The marriage metaphor in the book of Hosea is problematic and pretty darn sexist. God is the faithful male husband. Israel is the deceitful and unfaithful female wife—ever subordinate, ever subservient, ever wrong and in need of becoming right again.
Hosea is second only to the Song of Songs for its sexual language. Whether it is Hosea enraptured in his desire for his wife Gomer or God in the Divine love for the people of Israel, or the fertility god Baal, the sexual metaphor is a powerful one. And in it, the deviant is always the woman. This makes the text problematic as a metaphor. But in the patriarchal world of the Bible, God is often male and the nation is female. God is above and the nation is below. And if there is ever a problem, it’s always the woman’s fault. Again, this is problematic. We don’t want to push this that far, do we?
Remember that Hosea was writing to the Israelite people when they were in utter chaos. You might remember that for about two hundred years, there was a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom of the Hebrew people. They had different capitals, different challenges, even different kings. The northern kingdom was Israel and had its capital in Samaria. The southern kingdom was Judah and had Jerusalem as its capital. Hosea wrote to the northern kingdom, Israel in the last few decades of their lives. They were about to be conquered by Assyria. Like Amos before him, Hosea condemned the people for their idolatry. He said they were worshipping the wrong god. Baal was the Canaanite god and was said bring fertility to the land. You remember Elijah, Jezebel, Ahab and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.
So using a sexual metaphor right from Baal, Hosea declares that Israel is an adulterous wife who brings punishment upon herself. Hosea’s message is to restore the covenant with God. Get back to the roots of your faithfulness. Be like God and embrace love, justice and mutuality. In that you will find your true calling and God will deliver you.
Plenty of us have been in relationships that have gone awry. We have done things we wished we didn’t do. We have uttered words that hurt and that meant to hurt.
In the latest issue of the Baptist Peacemaker, there’s an article about how we ought to make sure that our words and our hands are not meant for hurting. This ought to be the mantra for the new congress, don’t you think? How’s that for a radical idea.
The situation in Egypt and Tunisia is on all of our minds and hearts this week. You have uprisings in the nations and the opposition is calling for a change in leadership. The reason for the change demand is that the present leadership has not lived up to its covenant. The nation-state is being like an unfaithful partner in the covenant relationship. We hope and pray that cooler heads will prevail and that the result of this conflict will be a restoration of the highest ideals of justice, integrity, love, compassion, peace and mercy.
As I looked through Hosea in preparation for today’s message, I was struck by a piece of poetry from the 11th chapter. It was God as a longing parent.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”
We look at our lives and we see the places where we have turned aside. We see the places where we have put our trust in things and people that are not eternal. We have relied too much on muscle and might and doctors and dollars.
But then God gets humble and you can almost hear God’s longing:
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk.” God uses a pet name for Israel.
“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.”
God looks like a mother here, or a father. I think of parents who see their children grow up and leave home. We long for that time of innocence. That time of tenderness.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 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.”
In Hosea’s reckless imagery, God is said to be emotionally caught in a relationship with us. We who could care less, who have other lovers. And although God knows better and knows of our faithlessness, God can’t give up on us.
If you have ever felt lost and alone, remember that God is as close as the person sitting next to you. God is always seeing through our shortcomings and pretenses. And God wants to restore our relationships. Thanks be to God.