17:1-2 The formulaic opener for Hoshea reveals that he was not as bad as his predecessors.
17:3-4 Hoshea was appointed king about 732 BC over an Israel greatly reduced by Tiglath-pileser III (15:29). At some point when Assyria was distracted elsewhere Hoshea declared his freedom. The identity of So among known Egyptian Pharaohs is uncertain. When Hoshea withheld tribute from Assyria, the end came. Tiglath-pileser died before he could return to Samaria, but his son, Shalmaneser V, invaded Israel (725 BC). After a three-year siege, he captured Samaria, imprisoned Hoshea, and deported the Hebrew population to Assyria (722 BC). Verse 4 seems to indicate that Shalmaneser arrested Hoshea before besieging Samaria. It is unlikely that the city would have resisted after Hoshea’s arrest. It is easier to take vv. 4-6 as topically structured. The topic of v. 4 is Hoshea, whom Shalmaneser arrested (confined by siege) and then put . . . in prison after the siege ended.
17:5-6a Shalmaneser besieged the city for three years and then deported the population to points north and east of Israel. Sargon II, the next king of Assyria, may have expedited some of the deportations.
17:6b The Assyrians deported the Hebrews to several different areas. Halah was in the general area of Gozan. Some were settled along the Habor River, a tributary of the Euphrates that flowed south from the region of Haran and Gozan to the Euphrates. This region was only about four hundred miles northeast of Israel. However, other Israelites were settled in the territory of the Medes in mountain country east and northeast of the plains of Babylon and Assyria. These exiles were almost a thousand miles from home.
17:7-20 These verses contain one of the great theological statements of the OT—God’s accusation against the Israelites for their covenant faithlessness and that of their kings. It also expresses the climactic moral statement of the Deuteronomic History. This condemnation covered both Judah and Israel, although Judah’s doom was still about 130 years in the future. The author gave a grief-filled statement of why this tragedy happened. The notes below recognize the major themes of this theological statement.
17:7 This verse repeats three fundamental truths of Israelite life that are repeated over and over again in OT theology. First, they sinned against the Lord. Second, this was the God who, by bringing them out of . . . Egypt, had made them his possession. Third, the people worshiped other gods.
17:9-10 The Israelites built numerous high places, at first secretly and then openly. The typical high place installation consisted of (1) a sacred stone or pillars for the male fertility deity, usually some Baal; and (2) a sacred pole or a green tree for the female consort of the Baal. The latter often represented the consort goddess or Asherah.
17:11-12 Then the message becomes a piling-on harangue that lists the discouraging catalogue of evils committed by the people. There are both general statements—they did evil things—as well as more specific practices—they burned incense.
17:13-15 In spite of their sins, which deserved immediate judgment, God sent prophets to warn them. But they would not listen. Verse 15 makes explicit a general principle that we become like what we worship: They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.
17:16-17 The author presents more accusations of idolatry and cruelties. The worship of all the stars in the sky, the gods of the heavenly bodies, had not been frequently mentioned so far, but they were mentioned by contemporaneous prophets (Am 5:26). The most extreme evil—offering infants to Baal—is mentioned, as well as divination and omens. Divination focuses more on gaining knowledge by supernatural means while omens are the magical giving of knowledge and the exercise of magic power. Such dabbling with supernatural knowledge and power was part of King Saul’s sin (1Sm 28:7-9) and was condemned by Moses (Lv 20:6; Dt 18:10-11).
17:18 After all these reports of idolatry and disobedience, the fact that the Lord was very angry seems an understatement. The final penalty for repeated idolatry was the removal of the people from God’s presence by taking them from the land he had given them.
17:19-20 The Lord proceeded to pronounce judgment on Judah as well, because they lived according to the customs Israel had practiced. From this time, Judah’s exile was also decreed.
17:21-23 Jeroboam (Jeroboam I) was the archetypical figure for the sin of Israel and the roots of Israel’s destruction are traced back to him. Finally, Israel was removed from God’s presence.
17:24 The origins of the Assyrian colonists were the following: (1) Babylon in lower Mesopotamia; (2) Cuthah in lower Mesopotamia just a few miles from Babylon; (3) Avva, also known as Ivvah, of unknown location; (4) Hamath, north of Damascus on the Orontes River, near where the Battle of Qarqar was fought; and (5) Sepharvaim, somewhere in Aramean territory.
17:25 The word fear can carry a range of meanings, from terror to reverential worship of God. It is not easy to know what level of terror or worship the word communicated in this context.
17:26-28 These verses give an accurate picture of religious attitudes in the ancient world. In general, ancient people believed that the gods were real and powerful enough that people had to manipulate them to gain benefits. This contrasted with Hebrew theology, which held that God cannot be manipulated. The Assyrians viewed foreign gods as lesser deities to be incorporated into their system of worship. Therefore, it seemed reasonable to them to send a priest of the territorial god back to the occupied region to teach the people there, many of whom were new arrivals, how to make peace with that god (or gods). Possibly this included providing a copy of the deity’s sacred writings. This priest’s work may have been the origin of the Samaritan Pentateuch, a rival to the Hebrew Torah.
17:29-34 The result of all these efforts was a group of people with mixed religious beliefs and practices. They feared the Lord, while at the same time they still worshiped their own gods, and as a result eventually they did not fear the Lord. Succoth-benoth was similar to Sarpanitu, one of Marduk’s goddess consorts. Nergal, the god of pestilence and one of many consorts of Erishkigal—queen of the underworld—had a shrine in Cuth. Ashima may have appeared also in the phrase “guilt (Hb ashmath) of Samaria” (Am 8:14). This deity was probably the same as Ashim Bethel (or Eshem Bethel), who appeared as a fertility consort of Yahweh in the popular, syncretistic religion of the Jewish colony at Elephantine. Two unknown deities of the Avvites were Nibhaz and Tartak. Adrammelech and Anam-melech of Sepharvaim cannot be clearly identified, though the fact that children were sacrificed to them tells something about their character. The general picture is one of typical ancient fertility religion, including major national deities and minor local deities.
17:35-39 These verses give a concluding summary of the historic mandate to the Israelites to obey the covenant.
17:40-41 If the Israelites, whom God had delivered from Egypt (vv. 34-39), would not obey God’s covenant, how could the pagan idolaters that were relocated to Samaria do any better? In fact, we could argue that these pagans, eventually growing into some commitment to their own version of the Pentateuch, did deserve comparison with the Hebrews.