Israel was divided into two kingdoms in 931 BCE. The Northern Kingdom initially enjoyed great prosperity and territorial expansion that reached its peak during the reign of king Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE). With Samaria as its capital, the Jewish elite lived well and often at the expense of the poor that surrounded them. It was also a time of declining covenant relationship with Yahweh. Israelites had intermarried with Canaanites over several centuries and had adopted many of the latter’s cultic practices. In addition, its kings increasingly ceased their reliance on Yahweh alone to form political alliances with their more powerful neighbors, Assyria in the North and Egypt in the South, as a means of survival.
It was during this time that Amos (760-750 BCE), a shepherd from the small Judean village of Tekoa, chastised Israel, particularly its leaders and the inhabitants of Samaria and Bethel, for its military alliances, its social injustice, and the immorality and superficial piety of its people.
They have rejected the law of the Lord,
and have not kept his statutes,
but they have been led astray by the same lies
after which their ancestors walked. …
They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals –
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way; … (Amos 2:4, 6-7).
Amos’ words were rejected by those who considered their prosperity a sign of God’s favor upon them. For Amos, Israel’s good fortune did not imply divine favoritism. On the contrary, it meant increased accountability and divine judgment of its behavior. His subsequent conflict with Amaziah, the priest of the temple in Bethel, is one of the most dramatic scenes in the Jewish scriptures. It led to his expulsion from the royal sanctuary and a warning to never prophecy again in the Northern Kingdom.
Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.
For this Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from this land.’”
And Amaziah said to Amos,
“O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there,
and prophesy there;
but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the King’s sanctuary,
and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
Then Amos answered Amaziah,
“I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son;
but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,
and the Lord took me from following the flock,
and the Lord said to me,
‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
“Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’
Therefore, thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and you sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’” (7:10-17)
Amos did leave Israel and returned to Judah, but not before leaving a message of hope that God would never abandon Israel.
On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair its breeches, and raise up its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old; …
The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; …
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God. (Amos 9:11, 13-15)
Hosea followed Amos as the most significant prophetic voice to the Northern Kingdom. He prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II and through the anarchy that followed his death when four successors to his throne were assassinated in a fourteen-year period. Amos had been from the Kingdom of Judea and prophesied during a time of unrivaled prosperity in Israel. In contrast, Hosea was native to the people of this land and criticized them during a time when Assyria posed a serious threat to Israel’s survival. Some believe Hosea ceased his prophesy before 734 BCE, a time when Israel and Syria waged war against the Southern Kingdom. Others believe he continued to speak out until after Israel’s fall to Assyria in 721 BCE, when the vast majority of its inhabitants were taken off to the land of their captors.
Hosea criticized Israel, whom he often called Ephraim and referred to as a harlot, for its political promiscuity of alternating alliances with Assyria and Egypt, and also for its immorality and wavering religious practices. He also predicted Israel would eventually fall to Assyria as punishment for its sinfulness.
There is no truth, no love, and no knowledge of God in the end;
Swearing and lying, killing and stealing, and committing adultery,
They break all bonds, and blood touches blood. (Hosea 4:1-2)
O Ephraim, you have played the whore; Israel is defiled.
Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the Lord. (Hosea 5:3-4)
Ephraim shall become a desolation in the day of punishment; …
On them I will put out my wrath like water.
Ephraim is oppressed, crushed in judgment, …
Therefore, I am like maggots to Ephraim,
And like rottenness to the house of Judah. (Hosea 5:9-12)
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
And Assyria shall be their king,
Because they refused to return to me. (Hosea 11:5)
Despite Israel’s infidelity, God’s love for her could not be shaken. Hosea expresses, as no other prophet did, the love and compassion of God for Israel. God not only demanded justice of Israel; God was in love with its people. For Hosea, healing and reconciliation, not God’s wrath and destruction, would ultimately prevail.
Marriage became Hosea’s primary image to describe God’s relationship with the Northern Kingdom. It was an image that emerged from Hosea’s personal life, one of love, frustration, and reconciliation with an unfaithful wife. Hosea had taken Gomer, a prostitute, as his spouse. She bore him three children (2:4-5), and then either left him or was sent away because of her continuing promiscuous behavior. Then, at God’s command and in conflict with Jewish law, Hosea accepted her back (3:1-5). It was in living out divine compassion in his own marriage that Hosea came to understand God’s unalterable bond to Israel.
In the final analysis, the contrast between Amos and Hosea towards the people of Israel during these years is best understood through what each condemned and what each cherished. Abraham Heschel explains it his way.
“To Amos, the principal sin is injustice; to Hosea, it is idolatry. Amos inveighs against evil deeds; Hosea attacks the absence of inwardness.
In the words of Amos:
I hate, I despise your festivals, …
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings,
I will not accept them; …
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:21-22; 24)
In the words of Hosea:
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)[ii]