Start with a reminder of threat to Israel, and warning to Judah. At the time, Israel is ‘playing both ends against the middle’, with treaties with Egypt and with Assyria simultaneously. Judah’s foreign policy and trade was more modest, accepting its client state status toward Assyria. Morality, not politics, is the realm of the prophet: knowing your identity as a collective moral agent, and acting with integrity and consistency, without contradictions demanding deceit.
Sure, there is a warning to Judah (south) and Jacob (all 12 tribes), about over-reaching ambition, like the younger brother supplanting the elder – let alone claiming equality with the divine. The stories of the toledot in Genesis are more than fairy tales, or personal histories of individual ‘great men’. Israel was humbled at Beth-el – has the nation forgotten its place, and its limp?
The shrewd sharp commercial practices of Israel are condemned. Who dares to cheat on weights and measures? The prophet says Israel does. So did Amos. Success and wealth is no proof of righteousness – the wicked prosper too.
Remember the Festival of Booths, Shavuot, the fall festival of reminder that you lived in tents and might again? The Passover reminder that we were slaves in Egypt, and our father was a wandering Aramean? Did you think those were just holiday parties for children? Prophets bring comfort to the afflicted – but afflict the comfortable. Which are you?
The references to Gilead and Gilgal might ring differently to some this year, having struggled through Joshua and Judges with me. The tribe of Manasseh, Ephraim’s brother and son of Joseph, straddles the Jordan in the north, and connects those stories. The line between good and evil runs through each person, people, place and time – do you know what side of the fence you’re on, or who’s there with you?
1 *Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit; but Judah still walks* with God, and is faithful to the Holy One. Ephraim herds the wind, and pursues the east wind all day long; they multiply falsehood and violence; they make a treaty with Assyria, and oil is carried to Egypt.
2 The LORD has an indictment against Judah, and will punish Jacob according to his ways, and repay him according to his deeds.
3 In the womb he tried to supplant his brother, and in his manhood he strove with God.
4 He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favour; he met him at Bethel, and there he spoke with him.*
5 The LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name!
6 But as for you, return to your God, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.
7 A trader, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress.
8 Ephraim has said, ‘Ah, I am rich, I have gained wealth for myself; in all of my gain no offence has been found in me that would be sin.’*
9 I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt; I will make you live in tents again, as on the days of the appointed festival.
10 I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets I will bring destruction.
11 In Gilead* there is iniquity, they shall surely come to nothing. In Gilgal they sacrifice bulls, so their altars shall be like stone heaps on the furrows of the field.
12 Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep.*
13 By a prophet the LORD brought Israel up from Egypt, and by a prophet he was guarded. 14 Ephraim has given bitter offence, so his Lord will bring his crimes down on him and pay him back for his insults.