The Broken Earth in Genesis 1-6

Tonight, in my class on the Torah, we wrapped up by observing the tight connection between the moral responsibility of humanity, the human descent into wickedness, and the effect on the earth itself in chapters 3-6. Hearing the church’s common conversations, you could get the impression that the problem with the “fall” is simply the rift human sin and pride creates between people and God.  In reality though, the consequences of humanity’s fall is multifaceted. For instance, as demonstrated in the Cain and Abel story (and the Lamech one that follows), relationships between humans break down due to sin and violence, and we may easily observe the conflict that arises between the sexes on the heels of the tragic episode in the garden.

One of the too often ignored facets of the human fall is the curse that it brings on the earth itself. Although God’s initial directives to humanity were to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”, as the story plays out, it’s as if the earth itself suffers the sin of humanity in the early chapters of Genesis. Read chapters 3-6 with a ready eye, and you’ll see the motif show up repeatedly. It’s in the original garden fallout scene, and the language that contains the motif in the Cain and Abel saga is some of the richest in the Old Testament:

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so![c] Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod,[d] east of Eden. (Gen 4:8-16, NRSV)

See how the motif functions here? It begins simply enough, with “the field” being the site for the murder. But as the story develops, the ground or soil is almost a character in the story, bearing testimony against Cain, even cursing Cain. Cain’s punishment involves being hidden from the face of God, and social exclusion as well, but note that this layer of being driven away from the soil itself seems to be Cain’s most agonizing consequence.

The motif continues to develop in the early chapters of Genesis, perhaps culminating in the flood saga. In the build up to the Flood story, Noah is introduced by a reference to the curse upon the land: “[Lamech] named him Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.”(Gen 5:29, NRSV)  In the next chapter, God’s actions in the Flood are repeatedly attributed to God’s observation of how the wickedness and violence of humanity has corrupted the earth:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.                             (Gen 6:11-13, NRSV)

On the other side of the Flood, the focus shifts a bit, returning to the original command to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…”. God returns to the project of filling the earth with rich human life, scattering humanity across the world. This eventually leads to the strategy of blessing the scattered peoples of the world through the people of Abraham, but that’s a subject for another day. For today, it is enough to not how tightly God’s purposes for the earth were connected with God’s purposes for humanity. Perhaps this shouldn’t be that surprising, unless we have forgotten that God indeed made the man (hebrew ‘Adam’) from the dust of the ground (hebrew ‘Adamah’), and that we are connected to the earth through our work until the moment that we are returned to the ground. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19, NRSV). given this, how could our sin result in anything but estrangement from the very earth which is our perpetual context?

Preaching on Power

I am super-stoked about preaching this weekend. It’s about power, which underlies so much of the world, but of which we speak so inadequately about. Here is some of the design work that goes with the sermon.

Sometimes the sermon comes easier than others. This week’s had to go through a lot of wrestling, but in the end, after a lot of listening and struggle, I’m extremely excited to share it with the church.

“They sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

Egypt in Hosea

One of the interesting features of Hosea is the role(s) that Egypt plays in the text. The word “Egypt” shows up 13 times in Hosea (2.02 occurrences per 1000 words). That’s the highest concentration of occurrences of any book in the whole Bible outside of Exodus (3.45/1000 words), unless we divide Isaiah into the customary first and second parts. In that case, although my old version of accordance won’t tell me, I imagine First Isaiah’s concentration would be higher—31 of Isaiah’s 34 references to Egypt are in chapters 1-39. The similarity is no surprise, of course, because the historical situation of Isaiah 1-39 is contemporary to Hosea.

Hosea is steeped in the exodus tradition, so that he sees the departure from Egypt and the time in the wilderness as formative for Israel’s special relationship with God. But Hosea is also writing during a time when Egypt is appealing as an ally against the Assyrians. So he writes about Israel being called out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1) by YHWH, and also about their “return” to Egypt. Egypt is a world power that offers an alternative security to that offered by YHWH, and Hosea sees reliance on any such power as a road to ruin—indeed, a return to slavery. That means that Hosea is able to play off the exodus tradition, suggesting that Israel’s flirtation with other powers will reverse the situation of the Exodus.  This is just another layer of the whole reversal position of Hosea—their current actions threaten a reversal of the entire covenant, though the Lord will eventually again reverse this judgment and restore them again. Hosea thus imagines a new exodus, this time from Egypt and Assyria (Hosea 11:11).

This is an interesting take on a theme present within many of the biblical narratives—Israel’s morbid obsession with forms of power that threaten and oppress them. (Egypt, Assyria, monarchy) Even post-exodus, Egypt has a strange allure. What once enslaved Israel calls her back, promising her relief from her current troubles.

This is, of course, a recurring theme not just with Israel, but humanity. Alcoholics, the greedy, the gluttonous, addicts of all flavors and the rest of us all have our Egypts, and when we find ourselves under pressure, they can sing a sweet, sweet song. Ultimately it is a song of death.

Hosea—A Bibliography for Study and Preaching

While I’ve been preparing for the Hosea series of sermons (and blog posts!) I have had the wonderful chance to work through a few books, and I thought I should share a few I’ve found helpful. Looking for a commentary on any given text can be tough, because there is simply so much material available. I haven’t read all of the following cover to cover, but have used each at some point in my preparations on Hosea over the course of the last few months.

I worked through Luther Mays’ commentary of Hosea (1969) first, from the wonderful Old Testament Library series. I found it to be an excellent wonderful theological guide to reading Hosea. The themes of covenantal faithfulness resonate throughout the commentary. Mays is thorough, but typically is not overly so, and his commentary doesn’t burden the reader with too much technical language. It is perhaps a bit dated, (1969), particularly as regards the Caananite Baal cult and other archaeological data, but nonetheless the theology Mays read out of Hosea holds up well. He does not delve deeply into the many text-critical issues at play in Hosea, but I imagine most readers will find that a plus. He is certainly not ignorant of the issues and takes them well into account, but aside from very brief discussions at key places he judges that exhaustive textual discussion would overly burden the commentary, and I think that is correct. As the commentary stands, I think it provides a good level of theological material, such that will challenge most readers in a way that they can appreciate. Most other scholars seem to believe that Mays’s work is the landmark text.

The commentary by Andrew Dearman (2010) is perhaps the most well rounded and up to date volume that I worked with as I prepared to preach from the book. Dearman takes form critical matters seriously without swimming in them too much, and the same is generally true for his treatment of ancient Israelite religious matters.  This commentary has a great balance, and doesn’t feel too heavy for the average user, but is also well-informed and dialogues with other treatments of the book well. There is also a kindle version available, which is the only of the commentaries listed here for which that is true. The kindle version doesn’t include (at this point) page numbers, which is a bit annoying, particularly if you want to cite the book.  Nonetheless, I think this is a great buy, and if I was starting over I think I’d pick this up first.

Gale Yee’s commentary on Hosea in the twelfth volume of the New Interpreter’s Bible (1996) challenged me in some very helpful ways. While being extremely readable, Yee’s commentary provoked me to thinking through something of a feminist perspective of Hosea, particularly helping me see a new perspective on some of the rhetoric about Yahweh as husband. While I don’t know that the commentary would be sufficient by itself, it would make a fantastic second voice for a full conversation about Hosea. This volume includes commentary on each of the Minor prophets, as well as Daniel, from good solid scholars, and at $40 on amazon might be the best deal dollar for dollar, particularly in you’re going to work on the other minor prophets as well. As a side note, I think this whole set of commentaries has really been done well.  The lineup of contributors is impressive, and the format is excellent.

 

Douglas Stuart’s commentary on Hosea (1987) is in a volume that also includes commentary on Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and Jonah. Hosea gets the lion’s share of the substantial book, though, and Stuart is very thorough in his treatment of Hosea. Writing from a very fixed perspective, Stuart heavily emphasizes that Hosea is a reformer, seeking to call the people back to the covenant made years ago as represented by the book of Deuteronomy.  I appreciate Stuart’s perspective, but at several points felt as though he was a bit overconfident in his argumentation of the point—perhaps even condescending, although he certainly isn’t the only scholar to be guilty of such. On balance, I think the commentary is a nice contribution, and I found it helpful, although a little annoying.  That in itself is not a serious criticism, because if you aren’t willing to learn from annoying sources occasionally, you just aren’t going to learn.

The mammoth commentary on Hosea by Anderson and Freedman (1980) in the Anchor Bible Series could be quite helpful to some, but this is a heavy (literally and metaphorically) book with a good bit of technical discussion in it. I think the authors offer some great analysis and fresh insight, but this book is just simply going to be too much for most readers of the text. If I was doing a paper on a specific text, I’d definitely check it, and on particularly difficult passages for preaching there is some very helpful work here. However, at 600 plus pages, I simply can’t imagine reading through this whole work. If you can, more power to you.

I only briefly looked at James Limburg’s commentary on Hosea (1988) in the Interpretation series. While I typically have enjoyed commentaries in that series, and have written elsewhere of my appreciation of Limburg’s work on Ecclesiastes, I was really quite disappointed with this volume.  It was too stiff, and I just didn’t get the same vibe of creativity here as I did with his ecclesiastes work.  Alas.

Hosea and Gomer—Background of Hosea 3:1

Perhaps because they differ greatly from the rest of the book, the sections of Hosea which tell of his personal family life seem to be better known than the poetic passages. The relevant texts are Hosea 1 (particularly Hosea 1:2-3), and Hosea 3.

When we look at those texts, we’re immediately presented with the question of whether the two texts refer to the same woman. We are given a name in the first chapter, but not in the third, and it is easily conceivable the narratives tell of two different women. After all, it seems that God’s command to Hosea in 3:1 initiates a new action on the part of Hosea. The use of “again” (עןד) in 3:1 seems most naturally to modify  “The Lord spoke to me” (so NRSV), although it could conceivably modify “go” (ESV), or even “love” (NIV—this reading seems unlikely to me, and indeed the translation of the whole verse in the NIV seems to sidestep the legitimate ambiguity.) I read the first part of the verse as saying, “The Lord said to me again, ‘Go, love a woman who has a lover and commits adultery…'”

Although that reading may suggest that Hosea is being told to love a completely new woman, I think that on the whole the analogy depends on this being the same woman from chapter one. Just as the Lord is loving Israel despite her infidelity, I think Hosea is being told to love his wife even though she has been unfaithful to him.  the analogy doesn’t make sense if Hosea is starting a new relationship—that certainly isn’t what God is proclaiming he is going to do!  So we’re on perhaps difficult methodological ground here. Although the intent of the passage was to make clear the Lord’s action by way of Hosea’s action, for us we almost need to reverse engineer the metaphor and interpret the reality of Hosea’s action by what it is said to have represented in the Lord’s actions.  Thus, I felt comfortable letting my sermon on Hosea and Gomer grow out of this verse, because on the whole I think the data bests suggests that Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim mentioned in chapter 1, is the same person being referred to here in Chapter 3.

Hosea and Gomer—A Sermon About the Love of God

When my friends and I used to sit around and talk about women (and the chasing of them), I used to say that I was looking for somebody with three “G”s.  I wanted somebody who was Genuine, Gentle, and Godly. (Kelly and I have often debated whether I have in fact gotten my wish list—I generally think she has a more gentle side than she recognizes herself.) There were two others aspects that, if pressed, I would have admitted pursuing. One is “Gorgeous”, although I might not have confessed that because it doesn’t sound too spiritual.

The final element—and if I’m honest, this was at times the most important element of all—was that I was looking, quite simply, for a woman who would love me. For a while Kelly wasn’t sure about that, and eventually, this was not just a peripheral issue, but THE issue. If she did in fact love me, we’d get married. If not, we were probably done. I knew I loved her, but if it didn’t go both ways, I just wasn’t willing to go any further.

I suppose that isn’t that uncommon. If you peel back the surface of what we all chase in relationships, it comes to this: we want somebody to love us.  We just want to love someone and be loved back. All the world’s tragedy and comedy comes down to this.

And so we can only come to Hosea’s story with bewilderment. While Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was introduced in the first chapter, there it is essentially the context for the children and their prophetic names, in an account told by a third person narrator—”this is what happened to Hosea”. In chapter 3, it takes center stage, in a first person account. This is Hosea saying, “This is my story.” The first verse is enough for us to start with: “The Lord said to me again, Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods…”

God invites Hosea to dive into God’s own heart by entering into a relationship which he knows will be unreciprocal. God wants Hosea to love someone—not just marry them, but love them!—in the knowledge that his love will not be returned.

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