God ~ it’s complicated ~ from Hosea

Narrative connection:

King Ahab and Elijah – last week’s king and prophet pair – lived in the northern kingdom, Ahab ruling from 869 to 850 BCE, roughly, and 120 years have passed between last week’s story and this. For many generations following the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms, Samaria and Judah were not disturbed by any military power other than skirmishes between the neighbors. This relatively peaceful time came to an end, however, as Assyria gained super-power status and began military excursions across the Euphrates – first into Syria and then into the northern kingdom. Conquered states were spared complete destruction only by submitting to severe terms of probation – testing their loyalty to Assyria’s rule, becoming vassal states with puppet kings. During the reign of Tiglathpilezer III, Assyria became still more aggressive in expansion, reducing once sovereign states to oppressed misery. He introduced a new policy of conquest. Instead of the usual extraction of gold, silver, slaves, and a steep annual tribute, he began the policy of deporting conquered people from their homeland and repopulating the emptied territory with exiles from distant conquered lands. This disorientation eliminated effective rebellion. 

I’ve read this before, but you’re hearing it again because it sets the scene. Abraham Heschel offers this quote from the History of Assyria; “Assyria has been characterized as the nest of the bird of prey from whence set forth the most terrible expeditions which have ever flooded the world with blood. Ashur was its god, plunder it morality, cruelty and terror its means. No people was ever more abject than those of Ashur, no sovereigns were ever more despotic, more covetous, more vindictive, more pitiless, more proud of their crimes. Assyria sums up within herself all the vices. Aside from bravery, she offers not a single virtue.”

Hosea was the prophet during the decline and fall of the Northern Kingdom. He began his prophetic activity in the prosperous days of the reign of Jeroboam II, and continued through the period of anarchy following Jeroboam’s death in 746 BCE. King Jeroboam was succeeded by his son Zechariah, but after only 6 months on the throne Zechariah was assassinated by Shallum, who survived for one month before he was assassinated by Menahem, who was able to hold onto the throne for 10 years. In the meantime Tilgathpilezer had come into power in Assyria, and an inscription dated 738, lists Menahem among a series of kings throughout the region from Mesopotamia to Arabia who paid tribute for the pleasure of their survival. Mehahem was succeeded by his son who was assassinated after two years by Pekah who lasted for three years. Gilead and Galilee fell after a failed rebellion in 733, and Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea, who was a vassal lord for Tilgathpilezer. 

The last few years of Israel’s history are still unclear, but Tilgathpilezer died and was replaced by Shalmaneser who laid siege to Samaria, taking it after 3 years and leading away as booty some 27,000 inhabitants and 50 chariots. So ended the political history of the northern kingdom.

In the last 24 years of her existence, Israel had 6 kings, but for Hosea there was no legitimate king. Kingship derived its power from divine election, and God was not consulted, considered nor confessed in the political intrigues, corruption and shifting alliances that took place in those dark, fearful years.

Hosea had warned – as Amos had before him – of the coming destruction due them because of the infidelity of Israel (which he called Ephraim) toward God. The people and king had turned away from God and therefore away from God’s concern for truth, integrity and justice for the poor. And yet the fall of Samaria was not the final chapter in God’s relationship to Israel. Amos had proclaimed the righteousness of God, whose iron will would let justice roll down like an everflowing torrent. Hosea speaks both of the wrath of God who wants nothing more to do with this people, and God’s overarching, unrequited love for them. God is not only the Lord who demands justice and loyalty, but he is also a God who is in love with this people. God could not give up on the people he had promised to accompany. Hosea’s message was not primarily one of doom, in spite of the really horrible violence he describes as his word of God for his people. His message was intended to effect reconciliation and return.

Hosea  

6:4-6  What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.  Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light.  For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

11:1-9  When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baalim, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

 

The prophets are some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived: they are those whose inspiration brought the Bible into being –  whose voice and vision inform our faith, who embody the word of God and bring it to life through their own bodies and personalities and emotions. They are the original practitioners of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. 

But you can’t live, embody, give voice to God and not be a little different, changed.

Still, the prophet was a person, not a mouthpiece. They are endowed with a mission, with the power of a word not their own – and also with a temperament, with concern, character, and individuality very much their own. The word of God reverberated in the body and vocal chords of a specific human form – a physical embodiment fo the word, an incarnation of God’s word that began with the incarnation of creation itself. The divine infused moments that occurred in the prophet’s lives, their backstories and daily doings, none of that is available to us. All we have is the consciousness of those moments preserved in their words on behalf of God.*

Abraham Heschel writes, “The prophets’ experience of God is characterized as a communion with the divine consciousness, a sympathy with divine pathos, a deep concern by God for humanity. The prophets do not become absorbed into God, losing their own personalities, but they share the divine pathos through their own sharply honed sympathy.”

Through it all they teach us about God. But it’s a disturbing, complicated, multivalent lesson.

“It is not a world devoid of meaning that evokes the prophets consternation,” Heschel writes, “but a world deaf to meaning.”  

That sounds like our world, in fact, which makes it all the more difficult to know what to make of the prophets.. and of God.

Hosea comes to see his life as a metaphor for the message God gives him. His relationship to his unfaithful wife, models God’s relationship to unfaithful Israel. Hosea takes up this passionate cause saying NO to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism. Hosea tells a terrible, violent tale, yet his goal was to reconcile humans and God. Our reading for today is notably different than the bulk of his message.

These comforting, beautiful lines are not representative of Hosea’s prophecy. In fact, he talks about God much the way Heschel described Assyria. Assyria seems to be given the divine go ahead to destroy, plunder and slay with unspeakable violence.

God is angry (really angry) because the people of the northern kingdom have turned away, and forgotten, and courted other gods. Angry enough to destroy the nation. This sounds – to our ears –  like a bit of an overreaction. It sounds a bit like Jonah pouting about God’s willingness to save his enemies. Jonah was angry enough to die, God to destroy.  If you remember, the enemy Jonah wanted destroyed was Ninevah, the capital of Assyria – not his own people. 

This is a confusing God.

Is God being peevish, feeling jealous of the neighboring gods? Is it so bad that the Israelites added other gods to their worship practices? The fertility and diversity of nature is an astounding wonder – even to us! To people surrounded by desert, the mystery of growth and greening, the dry wadis running with spring rain, sprouting into blossom and bud – evoked profound thanksgiving. The beauty of the first skim of ice on Little Butternut under moonlight, geese honking overhead – I can understand worshiping a neighbor’s gods of land and fertility – wool and flax, oil and wine, grain and fig trees and lambs. Did it really matter that worship of God was shared if there is only one God? The answer was yes, even though we might not think it deserved Assyria as punishment. The people worshipped the gods of the land who in return for the blessing of fertility demanded incense, live sacrifice, sacred prostitution, intoxicants  – self-centered excitements of the flesh – rather than Israel’s God, the holy one who demanded righteousness, justice, mercy, faithfulness, and love. The difference is in how we treat our neighbors in the practice of our religion. This is the thing that pleases or peeves God. 

According to the prophets, the thing we get wrong is that we – like ancient Israel and their Canaanite neighbors –  think in individual terms.  As along as we are nice and good-intentioned and basically honest and kind, we’re fine, we have fulfilled the righteousness of the law. Right? But through the prophets we learn that God isn’t so concerned about the behavior of any one individual; God’s concern is for the many, the nation. Assyria was the response to the Israelite communal sin of disregard for God’s justice and compassion. Hosea was chosen to speak for and to the whole nation, not just his family or for himself. If your salvation depended not on your individual actions but on your part of a culture, your advocacy that changes policies for the benefit of multitudes of poor or immigrants, if we were convinced – as Hosea and his people were – that God actually cared about our communal actions – cared enough to destroy or redeem one nation with another – what would you think of that? We have individual agency on behalf of the many. Our individual salvation is communal, depending on the condition of the disadvantaged among us. That doesn’t sound very different from the message of Jesus. Hmmm.

The thing that caught me this week  – well, there are two. The first is that Hosea presents God in this terrible, wrathful vengeance mode against Israel, not Assyria. Assyria is figuratively and literally ripping people apart, inflicting tremendous misery on nation after nation, yet, in the prophetic, inspired understanding, God is punishing Israel through the actions of Assyria, for ignoring God and their covenantal relationship. It doesn’t seem that the cause warrants the means. And that surprises me about God. 

I read this week about the halo effect. If we see an interview of a baseball player, say, who is handsome and well-spoken, who is doing good in the community, we are convinced that he is also a very good player. Our first impression colors and covers all the rest of the facts. He may be mediocre, but we’ll give him extra credit because of the things we like about him.

This also works against people, obviously – racial profiling, hate crimes – negative assumptions based solely on the way someone looks.

We give God the benefit of the halo effect as well. Which is only kind of funny. I believe that God is good, that God is love and loving, creative, invested in this world, this earth, our lives.

And so I don’t know what to do with the discrepancy of a God who comes in vengeance against people he loves. I tend to skim over the reams of prophetic words and biblical history that show God in a very different light to the one I like. There is too much cognitive dissonance, two of these things are not like the other. How can God come in wrath, and come in mercy? How can God’s right arm bear the sword of vengeance and in her left arm nestle lambs against her bosom? How can God create, and save, and destroy out of love? Those actions are opposites, how do they fit in God’s emotional life?

That is Hosea’s concern and, finally, his message.

Listen to the verbs God uses: God’s inward talk and outward talk – on the one hand, but on the other hand. God is complicated.

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.  Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light.  For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

‘I desire…’ Does your image of God hold a place for desire – it is an emotion with an unknown outcome  – is your God that vulnerable?

When Israel was a child, I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baalim, and offering incense to idols. 

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.

I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them. 

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call,  but he does not raise them up at all. 

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? [Cities that were destroyed]

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 

I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 

They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria;  and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

‘I desire steadfast love, to be known’ – not worshiped. That’s the other thing that caught me. What we do here on Sundays is worship, I hope, but what we also need to be doing is prying open our hearts to receive the steadfast love of God for us and for our communal lives, our encounters. And, I hope, opening our minds, our imaginations for ways, places, people – unexpected and mysterious – to know God beyond our Sunday worship hour. To experience God’s desire, God’s warm compassion, the cords of human kindness, the human bonds of love God provides.

Tell me, or someone at your table how this goes for you; how you hold together the divergent images of this complicated God.