Dan Epp-Tiessen

The Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 3 (Fall 2000)

Allen R. Guenther. Hosea, Amos. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA/Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1998.

In the Believers Church Bible Commentary series, discussions about composition and other technical matters are kept to a minimum in favor of providing the kind of commentary on the actual text that will benefit lay readers. Two samples, one from Amos and one from Hosea, illustrate the insightful commentary offered in this volume by Guenther, professor of Old Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California.

Do horses run on rocks?
  Does one plow the sea with oxen?
But you have turned justice into poison
  and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood— (Amos 6:12)

In one sentence Guenther explains this difficult verse: "Such perversions on Israel's part should be as improbable and contrary to nature as having horses gallop on rocks or oxen plow the sea" (319). Guenther's extensive knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern life, religion, and customs frequently helps elucidate otherwise confusing passages, such as the description of Hosea's marriage to a prostitute and a text like the following:

Ephraim was a trained heifer
  that loved to thresh,
  and I spared her fair neck;
but I will make Ephraim break the ground;
  Judah must plow;
  Jacob must harrow for himself. (Hosea 10:11)

Guenther points out that Ephraim (Northern Israel) is compared to a heifer frisky and light enough to beat the grain off the stalks without damaging the kernels. However, as Israel matures, God expects more of her and will train her to pull the plow and harrow. The next verse describes this more mature labor in terms of sowing righteousness, reaping steadfast love, and seeking God.

While Guenther's exegesis is generally helpful, some of his underlying assumptions can be challenged. Although he recognizes that the books of Hosea and Amos have been compiled by editors, he still asserts that virtually every word in them originates from these two prophets. Many scholars would argue for a far more complex history of composition, involving various attempts by editors to make the prophetic message relevant to later generations of the faithful community.

One of the strengths of this commentary series is its attention to theological concerns, particularly the contemporary relevance of the biblical text today, as well as the relationship of individual passages to the witness offered by other parts of scripture. Guenther offers some gems of theological wisdom. For example, Hosea's use of female God imagery becomes an occasion to reflect on the contemporary value of such imagery. Amos's blistering attack on social injustice leads to insightful comments about injustice and extravagant consumption in our time. Reflecting on the prophetic message of judgment, Guenther suggests that sometimes the church today also needs to hear harsh words because we tend to underestimate the seriousness of our sin. A message of judgment can function like a diagnosis of cancer, and encourage a seemingly healthy person (here, the religious community) to get the surgery necessary for long-term survival.

But sometimes good theology seems forced onto texts that deal with other matters. The message of judgment in Amos 3 becomes a springboard for reflection on the Great Commission, Christian mission, and evangelism (278- 79). Hosea's marriage to an unfaithful wife, which symbolizes Israel's unfaithfulness to Yahweh, is treated as a call to avoid divorce and renew struggling marriages (72, 82). At other times one wishes that Guenther would say a little more. The Canaanite fertility cult condemned by Hosea attracted the Israelites because it promised them agricultural abundance, stability, and economic security. It would be helpful to ask what modern "religions" (i.e., values, rituals, and pursuits) tempt Christians with a similar promise. As well, Guenther's theologizing is sometimes simplistic. To say "Forgiveness is a divine gift by which God removes from us the consequences of our sin" (217) obscures the fact that in spite of divine forgiveness our sin often has severe, long-lasting consequences. One need only think of someone whom God has forgiven for marital infidelity but whose marriage is forever affected.

My biggest disappointment is this commentary's uncritical acceptance of the prophetic view of history. The prophets and many other Old Testament writers were convinced that life operated on the principle that faithfulness leads to divine blessing and well-being, while unfaithfulness leads to judgment and disaster. Guenther frequently makes statements such as, "the sweep of superior Assyrian forces moving through Ephraim's cities results from her obstinate disobedience" (181); "Israel's well-being has always depended on their [sic] faithfulness to God's commands" ( 99) "Good and evil will always bear their fruit in the form of curses or blessings" (p. 332). Such a simplistic view of history may have helped Israel understand its defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, but we must recognize that the rise and fall of empires, and the well-being of nations and individuals, are matters of considerably more complexity.

In the Believers Church Commentary series, each volume includes a section entitled "The Text in Biblical Context." Here would be an excellent opportunity to compare the prophetic view of history with the testimony of other biblical texts. The book of Job directly challenges that view, as do Isaiah's passages about a suffering servant who suffers innocently. That the servant is clearly identified as Israel (Isa. 49:3). Perhaps most important, Jesus asserts that faithfulness to God, far from leading to earthly well-being, leads to persecution and the way of the cross.

DAN EPP-TIESSEN, Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, MB