Students of the Bible must understand the background to Bible stories and Bible characters if they wish to grow in their faith. This article looks at Israel during the time of Hosea.
By Mark D. Harris
The Prophet Hosea (ministry 750-715 BC) lived at a time of weakness in the northern kingdom of Israel, home of the ten tribes. Within 30 years, Israel would fall to the Assyrian army, its people would be carried into exile, and Israel would cease to exist. The glory days of Jeroboam II were long over. Weak and foolish kings followed him, and the people drifted further from the Lord.
The last days of Aram
The Kingdom of Aram (modern Syria) had long been a major military threat to Israel, and Israel had been forced to devote many resources to defense against its northeastern neighbor. During the days of Jehoahaz (816-800 BC), crushing defeats at the hands of the Arameans had reduced Israel’s army to “not more than 50 horsemen, 10 chariots, and 10,000 footmen (2 Kings 13:7).”
An adventurer named Zakir (c. 785 BC) had successfully gained power in the small kingdoms of Hamath, Luash, and the regions nearby, situated northeast of Aram. Hoping to expand his power the king of Aram, Ben Hadad III, formed an alliance to overthrow Zakir and seize Hamath and Luash. According to the Stele of Zakkur, found in 1903 near Aleppo, the Aramean coalition laid siege to the city of Hazrach (cf. Zechariah 9:1) near Damascus, and was defeated. Zakir’s victory destroyed the army of Aram and led to Aram’s precipitous decline. These events occurred around 790 BC, and within 30 years Aram had grown so weak that Israel had gained control of Damascus and Hamath themselves (2 Kings 14:28). Under Jeroboam II, the borders of Israel expanded almost as far as they had reached under David and Solomon. The regional great power, Assyria, was relatively weak since the passing of Shalmaneser III (859 – 824 BC).
The glory days of the Northern Kingdom of Israel
Jeroboam II, the grandson of Jehoahaz, was King of Israel from 785 to 745 BC. A strong and canny ruler, he capitalized on these events. Because of the Arabian Desert to the south and the mountains of Lebanon to the west, Damascus controlled the trade routes from the Fertile Crescent to Palestine and Egypt. Governments charged tolls to pay for maintaining the routes, protecting the caravans, and enriching themselves. Caravans traveling these routes could pay up to 20% of the value of the merchandise, so charging tolls was a source of great revenue.
Flush with newfound wealth, an affluent merchant class had arisen in Israel. Demand for luxury goods skyrocketed, and the gulf between the rich and the poor yawned. Beds inlaid with ivory (Amos 6:4) and many other ivory inlaid articles have been found. The Samaritan Ostraca, 63 inscribed potsherds found in 1910, refer to “refined oil” and “pure clarified wine.” Many built large and ostentacious houses with expensive imported materials (Amos 3:14-15).
As so often happens in times of material prosperity, the people of Israel drifted even farther from the Lord their God (cf. Proverbs 30:7-9). The wealth gap encouraged the affluent to prey on the poor, and material security caused many to forget the need for the protection of Jehovah. The needy were sold as slaves at markets (Amos 8:4-8).The covenant at Sinai was forgotten (Exodus 19:5-8). Such problems had been present since the reign of Ahab (1 Kings 22:39) but became much worse under Jeroboam.
The Israelites’ ease of life and affluence increasingly conflicted with the self discipline and austerity inherent in the worship of God. As a result, they turned more and more to the licentious religion of the Canaanites. Baal, the son of the supreme god El, and his consort Asherah, were thought to control fertility; agricultural and human. Baal worship therefore involved temple prostitution (male and female) and wanton sexual practices. This lifestyle fitted nicely with the lifestyles of the Israelites, especially the wealthy, and moral standards collapsed. Baal was portrayed as a bull and Asherah a cow, so leaders who set up golden calves specifically encouraged Canaanite-style worship (Exodus 32:1-6, 1 Kings 12:25-33). Thus the children of Israel engaged in the same Canaanite practices that caused God to order their destruction (Deuteronomy 7:1-5).
The result of unfaithfulness to God
In the same passage in Deuteronomy, God promised to destroy His people Israel if they followed the Canaanite example. They did, and in Hosea, God’s promise of punishment was about to be fulfilled. The Prophet Hosea lived in troubled times in Israel. He suffered gravely in his marriage because of his ministry, and yet consistently and forcefully tried to bring his countrymen back to the Lord. The rulers and the people would not listen. Assyria destroyed Israel in 722 BC.