We remain with the Northern Kingdom this week, as the prophet Hosea, about a hundred years after the ministry of Elijah, continues to entreat the people to return to faithful worship and covenant loyalty to their God.

The journey Hosea takes is extraordinary. The scroll begins with God telling the prophet to act out the unfaithfulness of the people in his own life and relationships, famously taking an “unfaithful wife” (CEV) (literally, a “wife of whoredom”: Hosea 1:2, NRSV). God then instructs Hosea and his wife Gomer to give their children divine threats for their names: “God scatters,” “No mercy,” and “Not my people” (Hosea 1:4, 6, 9).

Ten chapters later, in the verses selected for this week, Hosea’s words speak with God’s own pain-filled passion. (The Working Preacher commentary by Michael J. Chan can be found here.) As I prepared to share these reflections, I abruptly recalled a song from my childhood, “Hosea” by Gregory Norbet, sung here by the composer.

“Long have I waited for your coming home to me, and living, deeply, our new life.” (Norbet)

It was through this musical interpretation of scripture that I first encountered the ideas of God’s heartbreak at our unfaithfulness, God’s longing for us,  and God’s delight at our return.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” (Hosea 11:1)

God speaks as a mother, remembering the events of her child’s life, alternating between metaphor and hard, heartbreaking fact. The more she doted, the more he distanced. He worshiped Ba’al; “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my 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” (Hosea 11:3-4).

She enumerates what sound more like consequences than punishments: renewed captivity in “Egypt,” war, chaos, even her own ears, deaf to their pleas (Hosea 11:5-7). She turns away, until she can no longer bear it.

How often have I heard it said, “The God of the Hebrew scriptures is a God of law/ vengeance, and the God of the New Testament is a God of love/ grace”? The next passage puts that silly notion to rest.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender. (Hosea 11:8)

Admah and Zeboiim are mentioned as being in close proximity to Sodom and Gomorrah, and are said to have been destroyed when God punished those more famous cities (Genesis 19:24-25; Deuteronomy 29:23). Some commentators say that to become like Admah and Zeboiim is, therefore, to pass out of, not only existence, but also of memory. Others note that the smaller cities, though not known to be wicked, are destroyed because of their nearness to the larger cities– swept up in the purge caused by Sodom and Gomorrah’s dreadful behavior towards strangers (immigrants).

God rejects all of this. Instead, Hosea describes God’s inner life with a turn of phrase that evokes a physical sensation– an inner warming, a stirring– indicating a love so tender that no such measures are possible.

In the final verse, the stunning explanation. It is not that God is a mother. (Though, God is a mother.) Rather, it’s that God is God. “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 11:9). It is simply not in God’s nature to exact vengeance, even here, even now, even in the face of such betrayal and heartache. God is God.

“Long have I waited for your coming home to me, and living, deeply, our new life.”

Sermon seeds:

  1. Mother God. It is so rare to find feminine or maternal imagery in scripture, I imagine many preachers might be drawn to explore these images.
  2. God of law/ vengeance? God of grace/ love? Michael J. Chan states, in his Working Preacher commentary, “When Christians think about God’s willingness to suffer on behalf of sinful humans, they often think about Christ hanging from the cross. And they should. But Hosea 11:1-9 helps us realize that the cross is not a new development in the life of God, it represents who God is fundamentally.” There is much reparative work for preachers to do in helping their Christian congregations to see that the God of grace/ love/ mercy is present throughout scripture.
  3. Edited to add: I suddenly have had an understanding of why I felt compelled to add some information on Hosea 1. This is his call story. This in itself is a compelling sermon topic. How does Hosea’s living out of God’s naming of Israel’s unfaithfulness in his own life make a difference to the way in which he is able to convey God’s message?

And you? How does this passionate love song call to you? Please join us in the comments, and every blessing upon your study and your preaching!

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24 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Come Back to Me (Hosea 11:1-9)

    1. Gord, I think you and I are very much in the same place with this reading. We even both were moved to share songs that connected with the passage!

      I’ve suddenly had an insight about why I felt compelled to share thoughts on chapter 1: It’s Hosea’s call story. And what a call it is!

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  1. This is powerful, Pat, thank you–especially drawing out the Motherhood of God, so often neglected even by female pastors trained in androcentric seminaries and working with androcentric lectionaries. There is actually a lot more divine feminine imagery in the bible than most people think since Jesus and the entire Hebrew speaking OT called the Holy Spirit=Ruach She but that is masked in androcentric translation as well. And of course there’s Wisdom=hochmah though I get more of Her in my Catholic bible that adds Wisdom and Sirach to Proverbs.

    I haven’t been following this series (if it is one). Have you grappled with the misogynist/abusive spouse/sex work shaming issues in Hosea (and other prophetic literature as Renita Weems points out in Battered Love)? Those are always challenging for me as a feminist theologian and pastor specializing in those issues in many ways in my ministry –and who also has some personal affection for the Hosea song and source texts.

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  2. I can only see the feminine divine imagery in the context of the whole book, which is much more complex. And pushing the feminine God image in a book where God takes on/takes in all of the violence is troubling in other ways, as alluded above.
    And while God describes Godself as one who holds infants to their cheek, God is also the one who roars like a lion and scares the pants off the people. I’m reading through verse 11 on Sunday. Not sure why they stopped at vs 9.

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    1. The really objectionable sexual politics are clearly cis male imagery–I find the mother images later in the book a nice balance. But the reason I create all kinds of divine feminine scripture and prayer and liturgy materials including psalms is that She is not just a sappy Hallmark mother–she’s totally loving and tender, and fierce for justice and holiness, and a consuming fire, and a pain in my tush sometimes, etc. etc.!

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        1. Of course not–just as feminism means bringing equality by bringing women up to men’s level rather than reversing the sexism in the other direction, and the same with anti-racism, -homophobia, etc! Men and women are both made in God’s image, and both are found in the bible–along with natural and conceptual ones–so I believe we should be using both equally–and all the other ones too. The more images we have the more we know the richness of God who is so wonderful and beyond all our words and images, and the more we remember they’re all metaphors and not literal, and the more choices we have to give positive experiences to people with different personalities and life experiences. I love Papa God dearly–as do all the feminist theologians I know–but it is terribly impoverished to only use Father and Lord and He when She/He wants to come to us in a zillion different ways. I highlight the feminine images because they are so neglected and they feed me and many of the people I serve and I do grieve that they are so left out of most theological education.

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  3. Glad to hear that–the present liturgy is so dominated by male language that I have received a lot of suspicion from some male and female pastors for advocating adding in female. Some don’t know that it is orthodox both biblically and traditionally–for which I blame their seminary professors and compilers of denominational materials. The brand new Presby hymnal which has some nice bits has a heartbreaking essay explaining why they have not totally abandoned Father and Lord –which feminist theologians have been explaining for fifty years is not at all what we are arguing for! Some do understand and support it privately but don’t implement it much in worship or preaching for fear of the same suspicion and negative consequences in their pastoral calls.

    To me it’s not the maleness of some of the imagery in this book that is the problem but the sexual violence aspect. I thought I understood you to be objecting to that as well, and mentioning it as a reason to not emphasize or rejoice in the female imagery present in the same book–which was why I then differentiated between the texts featuring the two theological streams. But maybe I misunderstood you there?

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  4. What I do see as a problem is the lack of female imagery to balance out the ubiquitous male imagery, which was why I was praising Pat for highlighting it with such courage and insight! Above all by boldly claiming “she” for God. I have been heartbroken to read female pastors instruct newer ones “never use a pronoun” –which actually ends up in practice as “never say she” because even if their preaching and pastoral prayer uses neutral language the scriptures, hymns, and official denominational prayers are heavily male and occasionally neutral. And just as most of us picture a male when we hear firefighter which is technically neutral because of tradition the combo of male and neutral leaves the impression of a male God and female language as taboo/pagan.

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      1. Ha! I inspired her. My sermon title is, in fact, “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
        After reading a lot of the material out there at Narrative Lectionary resources, I’m reminding myself to keep it simple. The parental and specifically maternal metaphor is enough of a homiletical pursuit without picking up the beginning of Hosea in anything more than a brief description. Something that might preach is the contrast between the parenting styles recommended for my parents vs. parents now, in particular the role of anger. Anger and intimidation were justified parenting techniques, and now they are not. Hosea 11 gives us God as a mother who is angry (and justifiably so), but who is also God and does not need to act out of that anger. “I am God and no mortal.”
        All that being said, I think I’m going to drop in on kathrynzj’s Bible study today. She’s got some wise heads gathered every Thursday. I’m going to listen to them.

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        1. The best of marriages have us inspiring one another…. not surprised at all!

          And I like your pathway to a sermon very much. VERY much.

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        2. Love the parenting styles focus! Since anger–a healthy and inescapable response to hurtful behavior– is so shamed in the church and other spiritual circles, especially for women, I would personally phrase it as physically and emotionally nonviolent expressions of anger, which is also healthy modeling for kiddos and others, rather than not feeling or acting on it at all. I love the place in the Color Purple where Shug tells Celie that God gets pissed when we walk by a field and don’t notice the created beauty. “What it do when it get pissed?” “It make something else!”

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  5. I just love your blog, I read it every week! I did want to point out something about Hosea chapter 11. Seeing as the Bible is overwhelmingly Patriarchal in its orientation, I do not necessary disagree with you that this is feminine / maternal imagery… in fact I will be pointing this out in my sermon tomorrow. I just wanted to add here that as a father, the imagery meshes totally with my feelings and experiences as well. My wife and I have 4 kids, but we have always been egalitarian about nurture (she has always worked corporately and travels a lot). Even so, I can think of half a dozen mothers that worry about their kids in a way that reminds me of God worrying over Her child Israel… can’t think of a Father who has ever told me as much.

    Also… Kathrynzj: Nice Rick Astley video! The name of my sermon is Never Gonna Give You Up!

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    1. Thank you so much for joining in the conversation! I appreciate your comments on egalitarian child-rearing, something I’m very grateful my own children experienced. I think the activities described in this passage probably described activities more typically associated with mothers in the context in which it originated, however, and I do think it important to lift these little gems up where we can.

      I’m so glad you read the RevGals’ weekly sermon starter! We have a great team, and I’m delighted to be a part of it. Blessings to you in your preaching this weekend.

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