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NAME AND COUNTRY
Osee (Hôsheá'-Salvation), son of Beeri, was one of the Minor Prophets, and a subject of the Ephraimite Kingdom which he calls "the land", whose king is for him "our king", and the localities of which are familiar to him, while he speaks of Juda but seldom and does not even make mention of Jerusalem.
TIME OF HIS MINISTRY
According to the title of the book, Osee prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II in Israel, and in the time of Ozias, Joatham, Achaz, and Ezechias, kings of Juda, hence from about 750 to 725 B. C. The title, however, is not quite satisfactory and does not seem to be the original one, or, at least, to have been preserved in its primitive form. None of the historical allusions with which the prophecy is filled appears to be connected with any event later than the reign of Manahem (circa 745-735); there is nothing concerning the Syro-Ephraimite war against Juda, nor the terrible intervention of Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733). The era of the Prophet, therefore, if it is to be judged from his writings, ought to be placed about 750-735; he was perhaps contemporaneous with the closing years of Amos and certainly with the first appearance of Isaias. The reign of Jeroboam II was marked by great and glorious external prosperity; but this prosperity contributed to make the political and religious decadence more rapid. Political dissolution was approaching. Zachary, son of Jeroboam, was assassinated after a reign of six months. His murderer, Sellum, retained the sceptre but one month, and was put to death by Manahem, who occupied the throne for ten years, 745-735. Israel was hastening to its ruin, which was to be completed by the taking of Samaria by Sargon (722).
THE BOOK OF OSEE
It always occupies the first place among the twelve minor prophets, most probably on account of its length. In point of time Amos preceded it. The book is divided into two distinct parts: cc. i-iii, and cc. iv-xiv.
(a) In the first part, Osee relates how, by order of Jahve, he wedded Gomer, a "wife of fornications", daughter of Debelaim, in order to have of her "children of fornications":-symbols, on the one hand, of Israel, the unfaithful spouse who gave to Baal the homage due to Jahve alone; and, on the other, figures of the children of Israel, who in the eyes of Jahve, are but adulterous children. The outraged husband incites the children against their guilty mother, whom he prepares to punish: while for the children themselves is reserved a fate in keeping with their origin. The first is named Jezrahel-the reigning dynasty is about to expiate the blood shed by its ancestor Jehu in the valley of Jezrahel. The second is a daughter, Lô-Ruhamah, "disgraced"-Jahve will be gracious no more to his people. The third is called Lô- 'Ammi, "not my people"-Jahve will no longer recognize the children of Israel as his people. However, mercy will have the last word. Osee is commanded to receive Gomer again and to prepare her, by a temporary retirement, to renew conjugal intercourse-Israel was to prepare herself in captivity to resume with Jahve the relationship of husband and wife.
Is the marriage of Osee historical or purely allegorical? The hypothesis most in favour at present says that the marriage is historical, and the grounds for it are, (1) the obvious sense of the narrative; (2) the absence of any symbolical sense in the words Gomer and Debelaim; (3) that the second child is a daughter. It appears to us, however, with Davidson (Hastings, "Dict. of the Bible", II, 421 sqq.) and Van Hoonacker, that the first reason is not convincing. A careful reading of cc. i-iii discloses the fact that the action is extremely rapid, that the events are related merely in order to express a doctrine, and, moreover, they appear to take place within the single time requisite to one or two speeches. And yet, if these events are real, a large part of the Prophet's life must have been spent in these unsavoury circumstances. And again, the names of the children appear to have been bestowed just at the time that their meaning was explained to the people. This is especially the case with regard to the last child: "Call his name, Not my people: for you are not my people …" Another reason for doubting this hypothesis is that it is difficult to suppose that God ordered His Prophet to take an unfaithful wife mearely with a view to her being unfaithful and bearing him adulterous children. And how are we to explain the fact that the prophet retained her notwithstanding her adultery till after the birth of the third child, and again received her after she had been in the possession of another? That the second child was a daughter may be explained by dramatic instinct, or by some other sufficiently plausible motive. There remain the names Gomer and Debelaim. Van Hoonacker proposes as possible translations: consummation (imminent ruin), doomed to terrible scourges; or top (of perversity), addicted to the cakes of figs (oblations offered to Baal). Nestle also translates Bath Debelaim by daughter of the cakes of figs, but in the sense of a woman to be obtained at a small price (Zeitsch. für alttest. Wissenschaft, XXIX, 233 seq.). These are but conjectures; the obscurity may be due to our ignorance. Certain it is at least that the allegorical meaning, adopted by St. Jerome, satisfies critical exigencies and is more in conformity with the moral sense. The doctrinal meaning is identical in either case and that is the only consideration of real importance.
(b) The second part of the book is the practical and detailed application of the first. Van Hoonacker divides it into three sections, each of which terminated with a promise of salvation (iv-vii, 1a … vii, 1b-xi … xii-xiv). We may accept this division if we also admit his ingenious interpretation of vi, 11-viii, 1a:-And yet Juda, I shall graft on thee a branch (of Ephraim) when I shall re-establish my people; when I shall heal Israel. In the first section he speaks almost exclusively of religious and moral corruption. The princes and especially the priests are chiefly responsible for this and it is on them that the punishment will principally fall; and as he speaks simply of the "house of the king" it would appear that the dynasty of Jehu still occupied the throne. It is different in the following chapters. In vii, 1a- viii, the political and social disorders are especially emphasized. At home there are conspiracies, regicides, anarchy, while abroad alliances with foreign powers are sought. No doubt Menahem was already reigning. And yet the religious disorders remained the principal object of the prophet's reprobation. And in spite of all, mercy ever retains its prerogatives. Jahve will gather together again some day His scattered children. In the last section it is felt that the final catastrophe is close at hand; and, nevertheless, once again, love remains victorious. The book ends with a touching exhortation to the people to turn to God who on His part promises the most tempting blessings. An epiphonema reminds at last every one that the good and the wicked shall receive the retribution each has merited.
STYLE AND TEXT
St. Jerome has described in a few words the style of our Phrophet: "Osee commaticus est, et quasi per sententias loquens." (P. L., XXVIII, 1015.) An intense emotion overpowers the Prophet at the sight of his dying country. He manifests this grief in short broken phrases with little logical sequence, but in which is revealed a tender and afflicted heart. Unfortunately the notorious obscurity of the Prophet hides many details from our view; this obscurity is due also to many allusions which we cannot grasp, and to the imperfect condition of the text. The question has been raised as to whether we possess it at least in its substantial integrity. Some critics claim to have discovered two main series of interpolations; the first, of small extent, consists of texts relative to Juda; the second, which is of far greater importance, consists of the Messianic passages which, it is said, lie outside the range of the prophet's vision. It is possible to detect several probable glosses in the first series: the second assertion is purely arbitrary. The Messianic texts have all the characteristics of Osee's style; they are closely connected with the context and are entirely in accordance with his general doctrines.
It is fundamentally the same as that of Amos:-the same strict Monotheism, the same ethical conception which paves the way for the Beati pauperes and the worship which must be in spirit and in truth. Only Osee lays much more stress on the idolatry which perhaps had been increased in the interval and was in any case better known to the Ephraimite Prophet than to his Judean predecessor. And Amos had in return a much more extended historical and geographical horizon. Osee sees but the dying Israel. His characteristic point of view is the bond between Jahve and Israel. Jahve is the spouse of Israel, the bride of Jahve,-a profoundly philosophical and mystical image which appears here for the first time and which we find again in Jeremias, Ezechiel, Canticle of Canticles, Apocalypse, etc.
A. The Ancient Alliance
Jahve has taken to Himself His spouse by redeeming her out of the bondage of Egypt. He has united Himself to her on Sinai. The bride owed fidelity and exclusive love, trust, and obedience to the spouse; but alas! how has she observed the conjugal compact? Fidelity.-She has prostituted herself to the Baals and Astartes, degrading herself to the level of the infamous practices of the Canaanite high places. She has worshipped the calf of Samaria and has given herself up to every superstition. No doubt she has also paid homage to Jahve, but a homage wholly external and carnal instead of the adoration which must be above all things internal and which He Himself exacts: "With their flocks, and with their herds they shall go to seek the Lord, and shall not find him…" (v, 6). "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice: and the knowledge of God more than holocausts" (vi, 6). Trust has failed in like manner. Costly alliances were sought with other nations as though the protection of the spouse were not sufficient:-"Ephraim hath given gifts to his lovers (viii, 9). He hath made a covenant with the Assyrians, and carried oil into Egypt" (Vulg., xii, 1). The very favours which she has received from Jahve in her ingratitude she ascribes to false gods. She said: "I will go after my lovers, that gave me my bread, and my water, my wool, and my flax" (Vulg., ii, 5). Obedience:-All the laws which govern the pact of union have been violated: "Shall I write to him [Ephraim] my manifold laws which have been accounted as foreign" (viii, 12). It is a question here at least primarily of the Mosaic legislation. Osee and Amos in spite of contrary opinion knew at least in substance the contents of the Pentateuch. Anarchy is therefore rife in politics and religion: "They have reigned but not by me: they have been princes, and I knew not: of their silver, and their gold they have made idols to themselves" (viii, 4).
The root of all these evils is the absence of "knowledge of God" (iv-v) for which the priest especially and the princes are to blame, an absence of theoretical knowledge no doubt, but primarily of the practical knowledge which has love for its object. It is the absence of this practical knowledge chiefly that Osee laments. The Prophet employs yet another symbol for the bond of union. He sets forth in some exquisite lines the symbol of the chosen son. Jahve has given birth to Israel by redeeming it out of the bondage of Egypt. He has borne it in his arms, has guided its first feeble steps and sustained it with bonds of love; he has reared and nourished it (xi, 1 sq.) and the only return made by Ephraim is apostasy. Such is the history of the covenant. The day of retribution is at hand; it has even dawned in anarchy, civil war, and every kind of scourge. The consummation is imminent. It would seem that repentance itself would be unable to ward it off. As later Jeremias, so now Osee announces to his people with indescribable emotion the final ruin: Jezrahel "Disgraced". "Not my people." The children of Israel are about to go into exile, there they "shall sit many days without king, and without prince, and without sacrifice, and without altar, and without ephod and without teraphim" (iii, 4). National authority shall come to an end and public national religion will be no more.
B. The New Covenant
Yet the love of Jahve will change even this evil into a remedy. The unworldly princes now separated from the people, will no longer draw them into sin. The disappearance of the external national religion will cause the idolatrous sacrifices, symbols, and oracles to disappear at the same time. And the road will be open to salvation; it will come "at the end of days". Jahve cannot abandon forever His chosen son. At the very thought of it He is filled with compassion and his heart is stirred within him. Accordingly after having been the lion which roars against his guilty people He will roar against their enemies, and His children will come at the sound of His voice from all the lands of their exile (xi, 10 sq.). It will be, as it were, a new exodus from Egypt, Juda will be reinstated and a remnant of the tribe of Ephraim shall be joined with him (vi, 11- vii, 1a). "The children of Isreal shall return and shall seek the Lord their God, and David their king" (iii, 5). The new alliance shall never be broken: it shall be contracted in justice and in righteousness, in kindness and in love, in fidelity and knowledge of God. There shall be reconciliation with nature and peace among men and with God. Prosperity and unlimited extension of the people of God shall come to pass, and the children of this new kingdom shall be called the sons of the living God. Great shall be the day of Jezrahel (the day when "God will sow"); (ch. ii), ch. i, 1-3 (Vulg., i, 10-ii, 1) ought likely to be set at the end of ch. ii. Cf. Condamin in "Revue biblique", 1902, 386 sqq. This is an admirable sketch of the Church which Christ is to found seven and a half centuries later. The doctrine of Osee, like that of Amos, manifests a transcendence which his historical and religious surroundings cannot explain. Digitus Dei est hic.
Among Catholic commentaries cf. especially Van Hoonacker, Les douze petits prophètes (Paris, 1908). Among Protestant works Harper, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea (Edinburgh, 1905), a commentary of Liberal tendencies.