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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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