“But you’re still playing for a love you’ll never find / outside these arms of mine” –Pedro the Lion, Of Minor Prophets and Their Prostitute Wives
While we might not always remember it’s Hosea, there’s that element of skeptical respect for that guy in the Bible who’s asked by God to marry a prostitute and then name her children (I say hers because Hosea might not have fathered all of them) things like “God sows” (compared to his siblings he hit the name jackpot) and “Not having obtained mercy” and “Not my people”. Talk about taking one for the team. Sheesh. This goes so completely against the grain of rugged individualism, of the American-dream blood flowing through our veins that it’s hard not to skip this seemingly awkward and irrelevant book. We give our lives to God yes, but in that subtle way where we’re trying to love God in our commutes and meetings and shopping and shlepping, not like making your life into a living alagory of Israel’s dark ways. Is this performance art, prophet style?
And then there are the other reasons to not get this book, or what I like to call the “raisin cake” verses. Hosea 3 starts out this way: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” I should first be alarmed that God is telling Hosea to love another man’s wife*, but it’s the raisin cakes that have me. Raisin cakes. Raisin cakes? They love raisin cakes? Is that like a pet name for their mistresses? Or is this culture getting a little too good with the baking? Their gourmet baked delicacies are a gastronomy of Babel-esque proportions? They are so tasty that they are turning away from God for them? They are really saying “Why do I need God when I’ve got loaves and loaves of scrumptious treats!?” But then again don’t we turn away from God for idols just as petty? We carry our glowing hunks of “smart” metal in our pockets to worship the goddesses of data and communication, drive bigger hunks of metal to worship the god of mobility, own four walls and a roof with which to honor our god of personal space. Hmmm. I do really love homemade pesto (you should see how I slick up every last leftover morsel of the Cuisinart–bowl, blade and all–after I processes a pesto sauce) and chocolate and pork belly and very black tea. Maybe it’s not so far fetched. I wouldn’t say our culture DOESN’T have a problem with worshipping the god of our stomach. But anyway, back to Hosea.
My two Bible resources, Google and the NIV study Bible notes, don’t have much insight about the raisin cakes. The most I can glean is that raisin cakes were thought to play a part in pagan rituals and were offered to Baal in thanksgiving for harvest. Other than that we are on our own, readers. It’s just us and the baked goods.
There are other passages too that are poetic in their imagery but also leave us with some disconnect. “It is I who answer and look after you,” reads Hosea 14:8, “I am like a luxuriant cypress; from me comes your fruit.” What majesty to envision God as a huge ever-green conifer. In its commentary of this passage Bible Gateway writes that storks make their nests in cypress trees. Cypress wood was used for making instruments and buildings and strong enough to be fashioned into a spear. This is all so rich and beautiful and then we get to the fruit. Cypress does not bear fruit. So . . . God is a now a fruity magical mystery tree. I know it’s all imaginary anyway, but I just expect God’s word to get the word picture exactly right. I’m left a little unsettled. I wish it made more sense.
I have to tell you the story about the day I read Hosea 11. The kids had gone off to school and I was eating a lazy breakfast at the kitchen counter. “They will come trembling like birds from Egypt/And like doves from the land of Assyria.” And all of a sudden I hear cooing and tapping. I look out the back door where the noise is coming from and there is a mourning dove right up against the glass. The timing of this seemed eerie and significant because I let my thoughts play it that way. It was probably just a “silly dove, without sense” like Hosea compares Ephraim to in Hosea 7:11. But you never know.
What I’ve learned in writing this post is that Hosea taking Gomer as a wife is a foreshadowing of Paul’s teaching in Romans. “While we were still sinners” (3:23) Christ loved us enough to die in our stead. Gomer and Israel represent God’s people as a whole, the chosen of all time and Hosea plays the almighty and merciful God. Gomer didn’t start her marriage to Hosea as an innocent pure virgin faithful to Hosea and then turn away. She enters into the covenant a depraved, diseased and desperate whore.
And so do we. In Hosea we have an image of God loving us, taking us as his own even as we are helplessly covered in our own filth and sin. In the dark, we don’t see it. It’s all we’ve ever known. Lost and fearful, turning dark tricks in the night we think this is the only way we can survive. And then one night God approaches us on the corner. I love you, he says, come with me and receive my love. You don’t need to do this anymore. I’ve got you now. Please let me take care of you. I’m brimming with love and goodness and provision and I want to give it all to you. I have always loved you.
From a literary standpoint, the writer of Hosea is indeed gifted. “Ephraim feeds on wind.” (12:1) That’s such a brilliant way to articulate that they’re foolishly coming up empty. Also 10:12: “Sow with a view to righteousness, Reap in accordance with kindness; Break up your fallow ground. For it is time to seek the Lord until he comes to rain righteousness on you.” And for all of us who love language there is this, which I will treasure: “Take words with you and return to the Lord” (14:2).
What comes to mind with prophetic scripture is often a running theme of the coming of God’s wrath. I like that Hosea, while indeed warning God’s people of their unfaithfulness, is dense with passages of God yearning for Israel to come back to himself not because of his holiness or righteousness but because he wants the relationship restored. “Let us return to the Lord…let us press on to know the Lord…He will come to us like the rain…I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice,” says Hosea 6. And then in Hosea 11: “I took them in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love, and I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws; And I bent down and fed them.” And then this incredible statement that just shocks with joy because it crushes those Old-Testament-God stereotypes: “All my compassions are kindled. I will not execute My fierce anger; I will not destroy Ephraim again. For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, And I will not come in wrath.” Did you read that? “All my compassions are kindled.” That is some amazing grace.
*This is in the NASB. The NIV translates this to mean that Gomer has become a slave and is bought back by Hosea