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.

So in what was already a weird marriage (more on that when we get to chapter 3), three children are born, and given names that are extremely disturbing.

It starts off with a son, who Hosea is told to name Jezreel. Hosea is prophesying during the reign of Jeroboam II, somewhere in the middle of the eighth century BC, in the northern Kingdom that we normally just call Israel. In the southern kingdom, which we call Judah, there had been stable dynasty for over two hundred years—the descendants of David. But in the north it had never really been like that. It was a country born out of rebellion, and which had seen it’s share over the years. One of the most vicious upheavals had been at the hands of Jeroboam’s grandfather Jehu. Granted, the dynasty in power before then (you remember Ahab and Jezebel, right?) had it coming, but when Jehu took up the sword to seize the throne he went above and beyond The site where all this went down was the city “Jezreel”. So Hosea names his firstborn son after the site of a famous bloodbath, with a finger pointed straight at the king. “It’s your turn, Jeroboam. The same violence that began your family’s reign will soon put it too an end.  It’s time for another Jezreel.”

While the historical specificity of the name “jezreel” may protect us from the cold challenge the word contains, our own reactions intensify with the name of the second child.  I mean, seriously, who would name a child “unloved”? The second child’s name—”Lo-Ruhamah”—means exactly that.

In 1920 a young woman named Josephine Dickenson worked hard to be the best housewife she could be, spending a lot of time on that one task of getting supper ready for her husband, Earle, before he got home from his job as a cotton buyer.  Unfortunately, she was a little accident prone, and was constantly nicking her fingers with knives and getting little burns. Earle’s first job when he got home was usually to help her dress the wounds. Finally he decided to come up with a way to make it possible for her to do this by herself before he got home, by rolling out a long strip of adhesive tape and placing little squares of cotton at intervals, so that she could just cut off a piece, wrap it on her fingers, and keep going.  After that proved to be a great solution, he took his idea to his employer, Johnson & Johnson, and so was born the “band-aid”.  Sales didn’t go too well at first, but WWII picked things up, as did the company’s brilliant move in 1951 to start making band-aids with cartoon characters on them. After all, what kid can resist a sticker that comes with compassion?

Part of my role as “daddy” is “band-aid dispenser.” Now sure, there are times when I just kiss the supposed boo-boo and try to convince the child that it’s not that big of a deal, but sometimes, when a kid is just absolutely certain that the wound is a matter of life and death, the best thing to do is to get the band-aid on and give some hugs and kisses, right?

And that’s just the small stuff. How many of us would refuse to give care to a child—any child, not even our own—if we went outside in this very moment and found one gravely injured? Who among us would just shake our heads and walk away? Who can refuse compassion to a child?

That’s why the second name is so shocking. “Lo-Ruhamah.” The prophetic word means “uncared-for”, “unpitied”. God, who has always acted with mercy, pity, compassion for Israel since the day he heard their groaning in Egypt, will do so no more.

That sense is intensified with the third name, “Lo-Ammi”, or “not my people.”  Israel’s fundamental identity was the covenant people of God, whom God had specially chosen, and called as his people. God’s covenant was summed up in the phrase “You shall be my people, and I shall be your God.” Now that is reversed—the very identity of the nation is reversed!—and God declares, “you are not my people.” This prophetic word disowns the people.

That is intensified by a fourth name here, one that is somewhat masked by the translation. In Hosea 1:9 most of the translations read something like “For you are not my people and I am not your God.” That’s not a bad translation, but it masks some of the punch. What the second part of that sentence says is kind of awkward in Hebrew, but literally reads, “And I am not ‘I am’ to you.” God takes back his own name! God doesn’t just put these odd names on the children, but changes his own name here, revokes the name which he had revealed to Moses at the burning bush.  This is the ultimate message of the names—the world you live in is about to be undone. Everything from the seeming security of your monarchy to the relationship you have with God, even the very name which you know God by—all of it is undone by your sin. All of it is coming apart.

The names provoke us. Why? What’s the big deal? Why all the fuss? The names shock us. The question, “Who would ever name their kid that?” gets our attention so that God can look us in the eyes and speak to us about how serious sin is.

And yet, even within these names and their word of judgement there is the seed of grace. Hosea will speak to the people of a repentance that can change the future, so that “Not my people can once again be called simply, “my people”, and “unloved” will be called simply “loved”. Hosea will offer a word of eventual reversal, when what is wrong will be made right. But don’t read ahead to all of that, not just yet anyways. First, let this word of judgment break into your world, and ask yourself, “What is it in my life that needs to be undone.” That word of redemption can only be heard once we hear the word of judgment and digest its reality. So today, we’ll let that seed of grace wait for its time, and hear this single important word from the Lord—to walk away from him means death. Digest that reality.

And then, the God who changes reality can act.