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An unfaithful bride (Jan. 17, 1016)

Scripture passage and lesson focus: Hosea 1:1-11
God called the prophets of Israel to proclaim God’s message in both word and deed. Their prophetic words are gathered in the second major section of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Those writings are among the most beloved and influential documents in sacred Scripture.

The prophets’ deeds are less known and in come cases they are looked upon as peculiar or even bizarre. To communicate a radical message from God, the prophets sometimes carried out certain symbolic actions that must have surprised and shocked the covenant community.

In our passage for today the prophet Hosea describes a symbolic action God commanded him to do. We know very little about the life of Hosea. His language hints that he came from the northern region of Israel and he was still of marriageable age when he God directed him to take a whore as his wife. He married Gomer, a daughter of Diblaim. She was a prostitute associated with a pagan fertility cult, according to commentator James Luther Mays. [This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Mays, a beloved professor emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, who died in late October, 2015.]

Hosea 1:1 — Hosea prophesies
This superscription is a clue that Hosea’s prophetic words have been redirected from their intended audience, the northern kingdom of Israel, to the southern kingdom of Judah. Four kings of Judah are listed first and then only Jeroboam II, the ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, is named. Furthermore, 2 Kings 14:29 records the death of Jeroboam II in 746 B.C. during the reign of Uzziah well before the reigns of the kings of Judah mentioned here. Many scholars believe that verses 5 and 7 of this chapter are editorial additions by the compiler of Hosea’s prophetic oracles in order to focus on the kingdom of Judah.

Hosea 1:2-5 — Hosea marries a prostitute
Hosea must have been surprised when the first words he heard from God were not an invitation to speak for God but a command to marry a prostitute and start a family with her. The root word translated whoredom occurs no less than four times in 1:2. The recurrent theme of whoredom is the dominant metaphor Hosea uses to describe Israel’s wicked behavior. He assumes that God and Israel have a covenant relationship. But that relationship has been abandoned by Israel as their behavior vividly described in 4:12b-14 confirms: “For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God.”

Hosea’s first child is a son to be named Jezreel, a location linked with the shedding of blood since Jehu led a coup and became the ruler of Israel in the previous century (see 2 Kings 9-10). The name literally means “God sows” or “God scatters,” an ominous anticipation of the fate of the northern kingdom.

Hosea 1:6-8 — Hosea’s children
Hosea’s second child with Gomer is given the name Lo-ruhamah, which means “not pitied.” As James Mays has pointed out, the name refers to much more than feeling sorry for someone. It means that she is without the parental love a child needs. It says that Israel no longer has God’s love. Hosea’s third child, a son, also receives an ominous name: Lo-ammi. It means “not my people.” It literally suspends the covenant relationship described in Leviticus 26:12 and elsewhere in the Torah. The explanation of the name in 1:8 uses a special name for God found in Exodus 3:14, for it literally says I am not your “I Am.” The terminology parallels the legal formulation for a divorce.

Hosea 1:9-11 — God will restore the covenant people
With a reversal anticipated in 1:7, Hosea offers a positive hope for Israel’s restoration. Joined with Judah, Israel will be part of a new community called “children of the living God.” This expression occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament and even the expression “living God” is quite rare. The renewed people of God will have “one head” (not a king!) in Jezreel, here redefined as a fertile land that has been restored by God (see Hosea 2:22-23).

For discussion
We sometimes say actions speak louder than words. Do you think Hosea’s symbolic actions speak louder than his prophetic words? In what ways is God’s covenant relationship with God’s people like a parent’s relationship to a child? Or like the relationship of spouses in a marriage? What overcame the unfaithfulness of Israel? (Hint: See Hosea 2:21-23.)

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.