Monday, December 1, 2008

Hosea and the Story of Jacob

In lieu of writing of real post today, I'm going to post the paper I just wrote for my Old Testament class. The assignment was to write a paper on the inner-Biblical use of a text. I chose to write on the prophet Hosea and his use of the story of Jacob from Genesis. Here's the paper:

The prophet Hosea uses numerous images to illustrate his message to the people of Israel. Some of these images are acted out by Hosea himself (as in the wife he takes and the names of his children); others are purely metaphorical. Hosea also makes references to Israel’s history and its stories, reinterpreting the characters and events in terms of what he sees in his own time. One example of this use of story from Israel’s past is found in chapter 12 of Hosea. In this chapter, Hosea makes reference to the story of Jacob, repeating details now found in chapters 25 through 32 of Genesis. As in many parts of the Old Testament, in Hosea Jacob is seen as a symbol for the whole people who claim him as one of their patriarchs. The name Jacob is given in Genesis 32, Israel, is also the name of the people who descend from him. However, Hosea does not view this patriarch in a positive light, and he indicts the people of Israel by indicting the man himself. This re-visioning of the story of Jacob in the context of God’s punishment of the unfaithful Israelites is a striking example of Hosea’s use of the Scriptural tradition he had inherited.

The references to Jacob are in verses 3-5 and 13 of chapter 12. Hosea begins with the claim that “The LORD once indicted Judah, and punished Jacob for his conduct, requited him for his deeds” (12:3). He goes on to mention several details from the Jacob story—his conflict with Esau in the womb (v. 4), the struggle with the divine being and the encounter at Bethel (v. 5), and the flight to Aram and Jacob’s labor for Laban (v. 13). These details from Jacob’s life are all interpreted by Hosea in the context of God’s punishment, which is markedly different from how they are usually understood in their own right. The story of Jacob in Genesis, while the story of a trickster who gets the best of everyone around him, is also the story of one of the great patriarchs of the Israelites. The fact that it is this patriarch who lends his name to God’s people is also significant—in some sense, Jacob is Israel more than any of the other patriarchs. His experience of struggling with God is symbolic of Israel’s own struggle with God. In the events of his life, Jacob receives the blessings of his father and God, and it is Jacob who first experiences the reality of the many nations promised to Abraham in his twelve sons. These stories do not include divine punishment for Jacob’s action, nor indeed a claim that such punishment is necessary.

Hosea takes these details from Jacob’s life and spends the remainder of chapter 12 reinterpreting them as stories of the people of Israel. In verses 4 and 5, Hosea recalls Jacob’s struggle with men and with the divine and his encounter with God at Bethel: “In the womb he tried to supplant his brother; grown to manhood, he strove with a divine being, he strove with an angel and prevailed—the other had to weep and implore him. At Bethel [Jacob] would meet him, there to commune with him” (12:4-5). For Hosea, this communion with the divine is wrong: “Yet the LORD, the God of Hosts, must be invoked as ‘LORD.’ You must return to your God! Practice goodness and justice, and constantly trust in your God” (12:6-7). Although Jacob met God at Bethel and set up a stone there to mark the place, Hosea sees his actions as culpable. In spite of God’s promises, Jacob does not trust him, and certainly does not practice goodness and justice in his dealings with Esau and Laban. Instead, Jacob tricks both his brother and his ailing father in order to secure his place as heir. He then tricks Laban in spite of the assurance from God at Bethel that “I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15). Hosea calls for honoring God and acting justly, which in his eyes Jacob did not do.

Likewise, the people of Israel have followed in the footsteps of their patriarch. Hosea says of them, “A trader who uses false balances, who loves to overreach, Ephraim thinks, ‘Ah, I have become rich; I have gotten power!’ . . . As for Gilead, it is worthless; and to no purpose have they been sacrificing oxen in Gilgal: the altars of these are also like stone heaps upon a plowed field” (Hosea 12:8-9,12). Like Jacob, the people of Israel use trickery and deceit to gain power and wealth, and they set up stone altars that are worthless in the absence of just behavior. They also fail to trust God; through Hosea, God says, “I the LORD have been your God ever since the land of Egypt. I will let you dwell in your tents again as in the days of old, when I spoke to the prophets; for I granted many visions, and spoke parables through the prophets” (12:10-11). Although God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and gave them everything they would need, and made the divine presence known to them, they still do not trust. Instead of relying on God to provide for their needs, they grasp for more and cheat those around them; instead of listening to the words of the prophets, they set up altars of sacrifice. Though God promises to them that they will be cared for as they were in the desert (“I will let you dwell in your tents again”), the people of Israel—like Jacob—do not trust God’s promise, and instead seek to make their own fortunes.

The final detail from Jacob’s life that Hosea refers to in this chapter is found in verse 13: “Then Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard [sheep]” (12:13). In Hosea’s eyes, this seems to be the punishment Jacob faces for his actions; having tricked his father and brother, Esau comes after Jacob in a murderous rage. Jacob must flee the country, and goes to his relative Laban. There he does not receive a warm welcome or easily find a wife, as his father Isaac did when he was young; instead, Jacob works fourteen years under Laban to get Rachel, finding himself on the receiving end of some trickery for once. Hosea sees these events as a punishment for Jacob’s actions (although Jacob does not seem to learn his lesson, since he tricks Laban in return). Nevertheless, God punishes Jacob for his greed and trickery.

If exile and bound service were Jacob’s punishment for his sins, then it is easy to see how Hosea continues the analogy for the people of Israel. They, too, will face exile from their homeland and service to foreigners. Hosea sees the people of Israel setting themselves up for the same fate as their namesake: “But when the LORD brought Israel up from Egypt, it was through a prophet; through a prophet they were guarded. Ephraim gave bitter offense, and his Lord cast his crimes upon him and requited him for his mockery” (12:14-15). Again, the Israelites do not trust the prophets or the God who rescued them from slavery and cared for them in the desert. If they continue to behave in this way, persisting in injustice and selfishness, God will punish them, as well.

Hosea’s message is primarily one of rebuke and warning for the people of Israel. They have rejected their God and just behavior. They cheat one another in order to gain wealth and power, and they do not trust in God or the prophets who speak God’s word. Hosea delivers his message to the people of Israel through symbolic action, metaphors, and appeals to Israel’s stories. In chapter 12, Hosea uses the story of Jacob to explain the wrongs that Israel has done and to give them a hint of the punishment that is to come if they do not change their actions. He interprets the events of Jacob’s life and draws parallels to the state of Israel and Judah in his own time. By making use of the earlier tradition of the patriarchs, Hosea brings a new message to the people of Israel.

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