Reversal—A Sermon on Hosea 2

Hosea the prophet lives in a time of false security, when his nation manipulates politics to acquire a sense of independent security, and manipulates religion in an attempt to acquire economic stability. Their political/military life and their worship both lead them away from dependence on God, from faith. For both of these he speaks words of judgment, fiery words which call Israel (and now, the church) to see her sin for what it is, and to learn true repentance.

We normally think of repentance as being about the past. We avoid it because we think it means a reliving of our worst mistakes, but nothing could be further than the truth. In repentance we confess and name our sin—not as a way of reliving it, but as a way of moving away from it. Repentance is about freedom from the past. Repentance is a consequence of hope.

It grows out of two convictions about the future, convictions which Hosea leads us into by sharing God’s mind with us.

First, God owns the future. God declares the future through Hosea, not because he has some secret power of prediction, but because the future consists of the actions of God. God does not predict sports scores or the playing cards of a magician’s trick, but is simply stating what he intends to do, with the knowledge that he can and will in fact do these things. While humans have plenty to say about what will happen in the mean time, the future—the ultimate future—will be as God wills.  And so, God can declare that Israel will be exposed, that they will be stripped of all that they hold dear, that they will be confronted by the futility of their quests for power, security, and independence from him—not because it’s a magical prediction, but because God himself will act to do these things.  “I will strip her naked…I will expose her as in the day she was born…I will make her like a wilderness…I will turn her into a parched land…I will kill her with thirst…I will hedge up her way with thorns and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths…I will take back my grain, my wine, my wool and my flax…I will uncover her shame…I will put an end to her celebrations…I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees…” God can make these announcements because they are his actions. God is free and powerful to act in whatever way he wills. God owns the future.

Second, God wants us to share his future. Hosea’s word is ultimately one of invitation—God intensely desires for Israel to join him in the future. All of the judgments issued are for this purpose, and point toward the day of its completion, the day when Israel is restored to God. God acts to provoke a repentant response in Israel, so that she will come to freely love him and live in a covenant with God marked by peace, righteousness, justice, love, mercy, and faithfulness.

What’s remarkable about Hosea is the kind of language that God uses to describe his passionate desire for Israel to have a part in this future. God won’t force Israel into repentance, but he will do almost anything else. Besides the prophetic word of warning, God flirts with Israel, gives her gifts, tries taking them away, exposes her other loves as frauds, finally draws her back out into the wilderness—like a husband who takes his wife back to the site of their honeymoon. He speaks softly to her, whispering, “we can just start over.”

His goal is the day when she responds with repentance, when she sees that he alone truly does own the future and yet offers her a place in it. His goal is a day of dramatic reversal, when all the pronouncements of judgment find their fulfillment—which is not to say, the destruction they foretell. No, Hosea’s warnings only find their fulfillment in the repentance they are meant to provoke, whether or not that occurs before or after the impending calamity. His goal is the day when Israel responds with repentance, and all that is wrong can be made right.

Hosea plays off of the warnings of chapter 1 to describe he dramatic reversal, flipping each name from its message or warning to one of hope. The stigma of bloodshed that brought about the name “Jezreel” will be replaced by the word’s linguistic meaning—”God sows”—and God will plant the people in the land, establishing her with peace and abundance from his own hand, not as a result of her political or religious manipulation. To those whom he gave the name, “no mercy”, he will now have mercy, and to those whom he called “not my people”, he will again say, “you are my people.” The renaming is completed, not by a word from God, but one from the people, as they finally and dramatically will say, “you are my God.” God paints the picture of this future, seeking to inspire hope in Israel—for where hope lives, repentance is possible.

Repentance happens in the lives of those who understand that God owns the future, and who believe they have a place in God’s future. Reading Hosea now, some 2700 years later, and reading it on the other side of Jesus, we know that God has taken a dramatic step to bring about this future. While we wait for the final scene to begin, God has invited us to share in his future…now!

God declares that his rule will be over all the earth, and in repentance we begin to live in that future now; we join God now, leaving the past behind and orienting ourselves by a future that redeems the present.

And so it is that within these words of warning there is also a seed of hope, the promise of God’s willingness to honor repentance, his burning desire to take back what belongs to him and make right what has been broken. I urge you to heed the warning that the future belongs to God, to take on the hope that he has a place for you within it, and to let it that hope bring forth the repentance by which God may enact his reversal.

Location in Hosea

Read through Hosea a few times, and you’ll soon pick up on how frequently Hosea’s prophecies are rooted in particular places. There are about 34 references to 20 different places in the book—a fairly dense concentration for a book of only 14 chapters! Some of them are familiar because of references in other biblical books, but others are fairly obscure to us, and we can only guess to their import by looking at the kinds of things Hosea has to say about them.

What’s interesting to me is the effect of rooting these poetic poems, which could be simply abstractions, in the concrete world of these specific places. Often that means the poem is bound to a narrative, or even a set of narratives, that comes with the location. All of this works throughout Hosea to give the book a sharp historical focus and feel, even if the specific force is lost on us as readers separated by a great distance. What’s important is to pick up on the sense of place in the poetry. When you read the book as a whole, and get beyond the strange archaic place names, the continuing cadence of places helps pull the poetry out of the sky, planting it firmly on the earth.

Here’s a list of all the places that show up in Hosea, with some brief references to what makes some of them significant. This list doesn’t include Israel, Ephraim, Judah, Assyria, or Egypt, since they are all significant enough either as places or players in the drama that I want to give them their own space. Continue reading “Location in Hosea”

Names—A Sermon on Hosea 1

At the market, a man picks vegetables, tying to decide between the vegetables. He thumps a melon, scans the cucumbers, and inspects the onions. He notices a cute little girl playing with her brother near his basket and smiles at them. He turns to their parents who are standing nearby and, in the chatty way that people sometimes talk at the market, asks a normal question: “Your kids are beautiful. What are their names?”

The parents expression darkens—the mother turns away, finding something else to do. The father’s eyes narrow, and he steps closer. Pointing straight at the little girl, he says, “We call her ‘unloved’. Unloved.” Not knowing how to respond, the man shuffles his feet a bit, and finally says, “And the boy?”

“Not mine.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought…”

“No, that’s his name.  His name is ‘not-mine.’ ”

Hosea is a shocking story. It does not allow for passive bland reading, and I assure you it does not consist of passive, bland writing. It opens with the story of Hosea’s family—a family whose very existence could not but shock literally everyone who met them. The book of Hosea consists mostly prophetic poetry. Not the poetry which many of us have in mind—the dry tedious metered verses we labored to understand as school kids. This is the kind of poetry that Walter Brueggemann describes as “shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, dangerous, imaginative possibilities.” (Finally Comes the Poet, 6) Hosea is full of wrecking-ball language, the kind that comes to destroy the peace of the present for the sake of the future.

The book opens with a narrative, but the story is just as disturbing as the poetry that follows. In fact, we might think of the story as a setting for three brief, super dense poems—the names of the children. After all, even within the story, it’s the word—the word from the Lord—that really matters. Continue reading “Names—A Sermon on Hosea 1”

Historical Background of Hosea—Baal and Idolatry

The second major background factor that we need to grasp somewhat to read Hosea well is the worship of the Canaanite god Baal(s). (The first is the Assyrian crisis, discussed here.) The name “Baal” shows up seven times in Hosea (2:8, 2:13, 2:16, 2:17, 9:10, 11:2, 13:1); four of those instances are in chapter 2. Besides these explicit references, the worship of such gods is a prominent theme in Hosea, and it would be well for anyone reading the book to have some sort of an idea of what is going on.

“Baal” was something of a general name for a variety of deities, some of which were conceptualized as being particularly localized, some of which were seen as more general gods in the polytheistic mindset of ancient Canaan. How the various religious shines serving deities known as Baals should be identified as a consistent religious movement is something of an open question (at least in my mind).

Baal with thunderbolt. 15th-13th century BC, found at Ugarit. (Now at Louvre)

Scholars gained substantial knowledge of Baal in the archaeological site of Ugarit, which was a Canaanite city northwest of Israel up until around 1200 BC. At the site were, among many other finds, documents from the Baal cults themselves—documents which were much more sympathetic to the god and its worshippers than were the Bible and its prophets! As should be obvious even reading the Bible, the religious landscape in ancient Israel contained devotees of other gods besides Yahweh, and often a syncretistic outlook which sought to incorporate the Lord into a wider pantheon.

Basically, (severe oversimplification ahead) Baal was the god who ensured that the land yielded its crops. Baal was the rain/storm god, the god of the fertile land.  Baal and his female counterpart(s) were worshiped in a cyclical patter following the seasons of the year. By ritual and sacrifice, worshippers sought to ensure that Baal would bring the rains necessary to grow crops—it was all about making sure they had food to eat.

There has been a good bit of speculation and thought of how some of the rituals associated with Baal and his female counterpart Asherah contained an explicit sexual element. As a symbol of fertility, worship at the various shrines may have included some sort of sexual ritual. In the ancient worldview accompanying such religion, the sympathetic practice of a “magical” sexual rite may have been parallel with nature, particularly the fertilization of the earth (Asherah) by the rain (Baal). The rituals were a way of manipulating the gods, thereby manipulating nature. Baal worship was all about using ritual to control the forces of nature and get what you want.

We should note at this point that commonly worship of the Lord devolves into the same thing. Hosea seems to observe such in his own day, and rails against that just as much as he does explicit worship as Baal. Worshipping Yahweh as though he were Baal is just as bad as worshipping Baal himself.

Thus, the material against idolatry in Hosea actually fits well with the themes related to Israel’s attempts to provide itself security in the face of the the threat from the rising Assyrian empire. Both are about the illusion of control—one the manipulation of politics to attain security, the other the manipulation of religion to attain abundance.

Neither is acceptable to the Yahweh of Hosea.

 

Historical Background of Hosea—Assyria

Over the next month I’ll be working through Hosea in sermons and some blog posts. The short book of powerful prophetic poetry (accompanied by two brief narrative sections), cannot be read in strict isolation. It contains virtually no historical context, and without at least some knowledge of the setting the prophetic words are almost impossible to consider rightly. There are at least two elements which need to be briefly described and grasped on some level before Hosea can really come to life for us. First, we must get a sense of the rise of the Assyrian empire, and how Israel responded to that rise, which is the subject of this post. Secondly, we must consider the nature of the Baal worship that Hosea so sharply criticizes. While other historical and cultural factors certainly add color to our reading of Hosea, these two simply cannot be ignored if we are to grasp the essence of the book’s message. On the bright side, if you get these two down a little bit, Hosea is going to make enough sense to you for you to absorb some of its raw and powerful poetic punch.

Jehu pays tribute to Shamaneser III in 841 BC

The resurgence and expansion of the Assyrian empire in the ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries BCE dominated the geo-political world of the Ancient Near East. In what historians refer to as the Neo-Assyrian period, a succession of ambitious and capable rulers built an empire capable of efficiently expanding through vicious military campaigns. Israel, located to the south-West of Assyria, would become Assyrian prey early on, paying tribute first of all in 841 BCE during the reign of Israel’s king Jehu. Continue reading “Historical Background of Hosea—Assyria”

Hospitality and Restoration: Elisha and the Shunammite Woman

There’s an incredible saga hidden in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible that deserves more attention. It begins in 2 Kings 4, and then shows up again in 2 Kings 8. Maybe the whole bit would get more air time if it had a better title, but for now lack of one it’s called the story of the Shunammite woman. What a mouthful.

The Cracker Barrel of the Ancient Near East

Shunem was a small town just off of a major international roadway, known as the Via Maris.  The Via Maris was a major trade route in the Ancient Near East, going from Egypt through Israel up to Damascas (Syria), where it then connected with other routes to Assyria or Babylon.  This was a major pipeline for trade in the ANE, and the people who lived along the route had a chance to profit by the travelers and live in a wider world due to the trade potential. To help you get your bearings, we’re talking about a place a good bit north of Samaria, just north of Jezreel (about five miles).  You might remember that in Jezreel there was a royal residence—one that was the site of some infamous moments in the sagas of Ahab and his descendants. (Naboth’s vineyard was around Jezreel.) So this town, Shunem, was in a region that we know the prophets were active, but it’s away from Elisha’s home base in Samaria.  We don’t really know where he was going while he was passing through Shunem, but it makes a lot of sense that he needed somewhere to land when he was in this region.

This saga that begins in 1 Kings 4 really revolves around this woman who notices the traveling Elisha, and shows him hospitality by giving him some food. Elisha makes a habit of stopping in whenever he travels that way, and over time she recognizes that he is a holy man.  The woman and her husband build a small room on their house for Elisha to stay in when he passes through, and he becomes a regular guest in their home.

Hospitality Repaid

Elisha wants to repay the hospitality, and so he (in an odd, indirect way, I think) asks her how he can repay the favor. Perhaps his royal connections can help them? She responds that she and her husband don’t really need anything more than what they have, they are self-sufficient. Elisha continues to ask his servant what should be done, though, and Gehazi (the servant) responds by pointing out that she didn’t have any sons, and that her husband was old.

Elisha calls her in again, and tells her that in the next year, she would have a son. She wasn’t fishing for this offer, and had really become resigned to not having a son, and responds almost angrily. “No my Lord, oh man of God.  Do not lie to your servant.”  She doesn’t want false hope or empty promises. Things were fine how they were already—no need to interfere, thank you very much. But, things turn out just the way Elisha had said, and that seems like a pretty good ending to a classic miracle story. But, the story goes on.

The child grows up, and one day goes to his dad who is working as a harvester, and while he’s there he cries out because his head hurts. His dad has him taken to his mother, and the kids sits on her lap until noon, when he dies. So, she takes his body, and she takes it up to Elisha’s guest room, and lays it on the bed, and then takes off to go see Elisha. She confronts him bitterly, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?'”

Resurrection, Elisha Style

Elisha sends his servant to go quickly intervene, by placing Elisha’s staff on the corpse. Almost as if she knows that’s not enough, the woman insists that Elisha himself go, and so he does, and finds that indeed the attempt to resurrect by proxy didn’t work.  So, Elisha himself goes into the room where the body is—his room.  Reading the account, you get the sense that this is a miracle Elisha really has to work for.  He prays, lays himself on the body in a sort of weird CPR, and then he gets up and paces around for a while. He goes up and does it again, and the boy sneezes seven times and comes back to life. Weird story, but in the end Elisha gives the boy back to his mother.

The persistence in the story, both of Elisha and the woman, gives me a real feeling of urgency. The story fills with tension, because you get the sense that Elisha has really gotten in over his head, that he’s messing with things that are almost outside of his authority, and he might not be able to pull it off. Is Elisha (and by extension, the Lord) just messing with the woman? The stakes are so high, the woman feels betrayed, and Elisha can’t give up on making things right. He seems to be insistent here on taking the role God has given him past the limits. Elisha is far from an impersonal passive prophet in this episode, he is deeply invested in this family.

Restoration

A final episode of the Shunammite saga pops up in 2 Kings 8.  The woman had gotten a tip from Elisha about a famine that would last seven years, and so she takes her whole family and they leave.  Seven years later, they come back, although her lands have been taken over—perhaps by the land-grabbing royal family! She makes her way to the king to appeal for her lands back, and when she gets there she happens to walk in while Gehazi is telling the amazing story of her son’s death and resurrection!  The king is so astonished that he immediately orders the woman’s lands restored to her, along with anything that’s been grown on the land while the family has been away. The way this saga becomes woven into the narrative of the royal family in this last episode is fascinating to me. It’s almost like the king realizes here that he had been unknowingly oppressing someone who had been remarkably blessed by the Lord, and he too realizes that he might be in over his head—the power dynamics get flipped because she has an unseen but powerful ally.

The whole beautiful story is full of hope, faith, persistence, and hospitality. It’s got crazy twists as the woman’s fortunes rise with Elisha’s coming, and blessing of a baby, then fall when the boy dies. They rise again with the boy’s resurrection, then fall when the famine comes. The famine passes away, but the family has lost everything they have, until they are finally restored in an act of surprising justice.  Altogether, the story is something of a vignette of life between the people, the prophet, and the king. I don’t know that it’s easy to boil it down into “the story means THIS:_______”, but it seems to me to be a tale of how one woman gets wrapped up in the prophet’s life with the Lord, and how that contrasts with her interactions with the king. The story makes me want to be careful about taking advantage of people. It makes me want to be careful about making promises to people, particularly on God’s behalf. It makes me want to work hard to make things right for people, and it gives me hope that hospitality can bring some great, if messy, blessings.

Practice Hospitality. It’s one of the ways God heals the world.