Hosea 05 – Biblical Context: Canaan

Tension between Caanite aversion and Canaanite influence.

“Hear this, you priests!
    Pay attention, you Israelites!
Listen, royal house!
    This judgment is against you:
You have been a snare at Mizpah,
    a net spread out on Tabor.
The rebels are knee-deep in slaughter.
    I will discipline all of them.
I know all about Ephraim;
    Israel is not hidden from me.
Ephraim, you have now turned to prostitution;
    Israel is corrupt.

“Their deeds do not permit them
    to return to their God.
A spirit of prostitution is in their heart;
    they do not acknowledge the Lord.
Israel’s arrogance testifies against them;
    the Israelites, even Ephraim, stumble in their sin;
    Judah also stumbles with them.
When they go with their flocks and herds
    to seek the Lord,
they will not find him;
    he has withdrawn himself from them.
They are unfaithful to the Lord;
    they give birth to illegitimate children.
When they celebrate their New Moon feasts,
    he will devour their fields.

“Sound the trumpet in Gibeah,
    the horn in Ramah.
Raise the battle cry in Beth Aven;
    lead on, Benjamin.
Ephraim will be laid waste
    on the day of reckoning.
Among the tribes of Israel
    I proclaim what is certain.
10 Judah’s leaders are like those
    who move boundary stones.
I will pour out my wrath on them
    like a flood of water.
11 Ephraim is oppressed,
    trampled in judgment,
    intent on pursuing idols.
12 I am like a moth to Ephraim,
    like rot to the people of Judah.

13 “When Ephraim saw his sickness,
    and Judah his sores,
then Ephraim turned to Assyria,
    and sent to the great king for help.
But he is not able to cure you,
    not able to heal your sores.
14 For I will be like a lion to Ephraim,
    like a great lion to Judah.
I will tear them to pieces and go away;
    I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them.
15 Then I will return to my lair
    until they have borne their guilt
    and seek my face—
in their misery
    they will earnestly seek me.”

 

I’m going to pause on Hosea here to talk a little about Canaan and Baal.  Neither of which are explicitly mentioned today, but there are allusions to both, depending which scholars you ask, in this chapter; and both Canaan as a place and people, as well as the deity Baal (or Ba’al) are entities we encounter often in Hosea and throughout the Bible at large.  Early Judaism, and, later, Christianity stood staunchly against Caananite religious practices while at the same time being influenced by them.  So it seems that if we want a fuller understanding of the Bible and Christianity, we should spend at least a little time learning about something mentioned well over 100 times in the case of Canaan/Canaanite, and about ninety in the case of Baal.

The Canaanites were an ancient people that lived near the Israelites.  In fact, they were the ones living in the promised land to which God led Moses.  They were, through-out much of history, seen as a people much separate and distinct from the Israelites.  Then, in 1929, the Ugaritic texts were discovered.  These texts, named for where they were found on the Mediterranean Coast of Syria, are a collection of writings, mainly epic poems, written in a cuneiform that is more similar to early Hebrew than the more common contemporary language, Akkadian.

The Ugaritic texts are some of the only first-hand documents from the Canaanites, everything else we know about them comes from second-hand sources, such as the Bible or Herodotus, a 5th century Greek scholar dubbed “the Father of History.”  These latter sources are important, to be sure, but we must remember that they were written with agendas:  The authors of the Bible saw Canaan as “separate” at best and an enemy at worst, and sought to highlight that distinction.  Herodotus sought to establish the primacy of Greek culture and therefore often exaggerated or vilified the cultural practices of non-Greek peoples.  But these Canaanites may not have been as different from early Israelites as we originally believed, and there are strong parallels in some of their religious stories and practices.

Canaanite religion was not Judaism, or even proto-Judaism (if that’s a term).  I like to think that both religions are tapping into some greater truths, kind of like the proliferation of flood stories I talked about when discussing Noah’s ark, and that’s what we see reflected in the two religions’ parallels.  So just what are these parallels?  I’ll share a few that I found.  First, the Canaanites were polytheistic, but there was one supreme ruler of all the gods, and his name was El, or Elohim.  That is also a name for God in Genesis.  The Ugaritic texts and the Old Testament also use the same word that means something like death or the grave, a word that doesn’t have an exact translation in my NIV Bible and hence is written without translation: Sheol.  It is used in the same way in both texts.  Also, there are strong similarities between Baal and Jesus:  Baal is basically “second in command” after El.  He is also a resurrected diety, as Jesus is.  Finally, the simple geographical proximity of the two peoples, plus the similarity of the two written languages, suggest that there must have been some overlapping cultural practices, including religious ones.

And there-in lies the problem.  If your religion is so similar to someone else’s religion, how are you to keep your followers from switching between the two at will?  One way is to vilify that other religion by playing up appalling and lurid practices, such as cultic prostitution and child sacrifice, whether they actually happened or not.  Baal was a fertility god, and there may have been some cultic prostitution connected to his worship, but solid historical evidence is scarce.  Child sacrifice is more often associated with the other rival deity Moloch – which some scholars say is another title for either Baal or El. Again, scholars seem to agree that it wasn’t as common a practice as the Biblical authors make it out to be. Either way, writers in the Bible make it clear that even if there is a suspicion of such practices, you are putting your relationship with God in serious danger should you go hang out with those degenerate Canaanites.

This bit of knowledge makes reading the Bible even that much more interesting.  This chapter is a great example of the tension between Canaanite aversion and Canaanite influence. “When they celebrate their new moon feasts, he will devour their fields,” Hosea says of God in verse seven.  Baal is a fertility god, and celebrating the new moon a common fertility rite. It’s extra-ironic that God will destroy the fertility of the fields while people are celebrating a fertility god, and that point would not be lost on Hosea’s listeners.  But then, at the end of the poem, God tears Judah and Ephraim to pieces, and leaves them with no hope of rescue while Xe “returns to [his] lair.”  Their only possibility for redemption is to wait for God’s return.  This could be true of any deity, I suppose, but again closely follows a story of Baal leaving his people in disgust, hiding in a cave, and only when he is good and ready does he come back to save his people.

I do not suggest that El is interchangeable with the Christian God, or that we can all pray to Baal just as well as God or Jesus.  Nor do I claim that Christianity has a singular hold on the Truth.  To do so would be arrogant in the extreme, and, in my opinion, offensive to God.  If you want to know more about why, even believing this, I am still a follower of Christ, I explain it here.  The whole reason I point out these similarities between Canaanite and Judeo-Christian beliefs is because I want to deepen my understanding of the Bible and God’s message.  Understanding the context in which the Bible was written is one way to do this.  And again, I want to stress, it is one way.  I also think you can pick up a Psalm and enjoy it’s beauty without knowing anything about its original context.  Or be moved by Jesus’ teachings without knowing anything about his life.  But why limit ourselves?  I want to learn everything I possibly can about God, about Jesus, and about how I can be better in their eyes.  A full understanding of the Bible: its context, its controversies, different translations, what was left out of it as well as what was included, can all help us understand God’s message more.

2 John – The Importance of Context, Again

And also the fallibility of Christianity and why that’s not a bad thing.

Hello again dear friends, it’s been a minute…long story short, we jumped into full-time farming much sooner and with less money than expected. Due to the generosity of friends, family, customers, and even complete strangers we successfully raised funds through our Kickstarter campaign (it’s not accepting funding anymore, but you can read to whole story at the link) that will allow us to make our next transition.  We’ve been working hard, and still have a long way to go til the season is over in November, but I’m gaining a little more breathing room every week.  For now, I’m going to stick with one post a week, published on Sunday, and build back up to three posts when I’m done processing broilers.  As of this writing, I only have 1,000 more (about eight weeks) to go! I’m excited to get back to reading the Bible with you all.

The elder,

To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever:

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.

It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.

12 I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

13 The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings.

I picked this chapter to jump back into writing because it’s short.  This is the whole book of 2 John right here.  I’ll read 3 John next and knock out another whole book in one blog post, too, and feel super good about myself.  Also, if we’re using the Bible as a general tool of reflection and meditation, we should be able to find pertinent information in almost any part of it, so why not re-start here?

A little background on all the Johns (ha, ha) running around the New Testament.  There’s the Gospel of John, then three shorter Johns (seriously, I’m cracking myself up over here) later in the NT, of which this is the second.  All are attributed to the Apostle John, so I guess the NT really only has one John.  (Alright, I’ll stop now.)

In all seriousness, John was very concerned with two heresies cropping up in the early church: Gnosticism and Cerinthianism.  Gnostics believed that only the spirit was divine, and that everything worldly was profane.  The divine spirit of a person could only be released through some sort of special, mystic knowledge of which Jesus Christ was an emissary.  Gnosticism lead to two extremes: punishment of the flesh and hatred of the world, but also extreme licentiousness because since the body was of the profane world, anything done with it or to it wouldn’t impact your spirit’s divinity.  Cerinthianism, so-named for it’s major promoter, Cerinthus, believed that Jesus was just a man to whom the Spirit of Christ joined after his birth and left before his death on the cross.  This would mean Jesus was not divinely conceived and not wholly human and wholly divine.

The church was very young when this letter was written, like maybe eighty years old.  As in many of these early letters (we’ll see a lot of them when we get to Paul’s writings), the authors are trying desperately hard to keep their young organization together, establish some Standard Operating Procedures, if you will, and make sure that the mission remains coherent, relevant, and appealing.  If this sounds rather calculating – it was.  I’m not knocking the faith of these early church leaders. In fact, I admire them for being able to shepherd Christianity through such a trying time, but it is important to remember that history is written by the victors.  Should Cerinthus or the Gnostics gained more followers, Christianity might be completely different than it is today.

Human influences directing the course of religious thought? Gasp!  That can only mean one thing: while Christ may not be fallible, Christianity most certainly is.

A fallible Christianity may sound scary, but I think it’s liberating.  Remember, Christianity used to promote the Crusades and slavery.  There were some Christians who praised Hitler.  Those were human influences on a religion that changed (or thankfully disappeared) over time.  A fluid Christianity means we are allowed to explore our faith, our relationship with God, and know that if we mess up – or if our religion messes up – we get to try again.  Think of it like a marriage:  I love my husband, but I know he’s not perfect, and as much as it pains me to admit it, neither am I.  That doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up on our marriage.  We’ll talk through our differences, make adjustments to our relationship, and hopefully we both grow together. Faith can be like that, too.  Isn’t that so much better than a rigid set of rules we’re never allowed to question, one that stunts our thinking and never allows growth?

As we read more of John’s letters, I want you to keep context in mind.  Because having read through all the Johns (sorry, couldn’t help one last John reference), I found a lot of loving and relevant information.  But John’s fear for the early church is visible, too, and I worry that some people, throughout history, have used that fear to justify xenophobia, intolerance, and a rejection of the world – which, let me remind you, is also God’s glorious creation.

I’ll leave you with an example. In v. 9 John says “anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teachings of Christ does not have God,” and then in v. 10 warns “do not take him into your house or welcome him.” Oftentimes, churches would receive itinerant teachers, listen to their lessons, and then send them off with provisions for the next leg of their journey.  In these verses, really verses 7-11, John is warning his followers specifically about Gnostics, Cerinthians, and other “heretics.”  If you didn’t know that (or were willfully blind to it), it could be taken as a warning to never help any non-Christians, ever.  This clearly goes against Jesus’ own teaching of being kind to the stranger.  While it would certainly be easier to turn a blind eye to the sufferings of those not like us – and justify it with a Bible verse, to boot! – we would be guilty of willfully misinterpreting Jesus’ teachings.  Long story short, context is important for everyone, not just biblical scholars!  We’ll see more of that as we continue reading these letters.