This penultimate chapter recites the story again, to frame divine disappointment with Israel. Hosea learned it as similar to being married to an unfaithful woman, and since has learned the dirges sung by parents despairing of their children’s choices. The conclusion here is more dire: Israel died.
The idolatry is out of control, the luxury trade in silver, the kissing of calves. Recall the earlier figure contrasting the people living in dry dark, in drought and night, teased with only a morning dew of fleeting cloud – when full sun and rain was needed and comes only from beyond. Chaff, smoke from a window: signs, but not the real thing of grain and home fires burning.
We are reminded again of Exodus, of manna in the desert – and of how quickly the people rebelled even then. God’s not our servant, waiting for a tip, to do our bidding. The divine is a wild thing, beyond our control, like a lion, leopard, or bear, particularly one enraged to lose her cubs. That anger is rooted in love and loss, not malevolence.
We’re reminded of the ambivalence of the tradition in Samuel, when the people were dissatisfied with Judges, and wanted a king like other nations. Eli warned them, but they demanded and got Saul – then better, then worse.
Enjoy and take time with the image of Ephraim on the brink of the pains of childbirth – having been in the divine womb, safe, the nation is about to emerge into the world, kicking and screaming at the mortality ahead. Is that a curse or a blessing, like the expulsion from Eden, or release from the ark? Exposed, however resistant, Ephraim will suffer, Israel will fall.
The horrible imagery of slaughter, of women’s babies torn from their womb, are based in real experiences of warfare. They also match the preceding image of God’s womb being ripped open and Ephraim being exposed. Even in this bloody warning of Samaria’s fall, it’s not the voice of a vengeful God doing the killing, but of a weeping bereft maternal God with waves of empathy for us.
1 When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling; he was exalted in Israel; but he incurred guilt through Baal and died.
2 And now they keep on sinning and make a cast image for themselves, idols of silver made according to their understanding, all of them the work of artisans. ‘Sacrifice to these’, they say.* People are kissing calves!
3 Therefore they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes away early, like chaff that swirls from the threshing-floor or like smoke from a window.
4 Yet I have been the LORD your God ever since the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no saviour.
5 It was I who fed* you in the wilderness, in the land of drought.
6 When I fed* them, they were satisfied; they were satisfied, and their heart was proud; therefore they forgot me.
7 So I will become like a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk beside the way.
8 I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart; there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them.
9 I will destroy you, O Israel; who can help you?*
10 Where now is* your king, that he may save you? Where in all your cities are your rulers, of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and rulers’?
11 I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath.
12 Ephraim’s iniquity is bound up; his sin is kept in store.
13 The pangs of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son; for at the proper time he does not present himself at the mouth of the womb.
14 Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are* your plagues? O Sheol, where is* your destruction? Compassion is hidden from my eyes.
15 Although he may flourish among rushes,* the east wind shall come, a blast from the LORD, rising from the wilderness; and his fountain shall dry up, his spring shall be parched. It shall strip his treasury of every precious thing.
16 *Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.