No change in Christianity since Chalcedon has been more important than the women’s movement. One part of the feminist revolution is a reconsideration of sexual imagery in all walks of life, from pronoun reference in ordinary human relations to metaphoric descriptions of the deity. Whereas American Christian lay people on average might have some tolerance, if not nostalgia, for the good old days of patriarchal preaching, that is not true for seminary spirituality. So I am under no illusion that you will take kindly to my attempt to find the Word of God in an allegory to treats women as whores and men as forgiving husbands. To know that the point of the allegory is supposed to be that God is the loving husband who receives whoring Israel back does not help. When Christians extend the allegory to the whoring Church as the New Israel, devotees of Mother Church are not made happy. But to be able to speak openly and fully about gender issues is very important, and Hosea forces us to venture into that minefield in which the Church must live.
Of course the Church, like Israel, has been sinful and needs to be called to repentance, a theme with which preachers can never go wrong. But to liken sin to prostitution seems a gratuitous attack on women. When Valerie Saiving and others, over a quarter century ago, argued that the standard analysis of sin as pride reflects mainly masculine sin, they claimed that women’s root sin, for which they asked greater attention, is an innocuous failure to be assertive enough to get oneself together, with the result of undue dependence and a willingness to be over-defined by obligatory relations with others. They did not mean to say that women’s root sin is a kind of nature-driven lust and abandonment to fertility passions, ill-restrained by masculine domesticity, a sexual openness and provocation that both tempts men and frustrates them in their effort to impose civilized order on nature. The loose morals of the Earth Mother with her pillars and Astaroths is the enemy of the Sky God Yahweh in much ancient thinking and their dis-civilizing powers were cited to justify patriarchal suppression of women and restriction of them to the home where they can be properly ruled by a husband with legitimated violence. Ask Professor Darr to tell you about Lilith! Better yet, ask Professor Parker. Hosea reflects this thinking somewhat in the image of Gomer, the prostitute wife, who won’t stay home and who bears Hosea children by other lovers. This is not the typical feminist line supporting assertive women’s rights, believe me. In fact, it is the very line much feminism opposes as expressive of the patriarchal view men have toward women.
Though we have to preach in the present when feminist sensitivities are high, this does not justify anachronistic readings of the ancient texts. Hosea’s book is more complicated than this feminist reading, however valid it is up to a point. An example of the complication is the confusion of gender roles in the text itself, at least according to the stereotypes. Throughout the book, for instance, Israel in the sense of the descendents of the sons of Jacob is allegorized as an unfaithful wife to Yahweh’s faithful husband. Yet again and again, Israel, Ephraim, and Judah, Hosea’s names for the main tribal parts and territories of Israel in the large sense, commit the masculine sins of thievery, murder, injustice, adultery, and failure to keep the peace. The sum of these sins is failure to observe covenant of Torah, mainly rules pertaining to men, with the result that the people are no longer God’s people and Yahweh is not their God. Hosea’s metaphoric “explanation” of this is not that the men of Israel have gone a-whoring after false gods, which would seem to make sense. It is rather that the men have become like whoring women who open themselves to seduction by false gods and bring the children of that seduction into the household of the broken covenant. That the male leaders of Israel become like women, in Hosea’s imagery, transgresses a taboo of gender distinction that is every bit as serious as messing around with Yahweh’s competitors. Hosea wrote earlier than the extreme formulations of the Levitical purity codes in the post-exilic period, but I doubt that his audience would have missed the accusations of gender boundary-crossing in the claim that Israel’s leaders had become like whoring women.
As to Yahweh’s gender identity, many of us take great comfort that the Yahweh of storms and tides who overwhelmed Egypt under Moses and Canaan under Deborah, the warrior Yahweh of the Exodus who rode a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, the monarchical Yahweh who very grudgingly let Israel have a human king, has become a tender and forgiving husband. There is no great distance from Hosea’s image of the merciful and provident divine husband of Israel to Jesus’ intimate Father. But in Hosea’s prophecy Yahweh is given the mothering, nurturing roles of women as well as the violent retributive roles of men. That is how I read the beginning of chapter 11:
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 Baals, 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.
Those of us men who are unwilling to concede the nurturing parental role to women alone are quite pleased with this as a description of masculine virtues. But it surely runs contrary to the ancient stereotypes. Many scholars have pointed out that Yahweh alone of the ancient Near Eastern gods combines the gender roles of both women and men. Unlike some current thinkers who assume that God thereby transcends and neutralizes all gender roles, the ancient thought was that Yahweh embodied them both. So Hosea’s Yahweh is not only the forgiving husband but also the nurturing mother, an unappreciated Jewish mother to be sure, but a mother nevertheless.
Gender confusion and boundary crossing are disturbing ideas in any age, no less in ours when the churches are wracked by controversies over homosexuality and trans-gendered people. Therefore we might well make the move of most interpreters of Hosea and take a step away from the immediacy of his sexual imagery and underscore a more general point, one that leads straight to the Christian gospel. God is loving and faithful. No matter how much we sin, even sin with the worst sexual betrayals in our inner hearts and apostasy in our family commitments, God comes after us to bring us home. God is the Hound of Heaven, following us to the ends of the Earth to bring us back. God is the forgiving husband of an unfaithful wife, going so far as to raise the children she bears when she cheats on him with other lovers. Therefore hope remains for the worst of us in our worst sins. No adultery, no crime of passion, no betrayal of those who love us, no unfair burdening of others, no forgetfulness of who we are, no failure of responsibilities, no perverse flaunting of the covenant, no deep longing for forbidden orgasm, no swarming thoughts of breaking boundaries, can keep us from the redeeming love of God. How can we be worse than Gomer? We can’t be. What can be more powerful than Hosea’s image of the faithful husband who continues to love and always receive back his whoring wife?
Well, perhaps only the image of the loving Father who sends his eldest true-born son to recover his lost children at the price of his own life. Hosea’s imagery of love and family sets the metaphoric context for Paul and John’s imagery of family love ratcheted up in suffering and sacrifice to a level of greater intensity. We cannot understand the symbols of Jesus as the Son of God, sacrificed for the sins of the world, except as building explicitly on Hosea’s symbols of divine family love. That generalized lesson of divine love for wayward people is a foundation stone for Christian belief and life.
But something important is lost when we retreat from the immediacy of Hosea’s sexual imagery. If you read the whole of the book you will see something wild and irrational about it. One moment God is pleading for whoring Israel to return, the next moment crying desperate and total violence against Israel, and then without reason turning to promises of reconciliation and fullness of life. God tells the children to plead with their mother to turn from her whoring and take
her adultery from between her breasts, or I will strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born. … Upon her children also will I have no pity, because they are the children of whoredom. She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them, but shall not find them… I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals, when she offered incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers, and forgot me, says the Lord. Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her… There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt… And I will have pity on Lo-ruhamah, and I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people”; and he shall say, “You are my God.”
That’s love talking, passionate, jealous, angry, sexual love. It is not measured. Its hold on justice is insecure. Yahweh’s passion betrays a devastated husband crying his grief, raging at his loss, anguished at betrayal, wounded, bleeding, in such pain as to threaten violence he does not mean but so disordered as to be capable of it, breaking out against his beloved. You know how domestic violence can erupt from wounded love. Raise that to divine dimensions and you see the broken heart of Yahweh, crazed omnipotence with lightening bolts. Our creator’s like that—not just a rational architect or landscape gardener, not just a nurturing mother or protective father, but a lover severed from his beloved and from his senses, madly making things in wild abandon. Hosea’s point is that God’s infinite passion, that wild love more elemental than any marriage or moral covenant, is still more steady and faithful than love based on justice. No matter what whoring we do, and what violence God wreaks upon us, God will make us his people again and he shall be our God. We cannot get away because we are wildly, madly, loved.
One final point, one more turn on Hosea’s texts. If I am right that Hosea’s real depiction of divine love is in the wild swings between violent vengeful rejection and the lavishing of gifts and welcome upon the beloved, then the allegorical identification of Yahweh with the husband Hosea is only superficial. There is a deeper identification. Who is the wild one in this text? It is Gomer. Who is the fruitful one? Gomer. Who loves everybody? Gomer. Who sets love above the rules? Gomer. But who treats people like possessions? Hosea. Who produces no children? Hosea. Who is the passive agent of others? Hosea.
If God were domesticated and bound by the covenant, he would be like Hosea and receive back his beloved because of obligation. Surely the author means to say that Yahweh is something like this, being faithful to Israel despite betrayal because Yahweh had promised to be faithful. Deeper than this intention, however, Hosea’s rhetoric says “promises be damned!” God wants Israel back because he loves her and will give her anything to get her back. As Gomer went hunting her lovers when they could not be found, so Yahweh hunts fickle Israel. As Gomer was a sucker for the false charms of her lovers, so God will take our false hearts into her bosom. As Gomer roused her lovers from their indolence by her raw sensual love, so God will melt our hearts and rouse us to passion that passes justice and measure.
Hosea’s symbols of sex deconstruct the husband’s story of long-suffering justice without denying justice and repentance. Deeper than the justice of the covenant at Sinai, the mountain Yahweh almost broke to pieces when his holiness descended in fire and smoke to deliver the commandments throbs the raw wild love in creativity. We cannot bear much of that wild divine lover, and so we cover our own naked loving and longing for love with domestic stories like Hosea’s longsuffering husband raising foster children. But sex knocks cracks in domestic theology and lets us glimpse the wild lover who says “promises be damned—I love you and will feed you with life until you run over.”
Sex’s mad passions let us glimpse the abandon of wild divinity in ourselves too. Surely that needs to be tamed and civilized—love can be violent and hurtful, and the covenant is a good thing. Justice and the peace of domestic measure are obligatory no matter what. But deep down God’s love is a little oblivious as to morals and we are called to such a passion too—loving because that’s who we are, God and Gomer’s children, daughters and sons of the divine nature loving our world into existence in wild abandon.