The Prophecies of Hoshea Chapters 9-11: The Coming Exile and Devastation (Part 5)

  • Rav Yitzchak Etshalom
 
Our last shiur explored the first seven verses of Chapter 11, which continued Hoshea’s extended oratory aimed chiefly at the paired betrayals of Baalism and vassalage. The leadership – both royal and social – has failed the people, inspiring them to practice (at least) syncretism, worshipping Baal along with Hashem (or to His exclusion) as well as seeking support and protection from the same foreign powers that enslaved and oppressed them.
 
The next four verses, which conclude the entire pericope, include a dirge, a Divine commitment to stay His anger, and a promise of “coerced redemption.” We will examine each of these themes. We cannot, however, hope to understand the thematic without first mastering the semantic.
 
So…back to the text.
 
TEXT
 
Eikh etenkha Ephraim amagenkha Yisrael,
Eikh etenkha k’Admah, asimkha ki-Tzvo’im
Neh’pakh ‘alai libi, yachad nikhm’ru nichumai
 
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I surrender you, Yisrael?
How can I make you as Admah? How can I set you as Zevo’im?
My heart is turned within Me, My compassions are kindled together.
 
The opening eikh, used only here (but twice) by Hoshea, is not the introduction of an interrogative, mechanical question – i.e., “how is this done?” It is a plaint, rhetorical and expressing near disbelief. In other words, it is short for the dirge-opening eikha. This opening word is used by only a few of the literary prophets, including Yeshayahu and Micha among Hoshea’s contemporaries. Amos does not use this word, even though there are several places in his oeuvre where it would have fit. Not surprisingly, the most ubiquitous appearance of “how could it be?” is in Yirmiyahu, where it appears 19 times (two of them in the fuller form, eikha). Yirmiyahu, who witnesses destruction firsthand – not as a shattering prognostication but as a real-life end of a world – looks around and exclaims eikh(a): How could this happen, how could this come to be? Here are two examples, both from Yirmiyahu 2:
 
Yet I had planted you as a noble vine, wholly a right seed;
Eikh have you turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine to Me?
For though you wash yourself with lye, and take much soap for yourself,
Your sin is marked before Me, says Hashem God.
Eikh can you say: 'I am not defiled I have not gone after the Baalim'?
See your way in the valley, know what you have done;
You are a swift young camel traversing her ways. (vv. 21-23)
 
Note that within this short space, the exclamation eikh is used with two variant meanings. In the first, it is a statement of distressed amazement. To transpose it to the modern, more familiar idiom – how could someone with such a great background and family turn out so badly? This is the eikh of grave disappointment.
 
The second instance is the eikh of astounding audacity. How could someone who is so guilty possibly declaim their innocence and purity?
 
Hoshea’s twinned anaphoric[1] eikh takes a third meaning, one also attested in Yirmiyahu (9:6)[2]:
 
Therefore, thus says Hashem Tzevakot: Behold, I will smelt them, and test them;
For eikh should I do, on account of the daughter of My people?
 
As Radak and Shadal explain (ad loc.), God is “forced” to punish His people in order to rehabilitate them – for how could He do otherwise? This expression implies there is a real possibility that God would act differently – in Yirmiyahu 9, to abandon them and allow them to continue sinking to further depths of depravity.
 
In our passage, God expresses that He “cannot” treat His people so badly – but what is the option that’s being rejected?
 
Most of the Rishonim understand amagenkha as an extension of etenkha. Etenkha introduces the possibility of God giving the people…but to whom and under what conditions is left open. The second verb, presented in parallel, means “to hand over in military surrender.” These Rishonim (Rashi, ibn Ezra, Radak, R. Yeshaya of Trani, and ibn Kaspi) all point to Bereishit 14:20, where Malkitzedek blesses Avraham, who was favored by “E-l Elyon”; He migein tzarekha b’yadekha – “handed over your enemies into your hands.” The use of this unusual word – which is attested in only these two passages – is likely a deliberate choice in light of the rest of the verse. As the verse continues, God rejects the possibility of rendering Yisrael like Admah and Tzvoyim – two of the Jordan valley towns that were destroyed along with Sedom and Amorah (Bereishit 19). Before that destruction, these two cities were saved by Avraham – both their lives and property restored – when he went to war against the coalition of four empires from the east, as detailed in…Bereishit 14. These enemies were, as Malkitzedek avers, handed over to Avraham in surrender.[3]
 
R. Yosef Kara, however, takes a different interpretive route regarding amagenkha. He associates it with being broken, as in meginat lev (Eikha 3:65). The substance of the statement is the same, as he clarifies: “even though they are sinners, how could I do such a thing, to give them to the nations and to break them (Yisrael) through them (the nations)?” He may have felt that migein in Bereishit is a play on the word magen, shield – i.e., “handing over the shield,” as R. Moshe haKohen ibn Chiquitilla renders it in Bereishit – and that there is no independent verb migen. As such, he chose to interpret amagenkha along different lines and associated it with the verse in Eikha – also quite appropriate here.
 
The mentions of Admah and Tzvoyim as destroyed cities reminds us of Moshe’s imprecations in Devarim – where a terrifyingly total devastation is equated to the destruction of Admah and Tzvoyim:
 
The generation to come, your children who will rise up after you, and the foreigner who comes from a far-off land, will say, when they see the plagues of that land, and the sicknesses with which Hashem has made it sick; and that the whole land of it is sulfur, salt, and burning, that it is not sown, nor produces, nor any grass grows therein, like the overthrow of Sedom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which Hashem overthrew in his anger, and in his wrath. (Devarim 29:21-22)
 
Hoshea is the only Biblical author after Moshe to mention either of these cities at all, and like Moshe, he twins them just as Sedom and ‘Amorah are (far more frequently) twinned. To treat Yisrael as God treated Admah and Tzvoyim would mean a fulfillment of that curse of Devarim. In effect, then, Hoshea is negating Moshe’s words.[4] The father of prophecy promised that if the people betray God, their land will be turned over (completely destroyed) like the cities of Sedom – but Hoshea tells us that God “cannot” do that.
 
The curious use of the verb hafokh in reference to the heart is also likely occasioned by association with the destruction of “the cities of the plain.” This verb is included in every mention of that destruction, as discussed in shiur #38 of the Amos series.[5] Here, instead of the cities being overturned, it is God’s heart (and resolve) that is overturned as He stays His hand from destruction.
 
The final clause utilizes yet another uncommon word. The root kh-m-r appears four times in the canon. The first time, in Bereishit, describes emotion overcoming Yosef when he sees his brother Binyamin but cannot yet reveal his identity and embrace him (Bereishit 43:30). The second instance is in the famous episode known as Mishpat Shlomo, when the legitimate mother is willing to give up her baby rather than allow Shlomo to slice the baby in half.[6] In both cases, the word, which BDB[7] translates as “warming, softening,” modifies rachamim. The only other use of the root turns these two on their head. In Eikha 5:10, we read:
 
‘Oreinu k’tanur nikhmaru
Mipnei zal’afot ra’av
Our skin is hot as an oven
Because of the burning heat of famine
 
This heat, which should be the warmth of compassion that spares lives, becomes instead the burning heat of famine that takes lives.
 
In our passage, which seems to be similar to the Bereishit and Melakhim passages, the word nichumim is used instead of rachamim. God’s nichumim have been warmed. The word nachem, in this and in numerous other cases, means “regret” – such as vayyinachem Hashem ‘ki ‘asah et ha-Adam – “God regretted that He made Man” (Bereishit 6:6). Another, closer example is when God pulls back from destroying the people after the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moshe pleads their case. The result is:
 
Vayyinachem Hashem ‘al ha-ra’ah asher dibber la-asot l’amo
And God repented from the evil that He intended to do to His people. (Shemot 32:14 – see also Moshe’s use of the word in v. 12 ibid.)
 
In the other two cases, where a loved one is overwhelmed by compassion for their kin (sibling or child), it is their innate compassion that is stirred and directs their next action (weeping, ceding the court suit). In our case, however, there is already an action in play – for God to destroy His people as He did to Admah and Tzvoyim. What is needed here is, first and foremost, for God to repent His plan, so to speak. Hence, what is “warmed” is God’s nichumim, and the punishment is held back.
 
The use of nichumai here serves to put Hoshea’s audience on notice. They were close to being destroyed, and it took God retracting a plan that was already in place for them to have any future.
 
Lo e’eseh charon api, lo ashuv le-shacheit Ephraim
Ki E-l anokhi ve-lo-ish, be-kirb’kha kadosh, ve-lo avo b’ir
 
I will not execute the fierceness of My anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim,
For I am God, and not a man, The Holy One in your midst and I will not come to the city.
 
This verse follows on the heels of the last, as a firm conclusion to the inner turmoil, as it were, that God experienced regarding His people and their fate. It includes another mini-anaphora, with the emphatic lo then serving as an inclusio in the final phrase. This verse is all about “no,” about God’s restraint in the face of His people’s perfidy.
 
After establishing that He will not empower His wrath (or, more literally, will not activate His anger), God commits that lo ashuv – literally “I will not return.” Rashi and Radak offer different interpretations of this odd twist of phrase, possibly reflecting a deeper divide in their understandings of the “back-story.”
 
Rashi explains: “I will not turn back from My good words, that I will not reject them…” In other words, the “warming” of God’s “regret” in the last verse is underscored: He has committed firmly to not destroy them.
 
Radak, however, reads ashuv in the more usual manner. God commits that He will not go back to punish them again – after having afflicted them due to their sins, He will not now go back to completely destroy them.
 
Radak’s position may be that God has already punished His people, and their unwillingness to repent despite that punishment presents two possibilities: abandon that plan or embolden the punishment to the point of total decimation.
 
On the other hand, Rashi’s take seems clear. God had the option to destroy His people – as He could have after the Golden Calf, with the meraglim, and several other times since. Yet, He is committing that He won’t (ever?) go back on His promise to never reject His people.
 
The reason that Hoshea (in God’s name) presents for this promise not to obliterate them is that He is not a man, but God. Most of the Rishonim explain that unlike Man, who is incapable of restraining his emotions and who is quick to anger, God is stronger than all of that. Ibn Kaspi points to the use of E-l here, since that Name means “mighty/strong” – i.e., strong enough to restrain His emotions.
 
Rashi has a different take, consistent with his interpretation of ashuv. God is not a man who does not live up to his word. God promised He would not abandon or reject His people; as God – and not man – He will not betray that promise.
 
The final clause of this verse is puzzling. God has averred that He is not a man, then states He is holy in their midst – and won’t come to the city. What does this mean?
 
A number of Rishonim favor a positive reading here: since God’s holy presence is among His people, He will not come into another city to make His presence manifest. This is actually, given the audience, a double-edged sword. On the affirmative side, God will not alter His eternal commitment to Yerushalayim. To the Shomroni audience, however, this promise is a reminder that His presence is forever linked to the southern capitol.
 
R. Eliezer of Beaugency understands this line to reflect the opposite mood. God’s holiness “in your midst” is a retrospective – and no longer the case. As a result, He will no longer come into the city – not Yerushalayim nor any other city. The one glimmer of hope here is that He hasn’t rejected His people in favor of another – but He has rejected
the city and, at least in the meantime, the promise of His presence there.
 
Note that several translations[8] of the Tanakh read the last phrase as “I will not come with fury” or some variation. This is noted as an alternative by Rashi, citing Shmuel 1 28:16.
 
Acharei Hashem yeilkhu, k’aryeh yish’ag
Ki-hu yish’ag, v’yecherdu vanim mi-yam
 
They shall walk after Hashem who roars like a lion;
For He will roar and the children will come trembling from the west.
 
Imagining God as a roaring lion is not unique to Hoshea – if that is what he is doing here. Amos’s opening anthem uses the same image: Hashem miTziyon yish’ag…“Hashem roars from Tziyon…” (1:2). There is, however, a syntactic problem with Hoshea’s presentation. If the people are following God, then the roaring seems to have no place. We usually associate a roaring lion with instilling fear; the lion should be behind the people. The Rishonim generally read the roar as energizing, scaring Yisrael’s foes or as a call to gather. The Midrash offers a different solution:
 
R. Zera says: At first when I saw the scholars running to the lecture on a Sabbath day, I thought that they were desecrating the Sabbath. But since I have heard the saying of R. Tanhum in the name of R. Yehoshua b. Levi: A man should always, even on a Sabbath, run to listen to the word of Halakha, as it is said: They shall walk after the Lord, who shall roar like a lion – I also run. (BT Berakhot 6b)
 
This Midrash evidently reimagines the verse, such that God is not the one roaring like a lion; rather, the people are running towards God like someone running away from a roaring lion. The rest of the verse would then be interpreted accordingly – yecherdu, instead of meaning “trembling” (as most render it), would mean “run fast.”
 
This is somewhat supported by the repetition of yecherdu at the beginning of the next verse, which seems to describe their fleet departure from the exiles of both west and east to return to the Land.
 
This verse and the next are clearly telegraphing a redemptive process of return, summoned by God’s roar or clamoring forward as if chased by a roaring lion. These verses, then, represent the fulfillment of God’s commitment to not destroy His people nor the relationship He has with them. Instead, He will get them, one way or another, to return – first to the Land, then to Him.
 
Yecherdu kh’tzipor mi-Mitzrayim, u-kh’yonah me-eretz Ashur
Ve-hoshavtim ‘al-bateihem ne’um-Hashem
 
They will come trembling like a bird out of Egypt, and like a dove out of the land of Assyria;
And I will cause them to dwell in their houses, so says Hashem.
 
Egypt and Assyria are, throughout the 8th century BCE, the two points of anticipated dispersion (as well as the two powers with whom Yisrael has a potential vassalage). Perhaps the most famous example of this is Yeshayahu’s prophecy about the day of the great Shofar:
 
And it will be on that day, that a great Shofar will be sounded, and those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those who are dispersed in the land of Egypt; And they will worship Hashem in the holy mountain at Yerushalayim. (27:13)
 
God’s promise to settle the people in their houses evokes the final passage in Amos and closes the pericope with a sense of hope, of return, and of a relationship tarnished yet preserved, tested yet proven:
 
Behold, the days come, says Hashem, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes he that sows seeds; the mountains will drop sweet wine and all the hills shall melt. And I will return the captivity of My people Yisrael, And they will build the desolate cities and inhabit them; And they will plant vineyards and drink the wine thereof. They will also make gardens and eat their fruit. And I will plant them upon their land and they will no more be plucked up out of their land which I have given them, says Hashem your God. (Amos 9:13-15; see also Yeshayahu 65:21-22)
 
In the next shiur, we will begin our study of Hoshea’s next prophetic passage, beginning at the opening of Chapter 12.
 
 
For Further Study:
 
L. J. de Regt: “Anaphoric accessibility in Biblical Hebrew narrative: Global and Local Participant Tracking Across Clause Boundaries” in Ancient Texts and Modern Readers (2019) pp. 63-78.
 
 

[1] Anaphora is “repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect” (Merriam-Webster). See For Further Study.
[2] It is possible that this passage in Yirmiyahu was influenced by our passage in Hoshea. In our shiurim on Amos, we identified numerous examples of Yirmiyahu’s adaptation of rhetorical tools which first appear in the works of these 8th century BCE prophets.
 
[3] As to whether Malkitzedek’s blessing is more poetic than descriptive is a worthwhile inquiry, but beyond the scope of this forum.
[4] See BT Makkot 24a, where R. Yose b. Hanina records “four decrees” of Moshe that were overturned by later prophets.
[6] Melakhim 1 3:26. The unusual use of kh-m-r may be the reason that this story was selected as the Haftara of Parashat Miketz in those rare years when Miketz is after Chanuka. An audio shiur on that passage can be found here: https://www.yutorah.org/sidebar/lecture.cfm/981635/rabbi-yitzchak-etshalom/the-mystery-of-solomon-s-wisdom/.
[7] Brown, Drier, Briggs: Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1951, p. 485.
[8] Including JPS 1917, NET, RSV.