We are in the book of God’s prophet Hosea this week, about a hundred years after Elijah’s story from last week. Hosea lives in the northern Kingdom of Israel, likely the distant descendant of those who revolted against King Rehoboam in our scripture from two weeks ago. And from that moment when Jeroboam built the golden calves, God has been back and forth with the people of Israel about their unfaithfulness. By Hosea’s time, the situation is dire, with the powerful Assyrian empire surrounding Israel on all sides. The northern kingdom will fall in his lifetime, even though God pleads for them through the prophet again and again.
Before we delve into Hosea’s story, I want to give a content warning. The passage we read this morning is one of the most beautiful in all of the prophets, but the rest of the book is full of ugly portrayals of infidelity and spousal abuse, seemingly perpetrated so that God can prove a point. Even Hosea’s children are named and treated as sermon illustrations. I thought about not telling the whole story of the book, and just focusing on the excerpt we read, but womanist theologian Dr. Wil Gafney convinced me otherwise.
“Reading Hosea as scripture means taking seriously that as a part of the canon it holds authority…For me that means I can’t easily write Hosea off…But I don’t run from a fight or a hard text or a fight with a hard text. I believe in wrestling the bruising words until I squeeze a blessing out of them…”
So, are you ready for this story? It begins with God’s first word to Hosea: “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” So Hosea, whose name means Salvation, finds Gomer daughter of Diblaim, whose name means End, and marries her despite her alleged promiscuity. She bears Hosea three children, and the Lord names them all. The first is a son, named Jezreel after a place of slaughter. This would be like an American naming their child 9/11 or Twin Towers. The second is a daughter named Lo-ruhamah, which means not pitied, or not mother-loved. The third is another son, named Lo-ammi by the Lord, which means Not My People.
Lovely start, right? While we might be able to give God a pass on this because the children’s names do get changed later on, what comes next is inexcusable. After Gomer has nursed and weaned her children and they are old enough to talk back to her, Hosea by way of God’s word, tells the children to plead with their mother to change her ways, or he will “have to” strip her naked in public and turn his own children out of his household.
WHAT?! While it is obvious the point that Hosea is making on behalf of God, using marital infidelity to talk about the unfaithfulness of God’s people to the covenant, this story links God with actions and language that are hallmarks of abusers. This is not to be dismissed, because I have heard too many stories from women and men who have been counseled to stay in abusive relationships by their pastors, so that God can use them to make a point.
Let me clearly say that this is not how God works. Even if the prophet Hosea seems to say otherwise, God does not inflict pain on their people to teach them a lesson. God does not put us into bad situations so that we can learn something from them. God is not an abusive spouse or a punishing parent. In other words, God is not like Hosea.
But there is another in this story, who represents the passionate love of God well: Gomer, the so-called promiscuous wife. Can’t you hear her voice in the words of our scripture this morning?
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.”
These words just don’t match the feeling of Hosea’s words at the beginning of this book. Instead they match Gomer, the dishonored and aggrieved wife, nursing her children, teaching them how to walk even as she is mistreated and abused. She cannot help but love these children and give them what they need, even though they turn on her, and their very names speak her condemnation. Though their names call them places of disaster, unlovable, unpitied, unclaimed, she tends them with a care that tells a different story. Even though her story has been full of pain and trauma, she feeds her children with her very body.
In God’s words, we can hear Gomer though she never gets a chance to speak: “How can I give you up, my child? How can I hand you over? How can I treat you wrongly or make your names’ meanings come true? My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, and I will not come in wrath.”
God is like Gomer, a mother who will endure ridicule and abuse for the sake of her children, who will care for her beloveds even when they turn upon their parent. God is like Gomer, loving those called unlovable, unpitied, walking disasters. God is like Gomer, feeding us from her very body, even though we have done nothing to deserve it.
And God is more than Gomer, “God and no mortal, the Holy One in our midst”. God is a better parent than Gomer, certainly a better partner than Hosea, a better friend than even your best ones. As Chance the Rapper says, “God is better than the world’s best thing.”
And God will do whatever it takes to show us love, no matter the cost to God’s own self. We know that best through Jesus.
Jesus, who feeds us with his own body, as tenderly as a mother nursing her child.
Jesus who loves us promiscuously, bearing the cross to prove that no shame can separate us from God.
Jesus, who is both God and mortal, the Holy One in our midst. Amen.