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The Prophecies of Hoshea Chapters 9-11: The Coming Exile and Devastation (Part 3)

  • Rav Yitzchak Etshalom
In our last shiur, we studied the middle section of this pericope, comprised of sixteen verses. These sixteen verses were easily and visibly divided into two equal sections of eight verses, the first set completing Chapter 9 and the second set beginning Chapter 10. After having rebuked Yisrael for their fawning relationship towards the nations around them in the first section (Shiur #19), the prophet foretold the devastation of Ephraim in a horrific, immensely personal way. His description of infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirths as a “Divine favor,” protecting the people from the crippling pain of burying their children, offered a shattering illustration of how far the mighty kingdom of Shomeron was about to fall. The second half of the section was an elegiac description of the impending destruction of the land, culminating in a nearly human voice begging the mountains to cover the thistles and hide the shame of the land.
In a sense, the two octets sing to each other in mournful turns. The ideally (and formerly) productive women are set to one side, childless and with no future. Answering their mournful call, the Land, formerly bountiful and blessed with God’s providential eye (see Devarim 11:10-12), hides its shame amidst its fallow fields.
This next and final section of the pericope is the longest. Its single Masoretic parasha is made up of 18 verses, completing Chapter 10 and all of Chapter 11. We will focus our attention in this shiur on the seven verses which make up the first third of the section, taking us to the end of Chapter 10. As we will see below, these seven not only (conveniently) complete the chapter,[1] but they comprise a single literary unit, forming a near-perfect chiasmus.
Mi'yemei ha-Giv’ah, chatata Yisrael
Sham ‘amadu, lo-tasigeim ba-Giv’ah milchama ‘al-bnei ‘alva
From the days of Gibeah you have sinned, Yisrael;
There they stood; no battle was to overtake them in Giv’ah, nor the children of arrogance.
This is not the first time Hoshea has invoked Giv’ah. At the beginning of the previous section (9:9), “Giv’ah” served as a paradigmatic example of the depth of Yisrael’s treachery against God. As we noted there, commentators disagree as to whether the name alluded to the horrific story of the “Concubine at Giv’ah” (pilegesh beGiv’ah – see Shoftim 19-21), which led to a civil war that nearly decimated Binyamin, or to the demand for a king[2] (who ultimately came from Giv’ah in the person of Shaul – see Shmuel 1 10:26).
Here, however, the prophet highlights Giv’ah as the onset, the starting point of Yisrael’s rebellion against God, which likely points to the tragic episode of the concubine.[3] The broad consensus of the commentators supports this interpretation – against the Targum’s association of this chastising reference with the later demand for a king.
It is curious, however, that the prophet picks this episode as the starting point of Yisrael’s sinfulness, seemingly overlooking their numerous rebellions and public and communal transgressions in the desert. There are several possible explanations for this. First of all, the prophet may take the theological position that once the people entered the Land under the leadership of Yehoshua, they were given a “clean slate” and only sins committed from that point on would be reckoned against them. While this notion is somewhat supported within the larger theological stance about the people’s relationship with Eretz Yisrael, it doesn’t hold up, at least not within Hoshea’s own rhetorical program. He himself invokes – earlier in this pericope (9:10) – the sin of Ba’al-Pe’or (see Bamidbar 25:1-9). One might counter that Hoshea doesn’t claim the people are still being held accountable for the sin of Ba’al-P’eor, but that that (relatively ancient) history speaks to something foul in the nation’s psychological makeup. Yet that is exactly what is happening here as well: not culpability, but a historic record of treachery dating back to the Giv’ah. We have to look elsewhere to see why the prophet uses Giv’ah as the point of departure.
It may be that he wishes to link the mention of the Giv’ah here to the earlier reference within the same pericope. In addition, Hoshea’s rhetorical strategy involves mentioning numerous toponyms (we’ve already encountered Beit-El, Be’er-Sheva, and Gilgal, among others) and since he can point to the locus of Giv’ah as associated with numerous terrible public sins – including sexual licentiousness as well as fratricide – it fits his oratorial purpose.
It is interesting that he uses the term bnei alva – as if to allude to the bnei olah (with nearly the same orthography[4]) – of his day, i.e., the aristocracy. This second hemistich provides another explanation for Hoshea’s choice of Gi’vah as his reference point. Just as the many tribes were not at first able to defeat the single (and smaller) tribe of Binyamin, similarly, these bnei avla have been spared so far and believe that will continue – but it is not to be.
B’avati v’esareim
Ve-us’fu ‘aleihem ‘amim, b’asram, li-shtei ‘onotam
When it is My desire, I will chastise them;
And the nations shall be gathered against them when they are yoked to their two rings.
There is something painful about this phrasing – as if to say that God desires, almost lusts for the opportunity to chastise and punish His people. The use of avah, which denotes that sort of urge or drive, is a deliberately frightening image.
The word ‘am, commonly translated as “nation,” has a somewhat narrower meaning in much of Tanakh. Most of its occurrences in the Chumash and historic prophetic books (Yehoshua-Shoftim-Shmuel-Melakhim) denote “army.” For instance, the first time Bnei Yisrael are called an am:
Hinei ‘am Bnei Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu…
Behold, the am of the children of Israel are more numerous and mightier than we; come let us deal wisely with them, lest there be a war and they join our enemies and they fight against us… (Shemot 1:10).
In our context, as well, a closer reading would be “And the armies shall be gathered against them…” – which fits the specific type of doom forecast by Hoshea throughout this prophecy.
The translation of the end of the verse presented here is, perhaps, not the most accurate. The word ‘onontam is rendered as “yokes” by R. Yosef Kara, ibn Ezra, Radak and R. Yosef ibn Kaspi. Ibn Ezra states it quite succinctly and clearly:
In that they yoked themselves to the two calves that Yerovam made.
R. Eliezer of Beaugency offers a unique take: the people had yoked themselves to two beliefs or deities (i.e., syncretism), the well-attested spiritual malaise of the era (see Melakhim I 18:21).
The prophet, too, has “yoked” the people to a calf-image, much as they tied themselves to those images. He continues with that allegoric field in the next verse, and this will inform much of the entire septad.
Ve-Ephraim ‘egla melumada ohavti la-dush va-ani ‘avarti ‘al-tuv tzavarah
Arkiv Ephraim yacharosh Yehuda yesaded-lo Yaakov
And Ephraim is a heifer well broken that loves to thresh; and I have passed over upon her fair neck;
I will make Ephraim to ride, Yehuda will plow, Yaakov will break his clods.
Ephraim is, as we’ve seen numerous times, the Northern kingdom. Yehuda is the south. So what is Yaakov doing here, making the second half of the verse an awkward tristich?
What misleads us is the presumption that this verse continues the prophet’s rebuke. This is, however, not the case. As much as God desired to punish, His real love was to see His trustworthy cows each successfully plowing their own territory – and then the whole confederation of Yaakov would be said to have broken up the clods of earth, creating a real possibility of planting a glorious and bountiful world. This verse, then, is a sort of reverie, imagining what could have been had Ephraim not yoked themselves to the calves of Dan and Beit-El.
Note: It is certainly possible that the Northern tribes’ main form of idolatrous cult-practice was not at the calves set up by Yerovam. The preponderance of evidence in Melakhim, as well as the oratory of the contemporary literary prophets, indicates it was Baalism – which is not necessarily bovine-centered. Yet, the constant agricultural thrust of biblical imagery, focused on the Land and its bounty (or lack thereof), “nudges” prophetic speech to incorporate the calves. The message includes not only what they should not be, but what they could have been: productive farmers, both of land and of nations, yielding blessings from the formerly stubborn earth.
Zir’u lakhem li-tzedaka kitzru lefi-chessed, niru lakhem nir
V’eit li-drosh et-Hashem ‘ad-yavo, ve-yoreh tzedek lakhem
Sow to yourselves according to righteousness, reap according to mercy, Break up your fallow ground.
For it is time to seek the Lord, until He comes and causes righteousness to rain upon you.
This verse is the axis of a chiasmus, as we will see below. The scheme progresses from the “what-if” of the previous verse to the solution: how to return to the ideal and idyll, to the harmonious and productive.
Does the opening clause refer to farming or to acts of social beneficence? It is likely intended to be understood both ways. They should plant justly – not on other people’s fields, and not abusing the poor (as underpaid serfs and under-compensated sharecroppers). They should also plant justice in the society. In both cases, they are promised that they will have a bounty to harvest. Lefi-chessed doesn’t only modify their own ideal behavior, but also the blessing they will attain; it is also Divine kindness that they will realize when they plant justly and plant justice.
This is borne out by the second half: when they seek out God, ostensibly via prayer, He will respond with the rain they have justly earned. In yet another rhetorical twist, yoreh has two meanings: “He will show,” which attaches to lakhem, and “early rain,” which is modified by tzedek. When the tzedek is lakhem – i.e., when justice is activated on behalf of the people – then the rain will come. Yet another demonstration of Hoshea’s creativity with language.
Charashtem-resha’ ‘avlata k’tzartem akhaltem p’ri-khachash
Ki-vatachta v’dark’kha, b’rov giborekha
You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped iniquity; you have eaten the fruit of lies;
For you trusted in your way, in the multitude of your mighty men.
Hoshea here continues the plowing metaphor, but in this case, it is purely metaphoric. The prophetic scheme of “planting evil” (and of “planting justice”) is not unique to Hoshea, but here he uses it in apposition to the “just planting” that may, indeed, be real field work.
The notion of “reaping what you sow” is blatant here, used in an attempt to demonstrate the folly of wickedness. Evil begets evil and bad acts have bad results – for all involved.
The second half of the verse returns us to an earlier trope: reliance on our own military might – and, all the more so, on foreign military “protection” – seems to sit at the core of their betrayal of God and His word.
V’kam shaon b’amekha ve-khol-mivtzarekha yushad k’shod Shalman beit Arveil b’yom milchamah
Eim ‘al-banim rutasha
Therefore a tumult will arise among your hosts and all your fortresses will be spoiled; just as Shalman spoiled Beth-arbel in the day of battle;
The mother was dashed in pieces with her children.
The unusual orthography here – spelling v’kam with an alef – is unmatched in Tanakh; I am not familiar with any other ‘ayin-vav word where the pluperfect has an added alef in place of the middle radical. There is an example of an added alef in a noun, such as dag (with an aleph) in Nechemia 13:16.
Shaon – from the same root as shoah – implies much more than a “tumult” – it seems to be a hysteria born of a military rout (see Rashi here).
Note the use of am here, as above: the “tumult” (and much more than that) will be within the army, as the soldiers hysterically run to and fro to escape the invading enemy.
Hoshea references some military landslide which must have been followed by a horrific pillaging of the town of Arveil, mounted by a particular military leader or king named Shalman – we are not aware of any of the details of this story, but Hoshea’s audience certainly knew about it. The horrific description of slashing mothers open along with their children (who they were seemingly protecting with their bodies) evokes some of the war crimes depicted in Amos’ opening set of oracles (Chapters 1-2), specifically the crimes of which Aram (possibly; see 1:3) and Ammon (certainly; see 1:13) stand accused.
Kakha ‘asah lakhem Beit-El, mip’nei ra’at ra’atkhem
Ba-shachar nidmo nidma melekh Yisrael
So has Beit-El done to you because of your great wickedness;
At daybreak the king of Yisrael is utterly cut off.
The prophet here asserts again that the calf-worship at Beit-El (which is consistently highlighted over its northern “sister-calf” in Dan) is at the root of all this evil.
The second half of this verse is unusual and a bit hard to understand. The Rishonim by and large understand shachar in its usual meaning – “morning” – and read nidmo nidma as “is rendered utterly silent.” There are other approaches to shachar, however, and I will share that of R. Yosef Kara, whose comment reveals something of his own role in interpretation and provides an opportunity to peek into the mind of a classic commentator.
Ba-shachar: R. Menachem [b. Saruk – YE] resolved it as a word meaning “end,” as is the Targum – be-sofa. And in the wording of the Talmud (Eikha Rabba 2:15)[5], “he had a ben tishchoret,” which is like “a son of his old age” (ben zekunim) and like noach letishchoret (Avot 3:12 – “gentle to the young”). But I, Yosef the son of Shimon, say: ba-shachar does not depart from its usual translation, and this is its meaning: In the morning, the king of Israel will seem (nidmeh) to you to be like someone else who is silent when asleep, but the king of Israel even in the morning and at noon will be silent like a mute before Sennacherib.
R. Yosef Kara gives the word nidma double duty: it conveys the sense of “seeming to be” (from the root dalet-mem-heh) as well as “silent” (from the root dalet-vav-mem).
The seven verses which make up this segment are structured in chiastic fashion, as follows:
The first and seventh verses focus on Israel’s sins, from ancient sins (the days of Giv’ah) to the current pitfall of worshipping at Beit-El.
Verses 2 and 6 speak to war. In verse 2, the people will be surrounded by invading armies; in verse 6, the army will disperse hysterically in the face of the invading enemy (who, perhaps, has now broken through the walls as the siege batteries have done their job).
Verses 3 and 5 of the segment use plowing imagery, first musing about what could have been but then devolving to what actually happened. The potential for plowing justly has soured; instead, they have plowed wickedness and continue to reap that evil.
Verse 4, which sits at the middle of the septad, directs them to where they ought to be going: planting justice, which will allow them to reap chessed – in both senses described above. This will all come about if and when they seek out God and await His response, i.e., rain – rather than the pretended benevolence of the Ba’alim or the blessing of the calf at Beit-El.
In the next shiur, we will look at the first half of Chapter 11, after which we will conclude the pericope with the conclusion of that chapter.

[1] Though the standard chapter divisions are of little consequence to any organic understanding of literary structure in Tanakh.
[2] Rashi (ad loc) notes both approaches.
[3] Although this story is recorded in the last three chapters of Shoftim, commentators agree that it took place at an early stage in the Shoftim period, as indicated by the presence of Pinchas (the only named character) in the story. Rashi maintains thus, citing the Midrash Seder Olam.
[4] See Radak ad loc.
[5] R. Yosef Kara is using “Talmud” loosely here, referencing rabbinic literature in its broader sense