I have to start this blog post by taking exception to my Presbyterian colleague Carol Howard Merritt’s comment last week in Christian Century in which she expressed her wish that Hosea and Philemon weren’t in the lectionary because both use slavery as a literary device which, in the Biblical story, is remedied by the love of God. I know what she means and agree with her that slavery is an awful practice. However, to me, this is like complaining about orcs in The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the process of Darth Vader’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force in the Star Wars saga. The story is the story. It’s part of the narrative world. One need not endorse each element in a story in order to find value in it.
Personally, I’m glad that Hosea is in the lectionary, though there is not much in it that we will “like.” As it is with spinach and colonoscopies, we can nonetheless grasp the value of things which otherwise might leave us cold. Such, I think, is the case with Hosea, who is, though by no means the warmest or fuzziest of the biblical prophets, yet nonetheless a text from which we can still benefit.
The family, in both real and symbolic forms, is at the heart of the story portrayed in Hosea. The adulterous spouse is a literary and cultural archetype that has resonance in all human societies in which marriage plays a role, which is to say just about every human society which ever existed beyond the stage of hunter-gatherers. Paired with that archetype in Hosea is a second, namely that of the aggrieved spouse. This is the dominant metaphor throughout the book. Less prominent, however, is the archetypal pair of prodigal child/aggrieved parent that we find in this week’s lection from Hosea 11. Along with Jonah and Nahum, Hosea is one of a very few prophetic texts written by someone from the northern kingdom in the canon (Amos was a southerner writing about the north). Israel/Ephraim are the biblical names for the northern kingdom and Assyria and Egypt the regional superpowers, in the west and south, respectively, of the Ancient Near East in the eighth century BCE.
Outside of the narrative, the reader knows that the Assyrians will lay siege to the capitol city, Samaria, in 722 BCE and that they will shortly thereafter destroy it as well as the entire country. It will be 1948 CE before there will ever again be a country on earth named Israel, albeit not on the same land. Outside of the narrative, the reader will also know that the ancient policy of the transport and assimilation of conquered peoples from one place of conquest to another was employed here by the Assyrians in their attempt to blunt nationalist, revolutionary movements among the newly subjugated.
In vv. 1-9 of Hosea 11, in quite feminine language that switches the metaphor from husband/wife to what appears to be mother/son, the text has Yahweh speaking in the first person as the doting parent of a beloved child who is now “breaking bad.” Back and forth the text oscillates between nostalgic longing for the good ol’ days, when the child knew his place under the parent’s guidance and authority, and the current chaos in which the recalcitrant child is in a virtual death spiral. Carol Howard Merritt rightly points out the misogyny and bigotry on display earlier in the book in the text’s use of the “fallen woman” motif and the image of slavery as redemption. I don’t think that chapter 11 excuses the earlier things she criticizes but I do think that the shift in metaphor mitigates the earlier references in that it appears that the narrator is employing the most viscerally-experienced relationships and all of their attendant emotions to conjure up a vision of what it must be like for Yahweh to suffer such unrequited love.
Still, Howard Merritt’s point that “we don’t sit down and listen to Gomer [Hosea’s prostitute wife] enough” seems to have value here as well. There is always another side to the story and that is probably true for the children of Hosea. After all, what must it be like to have been stuck with names like “Not Pitied” or “Not My People” (see Hosea 1:6, 8)? The ambiguity of chapter 11 becomes sharper when comparing the shift in the primary subject of the verbs from vv. 1-4 to vv. 5-7. In 1-4, the mothering acts of God are on full display–“I loved … I called … I taught … I took them up … I healed … I led … I bent down … I fed.” In vv.5-7, however, Yahweh is nowhere to be seen; all of nurture, protection and care have left the stage. “The sword” is now the primary actor, the agent of judgment in these verses, with Israel continuing in his iniquity. Then, in vv. 8-9, Yahweh is once again the center of attention–but here the focus is not on what (s)he has done for Israel, but how (s)he feels at watching Israel suffer. (S)he is mortified at what is happening to Israel, yet Yahweh’s refusal to get involved allows what (s)he says is so terrible to continue. Indeed, this lack of involvement was foreshadowed in 1:7–unlike Judah, Israel would get no pity from Yahweh. And in case Hosea forgot, Yahweh had Hosea give his daughter that name (not-to-be-pitied) to remind him that Israel wasn’t ever going to get off the hook for this.
In 11:10-11, however, there is the promise that, after Israel has been subjected to extreme violence and divided up between Egypt and Assyria, they would be allowed to crawl back to Yahweh “like a trembling bird.” Once again, however, outside of the horizon of the text, the reader knows that this never happened. The hope for a revived northern kingdom will remain viable in southern prophetic discourse and will get conflated in those texts with later messianism. The book of Acts will attempt to address this issue by stories of the conveyance of the Gospel to Samaria, thus making the acceptance of The Way, as Acts refers to it, the fulfilment of the hope for the return of the north. But this is a solution offered 800 years later than the events in Hosea’s world and is thus more about the later community’s need for fulfilment of an ancient oracle, than it is of anything of even the remotest value to the Israel of the 8th century CE which suffers destruction and scattering.
Hosea 11 thus sounds a lot like an abusive parent who abjures any responsibility for any harm done during violent discipline. It reminds us of the flood narrative in Genesis, after which God sends a rainbow, saying, “I’m sorry, honey. I promise I’ll never go off on you like that again.” However much we might be drawn to the pain of the Divine Parent, that in no way minimizes the suffering of the people whose obliteration for disobedience is announced in this text.
In homiletics class in seminary, we were repeatedly challenged to answer the question “So what’s the good news about this text?” Obviously, I don’t think that is easily answered in this week’s text. It is true that, when compared with the other deities in the region in antiquity, Yahweh is far more humane, emotionally mature, as well as less arbitrary and less capricious than any of his competitors. That larger cultural landscape is not easily conveyed, however, in your average 20 minute sermon, and even if it can be done, the result is far from satisfying. We want happy endings, or at least tidy ones. We want all our questions answered, if not within the sixty minutes of the current episode, at least by next year’s season premiere. We can wait a bit for closure, maybe for a few months in order to find out “Who shot J.R.?” but not too long.
This text thus challenges us with its strangeness, its ambiguity of characterization, its resistance to an ending. In an era in which Christian apologetics flourishes, and accounts of the reasonableness and rationality of Christianity abound, this text reminds of what a long shot the faith really is, waiting as we are 2800 years later for the revivification of a country long dead. The experience of being confronted with the strangeness, however, is useful in that it reminds us that the text is not our own, that it addresses us, that we can’t control it in the way that we seek to control everything else in our lives. This is a text that won’t easily submit to being used for any of our agendas. Most may not receive this as “good news” at first in the traditional sense, but rather more along the lines of spinach and colonoscopies, things we need and which will improve us, but which we may not like.
Timothy F. Simpson is co-pastor of the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Florida. He is a former editor of Political Theology.