by Donna Jean Walker Haerich
The Theology of Hosea, Part I
No one reads in a vacuum. Everyone brings to the Bible their own bias and prejudice. I am no exception. As I read Hosea, I read it, first of all, as a woman. The first three chapters of the book are a love story gone awry and I am initially drawn to the character of Gomer. She is called a whore by none other than God himself. No, that’s not quite right, God instructs Hosea to marry a whore. Hosea chooses Gomer as a wife.
Now according to “the law” a good Jewish (read Israelite) boy was expected to marry a virgin. (Deut 22:15) He had legal recourse to divorce her if she was not chaste upon entering the marriage bed, and could even be stoned if she was deemed impure. (Deut 22:20) There are some commentaries that argue that Gomer was a whore only proleptically; that is, she was a virgin at the time of marriage but God knew she would stray and leave Hosea’s bed. Seemingly, God’s instructions to Hosea were to go marry a woman with propensity to sleep around.
Women, then as now, normally do not choose to be prostitutes. In a society, such as that of ancient Israel, where there was little opportunity for work outside the home, a woman needing food and a roof over her head often engaged in the world’s oldest profession. A kid from the flock would be considered good payment for one engagement of service rendered. (Gen38:11) However in Hosea’s day, there was another order of prostitution, approved by society and even sanctioned by the church. They were the Temple prostitutes. Worship of the fertility god, Ba’al, involved sexual activities at his temple to ensure a prosperous growing season.
Then, there is the possibility that Hosea actually fell in love with Gomer. But if she were already a temple prostitute, according to the law, he would be forbidden to marriage her. So God steps in and allows Hosea to follow his heart, knowing the inevitable results of such action.
There is no way of knowing which of these scenarios, if any, Gomer fits into. All we know is Hosea’s side of the story. Following his marriage, He had reason to doubt her faithfulness, and the names given to his children were a public indictment of her adulterous relationship. But then again, the names were not Hosea’s choice either; God told Hosea what to call his offspring. Why, one wonders, would a compassionate God, subject innocent children to such ridicule?
There, of course, is no way of knowing whether this “naming game” was biographical and literal or if it were merely a case of a prophetic pronouncement. Using children as prophetic symbols was the order of the day, such as when Isaiah named his son, Maher-Shalai-Hash-Baz; “the spoil speeds the prey hastens” or when Eli’s grandson was called Ichabod, “no glory”. (l Sam 4:19-22) (Is 8:7) Most women I know would be rightly peeved should their husbands take it upon themselves to invest their children with such monikers. And then on top of it make the claim, God told me to do it. But in those days children, as well as wives, were the property of men to do with as they chose.
After the divorce, Hosea is instructed by God to go and buy his wife back from another man who, according to the record, may have actually loved her. (3:1) Again, this action would run counter to the law of Moses which forbid a disgraced wife from returning to her first husband’s home. (Deut. 24:1-4) For Gomer, having endured an embarrassing divorce that involved being publically exposed, literally, to the community, then having to return as a purchased commodity would be a galling prospect, especially if forced to leave behind a home where she may have found some modicum of security and affection. One can only wonder about her reception among the other women of the community as she drew water from the public well. Did the other women commiserate with her situation or shun her?
As I said, I read the story from my own frame of reference and my first impression of God wasn’t all that favorable. I found little sympathy for a deity who would use people as object lessons. Fortunately for God, the story does bear further reading and a closer look at the details. Even Hosea comes across more humane upon a closer investigation.
My own hermeneutic for reading the Old Testament comes from my Adventist background. The unfolding of God’s ways and revealing of his character was an ongoing process. Following the flood the knowledge of God was almost lost on this earth. Thus God would initiate a process to restore this knowledge beginning with his call of a pagan, idol worshiper called Abram. For me the Old Testament is not a univocal document but rather the story of God’s gradual self revelation to a chosen people that finds culmination in the life of Jesus.
That said, the primary reason for inclusion of Hosea in the cannon is the wonderful and magnificent depiction of God as a passionate lover and his desire for an intimate relationship with his children. In this book, for the first time in canonical history, God’s relationship with Israel is described in terms of a marriage arrangement. And such a story could only be penned by an author, who himself was capable of intense and passionate love. Having endured the painful experience of a spouse who deserted him, taking action to publically divorce her, Hosea repents of his actions and continues to care and provide for her. This experience gave Hosea the emotional background to envision Israel from God’s perspective. Buying her freedom and seeking to woo her affections all over again, gives Hosea the spiritual insight and prophetic motivation that God needed to convey his own intentions toward Israel.
The “ah ha” that came to Hosea as he sensed the connection between his own deep emotions regarding Gomer and his realization that God must feel the same way regarding his people, inspired him to go public with his story. His role as a prophet, to call people back into covenant relationship with God took on a new dynamic as he wove his own personal experience into his message of impending judgment and his call for repentance.
God was able to take Hosea’s disastrous marital situation and from it bring a message of hope and encouragement to his faithless people. He inspired Hosea to recast his personal experience into an allegorical format, allowing Hosea to preach with persuasive power and eloquence that spoke to both the minds and hearts of his people.
The book opens with a short vignette that sets the stage for identifying Israel as an unfaithful spouse. Like an adulterous wife, Hosea writes, “the land has committed great harlotry, turning from following the Lord.”(1:2) Nevertheless the vignette assures readers that the Lord will have pity on her and will keep his promise to make Israelites as numerous as the sands of the sea. (1:10) God’s messages are always messages of hope and assurance.
The second vignette is a court setting in which a divorce is imminent. “If – then” is the word of the Lord. If she is not my wife, then I cannot be her husband. If she continues to chase other lovers, then her skirt will be lifted and her nakedness and her vulnerability exposed. If she leaves me, then the protective care she enjoys will then be lost. But the heart of this vignette takes the reader behind the scenes and records that it is the jilted lover who continues to provide for her well being and even takes actions to block her way of departure.
As this second vignette unfolds, this Lover is revealed to be none other than YHWH God himself. Poignantly he cries out, “she has gone after other lovers and forgotten me!” (2:13) Israel is revealed to be the bride, who in her youth was taken up from the land of Egypt. (2:14, 15) And the acts of harlotry are revealed to be the licentious religious practices and offering sacrifices to Baal and to Astaire. (2:17) In the story the whoredom of the woman symbolizes the adulterous spiritual relationship extant in the country. Loyalty and fidelity to the true God, who brought them out of slavery, has been replaced by the sensual worship of another god.
And it is in this setting that the response of God to Israel’s unfaithfulness is nothing less than spectacular. Yes, he has every right to terminate his relationship and cancel his covenant. The evidence of Israel’s apostasy is irrefutable. Yet what God does is unheard of in the religious world of the ancient Mideast. His response to seeming rejection is totally antithetical.
God says, “I am going to persuade her. I will reason with her and I will speak to her heart.”(2:14) In the first vignette God has already said that he would not force his way with her “by the sword or by warfare.”(1:7) In the second vignette, he proclaims that he will win her over by the power of sheer love alone. He will renew his covenant with Israel in the form of a betrothal. As a suitor he promises faithful love and tender compassion. And even though it was the practice in that day for wives to refer to their husbands as “my lord” such as Sarah did to Abraham (Gen 18:12; 1 Pet 3:6), God indicates that he wants his spouse to respond by calling him, “my man.”(2:16) He desires intimacy and mutual affection.
This picture of God as passionate lover of his people is as foreign to us today as it was to the Israelites in 700 BC. We are taught to greatly fear the practice of anthropomorphizing a sovereign, transcendent Deity before whom we must all stand in judgment. We dare not make him too much like ourselves. Hence it is too easy to reject this picture of God as quickly as we ignore Jesus’ offer to call us his Friends.
(John 15;15) Poor God.
Finally, in the third vignette, the analogous nature of Hosea’s relationship with Gomer and God’s relationship with Israel is made clear. (3:1) Hosea’s continuing love for a woman, who should be shunned, is encouraged by God! By law, a wife who had been cast off could not be taken back. (Deut. 24:1-5) Should God send Israel away, it would be considered impossible for her to return to her original state. It is noted that in order to bring Gomer home, Hosea had to go and purchase her from another lover. However, nothing in this passage suggests that God must take similar action to restore his relationship with Israel. It is only later atonement theories that suggest a transactional element is needed to restore relationship.
In all three vignettes God looks forward to the “that day” when his people will hasten eagerly toward him and his goodness. (1:5, 2:21, 3:5) The “day of the Lord” is often seen as the Day of Judgment, a day to be feared, a day when there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. However throughout the Old Testament whenever God dispenses justice, things are set right. In him “the orphan finds mercy.” (14:3) To depart from God is to suffer desolation and destruction. In the book of Hosea, God’s wrath occurs when people are absent from his presence. When people return to his protective care there is healing and restoration. “I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily.” (14:5)
In these first three chapters, Hosea clearly spells out the type of covenant relationship God desires with His chosen people. What God seeks most of all is to have is a personal love relationship. God’s ideal is the close intimate union of a married man and woman not just a legal arrangement such as would be the case between a vassal and the master. In these first few chapters, God is depicted as a aggrieved spouse who, while within his rights to take his partner to court and sever his ties with her, nevertheless goes to extreme lengths to reestablish the relationship and to restore faithfulness and trust. How does the story end?