Silly and Without Sense: Old Testament Anthropology and Knowledge in Hosea

“There is… no knowledge of God in the land” (Hos 4:1). So begins the second major section in the book of Hosea. The accusation continues, “my people are destroyed from a lack of knowledge” (4:6). Throughout the book, time and again the prophet accuses biblical Israel for failing to “know” and identifies this as a primary reason that judgment is imminent. In the final verse, the reader is encouraged to take these exhortations seriously and “know these things” (14:10). Knowledge, then, is key for Hosea. But what does this mean?

Much scholarly discussion has centered around defining “knowledge of God.” Three possible definitions have been proposed: (1) an objective knowledge of particular content about YHWH, (2) a subjective or relational knowledge, or (3) a combination of the two. However, none of these solutions have achieved scholarly consensus.

Drawing on the anthropology of the Old Testament, two insights can move the discussion forward. First, J. Gordon McConville argues that humans are described as being twice embodied. That is, humans are both physically embodied and embedded in the social body of their community. This is reflected throughout Hosea in a variety of ways and is significant because it becomes clear that both collective Israel and individual Israelites lack the knowledge that Hosea and YHWH expect.

Second, the Old Testament uses a complex web of terms and ideas to describe humanity’s ability to think and know. Thus, a thorough treatment of the theme of “knowledge” in Hosea requires a wider scope than what is typically pursued. Most studies focus exclusively on the terms ידע/דעת, and these in relation to God. My approach, however, is to trace the web of terms I identify through the book of Hosea to assess the way in which the prophet characterizes Israel’s ability to think and know. I conclude that Hosea presents Israel’s failure as epistemological. That is, Israel is not only unfaithful in its lack of knowledge of God, but Israel can no longer think rightly. Their ability to make cogent decisions has been damaged. Furthermore, because humans are twice embodied, the problem is both individual and corporate.

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