When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1).
Israel had been quite unfaithful to God, serving other gods and acting immorally. Through Hosea God has been appealing to Israel to repent and change their ways lest judgment break out against them. Many illustrations have been used, including Hosea embodying God’s experience through his own faithless wife Gomer (Hosea 1:1-3:5). God has made His legal case against Israel (Hosea 4:1-19). He would heal them and redeem them, yet they would not be healed or redeemed (Hosea 6:1-3, 7:1, 13-16). He has chastised Israel for playing the whore (Hosea 2:1-23, 9:1-4). And now, beginning in Hosea 11:1, God uses a tender description for Israel, that of His son.
Sons were to give glory and honor to their parents; if they did, they would live long in the land God gave them (Exodus 20:12). Yet Israel, as God’s son, did not give Him appropriate honor, instead sacrificing to the Baals and to other gods (Hosea 11:2). God lifted Israel up, sustained him, but he rebelled against his Father (Hosea 11:3-4). Therefore, for a time, God will reject His son Israel, handing him over to Assyrian captivity, and to the sword (Hosea 11:5-6). Yet God takes no pleasure in this judgment; He has too much compassion on His son Israel to turn him into another Sodom or Gomorrah, Admah or Zeboiim (Hosea 11:8; cf. Genesis 14:1-3, 19:1-29). Even though He will judge them, He will have compassion on them, and will restore them to Him (Hosea 11:9-11).
This is one of the few times in the Old Testament in which God identifies Himself in terms of a Father, and Israel as a son. The Israelites would understand this description: they expected honor from their children by virtue of having given them life and sustaining them in their youth. God desires the same honor out of Israel, since He called Israel out of Egypt and rescued them with a strong hand when they were dependent and had no other to protect them (cf. Exodus 1:1-15:21). Likewise, God’s tender care for Israel was like that of a father for his son, never wanting to have to chastise, judge, or condemn, and ever looking for the opportunity to forgive, show compassion, grace, and mercy (Hosea 11:8-9). And God’s appeal to His people Israel is frequently rooted in His original saving act, redeeming them from bondage in Egypt, the basis upon which Israel was to know that YHWH is God of Israel and God of all (Exodus 20:1-2).
Unfortunately, Hosea’s words fell upon deaf ears. Israel refused to repent and turn back to YHWH their God; within a generation of Hosea’s prophecy, the condemnation spoken of in Hosea 11:5-6 had come to pass, the Kingdom of Israel ceased to exist as a political entity, and the people of Israel began to suffer exile in Assyria (2 Kings 17:1-24). Within another 140 years, Judah would experience the same fate at the hands of Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-21). Yet God did have compassion upon His people Israel; in 539 BCE, Cyrus king of Persia overthrew the Babylonian Empire and encouraged the Jewish people to return to Judah and to restore Jerusalem and the Temple (Ezra 1:1-4). Israel was back in its land, but Israel did not truly feel free. They suffered under imperial authority: the Persians, then the Ptolemies and Seleucid Macedonians, and then the Romans. Israel continued to experience bondage, yet now in their own land!
This situation was acutely felt during the days of the Romans. The Romans had established Herod, a half-Idumean, or Edomite, as a client king to handle Israel (cf. Matthew 2:1). He was well-known for his building projects and his largesse, but all of that was only possible because of the harsh taxation he imposed upon Israel. He was always concerned about threats to his rule; three of his sons, Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater, were all killed for conspiracy, true or alleged; one of his final acts involved a slaughter of babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to extirpate Israel’s Messiah (Matthew 2:1-8, 16-18). Herod certainly seemed to be as cruel to Israel as Pharaoh was. And while Herod had tried to eliminate the Messiah, the Father of the Messiah had looked out for Him, and told His mother and step-father to flee to Egypt to deliver Him from Herod (Matthew 2:13-14). After Herod’s death, God called the step-father and mother of the Messiah back since the danger, for a time, had passed; they went to Nazareth of Galilee, ruled by a different descendant of Herod, Herod Antipas (Matthew 2:19-23, Luke 3:1). This would not be the last run-in between a scion of Herod and the Messiah of God; yet it provided the means by which the prophecy had been fulfilled:
And he arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call my son” (Matthew 2:14-15).
Matthew’s reference to Hosea 11:1 might seem puzzling to some readers; as we have seen above, in context, Hosea is speaking about Israel as God’s son, lamenting how Israel has not been faithful as a son. Hosea speaks of Israel’s exodus from Egypt out of bondage and slavery; Jesus, the Messiah, went to Egypt for protection against a Pharaoh-like ruler, and was returning to Israel. Is Matthew just proof-texting, desperate to find any and all linkages between the Old Testament and Jesus?
The difficulty is only on the surface, for the association between Jesus the Messiah and Israel runs deep. In Hosea’s imagery, Israel is God’s son, expected to be faithful and to serve the Father in all respects, yet proves disobedient, either through outright rebellion or through heartless obedience (e.g. Luke 15:11-32). God brought Israel out of Egypt to be His special possession, yet they just wanted to be like all the other nations (e.g. 1 Samuel 8:1-18). Jesus is the ultimate Son of the Father, fully obedient, glorifying and honoring the Father in all He does (Matthew 26:39, John 5:19-20). And while it may seem like the identification of Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt with Hosea 11:1 might be a stretch, it serves an important aspect in Jesus’ story as the embodiment of Israel: as Israel started in Canaan, sojourned in Egypt, was tempted in the wilderness, entered the land, was exiled, yet was restored, so Jesus begins in the land, sojourns in Egypt, was tempted in the wilderness, ministered in the land, died, and was raised again in power, able to now be the fulfillment of all of God’s plans and intentions for Israel (Luke 24:41-50, Acts 1:1-8, 3:18-26)!
As Jesus is God’s Son, the true Israel of God can surround Him in His Kingdom, and receive the promised inheritance and restoration (Acts 3:18-26, Hebrews 7:12-9:27). Israel would not find deliverance from their bondage through military power, through rebellion against Rome, or through any political or “secular” means; they tried it in 68-70 CE and saw their city and Temple destroyed again just as in the days of their forefathers (fulfilling Matthew 24:1-36). Yet God’s compassion remained for His people: those who would follow His Son could receive adoption as sons and daughters of God, co-heirs of eternal life and glory in the resurrection of life (Romans 8:11-25).
God loved His son; that is why He first called Israel out of Egyptian bondage, and then He called Jesus out from Egypt to return to the land of Israel in order to call all people out of the bondage to sin and death (Romans 8:1-10). Let us find deliverance and rescue through Jesus of Nazareth and obtain the promises and inheritance which come through restoration to God!