The earliest biblical texts show an Israel whose god looked very similar to the gods of surrounding nations. Yahweh was seen to be a warrior: “Who is he, this king of glory? It is Yahweh, strong and valiant, Yahweh valiant in battle” (Ps 24:8), and he fights for Israel as every national god was expected to do.
He is also seen as a storm god: “So Samuel called upon Yahweh, and Yahweh sent thunder and rain that day” (1 Sam 12:18). In Jdgs 5:5, 21 — a very early text — Yahweh wins the battle by sending a storm. In Solomon’s prayer, he prays: “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you … ” (2 Kings 8:35).
For early Israel, Yahweh was only the national god, the “God of Israel.” Moab had their own god: “Should you not possess what your god Chemosh gives you to possess?” (Jdgs 11:24), and other nations had their own gods who would fight for them and protect them.
Yet at some point Israel came to know that Yahweh was different. He had always been ‘the one who sets you free from slavery’ (Deut 5:6), and ‘the one who hears the cry of the oppressed’ (Exod 2:23; Jdgs 2:18). He was not a god who supported the king as in other nations. He was the god of those who needed him.
According to the Deuteronomic writers, the Northern Kingdom of Israel committed apostasy by also worshiping other gods. When Ahab married the Phoenician princess, Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31), worship of Ba’al became favoured at official level, with Ahab building a temple of Ba’al in the capital, Samaria (1 Kings 16:32).
Ba’al had been long known to the Phoenicians: he was popularly called “the rider of the clouds,” as he was the storm god who brought the rain, and thus fertility to the land. In a predominantly agricultural society, it would have been tempting to hedge your bets and offer sacrifice to Ba’al so that the rain would come.
But this relationship was typical of other Ancient Near East religions. Its philosophy was ‘If I give to you (the god), you must give to me’ — a philosophy which mirrored the relationships within the society. Worship of Ba’al meant offering sacrifice to him in order to obligate him to send the rain.
But the increasing worship of Ba’al in Israel was opposed by the prophets of Yahweh. Elijah led this, according to 1 Kings 17–18, opposing the prophets of Ba’al at the altar which used to be the altar of Yahweh on Mount Carmel. Yet, despite his impressive demonstration that Yahweh answers prayer (“perhaps [Ba’al] is asleep and needs to be woken up!” (1 Kings 18:27)), Elijah loses the battle and must flee for his life. As prophet of Yahweh, he reenacts the journey to the mountain of God, Horeb (Sinai) where Yahweh shows him that he is not a god of the storm or the earthquake or the fire, but a god who reveals himself unlike any other god — in the “thin whisper of a sound” (1 Kings 19:11–12).
But Elijah and his followers didn’t write anything. It was the revolutionary Hosea around the end of the Northern Kingdom (ca. 730 BC) who would show the difference between Yahweh and Ba’al. In the Book of Hosea, Israel is first of all depicted as being unfaithful to her ‘first husband.’ (“Ba’al” means “Lord,” a title also used of a husband.) Yahweh’s response will be to seduce her back to him, by taking Israel back to the desert, the place where Israel learned to trust in the providence of God day by day (Exod 16). Hosea points out, in his prophecies, that it was never Ba’al who provided the rain, the grain, the wine and the oil, but her true husband (Hos 2:8–10).
In Hos 5:15, Yahweh says he will “go back to his place” until they “seek me.” Then in 6:1–6, we have this little liturgy: the people cry, “Come, let us return to Yahweh” and “strive to know Yahweh.” because then ‘he is as certain as the dawn to come to us as rain’ (v.3). This, of course, is treating Yahweh as they did Ba’al. The response of Yahweh is to lament: “What am I to do with you, Ephraim? … your love is like a morning mist, like the dew that quickly disappears.” They want rain, but their love for Yahweh is like a weak rain, one that soon disappears — as soon as they don’t need him any more. Hosea’s contemporary, Amos, complained that Israel must not separate morality and their social responsibilities from their worship of Yahweh (in itself, a revolution in Ancient Near Eastern religious thought). For Hosea, their offerings of sacrifices were only to get what they wanted from God.
And so Hosea would cry “there is no loyalty, no faithful love, no knowledge of God in the land” (Hos 4:4). Through him, Yahweh laments that “what pleases me is faithful love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not burnt offerings” (6:6).
Hosea’s view of God was revolutionary: his language thoughout is of a God who is not ‘Lord,’ but a ‘true (faithful) husband’ who has always provided, not because he is obligated, but because of his true love for an undeserving people.
The most beautiful picture of this relationship is in Hos 11:1–9. Here the image moves from husband to parent, and a parent who tenderly loves his or her child (the image could be of a father or a mother), but it is still a question of relationship.
It is a sad prophecy:
I myself taught Ephraim to walk,
I myself took them by the arm,
but they did not know that I was the one caring for them,
that I was the one leading them with human ties,
with leading-strings of love,
that, with them, I was like someone lifting an infant to his cheek,
and that I bent down to feed them (v.3).
It is the lament of a God who has done everything he could to help his people and to reveal himself to them.
It is a relationship of love and trust that is seen to be essential in truly knowing Yahweh. But although the image of God is very human, in the end, the difference is obvious: Yahweh’s response will not be to destroy them (as would be expected of an offended god) “for I am God, not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I shall not come to you in anger” (v.9). Instead, the revolutionary prophecies of Hosea reveal a God who is vastly different from what would be expected — one who is bound by his very nature, which is love. “My heart within me is overwhelmed” (v.8).
Ephraim, how could I part with you?
Israel, how could I give you up? (Hos 11:8)