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 ears. Also, they speak a lot about God’s judgment, which can feel like a total downer. However, all the weird imagery and talk of doomsday serve a purpose—the prophets are retelling the story of Israel’s covenant failure, God’s impending judgment, and 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. However, the next few posts will help you appreciate the unique emphases of these prophets and the specific ways they each call Israel back to covenantal faithfulness. We’ll cover a selection each week comparing and contrasting how they’re similar, yet different. Today we begin with Hosea and Amos.
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.
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 covenantal 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) and “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 they rejected the God who rescued them and gave them all they had, the prophetic message is that of imminent disaster for this faithless people. Unless Israel repents, returns to Yahweh, and obeys 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 particular language and imagery each prophet uses to mount his accusations are different. That’s what makes comparing Hosea and Amos super interesting.
Hosea: Israel as an Unfaithful Whore
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. The book begins with the Lord telling Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (Hos 1:3). And, that’s just the start. The idea of “whoredom” or “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.
So, 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’s 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 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.