Stephen L. Cook talks about the prophet Hosea as a rural levitical priest. I think most people think of the priests at the Jerusalem temple when they think of biblical priests. But people in segmentary agrarian societies typically have a different kind of priest. They tend to preside over agricultural festivals and ceremonial sacrifices that help the people acknowledge that land and crops are gifts. Also, they confer blessing and legitimacy on tribal leaders like chiefs, judges, and generals. Again there are examples of this from African tribal life.
So he understands Hosea as a rural priest in the line of Levi. He says that Hosea
“beckons us away from a world of urban prosperity, bureaucratic proliferation, and international intrigue. Instead we enter a world where genealogical lineage, ancestral farmland, and fertility intertwine to form the fabric of everyday life” (p. 231).
Hosea denounces a kind of worship introduced by the royal houses. The Sinai theology understands that the land is a gift from the God of their ancestors and that foreign gods, like the baals of the Phoenicians, have nothing to do with the land of Israel.
Okay, this is a hard concept for people today. But tribal peoples often think of their gods as local, tied to the land. From a metaphysical point of view this is not true, of course. The priests in Jerusalem, who had something to do with Genesis’ idea that God made the heavens and the earth, knew better than this. Ordinary worshipers probably did not think about it. The point for them was that their ancestral land was the gift of their particular deity. I think of how the Syrian, Naaman carried two mule loads of dirt back to Syria so that he could sacrifice to the God of Israel (2 Kings 5:17). Apparently he felt that there was no land in Syria that belonged to the God who had healed him. He had to carry some with him in order to continue to express gratitude.
Hosea’s metaphor that Israel, by looking to Phoenician fertility gods was like a promiscuous wife, came from his Sinai theology. The people had their land from God as a gift, but there was an obligation of loyalty and worship toward God, which was like the obligations that went with marriage.
Hosea’s point of view was not philosophical at all. His contemporary prophet, Amos, talked about God as related to the other nations (9:7) and the maker of the constellations of the night sky (5:8). But Hosea gives no indication of thinking about the universality of God. His spiritual value, in spite of this narrowness, is in his focus on the land and its produce as gifts requiring a response of loyalty and gratitude.
Back to Cook’s thesis. He sees Hosea as a traditional priest. His oracles show that he has an insider’s knowledge of the role of such priests. His denunciation of the king’s appointed priesthood (Hosea 4:4-11) for malpractice, shows that Hosea had a clear notion of correct priestly practice. The state priests do not have or pass on the knowledge of God. This is destroying the people (4:5).
Cook has a full discussion of Hosea’s opposition to the use of the calf of gold in the worship at Bethel and the influence on Exodus 32. Some Israelites interpreted the calves as idols connected with bull worship in Phoenicia. Some held to the original interpretation that the calf somehow represented YHWH. But Hosea and the Sinai theology, according to Cook, had another reason to oppose the calf. Calf-centered worship at Dan and Bethel was a means introduced by the king (1 Kings 12:25ff.) to centralize worship under royally appointed priests. It excluded Hosea and other priests of his type.