Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
July 28, 2013
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for
this reading, but there is available a
As in many cases in the Lectionary readings, this text requires careful attention to its larger context within the book. Understanding the structure of the book of Hosea is crucial in seeing how particular passages fit within the literary context. There are 2 major parts of the book, organized in a technique called recapitulation. This technique introduces major themes quickly in a summary fashion, and then expands in subsequent passages to add more details in light of the major themes. In some books, such as Isaiah or The Revelation, later passages circle back to the major themes several times. Here in Hosea the summary, repeated twice in two different series of familial metaphors (three children, ch. 1-2, a marriage, ch 3), is followed by a climactic progression to the conclusion of the book.
Chapters 1-3 summarize the key elements of the prophet's message of judgment and grace in the metaphor of Hosea's marriage to the prostitute Gomer (the term "prostitute" should be understood in Hosea as a character trait rather than a profession). Chapters 4-14 convey the same message in more detail, although in a more clearly defined progression. Chapters 1-10 focus on the sins of the people, chapter 11 is an affirmation of God's grace, chapters 12-13 proclaim the possibility of newness and restoration, and chapter 14 is a dynamic call to repentance based on God's grace. This tightly organized structure suggests that any passage within the book of Hosea should be read within the framework of this movement.
The historical and cultural context of Hosea is the middle 8th century BC in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Most scholars date the ministry of Hosea to around 750-740 BC. He was a close contemporary of Amos, although there is no indication that they had any contact (Amos was from the Southern Kingdom, while Hosea was a Northerner). While the final form of the book of Hosea certainly dates from a later period, the message of the book needs to be seen against the background of this era.
The cultural context of Hosea likewise should be seen against the background of the religious syncretism of the Northern Kingdom. Because of its heavier dependence on agriculture, its more exposed geographical location allowing open interaction with other cultures, and aggressive evangelism for Ba'al by rulers like Ahab and Jezebel, the fertility gods of the Canaanites were as commonly worshiped in the North as was the God of the Fathers (see Baal Worship). While Amos tackled the results of that syncretism in terms of social justice and ethics, Hosea took on Ba'al worship directly as the root cause of the Northern Kingdom's decline.
The division of this lectionary reading interrupts the flow of thought of the opening section of the book. In the Hebrew text, verse 10 begins chapter 2, which serves to divide the negative aspects of verses 2-9 from the corresponding positive affirmations of verses 10-11 and 2:1. The lection reading, in breaking at verse 10, divides the first positive response from the last two. It is clear, from the play on the names of the children, that the three negative names are intended to be answered with the three positive reversals, so this commentary will treat the unit as 1:2-2:1. There is debate over whether 2:1 should be included with this section or as the introduction to the next (with the metaphors of "brother" and "sister," v.11, going with "mother," "wife," and "husband," 2:1). While it can be seen as a transitional verse to the next section, since it includes the reversal of the third name it is better to take it with this section.
One of the initial questions in dealing with this text concerns the morality of God commanding Hosea to marry a prostitute (v. 2). Many try to vindicate God's morality in this rather unusual action by offering various explanations: Gomer only became a prostitute after they were married; Gomer's prostitution was only a metaphorical way to talk about Israel and she was never really a prostitute; the women in chapters 1 and 3 are actually different people, the children were not Hosea's, and since the marriage was never actually consummated (3:3) the entire sequence is on the level of acted parable.
While we may want to raise the issue, and should be prepared to give some answer if others do so, there are several reasons why we should not become preoccupied with this aspect of the text, especially in preaching. First, there is simply not enough information in these three chapters to write a biography of Hosea's family life, deduce psychological aspects, or romanticize the situation. The focus of this text is not Hosea, in spite of the fact that the metaphors for the message are drawn from his life. The focus is on God and his dealings with Israel, and to allow our curiosity to usurp the focus of the text itself will probably lead us to misread it.
Second, the theology of the passage does not depend on how we answer detailed questions about Hosea and Gomer's relationship. For whatever reason, in whatever way, this marriage and the family situation that swirls around it are the background for Hosea graphically presenting the relationship between Israel and God.
Third, the pathos of the marriage metaphor that provides the basis for the emotive and theological dimension of the message likewise does not depend on knowing the exact nature of the relationship, or on deciding how God could do such a thing. The emotive element immediately engages us on a common level of human existence that transcends time and culture. The tenderness of the metaphors of love and marriage and family, even beyond the superficial dimensions that are often overlaid on these images in our culture, leads us to understand the magnitude of what is happening in God's relationship with Israel in ways that a normal "sermon" would not.
Finally, our concern with the morality of God's command may say far more about our own perspectives and cultural concerns than it does about any inherent problem in the text. Sexual immorality was certainly not condoned in Israel, especially the kind involved in Ba'al worship as Jeremiah so graphically tells us. But then neither was it quite on the same level that it is in much of evangelical Christianity. In Hosea's world, the larger issue was far more the syncretism with Ba'al worship even, or perhaps especially, in sexual matters. That must be left at the heart of the passage.
The text simply says that God told Hosea to "take a wife of harlotry" (v. 2). Whatever the precise details of the situation, it is immediately clear that the governing metaphor in the message will be "whoredom" or "prostitution." Here, we must resist moving this to issues of morality or sexual ethics. That is simply not what the passage is about. The metaphor is against the background of marriage relationship, conceptualized in terms of a covenant in which both parties have obligations to each other. The issue raised in using the metaphor of prostitution is unfaithfulness in that covenant relationship that such adultery (or prostitution, or harlotry) would reveal (4:10b-13a).
The entire marriage metaphor and the naming of the children, whatever the precise historical background, is best understood in the category of prophetic symbolic action. Prophets often took everyday events and aspects of life and used them to illustrate or dramatically act out the message they wanted to communicate (e.g., Isa 20, Jere 13:1-11, Ezek 4). Isaiah also used the names of three children to help him communicate his message (chs 7-8). This simply says again that the message must be left at the center.
There has been much speculation as to the nature of Gomer's "whoredom." We tend to think of prostitutes as part of the seamier side of life, associated with dark corners, drugs, and organized crime, a profession or way of earning money that works at the lowest levels of human existence. However, in the environment of Ba'al worship, ritualized prostitution was a form of worship practiced in the Ba'al temples and shrines, and perhaps elsewhere. It was a part of "respectable" society, since it supposedly insured the fertility of the land, livestock, and people. It was not so much a profession as it was a way of viewing life.
This has led some to suggest that Gomer was such a temple prostitute, actively engaged in the worship of Ba'al, which would, of course, be at the same time unfaithfulness to Yahweh as God. Given the content of Hosea's message, this way of viewing the text is especially appealing and perhaps even likely. The conjecture is reinforced by the fact that there are references within the book to just such activity (4:13b-14). However, there is no direct evidence that Gomer was such a temple prostitute, which at the least raises caution about hanging too much interpretation on that assumption.
There are also various speculations as to whether the three children in the book were actually Hosea's. Some suggest that the phrase "children of whoredom" (2:2) intends to say that they were Gomer's by other lovers. But again, as appealing as this may be for sermonizing, there is simply not enough in the text to make such conclusions. The phrase could just as easily be understood to mean that the children carried the stigma of their mother's actions without reference to parentage. The issue concerning the children is not who fathered them, but that Hosea uses their names to communicate his message.
Unlike the following two names, the name of the first child, Jezreel (Heb: "God sows"), has a dual meaning in referring to a geographical place. This first meaning given the name (vv. 4-5) picks up the negative overtones of the Valley of Jezreel as a place of warfare and bloodshed (see The Valley of Jezreel/Plain of Esdraelon; the second positive meaning does not emerge in the text until 2:22-23). The specific reference is to the bloody rebellion launched by Jehu against the dynasty of Ahab that was still controlled by Jezebel. In 843 BC Jehu, encouraged by Elijah (1 Kings 19:15-17) and Elisha (2 Kings 9:1-13), overthrew and killed Johoram, king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well as Ahaziah King of Judah, with much of the battle taking place in Jezreel (2 Kings 9-10; see Chart of Israelite Kings). The following unrest not only resulted in the death of Jezebel, but a prolonged slaughter of Ba'al worshippers in the North. As positive as the decline in Ba'al worship that resulted is viewed by the biblical traditions, the mass murders crippled the leadership of the Northern Kingdom for many years.
Hosea's threat of judgment against the house of Jehu can be seen in a larger context than simply "punishment" from God (the actual Hebrew word is not "I will punish" as NRSV, but "I will visit"; see The Day of Visitation in the article The Day of the Lord: Metaphors of Accountability). While there is no question that the Israelites interpreted certain historical events as the work of God in the world, they did not have a simplistic notion that God always directly intervened in the world to punish sin (the Noah story deals with this issue theologically, Gen 6-9). Especially the prophets, who were largely interpreters of history in light of what they understood about God, saw in the unfolding of history not only the direct action of God, but also the outworking of the consequences of human actions and decision.
It was not just that God would directly punish a king of Israel 100 years later for the sins of previous kings. It was that Jehu's excesses, as well as the outright sins of his successors like Jeroboam II, had set the nation on a course that would lead to ruin and devastation unless they changed it. This could be attributed to God because they believed that God was sovereign Creator, that they were responsible to God for their actions in His creation, and therefore the consequences of sinful actions were simply how God's world "works." The course was not inevitable; otherwise the calls to repentance and promises of a better future that are a mark of the prophets would have little meaning. But the prophets were also convinced that if the course were not changed, the consequences would consume the nation and people.
The phrase "in a little while" (NRSV, v. 4) can also be translated "very soon." In 745 BC the last ruler of the house of Jehu, Zechariah, was assassinated in a struggle for the throne. In fact, it may have been a combination of the assassination of Zechariah and the ascension of Tiglath-Pileser III in Assyria that prompted Hosea's message.
The name of the second child moves away from the historical situation to theological evaluation of the nation's relationship with God. The name, Lo-ruhamah, means "no mercy" or "no compassion" (the Hebrew term lo is the negative). The term ruhamah (the root raham), is a significant theological term in Hebrew. It derives from the Hebrew term for "womb" (Heb: rehem) and so connotes affection and motherly love. It most often describes GodÃ's grace toward his people with the emotive overtones of a parent lovingly caring for a child (e.g., Ps 103:13). It was a way to confess how the Israelites had experienced God, and so became a description of the nature and character of God.
With this background to the concept, Hosea's message here would be shocking. Even to raise the possibility that God would not be compassionate would negate what they understood about God. Hosea thus suggests that perhaps the people have presumed to define God in static, absolute ways without considering that they existed in dynamic relationship to God. That is, they tended to see compassion as part of the nature of God because they had experienced him as compassionate, without understanding that their experience of God as compassionate had been in the context of an ongoing relationship. God had chosen to be compassionate for the sake of establishing and sustaining the relationship, and then expected reciprocation in that relationship. It seems that they had never considered the possibility that their actions in the worship of Ba'al might have disrupted that relationship to the point that they would no longer experience God as compassionate. Just as infidelity in a marriage puts the entire marriage at risk, so lack of faithful response to God had put the relationship between God and Israel at risk.
The statement "I will no longer . . . forgive them" (v. 6) should not be read as any final rejection of the possibility of their repentance, an "unpardonable sin." That is much too modern a concept rooted in the American revivalist movement. This statement occurs in the context of "no mercy." The implication is that certain kinds of actions, here their consistent and deliberate worship of Ba'al, will finally lead to consequences, clearly implying that God is not obligated to show compassion in the face of habitual sin.
What is disconcerting here, and emerges as a consistent theme throughout the prophets, is that there seems to be a "threshold" beyond which the consequences will not be averted even by repentance. While this is not as obvious here in Hosea, it is clear in Amos and Jeremiah. It is not that the sin is unpardonable, that there is no possibility beyond the sin; it is just that the consequences of sin can accumulate to such a degree that they will unfold with almost certain results. God can and may intervene to avert the consequences, as the deliverance from the Assyrians would later bear witness (2 Kings 19:32-37). But it is his choice, not a necessary or automatic response.
Another way to say this is that God's compassion is great, but is neither involuntary nor unconditional. This may not be a comforting thought to many in our religious culture. Some who have struggled under the burden of legalism and images of a less than loving God find it easy to move to a functional universalism in which God forgives and extends mercy irregardless of the response. There is some sense in which this is true, that our actions are not prerequisite to God's grace. But it is balanced by the sobering reality of this text, and others, that says that even though God is a gracious and forgiving God, response to that grace is expected, even required. God's compassion will not force people to respond. And if they do not respond, he will allow the consequences of that failure to work out.
The name of this child simply says that God has been compassionate long enough; it is time that they responded to this relationship. If we place this in familiar familial metaphors, the message is to a "freeloading" child that it is time to grow up and be responsible. The parent will no longer foot the bill for irresponsible living. This metaphor also subtly suggests, perhaps prematurely in the story line, that there is a larger goal at work here than punishment in legal categories (see Commentary on Hosea 11:1-11).
Verse 7 is usually recognized to be a later addition to this text from the perspective of the Southern Kingdom. But while the verse interrupts the structure to introduce a positive dimension too soon in the passage, there are two elements in the verse that are consistent with the theology of the book. First, the negative dimension is always balanced with a positive alternative. Judgment is simply not God's last word, and the editors of the book seem not to be able to wait to interject that confession. Second, the emphasis on trust in God as opposed to depending on human means of security echoes the underlying concerns of the whole Ba'al system. Ba'al worship was really about security, trying to procure the fertility of the land by human effort rather than trusting in God. While that may seem prudent in our modern ways of thinking, the theological confession is that humans are not really in control of the world nearly as much as they might think. The only real stability in the world is trust in God, and, as we are faithful in relationship, trust in his compassion and mercy.
The third child's name carried an even more scandalous message, one that drove to the very heart of the relationship between God and the Israelites (vv. 8-9). The name Lo-Ammi means "not my people." The phrase "my people" is part of what biblical scholars term the covenant formula, a way to express in the metaphor of a covenant or legal treaty the relationship between God and Israel that involved both actions by God and an appropriate response from the people. The covenant concept emphasized the mutual responsibilities in the relationship, much as the marriage metaphor does in the book. Even today we speak of the covenant of marriage.
The entire formulaic phrase was, in various forms, "I will be your God, and you shall be my people" (e.g., Ex 6:7, Lev 26:12, Isa 51:15-16, Zech 13:9, etc.). This expresses a fundamental theological premise of Israelite experience, the sequence between exodus (God's gracious action of self-revelation in history: "I am your God") and Sinai (where God gave to Israel the torah, instructions for living as his people: "You shall be my people.") The relationship always consisted in these two dimensions: the graciousness of God and the response of the people to that grace. The people's response was not just to be thankful or to praise, although that was included. The resposne was to be lived out in every aspect of life, as the people shaped all of life in relation to the God who had revealed himself as a gracious and compassionate God, who hears the cries of oppressed slaves and delivers them from oppression. It is from this basis that the torah so emphasized ethical living in terms of caring for the weak, loving God and neighbor, and living in ways that appropriately acknowledged that God is, indeed, God.
Hosea, however, takes this fundamental confession and uses it as an accusation. It might appear here that God has rather arbitrarily decided that they should no longer be his people. But the impact of "Lo-Ammi" goes a different direction. If the covenant formula really does describe a relationship with mutual responsibilities and commitments, it is clear that it is Israel not God who has failed in this relationship. It is not that God has decided they will no longer be his people, it is they who have decided he will no longer be their God!
The consequences are obvious in the metaphor of the covenant. If they disavow God from being their god, then they have abrogated the covenant relationship just as surely as Gomer had violated the marriage covenant by her prostitution. They have removed themselves from being God's people. This is not a threat of future punishment; it is simply a statement of what is already a fact.
Since this section is a summary of the major themes of the book, it comes full circle and returns to the grace and compassion of God in the concluding verses of chapter 1 (10-11, including 2:1). This dimension will be expanded in much more detail in next Sunday's readings from Chapter 11. As verse 7, 1:10-2:1 is usually understood to be a later Judaic addition to the Hosea traditions. But in terms of the final form of the book and the message of the book as Scripture, it makes little difference since these verses serve an important theological function here as they anticipate chapter 11. The message of the book of Hosea has a clearly negative dimension, as expressed in 9 of the 14 chapters. Yet, the overall message is not one of condemnation for failure, but of hope for a different future that goes beyond failure.
In these verses, the names of all three children are reversed as a way to affirm the ongoing grace and compassion of God, even in light of the people's continued failure. These verses do not elaborate how this reversal can take place in light of what has already been said here; that will be left to chapter 2 (21-23) and especially chapter 11 (1-11). Neither do they deal with the unfolding historical crisis looming on the horizon. They are a simple affirmation about God's continued faithfulness even in the face of the aggressive unfaithfulness of the people.
In verse 10 Lo-Ammi ("not my people") is reversed into "children of the living God." Interestingly enough, this reversal goes back, not just to the exodus as the basis for being God's people, but to the promise to Abraham. The metaphor of people as numerous as the sand on the seashore is central to the promise to Abraham (Gen 22:17, "dust of the earth," 13:16, "stars of the heavens," Gen 15:5) and is carried through the traditions as a promise of God's blessing to the people (Gen 32:12, 1 Kings 4:20, Jer 33:22). Anchoring the idea of "my people" in the earlier patriarchal period is a way to emphasize the faithfulness of God throughout the generations, an indication that he would remain faithful to his people.
The reversal of Jezreel is not as clear here as it will be in 2:22-23. But in context with the promise of numerous offspring, the connotations of the name Jezreel has already moved from the metaphor of bloodshed to the implications of the name in Hebrew ("God sows") as fertility and abundance from the hand of God. There is also a hint here of the prophetic dream, clearly from the post-exilic era after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, not only of return from exile ("gathered together," "take possession of the land") but also of the reunification of the two divided kingdoms of Israel ("one head"). While that would never happen in the political arena as they hoped, the people of Israel were eventually united in the worship of God without Ba'al worship as Judaism developed in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (c. 444 BC).
As noted earlier, the reversal of the third name is only mentioned here in passing as "No compassion" becomes "Compassion" (2:1). It will remain to later passages in the book to elaborate this dimension.
Given the metaphorical nature of this text, the preaching paths follow rather directly from the text itself. For some Christians, however, this will be a difficult text to preach for one set of reasons, and for others it will be much too easy to preach for other reasons. Here it is important to allow the text to speak on its own terms rather than too quickly imposing our agendas on the text.
The caution on one side is not to move too quickly to an emphasis on grace. It is there, certainly, even in this preliminary summary text. And it will be the point of the entire book, so it must be seen as a governing concept. But that is not really the focus yet in this text. The preacher may have to work hard to let responsibility have its say here.
The real impact of the names of the children, as well as the preaching of Hosea in chapters 4-10, is the responsibility that comes from covenant relationship. In the main metaphor of the book, marriage carries with it responsibilities for the sake of the relationship. There are some limits that are self imposed when one enters such a relationship. It is not that they are "law" that must be followed to avoid punishment, no more than faithfulness to a loved spouse is a matter of law and duty. It is that the relationship itself calls for certain actions simply because of the nature of the relationship. If a person truly loves a spouse, they do not get up in the morning grousing about not being able to commit adultery that day. The loving relationship has already excluded that possibility! It is not a matter of obeying law; it is a matter of living in a relationship that itself provides positive parameters for life. It is this idea of relationship with God that entails responsibility, even the curtailing of certain "rights" and freedoms for the sake of the relationship, that provides some of the most productive preaching paths.
In much of our modern Western culture, we often have trouble associating responsibility with relationships, and an even harder time associating consequences with responsibility. In dealing with people in the church, especially young people, I have found an incredible denial of consequences often at work. The idea of "I can handle it" or "I know when to stop" or "I'm different than they" or "That doesn't apply to me" are all too common ways of denying that there are any negative consequences to decisions. That allows people to divorce their decisions and actions from any accountability for those actions. That is turn allows a denial that anything is wrong. We have seen this even on "official" levels as wrongdoing is moved into the passive "mistakes were made" without anyone taking direct responsibility for the actions that were clearly wrong and caused harm.
The message here from Hosea is that, whether we can see it immediately or not, actions carry with them consequences. There is no way to separate responsibility from the relationship we have with God. The consequences may not be immediately evident in terms of an obvious punishment for sin. But they are certain. We have the freedom to choose, the freedom to set certain courses of actions. But Hosea's message here is that we do not have the freedom to avert the consequences or choose what they will be. And unless a change is made, those consequences will unfold.
The other danger is to take too much delight in focusing on the consequences and the negative dimension of the text, to focus too much on failure and sin, without remembering that the final message is one of hope and grace. It is often easy to direct condemnation at all those sinners "out there" without remembering that even in Hosea, the message is really good news! To people who are arrogantly self-sufficient, who have abrogated their responsibility as God's people, who have lost their sense of accountability in covenant relationship with God, they need to hear "Lo Ammi!" But to people who have already realized that they are, indeed Lo Ammi, they need to hear again the promise that they can still become Ammi, children of the living God.
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