In chapter 1, Hoshea grabs our attention with the same theatrical style that typifies Yermiyahu and Yehezkiel. He claims he was instructed to take a harlot to wife and that he had three children (2 sons and a daughter) by her. The wife he took was Gomer bat Divlaim (the Conclusion, daughter of Figs). Their sons were Yezreel (Jezreel, meaning Hashem Sows and the name of a fertile valley) and Lo-ammi (Not My People). Their daughter, the middle child, is Lo-r’hamah (No Mercy).
Whether the story is literally true is not important to the message. Hoshea is married to Gomer bat Divlaim. The Blessing (Salvation), or a man acting as a metaphor for B’nei Yisrael, is joined to the Curse (the End of Figs–in other words, the end of prosperity or the beginning of famine). Together, they produce what Hashem Sows.
Historically speaking, Yezreel is also the place where Melech Yehoram went to recover after the battle of Ramat Gilead, while Elishai secretly anointed Yehu (Yerovam II great-grandfather, and the founder of his dynasty) king. Yehu then killed Yehoram at Yezreel, and proceeded to slaughter the rest of that dynasty. The first son is Yezreel, Hoshea tells us, because Hashem will now avenge Yehoram. Indeed, Jerovam II’s son was the final king of Yehu’s dynasty. Yehu also marked the beginning of paying tribute to Assyria, and the Assyrian conquest started the journey to the Exile. Tellingly, Yehoram was the grandson of Achav and Yezevel (Jezebel), and it is under Yehu’s instruction that Yezevel is killed. Yehu was anointed king and killed the Omride dynasty because it was wicked, and Hashem had judged it. That Hoshea interprets the ending of Yehu’s dynasty as vengeance for the deaths of Yehoram and his family says that Yehu’s dynasty and Israel are in Hoshea’s time even worse than Achav and Yezevel, who’s descendent now deserve divine vengeance.
What follows the avenging of Yehoram (the son Yezreel) are Lo-r’hamah and Lo-ammi in quick succession–No Mercy and Not My People. No Mercy represents the Assyrian conquest, which was brutal. Not My People represents the Chaldean conquest, which other prophets referred to with the metaphor of Hashem divorcing an unfaithful wife and culminated in Hashem removing His Name from the Temple and allowing the Temple to be destroyed–in other words, an estrangement from His people.
What is most notable about this prophecy is not the message (which is a common one among the prophets), but how commonly used the metaphor was. Yesheyahu, Yermiyahu, and Yehezkiel all used the metaphor of the idea of symbolic children. Yesheyahu 8 tells of the birth of his son with “the prophetess,” Maher-shalal-hash-baz, which means “He has made haste to the plunder,” thus named because the Assyrians will sack Damascus and Shomron before the child learns to speak. Yehezkiel 23 speaks metaphorically of two sisters: Oholah and Oholivah (Shomron and Jerusalem, respectively). Both sisters play the harlot with the surrounding kingdoms. Most famously, of course, Yesheyahu 7 relates the provision of Achaz with a son (Hizkiyahu) as a sign for both Achaz and his people that God is with them (Immanuel). The use of named children (fictional or not) as a metaphor to communicate Hashem’s intent or opinion was a common device. That it extends back to Hoshea suggests it was common among the professional prophets as well.
Chapter 2 continues on the theme of the harlot analogy. This is another common one, used by Yesheyahu, Yermiyahu, and Yehezkiel along very much the same lines. Although the chapter begins with a message of redemption, the theme is the Chaldean conquest, in which the adulterous woman is sent out and shamed in front of her lovers and children, and made to see that those lovers will not help her. The chapter is especially similar, and probably the inspiration for, Yehezkiel 16. Compare:
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband—
that she put away her whoring from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts;
and make her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and make her like a parched land,
and kill her with thirst.”
“And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.“And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.” -Yehezkiel 16:4-7
The shaming will not be permanent, but Israel will be forced to worship the idols she has pursued voluntarily, until she is ready to return to her first husband and be faithful to him. Again, we see the sentiment echoed in more practical terms at the end of Yehezkiel:
And if they are ashamed of all that they have done, make known to them the design of the temple, its arrangement, its exits and its entrances, that is, its whole design; and make known to them as well all its statutes and its whole design and all its laws, and write it down in their sight, so that they may observe all its laws and all its statutes and carry them out. -Yehezkiel 43:11
A return will only succeed and should only be attempted when the children of Israel are ready to be faithful to Hashem.
Chapter 3 compares the lack of leadership experienced by the Israelites under Chaldean rule to an abandoned wife. This lack of leadership was also foretold by Yermiyahu and experienced by Yehezkiel, who tried to bring some semblance of priestly order in a time of utter chaos. The final verse tells of the reestablishment of Beit David, although its reestablishment as an independent monarchy was averted. Instead, Beit David was reestablished as the provincial leadership under Persian rule.
With chapter 4 we start to hear the specifics of Israel’s iniquity. People make false oaths, they lie, kill, steal, cheat, and can’t even be bothered to bury the blood they shed (4:2), and the whole thing Hoshea compares to early passages of B’resheit:
As with the murder of Chavel (Abel), whose blood cried out from the ground, the land itself mourns the wickedness it witnesses–a wickedness Hoshea compares to that leading up to the destruction during the Deluge that destroyed every living thing. Interestingly, one of the consequences of this wickedness is a natural and documented consequence:
And they shall eat, and not have enough, they shall commit harlotry, and shall not increase; because they have left off to take heed to the LORD. -Hoshea 4:10
As so many Americans know, gluttony begets gluttony. And as demonstrated both in modern Western societies and by the Romans and Greeks of the ancient past, sexual licentiousness leads to reduced birthrates, both through intentional intervention (in the seeking of pleasure without consequence) and through barrenness resulting from STDs or waiting too long. In the end, Hoshea says that Israel’s fate (along with Ephraim’s) is sealed, but hopes Israel will serve as a cautionary tale for Yehudah, who still has the opportunity to repent. A similar message was delivered a few years later by Yesheyahu, but Yehudah’s fate was likewise certain by the time of Yermiyahu.
Chapter 5 discusses the Assyrian conquest. First Ephraim will fall, because Ephraim has sought out Assyria. Israel will be next, followed by Yehudah. Chapter 6 goes into more detail, and expands the prophecy to include a condemnation of Gilead. In this chapter, we also see, however, a message of hope. Hashem might punish, but he will also heal once the punishment is at an end (6:1). Specifically, the punishment will come in three parts (three “days”): one of destruction and one of raising up (6:2). The first two are the Assyrian and Chaldean conquests, and the last is the Persian conquest, in which the Exile ended and the nation of Israel in whole was raised up. That third “day” also saw the reestablishment of the Temple, as foretold in Hoshea 6:2, “on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His presence.”
Finally, chapter 7 expands on the prophecy against Ephraim and includes the Shomron as well. There will be little redemption for them because of their wickedness and because of their faithlessness. Not only are they faithless to Hashem, but Ephraim has tried to play both sides against each other in seeking help from both Egypt and Assyria. This form of faithlessness will later be condemned again in Yehezkiel’s prophecy against Zedekiyahu, who did not honor his political alliances (Yehezkiel 17). Apparently Zedekiyahu failed to learn from Ephraim’s error.