“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? … My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:8)
The words of the prophet Hosea – a man with whom I feel I have a lot in common!
You remember Hosea, don’t you? He married Gomer, his town’s most notorious sex-worker. They had three children, and Hosea gave each of them horrendous names! His family life was so dysfunctional indeed that no self-respecting religious institution in the history of the world would ever have considered giving him a job, and yet he was one of God’s greatest prophets of the eighth century B.C. and, as I say, he’s a man with whom I feel I have a lot in common!
My sense of connection with the prophet is not in the specifics of his dysfunctional family-life, mind you, but rather in the way in which his public life and private life were completely integrated. Here is another character who, like myself, doesn’t really have any private life that is not also public. Here’s another brother who never really goes home from work, but who’s home-life is his work. Mind you, when it comes to the integration family life and ministry, Hosea does push the envelope further than any parish priest I’ve ever heard of! He takes vocation to ministry to a whole new level! Even so, I’m a little surprised that no one has ever claimed him as patron saint of parish clergy. Perhaps the church still isn’t ready to fully own Hosea just yet!
Hosea, as I say, was an eighth century prophet, which means that he was prophesying to the northern state of Israel in the lead-up to its destruction by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and it’s in that context that he broadcasts the details of his failed marriage to his contemporaries, hoping that they’ll see the parallels with their own failings in terms of their relationship with God!
It’s a unique ministry, and it’s hard to be sure exactly how it all developed. Some scholars suggest that Hosea was just a guy whose marriage went disastrously wrong but who then interpreted his marital failings in terms of his prophetic message. In terms of the way the story is written though (and we presume the prophet himself wrote the story), it would appear that Hosea had felt called by God from the beginning to go out and find some notorious sex-worker, marry her, and start having children by her that could become a part of his message!
If this is really how it happened, I envisage some very awkward initial meetings between Hosea and Gomer and Gomer’s minders, and I can’t really imagine how Hosea ever convinced Gomer to come on board with the project!
Can we imagine Hosea’s initial conversation with the management at the brothel?
‘I’m looking for Gomer… No, I just want to talk to her. I’ve got a proposition to put to her… No, not that sort of proposition. I’m a prophet, and I want to see if she’ll partner me in ministry!’
I had my own awkward conversation with the management of a local brothel not long ago.
If you remember when I had my fight back in February I was looking for a sauna I could use to shed the last few pounds before the weigh-in, and it turns out that there aren’t many saunas in this area! I’d been told that there was one in the indoor-pool complex in Tempe, but when I went there they told me that their sauna was closed!
In desperation I did an Internet search for saunas in the Marrickville area and was delighted when I found some Sauna Centre located in one of the back streets right near where we live! I rang up the number immediately and asked them how much it cost to use their sauna.
I said “This is Father Dave. I believe you have a sauna there. I’m wondering how much it costs to use it.” There was a long pause, after which I was told “if you have the full one-hour service you can use the sauna.” I said “I just want to use the sauna. Can I just use the sauna without any service?” There was another long pause … “no”
That was awkward, but nothing compared to what the early conversations between Hosea and Gomer must have been like! How did Hosea manage to convince Gomer both to marry him and to participate in this elaborate charade whereby they had to expose their children to ridicule and shame for the sake of getting Hosea’s message heard? Maybe Gomer thought it would be fun? More likely, to my reckoning, was that she must have been a genuinely pious woman, willing to let go of everything she’d had in life up to that point to join Hosea in his costly and unique prophetic work!
The naming of the children is certainly where I would have drawn the line had I been Gomer. Hosea names the oldest child ‘Genocide’ (or he may as well have)! Hosea named the boy after the town where Jehu had butchered the entire royal household of the line of Ahab, and put everybody’s head in a basket! Who names their child after an event like that?
The second child, his and Gomer’s only daughter, is named, literally, ‘No Pity’. If Hosea had been an Australian, I suppose he would have called her ‘Hopeless Joke’ or something very similar to that.
The third child is named “Not Mine”, which may reflect the fact that Hosea wasn’t sure whether or not he was the father this time (yes, it was that sort of marriage)! In truth, Hosea quite literally named his third child ‘the bastard’.
Of course the name can be taken to indicate the spiritual state of Hosea’s audience as the prophet understood the situation – that God was in fact saying to these people ‘you are not mine’! Most likely the name was supposed to reflect both the spiritual and family tragedies – the anguish of both Hosea and God!
However we envisage things developing, it’s hard to imagine how these children must have fared at school, let alone what they thought of their dad! I’m sure that at some point the children must have had this out with their father:
“Can I have a word to you, dad!”, says the youngest son. “Of course, Bastard, tell me what’s on your mind.” “Well … I’ve been talking to my brother and sister (Gene and Joke) and we are wondering why you didn’t just change your own name. After all ‘Hosea’ means ‘God saves’. How come you got ‘God saves’ and we got Genocide, Hopeless Joke and The Bastard?
I don’t know how to best interpret the family life of Hosea. The other area I wonder about in the Hosea story is exactly how to interpret the idolatry he rales against.
Hosea’s basic thrust is that is that the people of Northern Israel have abandoned the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and have instead whored after the gods of the Canaanite’s – ‘Baal’ – but I think it’s a mistake to view this as a simple switch from one religious franchise to another.
For a start, the word ‘Baal’ is quite a generic term when applied to religious deities and could signify any number of forms of worship. Indeed, ‘Baal’ literally just means ‘Lord’, or even ‘husband’, and hence could be a word used by a faithful Jew to refer to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!
The prophet Hosea indeed plays on the ambiguity of the word in his preaching, though most of this is lost in the translation into English.
“And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’” (Hosea 2:16)
This is a play of words – God in his relationship to His unfaithful people is their husband but not their Baal, which is really the same thing (Ha! Good one, Hosea)!
My point is that the movement from true worship to Baalism is not necessarily a conscious switch of products. My guess is that most of the people of northern Israel weren’t aware of having made any sort of switch. It took the prophet to come along to them and say ‘this isn’t the God of your fathers that you’re worshipping any more. It’s Baal!’
You see this process beginning at the very separation of the two kingdoms.
If you don’t know the history, the kingdom of Israel divides into two after the death of King Solomon. Jeroboam, son of Nebat, rebels against Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam, and sets up a new northern capital in Samaria and builds a new temple there in order to stop his people having to perform regular pilgrimages down to the temple in Jerusalem (in the south).
According to the first Book of Kings, when Jeroboam built his temple he made two golden calves and put them on display as objects of worship, saying “Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28)
Note that Jeroboam didn’t say “forget the worship of the God of your fathers who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Let’s worship Baal instead.” On the contrary, he says “let us continue in the worship of the God of our fathers – almighty, all holy, and fertile (as you can see by these two helpful icons I’ve built for you).”
Was Jeroboam still worshiping the God who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt? Jeroboam would say ‘of course!’, but when the prophet Hosea comes along, he says “this is NOT the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at all!”
What takes place is something that is much closer to home than we might realise. No religion is impervious to the values of the culture in which it is embedded, but there comes a point where the culture actually takes over and where the spiritual kernel of religious truth has been completely dissolved!
I’m not sure how you pick the tipping-point. We know of plenty of churches that teach that God will make you rich, and give you a better-paying job, a bigger bank balance and a more vibrant sex-life, but at what point do you say “Hang on! I don’t think this is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that you’re worshipping anymore!”?
I heard a wonderful illustration the other day of the vacuous nature of the idolatry that dominates our culture. I was listening to a lecture on cultural intelligence, and the lecturer mentioned a conversation between a Mexican fisherman and a visitor from New York who was saying in his village.
The American noticed that the fisherman only seemed to work for a few hours each day and he asked him why. The Mexican replied that he caught enough fish for his family each day in only a few hours (and enough for his extended family as well), so he’d come back mid-morning, play with his children, and in the afternoons he’d go into town and play music with his friends, relax and enjoy life!
The American said to him “but if you worked a few extra hours you could catch a lot more fish, sell the ones you didn’t eat, and use the extra money to gradually establish your own fishing fleet!” The Mexican asked why would want to do this.
The American said that once he had a fleet of boats, he could stop fishing altogether and employ others to do it. Indeed, he could move to somewhere like New York and develop his business remotely, buying even more boats and establishing something of a fishing empire!
The Mexican asked him how long this would take. The American suggested about fifteen to twenty years of hard work! The Mexican asked him what he would do then. The American said “well, that’s the best part. You then sell your business for millions and use the money to retire to some quite seaside village where you can go fishing for few hours each morning, come back and play with your grandkids, wander into the town and play music with your friends – relax and enjoy life!”
When you look at it like that, it all seems pretty pointless. Even so, we all buy-in this to some extent, and no religious tradition or form of worship is impervious to the values of its culture. Even so, how do you determine when your worship has transitioned from being culturally relevant to having sold out? Well … that’s the job of the prophet – to help the worshipping community correctly interpret what they are doing, and that’s what Hosea did – telling the people of northern Israel that their relationship with their God was a lot like his dysfunctional marriage!
I think this is a powerful and illuminating image for us too. We love God and we want to live in a faithful relationship with God but we sleep around too! We can’t help ourselves. The allure of the Baals is just too strong!
It’s how we operate. We don’t walk out on God. We stay in the relationship; however dysfunctional that relationship may have become! It’s just not our style to get up one day and say “I’ve had it with serving the Lord, Jesus Christ. I’m going to try Buddha for a while. He seems far less demanding!” No. We worship and we pray as per usual, and we do try hard to seek His Kingdom, but we build our own little kingdom on the side too. We sleep around.
We want to store up riches in Heaven, but we’d like a solid nest-egg here on earth too, and we will break down our barns and build bigger ones if we can. In other words, we sleep around!
It’s a damning indictment – Hosea’s words of judgement upon God’s chosen people, and yet it rings true for me, and I suspect that we can all sense its relevance. We are not the faithful partners to God that we wish we were. We have not been true to our first love. We continue on in a dysfunctional relationship with our Heavenly Father – leaving undone the things we ought to have done and doing the things we ought not to have done.
That is the bad news. The Good News that Hosea reminds us of though is that despite our constant and inevitable philandering, God remains faithful to us:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? … My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hosea 11:8-9)