(For the lectionary, July 24, 2016)
It is very risky to read and discuss, let alone preach, the book of Hosea. Its central theme is both infamous and unforgettable. YHWH appears to the 8th century BCE prophet, Hosea (a Hebrew name rooted in the word for “salvation,” a similar rootedness found in the name Jesus), and commands him to marry a whore. That is problematic enough, but the prophet is further commanded to have children with the woman, children that will then necessarily be “children of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2), making them instant outcasts and pariahs in the community. YHWH has in effect made the divine spokesperson a cruel joke, an object of scorn and ridicule, husband of a notorious wanton, and father of three repulsive kids. The first-born son will be named Jezreel (“God sows”), recalling a series of violent events that occurred in that verdant valley, all perpetrated by various leaders of the kingdom of the north, Israel. Jehu, reckless monarch, murdered all of the sons of Ahab, numbering 70, and piled their heads in a grisly mound of gory trophies in the valley. Jezebel, evangelist for the Baal gods and wife of Ahab, met her bloody doom in the valley as Jehu ordered her thrown down from a window in order that her crushed body might be eaten by dogs. And it was in Jezreel that Naboth was murdered by Ahab and Jezebel in order that the king could steal the man’s vineyard. Little wonder that YHWH announces that Hosea’s first-born will be named Jezreel as a sign of YHWH’s punishment of “the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel” (Hosea 1:4). The final result of this punishment will be “the end of the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:4). That prediction in fact comes true in 722BCE when the Assyrians decimate the kingdom, consigning it to the dustbin of history.
The second child of Hosea and Gomer is a daughter to be named “ Lo-ruhama” (“not pitied” or perhaps “not cherished”). This name comes from the amazing Hebrew word rechem, literally “womb.” Hebrew authors, who were primarily men, used this word as a symbol of the astonishing love that YHWH bears for the chosen people. The unique relationship that a woman feels for the unborn child in her womb, they said, was the same relationship that YHWH felt and feels for Israel. But Hosea’s daughter is a stark reminder that that relationship has now been shattered.
The third child is another son, Lo-ammi, a name redolent of the complete sundering of YHWH from Israel. It means “not my people;” nothing more terrible could be said than this final announcement that YHWH has thoroughly rejected the chosen ones, in effect ending the covenant and concluding the hopeful promise of Genesis 12: “through you (Abram) all the families of the earth will be blessed.” The Israelite experiment appears to be over, and Hosea’s three children are living witnesses to its demise.
But just what are we to do with these appalling views of women? Yes, it is 2700 years ago, and they were not nearly as enlightened as at least some of us are today, but the use of “whore” and “whoring children” remains offensive in the extreme. I remember preaching a sermon from Hosea where I used the word “prostitute” out loud more than once and then proceeded to create a scenario where Hosea brings Gomer to his home to introduce her to his parents who naturally enquire after her occupation—gross horror and hilarity ensue. I am not at all proud of that sermon and will never use such an idea again. Still, it is this offensive literary conceit that points to the broken and restored relationship between YHWH and the people of Israel.
And whether or not this harshly offensive notion of the marriage between Hosea and Gomer is historical or symbolic only is in the end not really important. According to the author of the book of Hosea, Israel is doomed, its flirtation with the Baals and its consequent refusal to care for the poor and marginalized of society, as the remainder of the book catalogues in grim detail, have angered their God so much that that God appears ready to start over with another people who might actually perform the divine will. The metaphor is without doubt fantastically memorable, however repulsive it sounds in our ears.
And yet. And yet. Something more needs to be noted, a something that might make that offensive anti-woman language slightly more palatable. Sprinkled within the harsh pronouncements of promised destruction and violent end, we find something quite different. We find a future with hope, a future quite distinct from the reality of the violent past. “And I will have pity (or “I will cherish”) the house of Judah, and I will save them by YHWH their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen” (Hosea 1:7). Earlier scholars of the prophets were quick to assign this passage to the hand of a dreaded “later editor,” a Judean apologist, who in the attempt to assuage the fury of YHWH for himself and his own kingdom has YHWH announce salvation for the southern kingdom Judah, the northern kingdom of Israel be damned as they richly deserve. Such a claim makes obvious literary sense, since we know well that Israel was soon destroyed, while Judah hung on for nearly 150 more years. I admit that I agreed with this assessment when first I read Hosea some 50 years ago.
I now am not so sure. Is it not the case that pain and hope are regularly found together? Are we bereft of hope when violence and pain occur, or do we usually attempt to find hope even in the midst of pain? We do not avoid or downplay the realities of pain when we search for hope, nor do we forget our pain when we focus on a distant and dim morsel of hope. I suggest that the two belong together, and the prophet Hosea suggests that, too. Even the lectionary writers agree when they add Hosea 1:10 to the lection for today (English 1:10 is in fact Hebrew 2:1). Right after the dark announcement of the birth of “not-pitied,” the sign of YHWH’s giving up on Israel, the author writes, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’” (Hosea 1:10). It is no accident that the author would recall for us the famous patriarchal promise once again about Israel becoming like the “sand on the seashore,” in the face of Sarai’s and Abram’s ongoing childlessness and Jacob’s flight from his rightly furious brother, Esau. Hope often springs up in the midst of disaster and pain.
Hosea proclaims at the beginning of his prophecy that fact that we Christians must never forget but too often do: our faith is in the God who never gives up on us. One cannot be a pessimist and a Christian at the same time: the two terms are finally oxymoronic. No matter how dark and hopeless and cruel and violent the world is, and our 24-hour news cycles scream all that to us all the time, we Christians continue to believe in hope, a hope based squarely on the love of God as fully revealed to us in Jesus. We humans, just like our fellow humans 2700 years ago in far-off Israel, are prone to wander from the call and way of God. But that God, finally, will never wander away from us. This is not at all to say that God will not be vastly disappointed in us again and again, nor is it to say that we may not do huge damage to ourselves and the world God has given to us. But God still calls us to follow; there is a far better way with God, and we can still follow that call. Pain and hope may be found together, but hope, grounded in love, will abide. You can take that to the bank, Christian!
This reflection is written in a maelstrom of anger and death in our country. More black men have been killed in confrontations with police, and police officers in turn have been targeted for death by enraged persons, trying to take justice into their own hands, a justice they feel has been denied them as African-American people. To date, five officers in Dallas and three more in Baton Rouge, LA have been murdered. In addition, the Republican National Convention convenes this week, and at that convention Donald Trump will become the nominee of that party for the presidency. Mr. Trump has fashioned much of his campaign on the need for strength against forces that, he feels, threaten to disrupt our society. He includes immigrants, especially Muslims, along with angry black persons in his list of those who need correction and in extreme cases removal from the country. These are dark and dangerous times for our nation.
In the midst of these difficult moments, however, Hosea assures us that God remains active in the search for justice for all people and that that justice will ultimately prevail. In the midst of pain there is always hope. May that hope remain for us our guiding principle as we vote this fall and as we move toward lives of inclusive wholeness with all people, all of whom have been created and loved by God.
(An imaginative portrait of Hosea)