When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.” So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.
Hosea is the first book in what the Christian Bible designates as the Minor Prophets, and what the Hebrew Bible calls the Book of the Twelve. “Minor” is a reference to length, not significance, and the Book of the Twelve most likely became known by that name because all twelve books fit nicely onto a single scroll. The Book of the Twelve was probably collated during the Exile, but the books in it reference different time periods and social milieus.
Hosea is set in eighth century BC, shortly before the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians. Like the other prophets of this time period, Hosea’s prophecies concern not only the dangers of idolatry, but also of social injustice. If parts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel seem like performance art, Hosea takes this method of expressing God’s message to a whole new level. He is commanded to marry a woman who will be unfaithful to him, and to name his children weird names that would make a boy named Sue blush. One is named “Not Mine”, another “Not Loved”, and a third name bears a place name referencing a city infamous for the violent deaths and defeats which occurred there. (Imagine naming a child “Waterloo” or “My Lai”)
Although Gomer might have been simply a cheating spouse or an ordinary prostitute, most scholars believe that her unfaithfulness to Hosea was related to Canaanite fertility worship in some way. Baal was a rain god, and Asherah a goddess of sexuality and fertility. There were both male and female temple prostitutes, and having sex with them was an act of dedication the worshipers hoped would influence the gods to send rain in due season, and ensue the fertility of their crops and herds. As children of the Enlightenment, we may find this behavior laughable, but the kind of thinking that is behind the act is a persistent one, and not at all funny. Many people today are still prone to think that God can be manipulated. If we believe the right things, say the right prayers, or follow the right rules, we will be concretely rewarded with good health, a fat bank account, and obedient children.
The charges God brings against Israel have an uncanny ring of truth today. False gods, and false understandings of God lead society into an escalating downward spiral which affects not only their society but all of creation:
“There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away.”
Some understand Hosea’s warnings to be akin to Jonathan Edward’s “sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon. I don’t understand them that way. Disaster is coming, but it is a consequence of their own actions. “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” God’s anger is not cruel or vengeful, but the brokenhearted anger of a wronged spouse who has tried everything he could to save his marriage. It is the anger of grief at what has been lost and what might have been, not the anger of retaliation.
Hosea’s redemptive love for Gomer as a metaphor for the kind of love God demonstrates to unfaithful Israel is nothing short of astonishing. Yes, terrible things will happen because of Israel’s flagrant disrespect for God and disregard for neighbor, but God reaches out again and again until finally love wins. And that’s good news to me.