Lousy Lovers & Birth Stories

7:38 AM

Hosea 1:2-2:1
I've given birth four times, but I've never written a birth story. Evidently, that is a "thing" today. Birth story blogs, birth storybooks, birth story podcasts abound. You can read or listen to--or even watch--funny birth stories, miraculous birth stories, natural birth stories--just about anything you can imagine--except, perhaps, a birth story like the one shared in today's lectionary passage of Hosea.
To be honest, until now, I've never really cared for Hosea's story. For most of us, the only thing we know about Hosea is that he is the prophet who married the prostitute with a really unfortunate name, Gomer. We don't often hear sermons on Hosea because it's a provocative story; it's an offensive story. It's much more "Game of Thrones" than "Leave it to Beaver."

And wow, does this text begin with a punch. The NIV translation softens the text for us a bit and says that God told Hosea to "Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her"--but other translations say that God said, "Find a whore and marry her." So offensive, right?
Hosea looks around and finds "Gomer." They marry, but she just can't settle down and goes back to her old ways of seeking new lovers. Eventually, as we discover later in Hosea, she finds herself stripped naked and being sold on the auction block--although Hosea is not the one selling her. He comes there to buy her back and bring her home.

To understand the message, the purpose of this ancient story, we have to understand it's metaphor bound to a particular culture.  
Overall the story is about God (as the long-suffering, loving husband) and the nation of Israel (the unfaithful, wayward wife). At this point in history, there are two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Over recent years these kingdoms experienced some growth. And as Israel's wealth and power grew and expanded, so did their hunger for power and their exploitation of people--so the gap between the rich and the poor grew exponentially. All while the Assyrians regroup and will soon threaten their security and survival.

Then the prophet, Hosea, enters the scene. People often think of prophets as fortune tellers, but prophets are more like modern-day futurists. These men and women look around at the details of their current state of affairs and see what is coming as a result, like economists who tried warning people that the 2008 crash was coming. Prophets are often not very popular, and their message is not ever something the establishment wants to hear.

Hosea weaves a story about Israel in her quest for power and the lousy lovers she seeks. Israel begins to marry their faith to other religions and other ideologies and other means of growing that wealth and power. In chapter one, today's text, Hosea reveals what is born of this co-opted union. 

Hosea's message would have been particularly offensive to the patriarchal establishment of Israel. He portrays God as what would have been viewed as an emasculated husband whose wife continues to defy him and seek other lovers, yet this dishonored, and frustrated husband does not have this wayward woman stoned to death--which was likely his right to do. Instead, he pursues her; he rescues her. He brings her back home. 

In other words, Hosea was good at shaming the patriarch. I can only imagine their anger at this characterization. Hosea tells a story of how far they had gone and how far God was willing to go to bring them home.

In chapter one, Hosea marries Gomer, and soon they have a child.
In verse 4, God instructs Hosea to name the firstborn child Jezreel which means "God sows." The verse indicates there is bloodshed associated with this name, but the hearers know that this was a horrific massacre, including the killing of two monarchs. One of which was of queen Jezebel. The people kill her and throw her body out of a window to be devoured by wild dogs below. Many others were beheaded here as well.

Whether you've named a child or not, we all know there are certain names we would never give any child. It's because of the specific associations we have with it. Teachers really have this problem. I remember a name suggested to me when I was pregnant with my first daughter, and I specifically thought, "Oh no, I'd never name my child that!" as I recalled a kid from elementary school with that name who was particularly mean and obnoxious. 

The first audience to hear this name, Jezreel, might have responded to this name the same we would have if we had heard that one of our precious baby boys born in our community this month would have been named "Holocaust" or "Rwanda" or "Darfur" or "Syria." These names conjure shocking, gut-wrenching images of violence, tragedy, and even death. 

With the next child, the name gets straight to the point. There is no more alluding.
In verse 6, a daughter is born, named "Lo-ruhamah," which means "Not Loved." I can't imagine a worse name for a child. But in verse 9, another son is born to be named "Lo-ammi," which means "not my people," "nobody."

Yet almost without a breath in between these horrible names, God changes the names of the children. 

In verse 10, God gives a name once associated with violence, and destruction a new association with its true meaning of "God sows or plants." The association changes to God sowing and growing the people of Israel into a number that can't be measured--a reference back to God's original covenant with Abraham in Genesis to make his descendants "as numerous as the stars of heaven" and "sands of the seashore." Later God reiterates this covenant to Jacob. 

God changes the name of the second son, once named "Not my people," to "Children of the Living God." There's good news for the daughter too. If you read ahead to the next verses, God changes her name to "My loved one," a name derived from a verb that means "deeply loved."

So what do we do with this God of Hosea who is seemingly volatile and flip-flopping all over the place? Again, this is a prophetic metaphor that is often more descriptive rather than prescriptive. Prophets used provocative language and images to draw attention to the sins, the ungodly actions of the religious establishment. Hosea portrays Israel's infidelity and the awful consequences of giving themselves to other sources of power. Hosea does not allow a distant, detached God because a "God who is removed from the world is far less a threat to our desire to run the world as we...please."

What in the world does Hosea's complicated story have to do with us? A lot, unfortunately. American Christianity has a long history of taking on other lovers, of co-opting our faith, a history of Christianity getting into bed with things like white supremacy, nationalism, political agendas, etc.
I remember watching the movie "Twelve Years a Slave" based on the 1853 slave memoir by Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. by two conmen in 1841 and sold into slavery. He spent twelve years on plantations in Louisiana. It's a difficult movie to watch. The film portrays the first man who owned him as a Christian man who seemed to have some compassion and kindness, characterizing him as somewhat of a "good guy." In a scene depicting Solomon's first Sunday on this man's plantation, the owner has the slaves clean themselves up and does a Bible lesson or a "church" service with them. I remember feeling my stomach turn as I watched that scene. It was a picture of American Christianity in the south and her lover of King Cotton, and what that union gave birth to then and now--a co-opted union that gave birth to violence, poverty, racism, and more.

We don't have to look very far to see the many lovers American Christianity has given herself to today. 

But from a personal standpoint, it's sometimes a little less obvious. I love Mike's illustration of where we physically place ourselves in the Biblical narrative. I can easily imagine myself standing behind Hosea looking over his shoulder as he bellows these reprimands to these co-opted Christians today and pointing my finger along with his. Still, I do not usually place myself on the other side with Hosea's finger pointing at me.

Because there are a lot of movements that are God-breathed, there are programs and ideologies that are amazing and great that I want to come alongside. There are places I want to invest in my life. But how do we know if we are being faithful to God or giving ourselves to other lovers maybe even clothed in "Christian" robes? 

Hosea gives us some guidance through his children's birth story. 

First, there is Jezreel, "God sows"/" God plants." In verse 10, God grows a people. Jezreel's birth story might ask us if what we join, what we say, what we do, does it GIVES BIRTH to the GROWTH of PEOPLE? Are we generously planting the seeds of God's covenantal life?
Next, in verse 10, the youngest son's name was changed from "not my people" to "children of the living God" to "my people," changed from "nobody" to "somebody." Perhaps his birth story challenges us to ask: "Are we GIVING BIRTH to BELONGING? Does what I say, what I do, what I invest myself in GIVING BIRTH to BELONGING?"

And finally, Hosea's daughter's name was changed to "My loved one." A surname derived from the verb that means "deeply loved." Her birth story might require us to ask ourselves, "Is my life, is my faith GIVING BIRTH to DEEP LOVE?"

Maybe today's text challenges us to reflect on our own birth story and ask: Is my life, is my faith giving birth to the growth of people? Is my life, my faith giving birth to belonging? And is my life, my faith giving birth to deep love? 

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