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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Hosea's Story Hammers Home the Main Idea

The prophet Hosea's story is filled with tragedy, betrayal, steadfast love, and hope.  It is a story readers find themselves caught up in.  Foreshadowing Jesus' parable of the lost sheep, Hosea goes to unexpected lengths to find and recover his wife.  He demonstrates a love deep and wide enough to keep seeking and drawing her back even with repeated unfaithfulness.  It is a story we could retell about a husband or a wife in our day, but the social stigma assigned to sex workers in Gomer's time and in our time entrenches this particular set of circumstances with moral and emotional power.  Readers seeking to know God find ourselves opened to a kind of wonderment about whether our God's love might pursue us as far into degradation as we might go.  Whether we paint it as personal immorality or becoming caught in the deadly structures of evil in the world, Gomer's path into the abyss strikes the reader as an extreme devolution of a life.

It is also a story that gets too uncomfortable for the straightlaced and proper church people.  What kind of fool takes a prostitute for his wife?  Who would expect a prostitute to become a life partner and a mother?  We don't know what demons pursue Gomer into self-destructive behavior.  We don't know if there is a hidden history of abuse in her family of origin.  We don't know if her "friends" conspired to get her alone and vulnerable, then rape her, destroying her trust in human relationships.  We don't know if her desire for excitement and risk kept her from settling into habits of a good life and created a downward spiral and cycle she could not seem to escape.  And "respectable" people may not want to know those things.  They are satisfied to know what she is:  a "whore," which they believe is what she will always be.  They don't really like to think about this story because it implies that people who made such terrible choices, choices they never made, might be as valuable to God as respectable people are.  It implies God might be a fool like Hosea.  It implies that some fool God or preacher might expect them to be in the same church with someone like Gomer.

This powerful story, punctuated by the allegorical naming of the children, dominates the opening chapters of Hosea's prophecy.  This narration of a family's struggles, this brief narrative, stands in as an embodied sign of the grand narrative of God's calling to Israel, and through Israel to all creation.  It speaks of a certain circumstance within that grand narrative.  It tells of a certain plot turning within the life of God.  That particular moment in the grand narrative addresses a particular situation in the history of Israel.

Thus intermixed with the narrative of Hosea, Gomer, and their children are clues to the particular crisis of God's people.  The first such clue appears in the opening statement.  It addresses when Hosea prophesied.  It was during the reign of Jereboam II.  The verses which follow, naming the firstborn son Jezreel, expand on this problem.  Jereboam II, of the dynasty of Jehu, is from a bloody, violent dynasty, and what went around with Jehu will now come around with Jehu's descendents.   Just as Jehu gained power through double regicide in Jezreel, Jezreel will be the sign of his dynasty's downfall.

Jehu committed regicide against the son of Ahab and Jezebel, then led a revolt that included assassination of all the living relatives of Ahab's Omride clan.  Jezebel was killed by her courtiers.  Jehu showed signs of trying to bring Israel back to God's purposes, but neither he nor his descendents eliminated the syncretistic worship of the Northern Kingdom.  Moreover, having also killed the king of Judah and severed the cooperative relationship with the Southern Kingdom, Jehu forged an alliance with Assyria, offering tribute, as a way to play the balance of power game against Syria and Judah.  The reigning dynasty was built on violence, ambition for royal power, and strategic military alliances.  It was far from the kind of social existence God intended for humanity.  Israel was no emblem of Yahweh.

In the continuation of Jehu's dynasty, Jereboam II's reign was long and prosperous, under the protection of Assyria.  His father, Jehoash, invaded Jerusalem and stole the Temple vessels and palace treasures, carrying them to Samaria, not exactly a sign of respect for the heritage of God's people.  Jereboam II's Assyrian protection from his neighbors to the north (Syria) and south (Judah) allowed the economy to prosper through trade.  This obsession with luxurious goods of trade shows up in 2:5, where the association with the Assyrian empire becomes tied to ready supplies of wool and flax, oil and wine.  Since Israel also exported olive oil and wine, the demand for imported oils and wines must have been focused among the wealthy looking for exotic and premium goods.  Further down in the same chapter, God reminds Israel that it is divine provision that gives them grain, oil, and wine.  The coming judgment will take away the imported flax and wool, signs of how they have become so enamored with the ways, the power, and the gods of the Assyrians.  Bedecked with gold and silver, they pursued the Assyrian imperial blessing, and turned away from God and their own people.

In this context of self-satisfied prosperity, of believing it is Assyria who blesses them, Hosea names his other two children.  A daughter receives the name "No Pity," and a son receives the name "Not My People."  These words deny any love remains.  These names break the covenant.  As Hosea's story continues, Gomer who has gone away becomes a sign of the eventual dispersement of the people into the nations, the extended and diasporic exile of the Northern Kingdom.  From this disappearance, this utter dissolution, God will come after Israel, as Hosea went to find Gomer who was lost to him and their children.  And Hosea promises that the children's names will change:  the daughter will be called "Pitied" and the son, "My People," even "Children of the Living God."

This prophetic family's story breaks open a view of what is happening in Israel in a certain moment in time.  This dynasty, reaching its greatest wealth under Jereboam II, is also reaching its greatest unfaithfulness to God.  They may be blind to how they have sought after other gods, but Hosea is driving home the main idea through this story.  A few of the specifics get hinted at in the opening chapters.  As the prophetic oracle continues, Hosea will make it plain where and why Israel has gone wrong and become unfaithful.

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