, and put their names on colleges and hospitals (mostly paid for by poorer taxpayers) – but it won’t last. You can’t trust their words.
There’s another cheap shot at the shrine of Beth-el (house of God) being called Beth-Aven (house of deceit), shock at the practices of kissing the golden calf, and prediction that the Assyrians will be happy to take the idols as trophies back to Shalmaneser, Tiglath-Pileser, and the boys in northern Iraq.
All the proud monuments of affluence will be wrecked, and the prophet won’t mourn them. The cry of those bereft, ‘mountains, cover us, and hills, fall on us’ are quoted by Jesus in his apocalyptic fury (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) which we don’t like to read. Thorns and thistles will grow over unused altars.
Verse 9 brings us back to Gibeah, noted on Saturday – the place which denied hospitality to the Levite and raped and killed his wife in an echo of Sodom and Gomorrah, bringing civil war and near genocide upon Benjamin in Judges. No wonder all the nations will gang up on us, as the tribes did to Benjamin.
Ephraim is likened to a heifer used in threshing – where the animal got to eat the grain on the threshing floor. Now back to the harder work, of ploughing hard ground in the early steps of preparing to plant again, with no short-term gratification for the labouring beast. A people used to reaping benefits in consumption of luxury goods will return to doing the grunt work themselves!
The ploughing metaphor is played for another few poetic lines: you sowed injustice, and you reap the harvest – now you have to sow something else! You can hear somebody saying ‘ya reap what ya sow, eh?’
If you trust in your monumental affluence, you’ll lose it. I can’t find a source that knows specifically who is Shalman and where is Beth-Arbel – but given that the Assyrian rulers include Shalmaneser V and we know ‘Beth’ is ‘house of’, it was likely a known slaughter from a previous Assyrian raid.
The same is coming for Beth-el – and for whatever king is unfortunate enough to hold the job on the next day of defeat.
Hosea 10 (NRSV)
1 Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The more his fruit increased the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars.
2 Their heart is false; now they must bear their guilt. The LORD * will break down their altars, and destroy their pillars.
3 For now they will say: ‘We have no king, for we do not fear the LORD, and a king—what could he do for us?’
4 They utter mere words; with empty oaths they make covenants; so litigation springs up like poisonous weeds in the furrows of the field.
5 The inhabitants of Samaria tremble for the calf* of Beth-aven. Its people shall mourn for it, and its idolatrous priests shall wail* over it, over its glory that has departed from it.
6 The thing itself shall be carried to Assyria as tribute to the great king.* Ephraim shall be put to shame, and Israel shall be ashamed of his idol.*
7 Samaria’s king shall perish like a splinter on the face of the waters.
8 The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel, shall be destroyed. Thorn and thistle shall grow up on their altars. They shall say to the mountains, Cover us, and to the hills, Fall on us.
9 Since the days of Gibeah you have sinned, O Israel; there they have continued. Shall not war overtake them in Gibeah?
10 I will come* against the wayward people to punish them; and nations shall be gathered against them when they are punished* for their double iniquity.
11 Ephraim was a trained heifer that loved to thresh, and I spared her fair neck; but I will make Ephraim break the ground; Judah must plough; Jacob must harrow for himself.
12 Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.
13 You have ploughed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors,
14 therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle when mothers were dashed in pieces with their children.
15 Thus it shall be done to you, O Bethel, because of your great wickedness. At dawn the king of Israel shall be utterly cut off.