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Hosea and Amos: Two Sides of Covenant Failure

Responding to the Unfaithful and Unjust

Reading the Book of the Twelve, commonly referred to as the Minor Prophets, can be really disorienting. These books are full of poetic language, metaphors, and imagery unfamiliar to modern readers. They also speak a lot about God’s judgment, which can be difficult to sit with. However, all the weird imagery and talk of a future doomsday serves a purpose—the prophets are retelling the story of Israel’s covenant failure and God’s impending judgment, while providing future hope for Israel beyond exile.

Because these books are focusing on the same basic period of Israel’s story, reading one right after another can feel a bit redundant. But each of these prophets have a unique emphasis and a specific way they call Israel back to covenantal faithfulness. Let’s compare and contrast how the prophets are similar yet different, beginning with Hosea and Amos.

A Covenant Relationship Fractured

Hosea and Amos were contemporaries who overlapped both in terms of historical context and theological content. Amos is the earliest prophet named in the Old Testament books. He lived in southern Judea but spent his life prophesying about the apostasy of the northern kingdom during the reigns of Jeroboam II and Uzziah. Hosea lived in northern Israel and prophesied to his own people during the reigns of Jeroboam II and the flurry of bad kings that followed him until Assyria finally swept away the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E.

The driving theme of these books is the description and indictment of Israel’s idolatry. Both authors frequently use “Yahweh,” the name representing God’s special relationship between him and Israel. This is intentional—Israel hasn’t just rebelled, they’ve broken covenant with their relational God. The God whose love they’ve rejected is the God who chose them for himself and brought them out of the land of Egypt into the promised land. Hosea 11 and Amos 3 talk about this.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

Hosea 11:1

“Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, o people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt.”

Amos 3:1

Because Israel rejected the God who rescued them and gave them all they had, the prophetic message is that of imminent disaster for God’s faithless people. Unless they repent, return to Yahweh, and obey him, judgment will come.

This is why you get accusation after accusation of the ways in which the northern kingdom has broken covenant with God through idolatry in both Hosea and Amos. In Hosea 4, the Lord is outraged that in the place of faithfulness and covenantal love there is “swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery” (4:1-2). That’s five out of the ten commandments right there! If that weren’t enough, chapter 4 also exposes how they sacrificed to pagan gods on the high places, engaged with cult prostitutes, and joined themselves to idols.

Flip forward to Amos 4 and you see similar accusations. Israel has forsaken Yahweh to worship Canaanite gods at the idolatrous shrines erected at Bethel and Gilgal. At one time in Israel’s history, these places represented God’s special relationship with his people, but now they have become thoroughly corrupt. The same point is being made in Hosea and Amos: despite acting like every sinful action is well and good, the religious life of the northern tribes is certainly not acceptable to the Lord—and judgment is coming.

The historical context and theological content of Hosea and Amos may be similar, but the language and imagery each prophet uses to mount his accusations are unique. That’s what makes comparing Hosea and Amos so fascinating. Let's take a closer look at these books individually.

Hosea: Israel as an Unfaithful Wife

The most common image connected with idolatry in Hosea is adultery. His fundamental metaphor is idolatry as adultery. This is symbolically portrayed in Hosea’s marriage to Gomer in chapters 1-3. Take a look at how the book begins.

“Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”

Hosea 1:3

And that’s just the start. The idea of prostitution is laced throughout.

The Hebrew root zanah actually occurs fourteen times in this book! Israel, by turning to pagan gods, has broken its covenantal bond with Yahweh, the God who led them out of Egypt and made them his own people. The strong sexual language used serves a double purpose. It’s both a metaphor for Israel abandoning the Lord in favor of Baal, and a description of the kinds of behavior the Israelites were engaging in as part of the Canaanite cult religion. This is what life looks like when you abandon God for the demonic, pagan gods of the Canaanites.

Idolatry, for Hosea, is about covenant betrayal. The Israelites have renounced their loyalty to the God who gave them everything. This disloyalty results in doing things mentioned above like swearing, deception, murder, stealing, sexual perversion, etc. This is especially inexcusable given this is the God to whom the Israelites owe everything. Israel’s covenant betrayal is the reason why you get this really emotive language on God’s part. No other biblical book includes such detailed description of God’s inner feelings.

He’s portrayed as a spurned spouse whose feelings are hurt and a loving parent who grieves the fate of his rebellious child. You’re meant to imagine a husband whose stomach is in knots because his wife hasn’t come home yet. And he knows what she’s out doing. Or, a dad slumped over in his study looking at an old picture of his son remembering what it was like before his son cut himself off from the family. God is in anguish over Israel’s unfaithfulness. In Hosea 11:8 he cries, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” He was sick over the idea of sending them into exile, but this was the result of Israel’s idolatry. They broke the covenant and now they would experience the consequences.

Amos: Israel as an Unjust Hypocrite

While Hosea examines Israel’s failure to uphold the worship and ritual reverence for God, Amos focuses on the moral decay and social injustice that represents the other half of the covenant-failure coin. Amos, like Hosea, accuses Israel of idolatry, but the main burden of his accusation is about the results of social injustice connected to their idolatry.

The book begins with a lion’s roar that withers fertile pastures (Amos 1:2). Yahweh was coming from Zion to judge the nations for their rebellion against the Creator of the earth.

No one could escape the fire of judgment, including the northern kingdom. Much to Israel’s horror, they were going to be the primary object of destruction on the Day of the Lord because they had offended him more than all the other nations. Why, you might ask?

Well, in chapter 3, he recounts how he had chosen them as his own people and given them more revelatory light in order to keep his commands and represent him to the surrounding nations. Their great calling led to greater responsibility. But in chapter 4, you see that they were oppressing the poor and crushing the needy. They were living self-indulgent lives built on the oppression of the poor and weak, while they hypocritically maintained the appearance of religion through hollow rituals. Their idolatry manifested itself in economic injustice, materialism, and religious hypocrisy, all things that go against what God values.

God’s disdain of Israel’s injustice and hypocrisy is seen in chapter 5. Amos 5:4-5 says, “Seek me and live; but do not seek me at Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal.” He’s telling them to renounce their idolatry. Don’t go to Bethel, don’t go to those idolatrous temples. Then in verses 10-13, he explains the sorts of things that happen in society when you do worship false gods: people who stick up for the poor are ignored or hated. The poor have heavy rent imposed on them. The wealthy keep getting wealthier, but they’re annexing the land of the poor. The poor are turned aside at the city gate. Society gets really bad when you don’t live faithfully for the one true God.

In Amos 5:14, God gives the better way, “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live.” This is a cool pairing with the beginning command in 5:4. Initially, God said “seek me” as a means of rejecting idolatry. However, in 5:14 it’s “seek good and not evil” as a means of rejecting idolatry. The play on words is meant to show you that right worship of the God of the covenant will result in justice being done in the city gate, while idolatry will result in neglect of the poor. For Amos, to seek God is to seek the good of others. To turn your back on God (in idolatry) is to live at the expense of others. Your worship of God, or lack thereof, will certainly reflect itself in how you treat the poor, the oppressed, and the needy.

True Worship Results in Justice

When you compare and contrast Hosea and Amos you get this profound point— worship and justice are inherently combined. They help us see that the purpose of elevating God, manifested through temple worship, praise, and reverent prayer, is to ultimately elevate the commandments of God which will shape every area of Hebrew life. In the prophets’ worldview, to worship the God of Israel is to worship the God who rescued poor slaves out of Egypt, brought them to the promised land, and gave them abundance. If you worship a God whose fundamental nature is to pay attention and give gifts to the poor and oppressed, then that’s the kind of society that will result, a society that reflects a God who takes care of the poor. On the flip side, if you turn your back on that kind of God and worship various Canaanite gods of fertility or war or sex, then those things will draw your allegiance. In those societies, the poor will be abused and neglected. Both Hosea and Amos help us see how Israel is an example of this; they offer two different sides of the same covenant-failure.

Don’t worry, there is hope. There’s always hope because of Jesus! In the New Testament, Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my son,” in one of his fulfillment formulas. It’s applied to Jesus’ return to Israel from his “sojourn” in Egypt after Herod’s death. It’s meant to evoke strong images of Jesus as God’s Son. But thankfully, this Son isn’t like Israel. This Son faithfully worships Yahweh and keeps the Torah. This Son perfectly loves his neighbor as himself. He shows particular concern for the needy, oppressed, and poor of society. His worship of the Father always results in compassion and acts of justice. In fact, the greatest act of mercy displayed in God’s Son is the sacrifice of his own life on behalf of needy, poor sinners like you and me.

This is the hope that Hosea and Amos anticipate. Jesus, the true Israel and faithful Son, gave his life for idolatrous covenant-breakers so we could be reconciled to God. That’s really, really good news, so you’ll want to keep reading the Minor Prophets to see how this plan of redemption unfolds!

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