Hosea 12 – Grappling with Your History

Hosea 12 Bible with Chocolove Dark Chocolate Coffee Crunch

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Today’s PassageHosea 12

As I write this, I’ve read ahead a chapter or two, and as I think about the chapters surrounding Hosea 12, the prophet is bringing more of Israel’s history to bear through his prophecy. Even today, Judaism is a religion of history, a culture of history. The Torah is equal parts law and narrative, God’s revealed norms for ethical behavior intertwined with the record of his intervention in human events. If prophecy is a message from God, a crucial part of Hosea’s prophecy is God’s reminder to his people: in case you’ve forgotten, we have a history.

Israel began in a pagan nation, when God called Abraham to a new life as the father of a new nation. Through the Patriarchal Age, the nation grew in prosperity, and when the Israelites became enslaved in Egypt, God freed them and led them out of bondage. The nation grew as it was governed by judges, then by kings, and then the nation became divided into the north and south kingdoms. When Hosea wrote, the monarchy had degenerated through a series of corrupt rulers who grew lax on idolatry and keeping the Torah. When he says, “There is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land” (4:1), he’s diagnosing the problem. The people had forgotten who they were and where they come from–or more accurately, who had chosen them and called them out of where they came from. Part of Hosea’s prophetic mission was to remind his people what they’d forgotten.

I don’t know why Hosea at times calls the nation “Israel” and at other times “Ephraim.” But I know what he means when he calls them “Jacob.” Here he recalls the story of the patriarch Jacob, whom God renamed “Israel:”

The Lord also has a dispute with Judah,
And will punish Jacob according to his ways;
He will repay him according to his deeds.
In the womb he took his brother by the heel,
And in his maturity he contended with God.
Yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed;
He wept and sought His favor.
He found Him at Bethel
And there He spoke with us,
Even the Lord, the God of hosts,
The Lord is His name. (12:2-5)

“Israel” means “he who strives with God,” but “Jacob” means “heel-grabber” or “supplanter.” Hosea changes the name he uses here to underscore the nation’s yielding to its baser nature. From birth, Jacob tries to pull himself out of the womb by his brother’s heel, later taking advantage of his brother and deceiving his own father to steal his brother’s birthright. Then, rather than face his problems, he takes his family and possessions and runs away.

It’s only after he wrestles an unidentified man in the night (Genesis 32:24-32) that Jacob is able to quit running from his brother Esau, face his fears, and get reconciled. After the wrestling match, God gives him his new name of Israel, and for that reason Hosea observes, “In his maturity he contended with God; yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed” (12:3-4). It’s my understanding that “Israel” can mean “he who strives with God” in the sense of one who fights alongside God or one who fights with God; it can even mean “God himself strives.” At his worst, Jacob lies, cheats, runs from his problems, and does whatever he can to keep a grip on whatever he’s most afraid of losing. But as Israel, he’s willing to grapple with the hard stuff in his life. Whether he’s striving alongside God or trying to get him in a headlock, at least he’s finally willing to engage.

So Hosea tells Israel to quit being Jacob and be Israel. “Therefore, return to your God, observe kindness and justice, and wait for your God continually” (6), he commands them. Quit running away to idols and foreign nations. Quit running from God and kindness and justice. Roll up your sleeves, face the hard stuff in your life as a nation, and become willing to engage.

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