Hosea is the first of the twelve Minor Prophets, so called because these prophetic books are much shorter than the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, with the exception of Daniel). Hosea was a prophet during the eighth century BC. His ministry was to the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) during its last days before the capital of Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC. The fact that Hosea’s prophetic activity is dated according to the kings of Judah (southern kingdom) suggests that the book of Hosea was written in Judah.
The first three chapters deal with Hosea’s family as a symbol of his prophetic ministry. In a shocking opening scene, God tells Hosea to marry Gomer, an adulterous woman. They have three children, who are given symbolic names to reflect Hosea’s message: God scatters, Not Loved, and Not My People. The children are told to rebuke their mother and get rid of her, but Hosea takes her back. This family dynamic represents God’s marriage to Israel, who had continually been adulterous in worshipping Canaanite gods. The clear prophetic message of this section is that God loves Israel despite her infidelity and desires to take her back.
Chapters 4-14 are a series of judgments against Israel (mainly the northern kingdom) for failing to keep its covenant with Yahweh. Israel had been worshipping other gods, making foreign alliances, and mistreating other fellow Israelites. Covenant is a central idea in Hosea, and God’s case against Israel is often expressed in what scholars call a “covenant lawsuit.” This is where God sues, so to speak, Israel for breach of contract—the law that God laid out at Mt. Sinai. Part of Yahweh’s case against Israel concerns the problem of trusting Israel’s kings.
A well-known passage in Hosea is 6:6, which is echoed in several other of the Minor Prophets. It is here that God tells Israel that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and an acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. This is almost certainly hyperbole— Hosea is not calling to end Israel’s entire sacrificial system. Rather, he is making the case that Israel is breaking the covenant by allowing mere ritual to mask its covenant breaking. In the New Testament, Jesus makes a similar point in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7.
Despite the overall negative tone of the book, there is a note of encouragement, for Hosea saw a future time when Israel and Yahweh’s relationship would be restored.
– Peter Enns