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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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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Hosea's Troubling Oracle

Last Sunday my mom said she had heard a good introductory Sunday school lesson at the beginning of a unit on the Prophet Hosea.  Then she asked, "What do you have to say about Hosea?"  This is, of course, an occupational hazard for theology professors.  Most people avoid conversation with me once they find out I teach theology and ethics to ministers, based perhaps on their presuppositions of what I must think about God and the world.  But others want me to weigh in on whatever recent idea or question they have had about any type of religious or moral question.

Sometimes this can be uncomfortable or tedious, but with Mom it's just a good chance to spin out things I have been thinking through.  In this case, I could only answer, "It's been a long time since I read Hosea."  But of course, a Mom's question deserves a better answer than that.  So a few hours later I opened up my Olive Tree Bible Reader and started working on Hosea.

Not so long ago, I started reading the Prophet Isaiah with the point of view that I would "see what I can see."  What quickly struck me was the way that my deeper journey into discipleship had given me a different sort of eyes than I once had as a Bible reader.  In this blog, I wrote a series of pieces about the singleminded emphasis of Isaiah on the economic injustices of Judah, perpetrated by the rulers and the wealthy elites.

Since that time I have come to realize that teaching certain strategies for reading can help people move from the individualistic and inward focus so often taught in US churches.  So I knew from the beginning that I would be looking for signs of social injustices, economic corruption, and ruling class oppression.  Unlike Isaiah, however, Hosea did not quickly turn to these specific characteristics of what had gone wrong in Israel.

The well-known story of Hosea has many parallels in Isaiah's prophecy, including the use of symbolic names for the prophet's children.  But Hosea brings the analogy of marital unfaithfulness to the front and center.  Israel is portrayed as the unfaithful wife, the wife who becomes a prostitute.  The analogy then compares judgment to a husband's disappointment, anger, lashing out, and abandonment of his wife.

Here in Hosea, the first of the Book of Twelve and one of the earliest literary or classical prophets, introduces a form of argument that becomes increasingly troubling as later prophets innovate and expand the analogy.  These are the "texts of terror," in which harsh and brutal treatment of women becomes a primary way of describing God's judgment.  There is no easy way around this problem.  It offers apparent divine tolerance for acts of battery, exposure, and rape.  It reiterates a violent patriarchal order as an accurate portrayal of the pattern of divine justice.

I will not try to apologize for the text.  There are many things that can be said about the historical context of writer and reader, and they may offer some explanation without providing an excuse.  Violence against women was and is wrong.  The overwhelming arc of scripture, reaching its apex in Jesus, cannot and does not condone it.  Yet when we read these prophets, the seemingly justified violence toward a weaker woman by a powerful man continues to operate as the quintessential and appropriate description of punishment for unfaithfulness.

Having said this, you will perhaps rejoice with me that finally in 4:14 Hosea at least lets the tables be turned briefly.  He says that punishing the women who have become prostitutes is not right, since it is the men who have sought prostitutes that are the cause of the unfaithfulness.  They have put in place the system which creates and encourages adultery, prostitution, and unfaithfulness.  It is they who are to blame and deserve to be punished.  It is not a complete turnaround, nor is it a "balance" for the other texts.  But at least it functions as a kind of subversive voice amid the terror.

Here also, is an important textual clue toward the larger issue of what has gone wrong in Israel.  There have been many clues up to this point, but it is really here and in chapter 5 that the reader can begin to put the puzzle together.  Hosea has focused on Israel's sin in general terms as "unfaithfulness" and "playing the whore."  Some clues in the early chapters help show that this entails idolatry and imperial alliances.  But finally Hosea is getting down to specifics of how the prophets, priests, rulers, and powerful have created a system that defies the God who took a wandering band of nomads and made them a nation.  These things don't happen out of thin air.  Powerful people make them happen.  That is where the fault lies as Hosea continues making his case. 

I'll return to the opening chapters to highlight the emerging argument in future posts.

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