Opening The Old Testament
A God We Hardly Know: Reflections on Hosea 11:1-11
So, 11:5-7 presents God as rejected and spurned, and thus furious and vindictive, throwing Israel out of the land of promise, tossing them back to Egypt or handing them over to the power of Assyria (11:5). Instead of a time of peace, there will be war in the cities that devours the evil and lying priests and their disgusting schemes (11:6). This people continually "turns away from YHWH," and though they on occasion turn back around to call on the "Most High," YHWH refuses to answer, declines to raise them up from their war-torn fate" (11:7). Here Hosea sounds like his brother prophets: Israel has rebelled and God has come in destruction. That is what they may now expect from the God they have misused and brushed off.
But now for the surprise. "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah, treat you like Zeboim? My heart turns over against me; my comfort grows warmly tender" (11:8). The furious YHWH was given way to the plaintive YHWH. How richly these fickle folk deserve the back of YHWH's hand, but what they are about to receive is a complete change of the divine will and a thorough alteration of the divine emotion. No longer can YHWH reject the chosen people, because the YHWH who supposedly gives us what we deserve has been revealed rather as the YHWH whose overwhelming love and tenderness makes such behavior finally unimaginable. YHWH's "heart," the Hebrew seat of will and intelligence, quite literally "turns over" and speaks against the angry YHWH. And the "comfort" of YHWH (see Is. 40:1 for an emotional reiteration of this word for the exiles in Babylon), like the increasing glow of an oven, warms tenderly toward Israel. Admah and Zeboim are in the tradition of cities of the plain, connected with the annihilation of Sodom and Gemorrah.
"I will not perform my unbridled anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim, because I am God and not a male, the Holy One among you; I will not come in fury" (11:9). Yes, you read that right! YHWH declares that YHWH is El, not a male! The Hebrew ish is rarely if ever to be translated "mortal," as the NRSV has it. That would be adam or perhaps enosh. But ish means male, the counterpart to ishah, the female (see especially Gen. 2:23). What are we to make of that astonishing use of gender language?
Hosea, a male who has given his life over to the pursuit of a female who is wanton and regularly uninterested in him, but who is continuously attracted to any number of nameless males, perhaps has learned in his deeply painful experience that traditional views of God as like a male will not get him very far. That male God is angry, ready to punish, anxious to get even with a recalcitrant people. But YHWH now, in the light of Hosea's desperate and seemingly fruitless search for Gomer, appears to employ a different stance in the pursuit of the faithless people. Now YHWH's heart recoils, turns over against that traditional male God and warms and glows with comfort. That non-male YHWH will not exercise anger, will not come again in fury, as Hosea himself has learned and himself has announced in other parts of his prophecy.
The Holy One in the midst of the people is not the powerful God of Amos, the raging God of Micah, the demanding God of Ezekiel. YHWH is here the warmly compassionate God who in plaintive sadness and expectant hope keeps searching for Gomer/Israel, no longer as a male of traditional mien, but a God of new heart, a God madly in love with someone who too often does not, will not, cannot love YHWH back. This is the God Hosea has discovered. This is the God of Jesus the Christ.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.