Katie’s Question: What is the metaphor for the covenant between God and Israel that is offered by Hosea? What role does Israel have in the metaphor? In the context of Hosea, had they lived up to or understood that role?
The Covenant as explained by Hosea can be interpreted in two different ways depending on the context of the reader/hearer. The first interpretation would be familiar to us. Israel is like the wife of God (metaphorically). By worshipping other gods and goddesses the Israelis are unfaithful to God and are a bad wife that God will reject. The children of Israel (i.e. the individual people themselves) are like the children in such a relationship. God cannot really know if they are His or another’s. From this understanding God casts aside His wife (although within the historical context we would understand this as his right) and rejects His alleged children.
From this understanding the people have failed to live up to their role because they have been a “bad wife.” They have forsaken the covenant fidelity. However, God still will ultimately show them mercy and will “court” them again and defend them just as He did when taking them from out of Egypt (and in the numerous other times He has changed His mind about them and saved them). So for us this is a happy love story where one member of a marriage messes up and initially her partner is upset, but then He comes back and accepts her and forgives her anyway.
However, from a different perspective, taking contemporary beliefs into account, we get a different picture. Hebrews, especially the uneducated, may have believed in a pantheon of gods. They probably regarded Yhvh as the central figure in such a pantheon due to their cultural identification as Hebrew, but other local cultures probably influenced them and caused them to adopt some “foreign gods.” This much is clear from a reading of the Old Testament itself. What is not clear is that the Hebrews may have believed that Yhvh had a wife in the same way other gods would have (e.g. Baal). This conclusion comes from archaeological evidence and cannot be concluded from the text itself.
Belief in a married Yhvh changes the message of Hosea significantly. Since the book rejects foreign gods one might include within this rejection a rejection in the belief that Yhvh had a wife. However, Hosea goes farther than this. He characterizes Israel as God’s true wife which displaces Asherah from that role. This would mean that part of the message of the text may have been that the Hebrews misunderstood God’s relationships. They thought His wife was another deity but instead His wife is Israel itself.
This new interpretation also has implications for whether Israel fulfilled this role. The element of adultery is certainly still present, but if the Hebrews misunderstood Israel’s role in relation to God they also failed to participate in a divine union that is accessible only between deities. Hosea makes it clear that union between God and Israel would have profound effects and would restore order to a disordered world. Such a fulfilled union would bring fulfillment to the nation itself and goes beyond just a mere rekindling of a relationship.