Monday, April 23, 2007

Shall They Return to Egypt?? (Hosea 11:5)

This Way to Egypt

My advanced Hebrew Reading class is currently working on Hosea's powerful prophetic poem of the love of God for wayward Israel in Hosea 11, with all its text-critical problems. Once again, I've been puzzling over the Hebrew problems in Hosea 11:5, where the MT literally reads, "They [i.e., Israel] shall not return to Egypt land."

With the exception of the NASB, almost all modern translations reject the traditional Hebrew and render the text the opposite way: "They shall return to Egypt" (e.g., see the NRSV). This makes the verse fit better with the rest of Hosea, where the prophet does forsee a new slavery in the land of the exodus (e.g., see later in this very passage, Hosea 11:11). However, to get this reading, one has to either produce a rather strained translation (NIV, NJPS; cf. NJB) or one has to move the negative word לא ("not") up to the end of v. 4 and change it to the similar sounding word לו ("to him") (NRSV, NAB, NLT). The idea behind the latter move would be to make the word into the object of the verb "feed" at the end of v. 4. Elsewhere in Bible, this verb takes direct objects, not indirect objects marked with ל, so this solution feels quite problematic to me.

I am left wondering whether we can make sense of the MT as it stands, with the לא in place as it is. Whatever meaning we suggest, it should preserve the poetic wordplay between the first and last cola of v. 11: They will not turn/return... For, they have refused to turn/return to me [God]. The poetry seems to want to suggest a punishment in the first colon that has a fitting correspondence to the crime in the final colon of the verse. Here is my question, then: Is there a sense in which God might block a conscious and wilfull attempt by the people to turn to Egypt, as a reaction to their refusal to turn to God?

Indeed, the people do display a shocking will to turn to Egypt in their need. God actually anticipates this crazy idea of Israel in places such as Exodus 13:17 and Deuteronomy 17:16. God stresses God's fervent oppostion to the idea: "You must never go back that way again" (Deut 17:16 NJB, cf. NLT). Also, we know of the same abortive will of Israel to turn to Egypt for aid from texts such as Hosea 7:11; 12:1; and 2 Kgs 17:4. Hence, perhaps our text should have some such meaning as the following: They [Israel] shall not be allowed to succeed in their abortive turn to Egypt for aid, ..., for they have refused to turn to me [God], the true source of their aid.
This is a preliminary suggestion, of course. Comments or critiques are welcome...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad you posted on this, I've been struggling with how to make sense of this text and maintain the integrity of the MT (as you know, an important and worthy goal in my mind!).

I can see the second suggestion of God blocking their attempt to turn to Egypt for aid. That seems like a interesting possibility. My only question is that 7:11 seems to put Assyria and Egypt on equal footing ("They have appealed to Egypt! They have gone to Assyria" NJPS), so I'm struggling with why God would find saying no to Egypt and yes to Assyria a punishment.

The first possiblity that God is blocking their move into Egypt as a punishment b/c that is where they want to go seems problematic for me. It seems to me that God always seems to block their move back into Egypt not out of punishment, but out of love. They want to be oppressed again, b/c oppression seems easier than freedom. God knows that that would be bad for them, so God refuses. If God wanted to punish them, it seems like God would send them back into Egypt.


Mon Apr 23, 12:29:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Tim Bulkeley said...

I really like both this suggestion, and RBP's comment/addition. Especially in view of how exile in the "relatively" pluralistic Mesopotamian region eventually shaped the people of God.

Mon Apr 23, 06:51:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Eliz F said...

RPB, are you saying "love" and "punishment" can't be both be God's motives?

Tue Apr 24, 05:57:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eliz f -

I am not suggesting that. Love was perhaps the wrong word to use here. I was a bit sloppy in how I wrote this, just throwing out some initial reflections instead of sitting on them for a while.

What I mean is protection. God seems blocking their move back into Egypt out of protection for the Israelites, to protect them from oppression. God knows that if they went back into slavery in Egypt, then they would shortly be calling for help again, because even though they think that it would be a good idea, it would not be one. It seems that if God wanted to punish them, then God would be willing to send them into Egypt. A parent wouldn't say "I'm not going to let you put your hand on that hot stove, because you disobeyed me!"

The refusal to let them go back to Egypt never seems to be about punishment anywhere else in the Scripture, except perhaps here...


Tue Apr 24, 07:28:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with RBP's point about Assyria and Egypt in 7:11. Especially, since you see this also in 9:3. Hosea 8:13 seems to present a return to Egypt as a punishment or at least a consequence of bad choices. Thus, in 11:5, not returning to Egypt would not be a punishment. Yet this creates a contrast between Egypt and Assyria in 11:5 that seems different from how this pair is presented elsewhere in Hosea.

The choice to read "lo" as an object marker at the end on the previous verse (11:4) would solve this problem and be consistent with 8:13. It finds support in the LXX. But the LXX seems to be based on a misreading of the Hebrew since it takes a-k-l "to eat" as y-k-l "to be able, have power" in 11:4. Plus, elsewhere, the LXX seems to group Egypt and Assyria together even where the MT does not [cf. 8:13 in the LXX] and thus its reading of 11:5 may be based on a similar exegetical preference.

For me, the MT is the more difficult text, but if we are to read it as it stands, I think we need to make sense of the pairing of Egypt and Assyria in this verse.


Wed Apr 25, 09:52:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

My thanks to you all for these excellent comments. Yes, Assyria and Egypt are indeed paired together as destinations of exile elsewhere in Hosea, and so my inclination would be to go with moving "lo" up the end of the previous verse. Still, I can't find a case elsewhere where Hebrew '-k-l takes an "l" marking its object. Jeremy, can you help with this? If the MT is the more difficult, and hence more historical, reading, how to account for the pairing of Egypt and Assyria? I suppose it would have to be along the lines of the following: "No, you don't get to have your abortive way and get all tangled with Egypt again. Rather, you're going to have a new master: Assyria!" ---SLC

Thu Apr 26, 07:33:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seeing as this represents the most time I ever spent thinking about the text of Hosea, I decided to consult Anderson and Freedman's (otherwise regrettable) commentary. They confirm your observation that 'akl does not take "lo" as a object elsewhere. Thus, they read "lo" as an "assertive" and translate it as "surely" rather than "not." I'm not sure I agree with this. Similar to your suggestion (that nicely preserves the disjunctive contrast between Egypt and Assyria), I wonder if we could read it as "[Israel] will not turn to Egypt. Rather, Assyria will be its king." In other words, you can't turn to Egypt for help to avoid Assyrian rule. Oddly enough, this is similar to what the Assyrian general will say a few decades later to the inhabitants of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 18:21: Egypt wouldn't save you from Assyria.


Thu Apr 26, 09:22:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thank you, Jeremy. Very helpful! I like your suggested translation. ---SLC

Fri Apr 27, 08:18:00 AM GMT-5  

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