March 22: Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7

Hosea 6:6

This note is included as part of the current series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. The statement in Hosea 6:6 is of considerable significance, even if it plays only a minor role in the Gospel Tradition. It represents a marked trend in early Christianity—one which, it may be said, goes back to the teaching of Jesus.

The saying (or sayings) of Jesus that quotes part of Hosea 6:6 is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, where it occurs twice (9:13 and 12:7). There is every reason to think that it originally circulated as a separate saying, which was then added by the Gospel writer to the two Synoptic episodes, being generally appropriate to the context in each case. For some reason, this saying, with its citation of Hos 6:6, was only preserved in a line of tradition inherited by Matthew (so-called “M” material). Here are the two versions of the Matthean saying:

But (as) you are traveling, learn what (this) is: ‘I wish (for) mercy, and not (ritual) slaughter’ —for I did not come to call just (person)s, but sinful (one)s.” (9:13)

But if you had known what (this) is— ‘I wish (for) mercy, and not (ritual) slaughter’ —you would not have sought justice against (one)s (who are) without (any cause) to be questioned.” (12:7)

The core saying (in bold above) has been adapted slightly to the context in each episode. While it is certainly possible that this reflects Jesus’ actual usage of the Scripture in the historical setting, the lack of any such citation in the parallel Synoptic versions makes it much more likely that an independent saying of Jesus has been added (by the Gospel writer) to the scene in each case. There is, however, no a priori reason to doubt the authenticity of the saying (with its citation of Hos 6:6).

The portion of Hos 6:6 cited (in Greek) by Jesus in the Gospel is identical to the LXX translation:

e&leo$ qe/lw kai\ ou) qusi/an
“I wish (for) mercy/compassion, not (ritual) slaughter”

In the original Hebrew this is:

jb^z` al)w+ yT!x=p^j* ds#j# yK!
“For I delight (in) ds#j#, and not (ritual) slaughter”

The Greek emphasizes the will (wish) of YHWH, while the original Hebrew properly involves that which pleases or delights Him (vb Jp^j*); it is a subtle, but significant difference. On the other hand, the Greek noun qusi/a corresponds precisely in meaning with Hebrew jb^z#—literally, “slaughter”, but often in the technical sense of ritual slaughter (that is, of a sacrificial animal for an offering). An altar is literally the “place of slaughter” (j^B@z+m!), though it came to be used in a general sense for any altar, even when there was no slaughtered animal involved. Here, the noun jb^z# stands as a shorthand reference for the entire sacrificial ritual—the cultic system of offerings made at the Temple (and earlier shrines).

I have left the noun ds*j* temporarily untranslated above. It is the key word in the passage (6:4-6). In order to understand the verse properly, we must view it within the context of this passage:

“What shall I do to you, Eprayim?
What shall I do to you, Yehudah?
(For) your ds#j#, like a cloud (at) day-break,
and like (the) dew (fall)ing in the (early morn),
is (always) going (away).
Upon this [i.e. for this reason] I cut (them) with (my) spokesmen,
I (have) slain them with (the) utterances of my mouth—
my judgment goes forth like (the) light (of the sun)!
For I delight in ds#j#, and not (ritual) slaughter,
and knowledge of (the) Mightiest, (far) from (the) rising (smoke of) offerings!”

YHWH is speaking here; and, if vv. 4-6 is to be associated directly with the prior vv. 1-3, then God is responding to the declared intention of the people that they will “turn back to YHWH” (v. 1) and will “pursue the knowledge of YHWH” (v. 3). Here, he addresses both the northern kingdom (Ephraim) and the southern kingdom (Judah)–i.e., the people of Israel as a whole. In spite of their words (in vv. 1-3), history has demonstrated that their ds#j# is like a passing cloud or the morning dew, which only stays for a brief time and then goes away.

The word ds#j# covers a relatively wide semantic range, and is rather difficult to translate consistently in English. The fundamental meaning is something like “goodness, kindness”; however, quite often in the Old Testament, the word relates specifically to the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel. In such a context, it connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”; in keeping with the basic meaning, we might capture this nuance by translating ds#j# as “good (faith)”. For the sake of a smooth translation here, and yet one which accurately interprets the sense of the passage, let us insert “loyalty” for ds#j# above. Verse 4 then would read:

“What shall I do to you, Eprayim?
What shall I do to you, Yehudah?
(For) your loyalty, like a cloud (at) day-break,
and like (the) dew (fall)ing in the (early morn),
is (always) going (away).”

In other words, His complaint is that the people’s loyalty—to Him and to the covenant—is only passing; it tends not to last. And it has been their lack of loyalty, their violations of the covenant, that has led YHWH to bring judgment upon them, at various times throughout their history. Often this judgment was announced through His chosen spokespersons (<ya!yb!n+, i.e., “prophets”); such messages “cut” the people, but was only a precursor to the actual killing blow when the judgment truly struck. The bright and shining character of God’s judgment, “like (the) light” of the sun, goes out in truth and justice to all people, seeing (and revealing) all things. No wickedness can be hidden from the light of YHWH.

This brings us to the climactic lines of verse 6. Again, substituting “loyalty” for ds#j#, these read as follows:

“For I delight in loyalty, and not (ritual) slaughter,
and knowledge of (the) Mightiest, (far) from (the) rising (smoke of offering)s!”

Loyalty to YHWH, along with “knowledge of God”, is here contrasted with the slaughter (jb^z#) of sacrificial animals, and the smoke that rises (hl*u*) when they are offered up on the altar. In other words, loyalty to God takes priority over performing the sacrificial ritual. The force of this contrast is captured by the prefixed preposition /m! in the second line. I have rendered the preposition quite literally above, as “(far) from”. This can be understood in a negative sense (i.e., “instead of, rather than”), or a comparative sense (“more than”). In the first instance, we would give a conventional translation of the line as “and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”; in the second instance, it would be “and knowledge of God more than burnt offerings”. The negative aspect is to be preferred.

This verse is part of a long line of prophetic messages that emphasize the importance of a person’s intention and overall behavior, rather that the simple matter of whether they fulfilled the required ritual. Performing the ritual (e.g., offering the sacrificial animal) could be done, according to the letter of the Law, without any real faithfulness or devotion to YHWH. This was all the more striking—and worthy of condemnation—when the same person who fulfilled the ritual requirement engaged in unethical, immoral, or impious behavior in other matters. Such superficial (and hypocritical) observance of the Torah was condemned by the Prophets in the harshest terms. Among the more notable passages are Isa 1:11-15; Jer 6:19-20; 7:8-11ff; Amos 5:22-24ff.

It is possible that Hos 6:6 may be echoing one of the earliest examples of this prophetic theme: the oracle of Samuel (addressed to Saul) in 1 Sam 15:22-23, which begins:

“Is there delight for YHWH in (the) rising (smoke of) offerings and slaughtered (animal)s, as much as (in) hearing (the) voice of YHWH?”

Then comes the key declaration:

“Hearing (is far) from (ritual) slaughter (in being) good [i.e. hearing/obedience is better than sacrifice]…”

Loyalty (ds#j#) to YHWH and His covenant could well be summarized as “hearing [i.e. listening to] the voice of YHWH”.

Returning the LXX translation, it is notable that ds#j# is typically rendered as e&leo$ (“mercy, compassion”), even though this does not seem to represent the fundamental meaning of the Hebrew. In any case, it is the aspect of mercy/compassion that Jesus emphasizes in his use of the verse.

As the saying is applied in the first Synoptic passage (the call of Levi, Matt 9:9-13 = Mk 2:13-17; Lk 5:27-32), it relates to the objections that some Jews had to Jesus dining with “toll-collectors and sinners”, which could be seen as a violation of the purity/holiness standards of the Torah. The Synoptic narrative concludes with the double-saying of Jesus in Mk 2:17 par:

“The (one)s being strong have no business with [i.e. no need for] a healer, but (only) the (one)s having (an) ill(ness); (so) I did not come to call just (person)s, but sinful (one)s.”

The “just/right” ones (dikai/oi), from a traditional religious standpoint, are those who faithfully observe the Torah; while the “sinners” are those who ignore or fail to observe the Law. In socio-religious terms, this latter category covered a wide range of persons, including many from the lower (and poorer) segments of society, as well as members of certain professions (like toll-collectors), and virtually all Gentiles (non-Jews). Jesus’ declaration makes clear that his mission is aimed at all peopleespecially those who fit into this broad category of “sinners”.

It is in this context that Matthew inserts the saying-quotation of Hos 6:6, at 9:13a, in between v. 12 and 13b. The addition of this saying has the effect of broading the scope of Jesus’ teaching, making the point that Jesus’ mission takes priority over observance of the Torah.

This becomes even clearer when we consider the use of the Hos 6:6 saying in the second Synoptic passage: the Sabbath controversy episode of Mark 2:23-28; Lk 6:1-5. In Matthew, this is found at 12:1-8. Again, the citation-saying is inserted into the middle of the traditional episode, before the climactic declaration: “So also the Son of Man is Lord even of the Shabbat” (Mk 2:28 par). This is a striking statement, with a two-fold meaning: (a) a human being (son of man) is lord over the Sabbath (and not the other way around), and (b) Jesus, specifically, as the Son of Man, is Lord over the Sabbath. In other words, Jesus has authority over the Sabbath (and its regulations), with the implication that following him (and his mission) takes precedence over observing the Sabbath regulations.

Matthew’s version adds an additional illustration involving the service of priests in the Temple (v. 5). In their role as priests, such persons are able to do things (work) which would otherwise be considered as a violation of the Sabbath regulations. In that regard, their Temple service takes precedence over the Sabbath laws. How much more, then, does service to Jesus take precedence; as he declares in v. 6: “(one) greater than the Temple is here”.

These examples from Matthew’s Gospel illustrate how Hosea 6:6, interpreted in the context of Jesus and his ministry, became part of an early Christian tendency to relativize the importance of observing the Torah regulations—especially those involving the sacrificial (Temple) ritual. I discuss the entire subject at considerable length in the series “The Law and the New Testament”. Special attention should be given to the articles on “Jesus and the Law”; in the introductory article of this set, you will find, I think, the critical question of Jesus’ relationship to the Torah well summarized.

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