Jeroboam, Jehu, and Jezreel: The Importance of Understanding Context When Interpreting Prophetic Literature

It is interesting to cross reference stories in different books of the Bible. A reader can really misinterpret the meaning of what a particular passage might appear to say if he or she does not understand the proper context in which the story was told. Understanding the history and background of a story opens up a new world of interpretation. Many major and minor prophets refer indirectly to stories of their day that are recorded elsewhere in the Bible. To fully understand what a prophet was saying a reader must be familiar with the events of that time period; otherwise, valuable insight and understanding is lost when trying to reconstruct the meaning it had to its original audience. Hosea ties three major stories together indirectly, assuming his audience has the necessary background to follow his line of logic. While the stories of Jehu, Jezreel, and Jeroboam appear unrelated, it is crucial to grasp the meanings of these stories to fully understand why Hosea wrote what he wrote.

The book of Hosea starts off very abruptly but not uncharacteristic of many of the Prophetic books of the Bible. The reader is plunged right into the story as God proceeds to command Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer. God then tells Hosea to name each child—which may not even be his biological offspring—a specific name as a warning to the Northern Kingdom. God told him to name his first son Jezreel, which means, “to be scattered.” Then, God explains the name selection by saying that “[he] will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and [he] will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:4, ESV). This explanation raises more questions than it answers, such as: Who is Jehu? What is the “blood of Jezreel?” Why would God punish Israel for the house of Jehu?

The first major question the reader must answer is: Who is Jehu? For a clearer background of what Hosea is referring to the reader must understand the stories in 2 Kings. After the people of Israel split, each of the two territories established their own kingship. The Northern Kingdom was notorious for kings who did not follow YHWH and exchanged him for idolatrous worship of gods such as Ba’al. One of the Northern Kingdom’s most evil kings—coupled with his wife Jezebel– was Ahab. God was not pleased with Ahab’s worship of Ba’al; therefore, God anointed Jehu to assume the kingship. Next, Jehu was charged with extinguishing idol worship and the leaders who persuaded the people to serve idols. Jehu kills everyone responsible for the idolatry: the Queen (Jezebel), Ahab’s seventy sons, Jehoram (Northern king) and Ahaziah (Judean king), and ultimately all the prophets of Ba’al. Jehu then is recognized as king of the Northern Kingdom, and his descendents reign for four generations on the throne of Israel. While this brief summary answers very few questions, it does ultimately show the correlation between Jehu, the Northern Kingdom, and the story of Hosea.

The second question that must be addressed is: What is Jezreel? God says to Hosea that “[he] will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel” (Hosea 1:5). Therefore, it is safe to assume that Jezreel is not a person but a city or place. Scholars believe that this valley “extends from the Jordan River near Beth-shean to the Mediterranean Sea near Mount Carmel… [and] the town of Jezreel stands at the juncture between the two regions.” While the location is important for historical and archeological clarity, the question of the importance concerning Hosea still remains to be seen. The most important part about this area is not the location but rather the event that took place there. In 2 Kings 10, the story explains how Jehu calls all the priests of Ba’al together in one room and has them all killed. He eradicates all traces of Ba’al worship in the Northern Kingdom. Most scholars agree that this event took place at Jezreel. This slaughter is the last major action Jehu takes before he is accepted as king over the Northern Kingdom. He wiped out Ba’al from his kingdom, but that was not the end of idolatry in his reign.

2 Kings summarizes the reign of Jehu by saying that he “did not turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat” (2 Kings 10:28). While Jehu did what the Lord asked him to do by overthrowing the evil monarchy and destroying the worshippers of Ba’al, Jehu did not follow the Lord but rather turned back to idols. The phrase “sins of Jeroboam” is mentioned twice within three verses. The question that needs to be asked is, “What are the sins of Jeroboam?”

For the answer to this question, the reader must look back even farther in the divided monarchy narrative. In 1 Kings 12, the narrator tells the story of King Jeroboam, king of the Northern Kingdom, who was fearful that his people would return to worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem and ultimately return to the Southern Kingdom. To prevent this action, Jeroboam set up golden calves in Bethel and Dan as objects of worship. He placed these idols in high places and appointed priests to offer sacrifices. While Jeroboam was urged to repent, Jeroboam did not turn away and continued to serve the idols. 1 Kings 13:34 clearly states that making priests for these high places “became sin to the house of Jeroboam.” With this story in mind, Jehu’s sin becomes clearer. While Jehu cleansed the Northern Kingdom of Ba’al, he did not dispel all the idols; otherwise, he would not have been remembered as following the sins of Jeroboam.

If Jehu ousted Ba’al and the priests, then what idolatry was Jehu’s demise? Scholars often associate Ba’al as the high god of the Canaanite religion. It was not uncommon for gods to have consorts. Ba’al’s particular consort was the goddess Asherah. Asherah was usually associated with trees and poles, but the most important site for her worship was at high places. It is interesting to observe that in 1 Kings 13:33 Jeroboam appointed priests at “high places.” If it were correct to assume that Jehu’s sin was somewhat similar to Jeroboam’s, then it would appear that Jehu worshipped Asherah at these high places as well. This would explain why Jehu did not turn away from idolatry. While he destroyed Ba’al, it is never mentioned if he destroyed the priests of Asherah. It is quite the opposite actually. In 2 Kings 10:29, the narrator states that Jehu did not turn from the golden calves that Jeroboam made in Bethel and Dan. With these inter-textual facts assembled, it is easy to conclude that although Jehu purged the area of Ba’al, Asherah worship still carried some following in the Northern Kingdom.

To bring the story full circle back to Hosea, Hosea appears to be referencing all of these events from earlier stories. He draws on the assumption that his audience knows these stories and understands the implications the name “Jezreel” carries with it. Hosea’s prophecy could almost be considered a dual prophecy. First it carries with it retribution for the blood guilt that Jehu caused in the Valley of Jezreel for not destroying the Asherah cult, but it also carries with it the forewarning that the Northern Kingdom will be invaded and captured by Assyria. While the stories of Jehu and Jeroboam help understand the prophecy in full, they also offer information on why Hosea (and ultimately God) feels the need to scatter Israel. If the reader understands that Jehu, although destroying Ba’al, still remained tied to Asherah, then idol worship was still prevalent in the Northern Kingdom. Since Hosea supported YHWH-alone worship, it is easy to see the how the stories of Jeroboam and Jehu fall into place with the ultimate destruction of the Northern Kingdom.

1 comment
  1. Pastor Leye Olagbaju said:

    Great Exegesis

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