Biblical Israel was known as the people of the Torah. The word torah means “teaching” or “law.” The word can be used to describe parents teaching their children, teachers teaching their students, and God teaching Israel.
In the Hebrew Bible, the law refers to the stipulations of the covenant. However, the word Torah has a broad sense in that it applies to the whole of God’s teaching.
When God established his covenant with Israel, God gave the people his Torah to guide them as they lived their lives as his special people. God’s law had several purposes. The law was designed to help the people in all aspects of their lives.
The law was designed to help Israel conduct themselves as the people of God and to live a long and blessed life in the Promised Land. The two basic aspects of the Decalogue were to teach the people of Israel how to relate themselves to God and how to live in fellowship with each other.
The Old Testament teaches that the priests were set apart to be teachers of the law. According to Deuteronomy 33:10, the priests were responsible for teaching the ordinances and the law of God to Israel. Unfortunately, the priests neglected their responsibility as teachers of the law.
The prophet Hosea accused the priests of having abandoned the law of God: “You have forgotten the law of your God” (Hosea 4:6). As a result, the people were dying spiritually: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
Because of the lack of knowledge of God’s Torah, the people of the Northern Kingdom gave themselves to the worship of Baal and to the depravity and evils associated with Canaanite religion. God sent Hosea to call the people to the true observance of God’s law.
Hosea proclaimed that Israel had broken the covenant and had rebelled against God’s law (Hosea 8:1). In Hosea 8:12, the prophet described the extent of Israel’s depravity. This verse is difficult to translate and the versions struggle on how to translate the Hebrew text into English. As a result, there are four possible ways to translate Hosea 8:12.
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates the verse as a historical present:
“Though I write for him the multitude of my instructions, they are regarded as a strange thing.”
The Revised Standard Version (RSV) translates the verse as a hypothetical future:
“Were I to write for him my laws by ten thousands, they would be regarded as a strange thing.”
The New International Version (NIV) translates the verse as a past event:
“I wrote for them the many things of my law, but they regarded them as something alien.”
The Douay-Rheims (DRV) translates the verse as a future event:
“I shall write to him my manifold laws, which have been accounted as foreign.”
The form of the verb in Hebrew is imperfect which carries the idea of a future event. However, the sense of Hosea’s words requires a past tense. The readings of the RSV, the DRV, and the NRSV are out of place here because Hosea had already mentioned the priests forgetting the Torah (4:6) and the people rebelling against God’s law (8:1).
The use of the word law or Torah in Hosea implies that the prophet knew a form of written Torah. However, the text does not indicate the content of the Torah mentioned by Hosea. In Hosea 4:2 the prophet mentions several of the commandments found in the Decalogue: “There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.” So, it is possible that Hosea was mentioning the laws associated with the covenant or some collection of laws that eventually became known as the Law of Moses.
Hosea accused the people of the Northern kingdom of abandoning the laws of God to sacrifice to idols and to dedicate themselves to the worship of Baal. Israel treated the Torah of their God as though it was something strange and alien, that is, the teachings of God had become to Israel the teachings of a strange god.
The laws of God demanded that Israel reject the worship of strange gods. Instead of rejecting these strange gods, the people of the Northern Kingdom embraced them and then treated God’s law as something alien and God as a strange god. The prohibition in the law did not deter the people of Israel from going after other gods: “They made him jealous with strange gods, with abhorrent things they provoked him” (Deuteronomy 32:16).
Israel had no reason to rebel against God. When God gave the people his instructions at the time the covenant was established, God said that Israel would show wisdom by observing the law. Moses told the people: “You must observe [the commandments] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
The laws God gave to Israel should have been continually before their eyes, in their minds, and in their mouths (Deuteronomy 6:7-9). Instead, the people and the political and religious leaders of the nation regarded them as strange and alien laws, laws that made no demand on them. The Hebrew word translated “strange” is zār. The word appears in the singular in Isaiah 43:12 where it is translated “strange god” and in the plural in Deuteronomy 32:16 where it is translated as “strange gods.”
Hosea’s words to Israel teach a great lesson to people of faith today, both Jews and Christians. God has given us his word to be our guide in life. The Bible contains divine instructions to help us live a better life and avoid the errors that can bring pain and distress to life. Wise people will search the Scriptures because in it they will discover what is necessary for moral and spiritual guidance: “All of Scriptures are useful for teaching, pointing out errors, correcting people, and training them for a life that has God’s approval” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Some people in Israel considered God’s law to be something outmoded, outdated, something that should be rejected and not followed.
And this is precisely what we find in today’s society. Some people believe that the Bible contains many beautiful stories and that it may even contain many practical truths. However, people reject the idea that the teachings of the Bible should be imposed on them as binding truths or binding laws. To them, the teachings of the Bible belong to an ancient people, not to people who live in the 21st century. Thus, the teachings of the Bible are alien to them. The Bible is a strange thing that must be rejected.
The words of Joseph Parker, Hosea-Malachi. The People’s Bible, vol. 17 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1892), p. 67 still has an application today:
Great dangers lie around this line of thinking. God protests that he has not written the Bible as a thing of ancient times, but that he is writing it now, writing it every day, writing it as a direct message to every soul. We lose everything when we lose the modernness of the Bible. It may be perfectly true that man cannot live by rules a thousand years old; but in the case of the Bible the rule is not a day old in any sense that divests it of immediate dignity and claim and pertinence; it is the last utterance of God; the breath with which he uttered it is still warm upon the ear of the listener.