The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 13 | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 31 July 2022 |Hosea 11:1-11 | Psalm 107:1-9, 43 | Colossians 3:1-11 | Luke 12:13-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, the Holy One in our midst.

Okay friends, we’re doing this—it’s time to talk about the prophet Hosea. You might remember that last week’s reading from Hosea featured the word “whoredom” repeated a very uncomfortable number of times.

And a lot of things about the book of Hosea are deeply uncomfortable. So we’re going to go carefully. But if we can work with our discomfort, we’ll get through to a good word here for us about ourselves and about who God is.

Last week we talked about naming God in prayer. In Hosea, we see both our glorious potential to imagine to God, and also the limits of our ability to say who really God is. And the really good news is that God is in our midst, always loving us, and God breaks through no matter how messy it gets.

And Hosea is really messy, folks. Hosea was a prophet in Israel in the 8th Century B.C.E. The setup of the book is that he and his family become a dramatization of God’s relationship with the people. We read this last week.

Hosea is supposed to marry a woman whom he knows will be unfaithful to him, and this is supposed to show how God’s people have been unfaithful to God by worshipping idols and disobeying the commandments.

Hosea has children with this woman, Gomer, and he gives the children names that tell the story of the rift between God and God’s people—names that literally mean “Not Loved” and “Not My People” in Hebrew. The narrative is a little messy too, but it seems Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea as expected, maybe more than once, but then they eventually reconcile. The children are renamed “Beloved” and “My People” to signify that God will claim God’s people again. That’s the first two chapters, and the rest is prophetic poetry where God’s voice and the prophet’s voice interweave.

The first chapter of that prophetic poetry is closely connected to the Hosea and Gomer story. It might be spoken by Hosea to his wife Gomer, or by God to Israel, or maybe both at the same time. And in that poetry, we find professions of love all mixed up with some really scary threats of punishment. The plot arc is that after a time of estrangement, God will forgive God’s people and reconcile with them, and their love will be deeper than ever before.  

I think there is a lot here in the story of Hosea and his family that’s truly disturbing. First off, the children definitely did not sign up to be in this play about divine forgiveness, and maybe Gomer didn’t either.

There are also a lot of really tricky things going on with gender and power in this drama. It’s a problem for women when a woman happens to play the role of unfaithfulness who needs to be gotten back into line, and a man happens to play the role of… an all-knowing God whose decisions are always justified.  

The structure of the drama in Hosea plays into social problems we already have—problems about gender and power and virtue, and who gets to make decisions, and who we consider good and trustworthy. Metaphors like this feed into a system that already makes it harder for women to be free in the world.

And what’s maybe even more troubling, the story of Gomer and Hosea and their children sounds a lot like real life stories we might know of abusive relationships and even domestic violence. Feminist and womanist scholars like Renita J. Weems have pointed out this connection.

God/Hosea threatens Israel/Gomer with violence, and he claims that the punishment is justified by her behavior. He deprives her of resources, he keeps her from leaving the house, and he even brings the children into the conflict. He has lots of different ways to control her behavior. She tries to escape, but he ultimately wins her back with a mix of gifts and threats and promises of even greater love.

If you’ve walked with a survivor of domestic abuse, or you are one, or you’ve heard someone’s story who has been through this, then chapters 2 and 3 of Hosea might seem horrifyingly familiar. And if hearing this story now is bringing up things you’d like to talk about, Holly and I are here for you. And if surviving abuse is part of your past or your present, we can help you find other resources.

Womanist and feminist Bible scholars have read these first few chapters of Hosea with survivors in mind, from Gomer’s perspective. They’ve unpacked the connections with real life patterns of abuse, and they’ve named the need for the church to be clear: we don’t believe that God is like this.

Even though this story is in scripture, the God we worship loves us unconditionally. The God we worship is not about control at all costs. The God we worship is not on the abuser’s side in situations of domestic violence. The God we worship stands with survivors, and the church does too. We can be clear about that.

Because the story in the beginning Hosea isn’t the whole picture of who God is; it’s one attempt to tell the story of God’s love. Depending on our view of scripture, we might handle the presence of this story differently.

If you are just learning that the Bible has stories that imagine God in this way, it is okay to be disturbed and confused and upset right now. Working through that kind of disturbance and confusion can lead toward growth and maturity in faith. And you also don’t have to work through it alone—we can talk and pray and study about these things together and see what makes sense to you.  

Some of us have a view of Biblical inspiration where everything in the Bible is perfectly good and true in itself (even if it can be interpreted badly). From that perspective, we might say that this story is ok because it’s one metaphor; it’s God and not an actual controlling husband. In this view, the story itself is good and revelatory, but maybe it has the potential to be misused, and so we need to be careful with it.

Some of us believe that there’s room for flaws in the inspiration of the Bible, that God reveals Godself truly and powerfully in the midst of our human mess, and not separate from it in the Bible. That’s where I am. And from this perspective, we can say that maybe the story at the beginning of Hosea is a flawed attempt to understand God’s love.

We can recognize that the prophet Hosea was telling the story of God’s love as best he could, with the resources that he had. We might cringe when we have to read about whoredom in church, and that’s fine. We might choose not to spend much or any time with this story if it stirs up hurts for us, and that’s fine too.

But maybe we can understand that in some ways, we’re right there with Hosea, doing our best to tell the story of God’s love with what we’ve got, making a lot of mistakes, but still keeping the conversation going. And there is faithfulness in keeping the conversation going, as messy as it is. There is holiness and beauty in the struggle to name God.

And today we’ve stuck with that struggle. We’ve been through a lot of rough stuff so far in our conversation with Hosea. Thank you for coming across this difficult terrain with me so far; it’s been hard work.

And now it’s time for some really good news. I am ready for some good news now.

The really good news is that even when we tell the story of God’s love in a flawed way, God breaks through with that love in all its glory and power anyway. The really good news is that when we keep the conversation going, even in a messy way, God is part of that conversation too, and God talks back. God names Godself in our midst.    

The really good news is here in today’s reading from Hosea chapter 11. It’s that God’s love can’t be shaken, no matter what we’ve done. It’s that God cares for us with tenderness and compassion. The really good news is that God is God, far beyond any metaphor we could use. And in Hosea 11, God comes right out and says so.

By this point in the book, the conversation has gone beyond the metaphor of a husband and a wife. God has shown up in many voices—not just as an aggrieved spouse but as a mourner, as a plaintiff in the courtroom, and even as a lion chasing its prey. And in chapter 11, we start a new voice for God with this parent-child metaphor. God cares for God’s people like a parent who can’t stop loving their child, and God turns away from wrath to endless compassion.

Some scholars read this as specifically a mother and child metaphor because women were usually the caretakers in early childhood, and because when it says “I bent down to them and fed them,” that sounds like God is scooping up a child to breastfeed. So Hosea likely imagines God as a mother here, caring for her child and choosing compassion.

In the early chapters of Hosea, God threatens to give God’s people up to punishment if they won’t change their ways. But here, God turns away from that judgment; God knows that she can’t abandon her children.

One metaphor—the contentious marriage—worked for the prophet Hosea (whether or not it works for us) to tell some truths about God’s relationship with God’s people. But even for Hosea, that one metaphor wasn’t enough. The image of the parent and child tells the story of God’s love in a different way. It’s a way of naming God that shifts things.

And then something even more stunning happens. The first part of the book was like a play where Hosea and Gomer act out the relationship between God and the people. But now it’s like God takes the stage and breaks the fourth wall. “I will not execute my fierce anger,” God says, “for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

The voice of God here says that mercy, and not destruction, will be the way forward. And what’s more, the reason for that mercy is that God is God. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst.” The Holy One is in our midst, and unlike us mortals, the Holy One chooses mercy.

The reason that our human images are not enough to describe God truly is that God is always even more compassionate than even the best people we know, never less. And so here in Hosea, the voice of God pushes back against images that were not deep enough to hold the depth of God’s compassion for God’s people.

And if we look at the Hebrew text here, that pushback becomes even more direct. Our New Revised Standard translation says “I am God and no mortal.” And that’s because this translation tries to be gender-neutral when it can, which I usually appreciate.

But I think the specific word here makes a difference in this case. Because we have a Hebrew word for person in general, and we have a different word for man as in male person in particular, and Hosea uses that last one here. So how it reads in Hebrew is “I am God and not a man.” Or even “I am God and not a husband” (because husband is the same word).

It’s this same word that Hosea uses several times in the early chapters talking his relationship with Gomer and God’s relationship with God’s people when he says they’re husband and wife.

But now God says, “I am God, and not a man. I am God, and not a human husband.” Or maybe even “I’m not really that person we were talking about earlier. I’m better than that, because I am the Holy One and not a mortal.” The book of Hosea holds this tension. We have the dramatized metaphor of God as a man in a particular relationship having mercy in a limited way in the first chapters, and then here we have God saying God is not a man at all, God is beyond that, and God’s love is more than what we could imagine.

The book of Hosea itself questions its own central metaphor in this moment. I am grateful to 20th– and 21st-century feminist scholars for unpacking the complexity and violence of that metaphor so well.

But we didn’t actually have to wait for this movement of scholarship to arrive in order to question the metaphor of God as a punishing spouse. That questioning was already happening about the 8th Century B.C.E. That pushback is already here in the text in God’s voice in chapter 11.

And I believe that’s because God really was there with the prophet Hosea, breaking through the mess of it all to be God, in all of God’s glory and faithfulness and love. Because God has always been breaking through the mess to be God. And that is good news.

And God really is here with us too, in all of our messes, in all of our misunderstandings, in all of our best efforts and all of our epic failures. The Holy One is in our midst. God is God, and not a mortal, and God does not come in wrath. And that is such good news, friends.

And we carry that good news with us. We try to tell the story of God’s love as best we can. We keep on naming God in the dark. We use the images we have.

We use the best we know of human love to try to imagine God’s love. Sometimes we get it really wrong, and we cause harm, and we have to try again. Sometimes we find a new insight into who God is that changes everything for us.

We trust that God is present in the stories we tell about God, and we trust that God is beyond the stories we tell. While we take care with our stories and our naming because they matter, we also rejoice that it’s not up to us to get it right for God to be God. And that is such good news.

The Holy One is in our midst. And God is actively breaking free of any story that would make God less than God. And God is actively breaking us free of anything that would make us less than the holy people God made us to be.

So friends, let us walk in faith, believing that God is God, beyond the best that we could imagine. Let us walk in hope, expecting God’s holy revelations in our midst. And let us walk in love, holding fast to God’s boundless compassion for us and for all.

Amen.

a medieval illustration of a man and a woman holding hands, inside an illuminated letter with geometric patterns
A Bible manuscript illumination of Gomer and Hosea from the 1340s (Public Domain, accessed through the Art Institute of Chicago).
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