Trinity 10 ~ Hosea - Repentance and Relentence
Last week you might recall we had a reading from the Prophet Hosea which left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. In the week of a Royal Birth, we heard how he was told by God to marry a prostitute and give his children names that indicate that God does not love them. Last Sunday was not an appropriate time to go into all of this, not leastly because we had had a busy week, and because the Lord’s Prayer was the gospel reading, and that proved a richer vein for reflection. Meanwhile this week, we have jumped forward in the book and have something more positive. It’s also worth noting that a few people were a bit disturbed by last weeks’ reading and so it might not hurt if I spend a few minutes now putting Hosea and his book into context.
So, first of all, the background.
It’s important to realise that Hosea really existed and that the events around his prophecies are as real as those surrounding wars and invasions of our own times. Old Testament prophecies are not fictions created by a culture in order to understand their origins. That charge might be levelled at Genesis, but never at an Old Testament prophet, who is interested primarily in topical events and their religious significance and outcomes. Old Testament prophecy is bound up in real, archeological verifiable history, and those histories are related in the books of Kings and Chronicles. To some extent they should be read together.
During Hosea's lifetime, in the 8th century BC, the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, such as Jeroboam II, along with their the priests had lured the people away from the Law of Moses. They turned to worshipping Baal, the Canaanite fertility god. Other sins followed, including murder, perjury, theft, and sexual sins, such as adultery and prostitution. Into this fray steps Hosea, son of Beeri, whose name means ‘salvation’. He tells the people that unless they repent of these sins, God will allow their nation to be destroyed, and the people will be taken into captivity by the armies of Assyria, the most powerful nation of the day.
Like many other prophets of his day, Hosea’s prophecy takes two forms – words and actions. His words centre on the idea that God has been their God since he called them out of Egypt at the first Passover after the ten plagues of Moses, and that the laws of Moses are theirs to have and to keep and to honour. Yet God feels betrayed by the quasi-adulterous way in which the people have prostituted their faith for alien Gods of pleasure. This, says Hosea, challenges God’s loving nature, makes him angry, even vengeful, even though ultimately he wants to restore Israel in his favour.
Thus in his book of prophecy, Hosea describes how he is directed by God to marry a promiscuous woman of ill-repute, and his doing so is a prophetic act – an action that speaks louder than as well as alongside words. Marriage symbolises the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. Israel has been unfaithful by following other gods and breaking the commandments. Thus the prostitute he marries represents Israel.
Soon Hosea and this wife, Gomer, have a son. God commands that the son be named Jezreel – a name which refers to a valley in which much bloodshed has occurred. A daughter follows, and she is named Lo-ruhamah; Unloved, or, pitiless. This is to show Israel that, although God will still have pity on the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the Northern Kingdom’s destruction is imminent. The third child is called Lo-ammi – his name means ‘Not My People’, or more simply, ‘Not Mine’. This shameful name indicates that the Northern Kingdom would also be shamed, and its people will no longer be known as God's People.
Chapters 4-10 contain a series of oracles, or prophetic sermons, showing exactly why God is rejecting the Northern Kingdom. Chapter 11, from which we get this morning’s reading, is God's lament over the necessity of abandoning the Northern Kingdom, which is home to a large proportion of the people of Israel, whom God does in fact love. So he promises not to give them up entirely. After this chapter, Hosea begs the people to repent, but goes on to foretell the destruction of the kingdom at the hands of Assyria, because there has been no repentance. Finally he urges Israel to return to God and seek forgiveness, promising that if they do so, and return to faithful worship and life, God will restore them.
This is a major theme of Old Testament Prophecy, that the people have erred and strayed from their loving, redeeming God, whose anger they kindle, and whose love must lead to judgment, which often comes in the form of occupation, invasion, exile. Love and judgment are held in balance by a loving, but just God. A similar thing happens later with the exile to Babylon in the sixth century BC. And yet through it all, it is God’s love that triumphs, as he spares some if not all, and raises up not only prophets to warn and help them, but gives the people new leases of life in restoration and rescue from the hands of their enemies. A faithful remnant remains, and from this God raises up prophets, and ultimately, a Messiah.
On one level it can all be seen as a way of handling the mixed fortunes of the peoples of Israel - the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. On another, Hosea and his fellow prophets can be seen as those who have their eye on current affairs and who share not only an analysis of the way the world is going, and what is likely to happen politically, militarily and internationally, but also a sense of the sociological, political and religious trends underpinning and driving the people. Anyone who was on the ball in Hosea’s time would realize that all the pleasure seeking, turning away from established norms and traditions and laws would create a situation vulnerable to military defeat and invasion. Realizing the major threat from King Tiglath-Pileser III was hardly rocket science, and a nation distracted by self-interest and characterized by faithlessness, was almost certainly doomed. One might observe a similar phenomenon about the decadent societies that thrived but ultimately fell as the First World War looked into view a hundred years ago. There is a fine line between the notion of divine intervention or punishment, and the sheer inevitability of catastrophe for a nation that courts disaster. Assyria’s invasion of Israel around 732 was partly brought about by the Northern Kingdom’s military ambitions on the Southern Kingdom’s capital at Jerusalem, which caused King Ahaz of Judah to seek help from Tilgath Pileser. Or it was judgment from God upon a decadent, faithless society.
Either way, prophecy is not about predicting the future – anyone could have done that – but rather prophecy is about understanding the present. Hosea’s prophetic gift was to link the two. He thereby had something to say not only to his own generation, but to all succeeding ones too. And that is why the books of the Prophets have been revered as sacred by Jews, Christians and even Muslims.
And yet there is something special in this for us Christians. In the passage you have in front of you, God speaks as Father rather than as betrayed husband. Hosea gives us the whole emotional range, reminding his hearers and us, that God’s relationship with his people is deep, complex and multifaceted. We are shown a loving father hoisting his child to face level, for eye contact and parental bonding. It’s what you have to do with a toddler, of course, you can’t spend your life bent double, with your face looming large in theirs from above: it frightens little children and causes backache. You have to lift them up to your level, so you can be on relating terms, able to smile and speak, face to face. And then as they grow they still open their arms to be lifted up, to that special place of love where cheeks meet.
God speaks as though he remembers doing such a thing with Ephraim, the tribe descended from Joseph’s second son, who with his brother Manasseh was adopted by Jacob as heirs. And God treated the children of Israel as his own, nurturing, feeding and protecting them in their wilderness youth, having safely brought them out of Egypt in the Exodus. But now they have grown up a bit, and rather like wayward teenagers have turned to new idols.
Yet God’s own sense of indignation and justice is too hard-hearted even for God himself. Some people can’t accommodate the God of the Old Testament because of his apparent tendency to wrath and punishment. Well, here God’s loving heart overrules his head for judgment. Like a parents who refuse to think ill of their children, no matter what they have done, God the Father relents. “How can I do this?” he asks himself, four times in succession.
The same question lies at the heart of the Christian faith too. The crux of our faith, the Cross, is literally a turning point: the crossroads at which God takes salvation in a new direction. In Hosea it is a stay of execution, but in Christ it is a total reprieve. In Jewish tradition the cities of Admah and Zeboiim were cities destroyed with their more infamous neighbours, Sodom and Gomorrah (see Deuteronomy 29.22). In Hosea the death sentence is commuted to a period of exile, in Christ it is conferred on Jesus instead of us.
God has never liked sin, and has always tackled it. But he has also lamented the necessity of punishment, and has sought to subvert the very rules on which his creation is founded, in order to heal and save his dear people. No matter what your children have done, you love them, and children can generally expect their parents to take their side, - even of there is a serious talking to behind the scenes afterwards!
As we see our children grow up – as we mess up our lives and they mess up theirs, there are still those bonds of love that transcend loyalty. These bonds transcend the damage we inflict on each other and sustain through betrayal, grief, illness, sin or despair. In this day and age, we occasionally see parents disowning their children when they commit a public act of terror, but this only serves as the exception that proves the rule. Your children are your children, and that’s that.
In this passage we see the loving, parental God, forgiving in the face of futility, knowing that his children will turn away again, but paralyzed by the depth of love he feels. Uncannily, it is almost human. Or it is the other way around: when parents love their children against the odds, perhaps in that there is something of the divine. For whether we repent or not, God wants to relent. For he is our God and we are his children.
Let it be so – Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 06/08/13