(Lectionary for July 31, 2016)
The race for president of the USA is fully underway, and the choice could hardly be more stark. On the one side, the Republican nominee, Donald J Trump, is a brash, deeply opinionated businessman, who has never run for any public office. On the other, the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has spent nearly her whole life in public service, from her time as a governor’s wife in Arkansas, to her 8 years as first lady of the USA during her husband’s two terms as president, to her stint as a national senator from New York State, and finally to her term as national Secretary of State under the presidency of Barak Obama. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Democrat is wildly more qualified than the Republican, a fact even the most avid supporter of Mr. Trump would have a hard time disputing.
Still, Secretary Clinton has some decided downsides. Her public life has been a constant source of rumor and innuendo, from her ill-advised use of an e-mail server during her time as Secretary of State to her undisguised desire for power and prestige. Oh, she has served many a cause that I believe in deeply, but power has ever been on her radar screen. She is no pristine politician, but, of course, the number of those characters remains miniscule, if any. Full disclosure: I will this November eagerly cast my ballot for Ms. Clinton. I find Mr Trump a poorly prepared, ill-equipped, outlandish boor who is astonishingly bigoted and completely ignorant of the complex ways in which our divided world works. The only time he should come near the White House is on a tour of the place.
The contest quite obviously presents an unforgettable breakthrough; Hillary Clinton is the first woman ever to be nominated as the standard bearer of a major political party in the history of the country. This is no small fact. Women have had the right to vote in the USA for barely 100 years, so we all should celebrate the reality that for the first time a woman could well sit in the Oval Office as Commander-in-Chief. I applaud my fellow citizens for making this once unlikely possibility a genuine probability. All recent polls suggest that Hillary’s chances of winning the election are very good, so further history may well be in the making. One of the last glass ceilings for women may at last be shattered, and if that happens I will join many of my friends in genuine jubilation.
And that possibility leads us to Hosea. Really, you say? What could a 2700-year- old Israelite prophet possibly have to do with a presidential election in 2016? A good deal, I think.
Last week in my first blog concerning the prophet Hosea, I noted the very misogynistic language used in the first chapters of the book. Gomer, Hosea’s prospective wife, is named for us as a whore, and the prophet is demanded by YHWH to marry this woman, and to have three children with her, as a sign of the nation’s whoredom against their God. In other words, Hosea is God and Gomer is the wanton people of Israel in this metaphor. Once again, women are evil while men are good, and the stereotypes of ancient men and women are fixed into their unchanging places. Like the wretched and deeply flawed readings of Genesis 3, wherein the woman is temptress and the man merely an innocent bystander led astray by her wiles, so Hosea appears to agree that the woman makes a fitting analog of easy virtue and evil behavior. Indeed, if one stopped reading the book of Hosea at chapter 3, and a furious feminist would have good cause to do so, we would be left with just another misuse and abuse of women. Donald Trump would surely approve, since his comments about women generally sound a good bit like they could have been uttered several thousand years ago! As another former Secretary of State, Madelaine Albright, said recently, “Any woman who votes for Donald Trump deserves a spot in hell!”
And yet, we feminists should read on in Hosea, because in chapter 11, we have a delicious and gratifying surprise in store. Oh, it starts traditionally enough. In Hosea 11:1, Israel is described as YHWH’s “son,” whom God calls out of Egyptian slavery to become the chosen people. But the more YHWH called “the more they went from me; they were sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (Hos 11:2). Readers may now expect the usual prophetic assault in response to this continued idolatry, and that comes in vs 5. But vss 3-4 offer something quite different. Unfortunately, and quite often in Hosea, the text is far from clear; the transmission of the Hebrew has been poor, perhaps the poorest of all the prophetic literature. There is no certain reason why this is true, but there it is. We must do the best we can with language too often opaque.
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim (euphemism for the northern kingdom) to walk;
I took them up in my (Hebrew says “his”) arms,
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.”
If the next to last line is a possible reading (it takes one tiny alteration of one word to gain the reading), then the metaphors are feminine. In the ancient culture of Israel, it was always the women who taught children to walk, to lift small children into their arms, to offer words and actions of healing. And even more astonishingly in the final two lines YHWH is presented to us as a woman who lifts infants to her cheeks, offering her breasts for feeding.
As if this radical image were too much for the author, he (I am almost certain it is a male writer) quickly reverts to more common prophetic language, speaking of ravaging swords and devouring armies, finally warning that YHWH “will not raise them up at all” (Hos 11:7)! This same YHWH , who like a woman in vs 4 “lifts the child in her arms” now refuses “to raise them at all.” But the surprises are not over.
Now YHWH is in anguish over the recalcitrant people of Israel.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I make you like Admah,
treat you like Zeboiim? (These two towns have a connection to Sodom and Gemorrah)
My heart overturns within me;
my womb grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my raging anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim,
because I am God and no male,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.”
The NRSV’s translation of third line of vs 9 is not correct, I do not think. The Hebrew word used is ‘ish, a word that rarely if ever means generic “mortal.” Nearly always it means “male” as opposed to female, which in Hebrew is ‘ishah, the familiar pair from Genesis 2. I think what the male author is saying is that God is not a male, but is rather more like a female, rejecting a raging anger, not coming in wrath, precisely because YHWH is no male at all. We should note, too, that that famous word rechem, “womb” in Hebrew, is found in line 6 of vs 5. YHWH’s womb, YHWH’s compassion in the face of Israel’s refusal to listen to YHWH’s blandishments, “grows warm and tender,” a woman ready to give birth. And the fact that YHWH’s “heart overturns” suggests a thorough change in the way YHWH intends to relate to the wayward people. Wrath is no longer the order of the day, but womb-love, a woman’s gentler way.
I do not wish to stereotype women as innately more gentle than men, but I think we can agree that the portrait of men in the Bible often suggests that power and strength and authority are male traits, while women are seen as different. To be sure, it would be easy to suggest the same today, but we know that women and men are not to be so simply categorized. Still, I think the point stands in Hosea that the traditionally “male” ways of YHWH, seen everywhere in the tradition, are now to be eschewed for the gentler “female” ways in order that Israel can survive and prosper in the ways of its God. It is a radical move that Hosea makes, and we should be aware of its power for us.
Could it be that the election of a woman as president of the United States might offer a different way to see our national relationships in the world? I hardly mean to suggest that Hillary Clinton is inherently gentler than Donald Trump. Indeed, one of the things the next months of campaigning will reveal is her attempt to demonstrate her toughness in order to overcome the female stereotype I have just iterated. But is it not possible that a woman in the White House could give all of us a fresh look at the world, a world so riven with division and pain? I truly hope so, and my vote will add to that possibility. 2700 years ago, the author of Hosea saw, however dimly, that there are other ways to see the world and God than merely through dominant male eyes. I think it is time for us have an opportunity to see the world anew, too.