Hosea; how much further can you push the prophecy envelope?

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (Hosea 1:2)

There is so much to dislike in that snippet of Scripture, and it’s just one verse! As the story unfolds, things don’t get any better. Indeed, they degenerate further! Even so, as an opening line, I don’t think you can get much more offensive than this.

It’s the language, I think, that I find so jarring – “take yourself a wife of whoredom”! Of course, I thought it might just be the translation I was working with (the New Revised Standard Version in this case) so I compared it to some of the other translations, and it didn’t help a lot:

  • “Go, take thee a wife of fornications, and have of her children of fornications” (Douay Rheims Bible)
  • “Go, take unto you a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry”
    (American King James)
  • “Marry a prostitute and have children with that prostitute.”
    (God’s Word translation)

I think a part of my problem here is that a lot of the words used are words that have been used over the ages to specifically denigrate women who fail to stay chaste!

The point is often made that our language has a whole variety of awful words that are applied to women who fail to live up the standards of sexual purity set by the community, whereas when men behave in similar ways they are often admired and referred to as ‘studs’ or something similar.

Indeed, from the reading I’ve done, it seems to me that there has been a consistent campaign through history to control female sexuality, sometimes in very obvious and horrible forms, such as chastity belts or female genital mutilation. At other times the mechanisms of control are more subtle, such as through language.

The curious thing that has paralleled that, according to anthropologists Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha (in “Sex at Dawn”) has been a constant insistence by anthropologists and biologists that the female of the species is naturally more ‘coy’ (to use the term that Darwin regularly employed) – that women are by nature far more subdued and restrained in matters of sexuality.

Ryan and Jetha make the point that both these things cannot be true. If Darwin and his colleagues are correct, why has there been such a consistent history of the repression of female sexuality. Why build a barbed wire cage with an electric fence to contain a tame bunny that doesn’t want to go anywhere anyway?

My point is that these opening verses of the book of the prophet Hosea seem to immerse us right away in that awful context of female repression though the use of these words – whore, harlot, etc. – and if we take the whole story literally it appears that Gomer (the woman of notorious reputation that Hosea chooses for his project) is simply a tool in the hand of the prophet, used to make a point.

“Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” 3So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.” (Hosea 1:2-3)

It all sounds very contrived and deliberate, as if Hosea, after hearing God’s instructions, wandered down to the local brothel, found a likely-looking candidate, and put the proposition to her:

“How about we get married so that I can use our relationship as an example of how terrible this society’s relationship with their creator is, and then we have children and we’ll call them horrible names to reflect the doom coming on the land?”

Gomer replies, “Hey, why not?”

Call me a skeptic, but I just wonder if that’s how it really happened, and, in truth, a lot Biblical scholars question whether it could have really happened that way.

The alternative explanation, of course, is that Hosea and Gomer got married as a regular couple with all the hopes and dreams that regular couples have, but that their marriage went disastrously wrong. Gomer took on other lovers, and Hosea, in an attempt to make sense of what was happening to him and his family, interpreted his personal tragedy as being a reflection of what was happening in the life of his nation.

Whichever interpretation of the life of the prophet Hosea is correct, one thing is obvious – namely, that this man made no distinction between his personal and his professional life.

It’s curious that this is something that modern churches today almost insist upon (at least at the Protestant end of the ecclesiastical spectrum). I remember when I was at Moore College there was a lot of discussion about this – about the importance of separating your family from the ministry and how you should try and make sure that they rectory is a long way away from the church, so as to shield the rest of your family from the comings and goings of church members, let alone from the dubious characters who tend to descend on rectory properties in the middle of the night to get assistance from the priest.

Suffice it to say that I have never been an advocate of this model. I’ve always seen ministry as being a lot like boxing, in that you can’t afford to hold anything back.

I remember hearing Kostya Tszyu talk about this once – specifically, about why he lost his title fight against Ricky Hatton in 2005. He said that, while he was tipped to win that fight, he went into the ring not ready to die. His point was that, as a boxer, you’ve always got to be ready to die in the ring rather than lose if you want to win.

I totally believe that, and I think if that’s good enough for boxing, that surely should be our attitude when it comes to the main event – to the real fight of life: the battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. You’ve got to be willing to commit yourself completely to what you’ve been called to do, even if it kills you.

Having said that, I don’t think I could have pushed the envelope to the extremes that Hosea did. He didn’t just commit himself and his family to his prophetic ministry. He was the ministry. They were their message. They were the living embodiment of Hosea’s prophecy, and let’s remember that it was not a happy prophecy.

“[Gomer] conceived and bore [Hosea] a son. 4And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:3-4)

The naming of Hosea and Gomer’s first-born son takes us straight into the nitty-gritty of Hosea’s prophetic message, and indeed it is one of the only places in the book where Hosea speaks in specific terms about what exactly Israel has done wrong.

If you read though the whole book of Hosea – all fourteen chapters – you’ll find that most of it is an extended poem, and most of that poem revolves around the metaphor of God, the faithful husband and Israel, the unfaithful wife.

Amos, Hosea’s predecessor, had been very specific about the way the people of Israel had failed. They would “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes” (Amos 2:6). Israel had become a very stratified society, with the rich and the powerful working with the courts to exploit the poor, and Amos said God hated that.

Hosea, who seems to have started his prophetic ministry at around the same time Amos concluded his, is not so specific as to what he saw as being Israel’s great sin. He rarely speaks outside of the metaphor of God’s marriage to His unfaithful partner, and while there are references to idol-worship, where Hosea says the people have opted to worship the Baal rather than the God, it’s not clear whether he means that they had literally changed religion in some obvious sort of way or whether it was their behavior towards each other that amounted to idol worship.

Part of the problem here is that the Hebrew meaning of the word ‘Baal’ is literally ‘Lord’ or ‘Master’ or even (in a patriarchal society) ‘husband’. Hence the prophet plays on words, saying “In that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master” (Hosea 2:16). It’s a play on the word ‘Baal’.

The worship of Baal can take on a lot of different forms, and it doesn’t necessarily involve the casting of a golden calf or any such obvious forms of paganism. Those whom Amos had railed against for exploiting the poor were, I think, to Hosea’s  mind, worshipping the Baals instead of worshipping God – the God who created both the oppressor and the oppressed and loves them both equally.

Biblical scholar Tom Wright says that in the end there is only one sin in the Bible – idolatry. All sinful acts towards ourselves, towards our neighbours and towards creation itself are, from a Biblical point of view, Wright says, ultimately just another  failure to worship the creator.

I think Wright may be right, and I certainly think Hosea was of this mindset – that all forms of moral failure and relationship breakdown are ultimately forms of idolatry, though, as I say, the naming of his first-born son, ‘Jezreel’, does give us a clue as to one of the specific forms that Israel’s idolatry took.

Those who are familiar with their Hebrew Bibles will recognise Jezreel as the place where Jehu put an end to the household of Ahab, and bloody end it was.

It’s all recorded in the second book of Kings, chapter ten, if you haven’t read it, but be warned that it is a grizzly chapter in a grizzly saga, and the highlight is the piling up of the heads of the seventy sons of Ahab at the entrance to the city of Jezreel.

Interestingly, in the book of Kings this is recorded as being part of a great cleansing of the land after the tyranny of Ahab and Jezebel. Even so, by the time of Hosea, it must have been obvious that nothing good had come from this cleansing, and that the violence at Jezreel was just another dark chapter in the history of a nation that had been built on blood rather than on the love of Israel’s ever-faithful partner.

This is Hosea’s prophecy – that in the exploitation of the poor and in the violence of Jezreel and in more obvious forms of idol-worship perhaps, Israel had turned away from their creator to worship other gods. It’s only right that we do hear the message, rather than just get caught up in the personal life of the prophet, as bizarre as it was.

I don’t doubt that if Hosea was prophesying today over our country that he would see bemoan the multiple instances of violence and bloodshed in our own history just as he did in Israel, and no doubt he would see idolatry everywhere.

He would see it in our worship of the almighty dollar. He’d see it in the way we idolize celebrities simply because they are celebrities. He’d see it in the way we, as individuals and as a nation, repeatedly choose security and stability over freedom and compassion. He wouldn’t call it greed or stupidity or poor foreign policy. He’d give it the name it deserves – idolatry.

As I say, it’s important that we hear the message of Hosea, rather than simply get caught up in the biographical details of the prophet and his family. At the same time though, in Hosea’s case, as we’ve recognised, you can’t divide the man from the message all that easily. Hosea was his message. Hosea and Gomer together were the message. Hosea, Gomer, and their poor children were a living parable to the people of Israel, urging the nation to change direction before it was all too late!

In a sense, of course, it’s true for all of us that our lives are our message.

As St Francis was supposed to have said, “preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” We are always preaching the Gospel of Christ to those around us in the way we live and work and connect with them in love. The problem comes, I think, when the message we feel called upon to embody, looks more like Hosea’s prophecy of doom than it does like St Francis’ Gospel of peace.

Having said that, I find some encouragement here in the person of Hosea too, as he is a reminder that we don’t have to have our lives in perfect order in order to be embodiments of the message. On the contrary, perhaps even the hopeless parts of our lives can become a part of the proclamation of the Gospel of grace.

I remember my brother once sent me a graphic of one of those inspirational posters which has motivational words written on it. When I looked closely at this one though it was a picture of a ship going down at sea, and the writing said, “perhaps the purpose of your life is to be an example to others of what not to do”.

This was sent to me at a different stage of my life and I took it in good humor, and of course I’d like to think that I will leave behind me more than an example of what not to do. Even so, the encouragement I get from Hosea is that we don’t have to be examples of perfection either in order to be embodiments of the Gospel of truth. In the great things we do and in the small things we do, and even in the things we do really badly, God can speak. God will speak.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on July 28, 2019.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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