Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 31, 2016
Commentary on the Texts
This reading is the theological climax of the book of Hosea. The book opens by introducing the major themes in the metaphor of the prophet's marriage to an unfaithful wife, using the vehicles of the names of three children to symbolize the message of judgment and grace (chs 1-3). The book then moves outward to elaborate on the application of that metaphor to the unfaithfulness of Israel in its covenant relationship with God (chs 4-10). Here in chapter 11 is a radical shift in mood and content from those chapters that marks the heart of the prophet's message. Again using metaphors drawn from family relationships, here a parent and a child, the prophet proclaims a message of God's grace that rivals any other passage in Scripture for its directness and pathos, for its clear revelation of the heart of God. This chapter also sets the stage for the powerful call to repentance with which the book concludes (ch 14; see the Commentary for Hosea 1:2-10 for additional information of the structure of the book). Because of that movement, this book with chapter 11 as its centerpiece is as concise a summary of God's ways with human beings as anywhere in Scripture.
This lection rather easily falls into four sections marked both by shifts in tone as well as subject and time frame (in terms of structure, 11:12 should be read as the beginning of chapter 12; in the Hebrew text 11:12 is numbered as 12:1). The first section (vv. 1-4) recounts in parental imagery Israel's past history and God's role in it. The second section (vv. 5-7) is from the perspective of the people and their present situation in typical prophetic judgment imagery. The third section (vv. 8-9) is from the perspective of God and his present response to the people's disobedience and unfaithfulness. The final section (vv. 10-11) looks beyond the present crisis to a future in which God will restore a humbled people.
Israel's past: adoption (1-4)
The reference in these verses to God calling Israel "out of Egypt" clearly alludes to the exodus that brought Israel into existence as a people (see Deut 4:32-39). Hosea has already used a similar metaphor as he described God in the figure of a husband and Israel as a young wife who was devoted and faithful in the wilderness immediately after leaving Egypt ( Hos 2:15). It was only as Israel encountered the temptation of other gods ("lovers," 2:5) in Canaan that she became the unfaithful wife and the prostitute (for the background of the metaphor of "prostitute" applied to Israel's worship of Ba'al, see Baal Worship as well as the Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10).
The metaphor in these verses shifts to that of a parent and a child ("my son," v. 1), although the emphasis in both is on the role of God in dealing tenderly with Israel and the faithfulness and obedience of Israel as a youth. But also here as earlier, the point of the metaphor is the contrast between the love and care God has given Israel in the past, and the increasing unfaithfulness and rebellion that is surfacing as the wife/child grows older.
It is important to note here that the parent-child metaphor that the prophet uses to portray the relationship between God and Israel is that of an adopted child to a parent who has chosen the child: "When Israel was [already] a child, I loved him" (v.1). Ezekiel, mixing both metaphors of a parent-child and husband-bride, emphasizes the same dimension in his allegory of the foundling child. In graphic language Ezekiel describes the helpless child whom God rescued and raised into a beautiful woman with whom he entered into a covenant, in the metaphor of marriage, because he loved her (Eze 16:1-14). And like Hosea, Ezekiel describes in pathos filled language her rejection of God for a life of degradation worse than that of a prostitute because she actually paid her lovers instead of accepting payment (Eze 16:15-34).
This emphasis on Israel as an adopted child evokes the conviction evident throughout the Old Testament that God had chosen Israel to be his people. They were not God's by right of birth but by calling. It was a sobering realization to Israel that they did not deserve to be chosen and had no righteousness that merited such a choice (Deut. 7:7-16). It was only by God's graciousness to them that they existed as a people. That became the foundation for Israel's responsibility as his people, and was often expressed in the covenant formula "I will be your God and you shall be my people" (see Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10).
This emphasis on Israel as an adopted child serves to underscore the responsibility of the people to respond to God's gracious choice of them to be his people. Israel was not a holy people because they were holy on their own; they were only a holy people as they responded to a holy God who had called them to be a holy people (Lev. 19:1-4). They were called to remember what God had done for them, to live as his people, and to teach future generations about the God who had committed himself to them (Deut 6:20-23).
Yet, as Hosea has already laid out in the earlier metaphors of the unfaithful wife, Israel's history revealed a consistent failure to live out being that holy people (cf. Psa 106:13-14, 21). Verse two again picks up the idea earlier expressed in chapter 2 (5-8) that Israel did exactly the opposite of what she should have done. Rather than responding to the call of God to be his people, to be faithful to the relationship that God had extended to them, the people chose to serve the idols of the fertility cult of the Canaanites (v. 2). While the metaphor here is not as dramatic as the prostitute metaphor of chapter 1-3, the message is the same: Israel has brazenly and heartlessly spurned the love of God.
There are textual problems with the last part of verse four, although the general meaning is evident. The main problem is one of a shift of metaphors, which have led some to conclude that the Hebrew of the verse has become corrupted. Some versions following the Hebrew read "who lift the yoke from their jaws." This reading would leave verses 3-4 referring to the tenderness shown to pack animals. While this is possible, it breaks the familial metaphors used so far in the book.
As a result, some suggest that the Hebrew word 'ol (yoke) should be read as 'ul (infant). This would continue the metaphor of a child tenderly cared for by a parent. While this is probably a better way to see the verse, especially in light of what unfolds in the following section, in either case the meaning is the tenderness and care of God for the people of Israel.
It has been common to read the metaphors of the parent here as referring to a father, since we tend to conceptualize God as Father from the New Testament. In fact, the imagery of God as Father is rare in the Old Testament (only nine times), largely because of dangers of associating God with the fertility deities of the Canaanites who supposedly fathered other gods and even human beings. And yet, the imagery here is not really that of a father and a child but is much more feminine imagery, that of a mother. Teaching a child to walk, picking them up to hold when they are injured, feeding a child (cf. 13:5-6) are all maternal images even in our modern culture. This adds to the tone of tender compassion that Hosea is communicating.
Some have noted that using feminine imagery here would run an even greater risk of confusion with the Canaanite gods, since Ba'al as a fertility deity was regularly understood to have a female consort, Asherah (see Baal Worship). Yet, throughout the book Hosea has been quite bold in using the same metaphors for God that the Canaanites used for Ba'al. The entire marriage metaphor with which he begins the book to describe the relationship of God with Israel has sexual overtones in the context of the fertility rites practiced in the Ba'al temples (cf. 4:17-19). But Hosea clearly rejects association of the fertility gods of the Canaanites with God, for example, in the rejection of the term ba'al (which can also mean "husband") applied to God (2:16). He is clear that God is not Ba'al, at the same time that he is bold enough to say that Yahweh, the God of the Fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt is the only husband that Israel needs! (See Speaking the Language of Canaan).
There is pathos in these verses, as the parent grieves over the wayward child. Just as the wife who went to her lovers (Ba'al) to thank them for the gifts without realizing that it was her husband (God) who had given them to her (2:8), so the child walks away from the very one who had lovingly taught him to walk in the first place (vv. 2-3; cf. 7:15).
Israel's present: consequences (5-7)
The flow of thought here is that the Israelites' present circumstances are an outworking of those actions of disobedience of the past. These verses reflect the precarious situation in which Israel found itself as the Assyrians emerged as the new world power (see Assyrian Dominance, 745 BC - 605 BC). The nation was on the verge of being swallowed up by a new flood of history (8:8). And yet they were clinging to Ba'al as if this fertility god of wood and stone had any power to help them (v. 7).
The imagery of a son who has been loved and cared for by a parent, but yet who has been habitually stubborn and rebellious provides the cultural background for this section. These are God's people whom God has brought into being because he loved them. These are a people who owe their existence to God. But they are a stubborn and rebellious people, and have been so for more than 400 years in the land. Even though God has loved Israel as a mother loves her son, yet the son has rebelled, not once, but repeatedly (cf. 5:4).
The Mosaic law codes are clear on how a parent should deal with such an incessantly rebellious son (Deut 21:18-21):
18 If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, "This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard." 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
This might sound like a harsh punishment to us. But the larger issue here, as the last verse above indicates, is the welfare of the community (see Israel's Codes of Conduct Compared to Surrounding Nations). The principle as laid down in the Law of Moses is clear in this circumstance. Israel, the perpetually rebellious son deserves to die. If they will not heed the voice of the parent, will not respond to the chastisement intended to correct them, and insist on rejecting God, then the only final solution is death (cf. 6:11).
In the historical circumstances of the eighth century BC, death for the nation of Israel and its people was not just a far away remote possibility. With the Assyrians on the march, annihilation of the nation was a very real possibility, not in the far distant future but on the immediate horizon of history. This was no idle threat.
Some earlier translations of verse five perpetuate an error in the Hebrew text, and read a negative: "He will not return" (KJV). Most modern versions, however, correct the error from the Greek version (Septuagint) and translate "He will return" (NRSV). The warning is that they will return to Egypt (cf. 9:3). The reference to Egypt should be seen as a metaphorical connection to the exodus in verse 1. It is not that they will physically return to Egypt, because it is Assyria in the opposite direction that poses the threat. However, defeat and exile at the hands of the Assyrians will be, in effect, a return to the slavery from which they had been freed in the exodus from Egypt. They have worshipped Ba'al and have not acknowledged God. Yet, in this time of crisis, they will find out that the fertility gods that they have so valued will be destroyed along with their cities and the nation (v. 6).
Some take the reference to the "Most High" (v. 7) as referring to God. However, while this name (Heb: 'el 'elyon) is sometimes used for God, El Elyon is also the name for the chief deity of the Canaanite pantheon of gods, the father of Ba'al (note Gen 14:17-24, where Abraham deftly reinterprets allegiance to the Canaanite 'el 'elyon in terms of Yahweh whom he calls yahweh 'el 'elyon, v. 22). They will cry out to the gods that they have been worshipping and will try to consult the diviners of Ba'al for help (cf. 4:12), but will find that they have no power. In fact the word translated "oracle-priests" (NRSV, v. 6) to refer to the diviners is a derogatory term that could be fairly translated in idiomatic English as "windbags." As Hosea has said earlier, they have sown the wind and now they will reap the whirlwind (cf. 8:7).
The message is powerful here. Since they have not valued what God has done for them in rescuing them from the slavery of Egypt, they may as well return to such slavery. In fact, the implication of their rejection of God is that they have chosen to be slaves rather than to be the adopted children of God (the same point was made in earlier chapters by the names of the three children; see the Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10; cf. Gal 4:3-7). Shifting metaphors, Hosea proclaims that if they will not have Yahweh as their king, they may as well have Assyria as their king (v. 5).
God's present: grace (8-9)
The shift between verses seven and eight is radical and can easily be misunderstood unless it is set within the context of the entire book as well as the unfolding history of Israel. Without allowing these two contexts to bear on these verses, it might appear that God has decided to overlook Israel's sin and forego any punishment or consequences for their action. Yet the entire book to this point has laid out the consequences that will unfold at the hands of the Assyrians for Israel's continued disobedience (e.g., 9:7-9). Likewise, following this chapter there are clear warnings that a catastrophe is on the horizon (13:9-16). So these verses must be read in light of the larger perspective of the book that continually warns of disaster for the nation from the Assyrians.
From the very beginning of the book, judgment images have been juxtaposed with grace. The negative images of the three children were reversed into a promise for the future (ch. 1:2-2:1, 21-23). The unfaithful wife was first disowned and then accepted back (2:2-20, 3:1-5). The pattern of the book has unfolded as grace-judgment-grace; God loves and chooses expecting a faithful response, the people refuse to respond and bring judgment upon themselves, and after they have suffered the consequences God responds with forgiveness. We would expect that sequence here as well. The first section in this chapter recalled God's grace to Israel in the past. The second section portrayed the consequences that would unfold for Israel's rebelliousness, consequences that in prophetic language is called "judgment" of God. Here we would expect grace. The question, however, is whether this is a grace that bypasses consequences for habitual sin.
There is a clue in verse nine, in which God declares that he will not destroy the Northern Kingdom (Ephraim) again (Heb: "I will not return to destroy Ephraim"). When we put this in the context of unfolding history the perspective here becomes clearer. We know from accounts in Kings that the Northern Kingdom did not heed the warnings of Hosea or Amos. They continued their same illicit affair with the fertility gods with no concern for returning to God. The Assyrians were a formidable enemy, and by itself the Northern Kingdom was no match for their armies. After a series of assassinations and attempts to make alliances with Judah, Syria, and Egypt, the Northern Kingdom finally succumbed to the Assyrian Empire. In 722 the Assyrians destroyed Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom, and deported large numbers of the people to other provinces of the Empire. The Northern Kingdom of Israel ceased to exist as a political entity.
The shift between verse 7 and verse 8 is marked by this ending of the Northern Kingdom. In verse 8, the Assyrians have already come and the Israelites have suffered the consequences of their sinfulness. And yet in the midst of the suffering of his people, Hosea gives us a glimpse into the heart of God. At the very point where we have been led to expect the total annihilation of the Israelites, God simply stops and cries, "How can I give you up!" (v. 8). In a series of emotion evoking questions, Hosea presents God as still the tender parent who loves and cares for this child so much, even in his waywardness, that he chooses not to allow the devastation to reach a final conclusion. Admah and Zeboiim were cities near the southern end of the Dead Sea that were totally destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah. Their names vividly bring to mind the judgment of God on sin. And yet, just as God provided a way of escape for Lot and his family from Sodom (Gen 19), God finds it hard to allow his people to be utterly destroyed. In the suffering of these people, his compassion is stirred and he simply chooses to stop short of annihilating the Israelites.
The law demands their destruction. Justice demands punishment. And yet here, in ways that we have difficulty truly grasping, God's love for wayward Israel transcends both law and justice. God's love and compassion for this rebellious son is stronger than his sin. The people suffer for their sins; that is how God's world works. Yet God chooses to do less than his law allowed. The freedom of God is clearly evident here. He is not bound by some cosmic law that dictates how he must act or how his justice shall be dispensed. Here is a God who is totally free, and who exercises that freedom, not in a capricious way, but for the sake of compassion and mercy. God is far more sovereign here than in any theological system that ties his sovereignty to what he must do or is obligated to be. Here God simply chooses, "I will not!" (v. 9).
This linking of divine sovereignty to God's choice for mercy is grounded in his holiness. Here "the Holy One" (v. 9) is not a moral category but in typical Old Testament usage is a way to express that God is God, that he is different, that he is not just a human being writ large. Perhaps that is why on some level this passage disturbs us just a little, because like Jonah we get the uneasy feeling that God is doing something here that we would not ourselves do if we were in his place (Jon 4:2). We might find it all too easy to follow the letter of the law, and then rejoice that the law has worked so well. But this is not about law and justice. It is about mercy, and is presented as overriding law.
In later more abstract philosophical language, this is the transcendence of God, his otherness from humanity. He can go beyond our human sense of justice and law because he is God and not a human being. And yet, the concept of transcendence is not adequate here. That concept in philosophy always implies not just difference but a distance between God and humanity, what God is "out there" beyond humanity. Yet this "Holy One" is not "out there" but is "in your midst," among his people (v. 9). It is that presence with his people that had always been a mark of God's work in the world (cf. Exodus 3:12 ff; note the sections on the covenant formula in the Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10). Here it is that presence in the midst of his people that provides them a possibility that they do not have in themselves.
We should note that this is not a blanket statement that God will never work in terms of justice and law. The references to the Cities of the Plain, Admah and Zeboiim, serve to remind us that this is not a universalism that cuts grace loose from responsibility. And it is obvious that the possibility of a new future does not include those who suffered and died at the hands of the Assyrians. While grace is the only possibility of a new future, it may not avert the more immediate consequences of sin.
Yet it is a clear testimony that God's grace extends far beyond what our human conceptions of his work with humanity tend to envision. Perhaps that is why we are disturbed that God does not punish Cain more severely for the murder of Able. Or why we tend to sympathize with the workers who have labored in the field all day and yet are paid the same as the workers who only worked one hour (Matt 20:1-16). Perhaps that is why, if we were truly honest, we would likely be in the crowd with the Pharisees wondering what Jesus will do with the woman caught in adultery, and would share their astonishment when he does not condemn her (John 8:3-11). Perhaps this simply says that this passage is as much about us as it is about God.
Israel's future: restoration (10-11)
These final verses move more clearly to a future in which God will again act in gracious ways. The context here is clearly a time when the people are scattered and exiled away from the land. The threats of previous verses have long been a reality here. But there is a hopefulness here that expresses a profound insight into God's work in the world. As hinted at above, we tend to view punishment as an end in itself. But the theological perspective here, still playing on the parental imagery in the background, develops the idea of a larger purpose in punishment than fulfilling requirements of law. The people here have been humbled by their experience as they tremble in fear and reverence before God. While earlier they went after the ba'als (11:2), now they go after God (v. 10). The experience of defeat and humiliation, the failure of the gods they worshipped to help them, have brought them to a position where they can acknowledge God.
As the following three chapters explain more clearly, this new future is possible because of God's love and grace. But it must be embraced by the people (for example, 12:6, 14:1). They are again called to acknowledge God as their God so that they can again be his people. What they experienced as punishment, the negative experiences of the exile, are the means to a newness. This does not come because the people deserve another chance. They clearly do not. Yet God's compassion, as the compassion of a mother for a child who has disobeyed and suffered as a result, allows a newness that transcends their failure. In this sense, this is a Gospel message.
The preaching paths for this text can go many directions depending on the application, but they should not stray too far from the central theme of grace. As the reading for last Sunday from chapter 1 focused on responsibility with hints of grace, so this text focuses on grace with overtones of responsibility. I would suggest two possible directions for preaching paths, one that aims at the needs of people and the other that aims at conceptions about God.
This text speaks of endings, of endings that come as the result of our own folly, of our own selfishness, of our own stupidity, of our own sin. Endings come as consequences for actions simply because that is how God's world works, whether we call it judgment, outcome, punishment, or chastisement. We are given the responsibility to live a certain way in God's world as a response to his love. Yet in rejecting that love, endings come. Death comes. For us, in our realistic world view, that is the end of the matter. Endings are, well, endings. Judgment happens. And that's that.
Too often, I fear, some church traditions and some people, have so emphasized the consequences of sin as a means to persuade people to avoid it, that we have left little room to move beyond those consequences. We have so emphasized the responsibility of how we should live as God's people, and the threat of endings if we do not, that we have not proclaimed often enough or loudly enough the Good News of God's grace that goes beyond endings.
As much as we want them to be, and even expect them to be, and as much as they try to be, people are not perfect. People fail. And sometimes they sin, on purpose and repeatedly, before they come to themselves and realize that something needs to change. Sometimes they do not come to themselves until the consequences of their actions have already worked out in their lives. Endings come. Unwanted pregnancies. Tragic accidents. Addictions. Alienation of loved ones. Divorce. Crime. Disease. Endings come in all kinds of ways. How do we or how should we respond to these people, who sometimes are our loved ones and friends? Do we pity them or feel sorry for them? Do we smugly gloat that they have gotten what they deserve? Or do we find ways to love them as Hosea loved his prostitute wife, and as God loved the wayward child?
We must be careful not to individualize this Hosea text too much just to make it fit with what we want to say in our individualistic culture. Still, there is something we learn about God from this text that speaks to the hopelessness of our lives. The message of this text is a message to people who have nowhere to go, who have come to the end of themselves, who have nothing to show for their lives but endings. If we are not careful, we respond like Jonah and sit down on the hillside to watch them go up in flames as we talk of God's justice. And yet God's compassion and love compelled him to go beyond the endings of his people to a new act of grace, to go beyond justice to mercy. Should that not compel us to see those around us who have experienced endings in light of what they can become beyond the endings? If it is our responsibility as Christians to call people to avoid sin, and to warn them of the consequences, is it not just as much our responsibility to continue loving them even when they do not heed our warnings and suffer the consequences?
While this texts speaks of endings, it also speaks of a newness beyond endings, a newness grounded in nothing less than the love of God that refuses to let his people go, even though they have abandoned him. This is a message not only of love that will go to any lengths to call his people back to himself, as Hosea calls his adulterous wife back home. It is also a message of hope to those who have given up amid the endings of their lives. This is a message that there is no such thing as hopeless cases with God. The Good News for Israel was that the endings were not final, but the means to a new beginning. That goes beyond the boundaries of our human thinking. But then God is not a human being, he is the Holy One in our midst.
Jesus told the story of a wayward son who had arrogantly left his father's house and wandered his own way. Finally he realized how far he had gone and decided to return as a slave. Yet, his father stood with open arms ready to accept him again as a son. It was not a new story. It had been played out nearly 800 years earlier in the message here. The message to proclaim from this text is that God loves humanity so much that he has committed himself to us beyond all the endings of our lives. How far would he go in that love? As Christians, we have, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life."
A second direction for preaching could focus on how we conceptualize God. James Hamiliton's book, The Many Faces of God, describes how various ideas people have about God affect how they live their lives in some areas (see God is Dead: False Images of God). The "face" we put on God often influences how we see ourselves, other people, and even the world itself. One of the most common ways of thinking about God is in terms of absolutes, either in terms of beliefs or actions. From this perspective, God is seen in philosophical categories as the ultimate of everything and understood in descriptive categories like infinite, perfect, etc. God is usually more transcendent, aloof from the world, and is concerned mainly about human performance. Often, human relationship to God is conceived in legal terms, with the measure of human righteousness in terms of performance according to the absolute laws of God as revealed in Scripture. The goal of humans beings is simply to obey the rules.
Now, of course, this is somewhat of a characterization, and there is value in some of these ways of understanding God. But from this Hosea text, we have a radically different portrayal of God in totally different categories. Here the "face" Hosea puts on God is that of a loving parent, a mother, who so cares for her son that she suffers as he suffers (cf. Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God). God responds to the human situation and chooses in his sovereignty to alter his course of action based on his love and the response of the child. This text describes a dynamic relationship between God and humanity whose governing concept is not law but grace and compassion.
This is a "face" of God that many people have never seen. But perhaps if they could hear the pathos in God's cry, "How can I give you up," they could move to an understanding of God that goes beyond the God who keeps the fires of hell going to seeing a God that would go to any lengths to restore a wayward child. And if people could catch a new understanding of that kind of God, perhaps it would affect not only how they lived their lives but how they communicated to others the nature of the God whom they serve.
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