The Prophet Considers a God Who Reconsiders
Text: Hosea 11:1-11
Speaker: Joel Miller
In the Hebrew Bible, it is the privilege and the burden of the prophet to speak for God. That’s quite the job description, to speak for God. It’s not a form of speech we hear much these days. When we do, we have every reason to be skeptical.
But in the biblical world, that’s what the prophet did, and that’s where the narrative lectionary has us hanging out for a bit. We’re sampling the prophets, hearing them make claims about God and people, interpreting the present and pointing to possible futures. Or at least their present, in the past, and their possible futures, some of which came to pass, others of which are still out there on our far horizon – like that day when the lion shall lay down with the lamb, and we will all beat our swords into ploughshares, or whatever updated form of military weaponry into whatever form of productive life-giving technology. At their best, the prophets stir within us a longing for that which can be, and, by claiming that longing as our own, a bit of that hoped for future makes its way into the present.
When you meet a prophet, it’s good to at least give them a chance. They’re speaking for God, and that can get dicey. It’s OK to be skeptical. Nobody gets a free pass with their God claims because if there’s one thing we can be certain of its that they, and we, aren’t God. Even the prophets who made it into the Bible. So let’s do a brief overview of biblical prophets, before focusing in on the Hosea reading for today.
The model example of prophethood in the Bible is Moses. Not only does he confront the mighty Pharaoh with the ever-bold “Thus says the Lord: Let my people go;” not only does he lead the people out of slavery; he also serves as the mediator of the Divine law – the Torah - that shapes the new community.
Moses is followed by prophets like Deborah and Samuel who offer guidance to their people in the name of God. After Saul and David and other kings take over the role of political and military leadership, prophets serve as advisors and critics. Like Nathan giving counsel to David. Like Elijah’s sharp critiques of King Ahab. As time goes on we start getting whole scrolls preserving a prophet’s words: Micah, Amos, Hosea, and the long scroll of Isaiah which is more like a multigenerational school of prophets spanning several centuries. Each of these prophets take the liberty to speak in the first person for God. Not just ‘God says this,’ but ‘I, God, say this.’ Think Amos’ words against worship void of justice: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…But let justice role down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:21,24). This very likely expressed the feelings of Amos himself, but he speaks, as prophets do, as if he is the mouth of God.
Prophets communicated their message not only with words, but with symbolic actions. And here’s where things get really interesting. If the speeches don’t get your attention, these actions probably will. Isaiah hears a Divine message…to walk around the city of Jerusalem barefoot and naked… for three years – three years! He does this to symbolize how the Assyrians would strip bare the Egyptians and Ethiopians and carry them away in exile. The political message: don’t count on these allies from the south to help us against the Assyrians….says the Lord. Jeremiah bought a pair of underwear, wore them for a while, then buried them under some rocks near the Euphrates River, waited a while, then dug them up, all to illustrate how the people of Judah had become about as useful to God as that soiled loincloth had become to him. Ezekiel swallowed a scroll to fill his belly with the word of God…literally; he bound himself with chords and locked himself in a house to illustrate that God’s word wouldn’t be spoken among the people; then went out and shaved his head and beard, carefully dividing up the hair into fractional piles, each representing the different fates that would befall the people in their exile.
If, as the bumper sticker says, “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” it also seems to be the case that well-behaved prophets rarely make the Bible.
It’s no wonder that Hosea, our selected scroll for today, contains these words: Chapter 9, verse 7: “Israel cries, ‘The prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad.’” Hosea joins a long line of people considered, by their own skeptical community, to be a mad fool.
As diverse as these prophets were, centuries apart from one another, their messages take on a familiar pattern. It goes something like this: God initiates a relationship with the people. The people receive this gift, but after a while, they lose their way. Things get bad enough that God either allows, or more directly, causes, their destruction, usually by a foreign power. But God doesn’t abandon the people altogether. God initiates restoration, and we’re back to the beginning of the cycle.
As Hosea begins, it looks like he will follow this well-used prophetic template from beginning to end. He jumps right into a symbolic action. It’s one that likely has us joining the community in calling him not just a fool, but wishing he had gone the Ezekiel route and locked himself alone in a house and kept his prophet-ing to himself. But this was well before Ezekiel’s time. Hosea’s first act, as one who speaks for God, is to get married. His marriage, to Gomer, a prostitute, is intended to symbolize God’s marriage to unfaithful Israel. Hosea is God, Israel is the prostitute wife deserving of punishment and abandonment. It doesn’t take a fourth wave feminist to find this arrangement problematic. Hosea extends this metaphor-gone-off-the-rails by giving symbolic names to the three children he has through Gomer, one of them being named “Not my people.” That was their kid’s name, “Not my people,” and that was Hosea’s message, speaking in the first person for God, to the people of Israel. You are ‘not my people.’
It’s an innovative, shocking, approach to that familiar prophetic message of God’s initiative meeting the people’s waywardness, followed by God’s punishment and eventual reunion with the people.
So Hosea is now a father. We don’t know how much time passes between chapters 1 through 3 that cover this ground I’ve mentioned, and chapter 11 which was our reading today. Let’s just say, time passes.
And, perhaps not coincidentally, Hosea the parent/prophet has a new metaphor for his people and their relationship with their God. A child/parent relationship.
Chapter 11, verse 1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”
Hosea also uses the name Ephraim to refer to the northern kingdom of Israel where he lived, and affectionately traces the growth of the child after they have come out of Egypt in the days of Moses. Again, speaking in the first person for God. “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms;… I led them with chords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift the infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Hosea speaks of a tender, intimate relationship, motherly, and fatherly toward this precious child. Within this tenderness, he also names ways that the child turned away from the parent. “My people are bent on running away from me,” Hosea/God says.
It looks like we’ve come to that part of the cycle where we’re about to hear of Divine punishment against this child. It’s what prophets do, and Hosea had already shown he knows how it works. Plus the Assyrian Empire was banging down the doors and would, soon, in Hosea’s lifetime, carry the people off into exile just like the unclothed Isaiah had warned they would do to the Ethiopians and Egyptians. From a political perspective, the northern kingdom of Israel will not be spared and will in fact never recover from its exile the way the southern kingdom of Judah would recover from its exile to Babylon two centuries later. There was plenty of opportunity for theologizing about all this being an act of God.
But a funny thing happens this time around. After taking on the voice of God and commenting on these events happening around him, Hosea suddenly takes on the voice of God doing some self-reflection. We’re given a first person account of God-the-tender-parent-about-to-turn-punisher basically saying, “Wait a minute, What am I doing?”
In the NRSV this is translated as four consecutive statements starting with “How can I…” Now surveying God’s own interiority, Hosea channels these words:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
Those last two places were already famous for being destroyed.
It goes on, and now I’m going from the Jewish Publication Society translation: “I have had a change of heart, All my tenderness is stirred. I will not act on my wrath”
Hosea goes on to imagine God roaring like a lion and the children coming back to that voice from all the places they’ve been scattered as they settle back in their homes.
Here we have a prophet who considers a God who reconsiders. Maybe it’s because Hosea had learned some things as a parent himself and had trouble imagining God as a less loving parent than he and Gomer. Maybe Hosea himself had grown skeptical of that prophetic pattern. Whatever it was, it’s the kind of passage where prophets are at their best – opening up a window of possibility just wide enough to let in some fresh light to see things in a new way.
What if? What if God isn’t locked in to the ways we’ve always portrayed God, even if those ways were spoken by powerful prophets.
And if that’s the case, what if we aren’t locked in either? What if we are allowed to have a similar kind of funny thing happen to us this time around. Rather than carry out a well-worn pattern of thought, or action, we take a moment and say, “Wait a minute, What am I doing?” How can I? How can I? I don’t think I can anymore. I think it’s time to have a change of heart, let my tenderness be stirred. Do something constructive with my anger rather than destructive. Maybe there’s a powerful animal somewhere inside me ready to roar in the key of healing and justice. And who knows, maybe others will be drawn to that roar and we’ll make a new home together.
If you keep reading on in Hosea, it becomes pretty clear that Hosea hasn’t undergone a full conversion here. He seems to be torn between this fresh possibility and his prior way of seeing. This is not a finished product, and neither are we.
We contain a multitude of voices telling us who we are, how to see our present moment, and what kind of future is roaring, for our attention. Throw God into the mix and it gets all the more complicated.
But sometimes it’s enough to know you and God aren’t locked in to your past. If nothing else, the prophets stir within us a longing for that which can be, and, by claiming that longing as our own, a bit of that future possibility makes its way into our present.