Hosea: The ecological prophet of loss
Hosea is best known as the prophet who married a prostitute. In a dramatic parable of God’s love for his unfaithful people, Hosea sought to woo and win back the wife who left him. But, like Song of Songs, the book of Hosea is not only about human and divine love. A third set of relationships is woven through the book: God’s and humanity’s relationship with the land and its other creatures.
Hosea is full of rich creation imagery, describing both God and people. God, in his righteous anger at unfaithfulness is compared to a roaring lion (5:14–15; 11:10), as well as a lurking leopard and an attacking bear (13:7–8). God is also as trustworthy as the middle-eastern sun and the seasonal rains (6:3). In contrast, human beings tend to be like a morning mist or early dew (6:4; 13:3), a smouldering fire (7:6), birds caught in a net (7:11–12), grapes in a desert and unripe figs (9:10), trembling sparrows and fluttering doves (11:11). These are all pictures of fickleness and unreliability. We are, Hosea implies, out of touch with the rhythms and practices that can sustain us.
However, in Hosea, creation is not just a source of vivid imagery. There is a deep ecology of relationships linking God, humanity and the rest of the natural world. How we relate to God is inseparable from how we treat both our neighbour and the land and its creatures. Hosea 4:1–3 challenges modernity’s compartmentalism. When God condemns the Israelites’ lying, murder, theft, adultery and bloodshed, he bemoans not just their faithlessness, but some profound environmental consequences: ‘Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away’ (Hosea 4:3). Broken relationships with God lead to ecological breakdown.
Today, many of the animals Hosea describes have disappeared from the biblical landscape. The Asiatic Lion and Syrian Brown Bear are extinct in Israel, and the Arabian Leopard is critically endangered. Even the spring and winter rains are unreliable. Today’s environmental crises are symptomatic of our broken relationship with God, and secular environmentalists often recognise this. Jonathon Porritt has written, ‘Today’s so-called “ecological crisis” is in essence a crisis of the human spirit. As we have degraded the earth, so we corrupted our souls, caught up in a frenzy of suicidal consumerism.’ Hosea would agree.
Yet, the hopeless vortex of mutually-destructive social, spiritual and ecological breakdown is not the final word. Hosea, committed to restoring his own broken marriage, believes in a God who never gives up on his people or his planet. He foresees a future day of restored relationships between God and people (‘you will call me “my husband”; you will no longer call me ‘my master’” 2:16), and of a new covenant promise that includes ‘the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground’ (2:18). There will be an end to violence and war and a renewed intimacy connecting God and all creation, as God’s people thrive like a well-rooted plant (2:21–23).
As we hope for God’s redemption of all creation, does that mean we do nothing now? Not at all, says Hosea. In 12:6 we receive a clear agenda for action: ‘You must return to your God (spiritual renewal); maintain love and justice (taking action for people and for all God’s creatures), and wait for your God always’ (keeping up practices that sustain a living relationship with God, like the bridesmaids who kept their lamps lit awaiting the bridegroom in Matthew 25:1–13). If we return to God we can become like a blossoming lily, a well-rooted olive tree, a fruitful vine, or a cedar of Lebanon (14:5–7), at the heart of a thriving spiritual, social and natural ecosystem.