Love that will not let us go …..
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
I have chosen for our text this morning one of the tenderest parts of the book of the prophet Hosea. Those of you who read the entire book, or who plan to read it, will note the difference in tone between this passage and many of the others, which are not nearly as tender.
This is the problem with prophets. Their words are so often disturbing, provocative, extreme, and unsettling that we don’t want to hear them. Only later, in hindsight, can we say they were right and appreciate the severity of their language. In the present, prophets do not make pleasant dinner guests.
A contemporary example: Bill McKibben is a very kind man. But when you talk with him about climate change, his language is not measured. His warnings are severe, unsettling, disturbing, and downright unpleasant. It is much nicer to have dinner with those people who assure us that nothing is wrong.
But back to Hosea. You remember that after King Solomon, the united kingdom of Israel broke up into the Northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Last time we spoke about Amos, a southerner who went to the more prosperous north to proclaim the priority of justice over greed. Hosea was Amos’ contemporary. He also prophesied in the northern kingdom – just a little later than Amos. Amos, as you remember, spoke during the time of the great king Jeroboam II, under whose rule Israel had prospered. Hosea began prophesying under Jeroboam, but saw four kings assassinated in the next fourteen years. Things were falling apart, and the kingdom of Israel was struggling to come to terms with its great neighbor, Assyria.
Assyria. 2700 years ago, the nations of Judah and Israel were constantly worried about their more powerful neighbors – Assyria to the northeast and Babylonia to the southeast. Fast forward 2700 hundred years to today, and the nation of Israel is still constantly worried about its more powerful neighbors – Iraq (formerly Babylonia) to the south, and Iran and Syria (formerly Assyria) to the north. We are talking here about enduring geo-political realities, and about an enduring faith. What we consider ancient history is also quite contemporary. Neither Assyria nor Babylonia exists today as an empire, but the geo-politics remain. The fragile coalition of tribes who struggled to remain faithful to the revelation of the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought the children of Israel out of captivity in Egypt and established them on the strip of land along the eastern Mediterranean, still struggle to understand and embody faithfulness, and prophets have continued to encourage them, to condemn their faithlessness, and, alas, to proclaim the calamities that will result when they forsake the commandments of their God.
As a side note, let me remind you of a singular resource that some of you may not know about. Only two blocks from here, in the Hood museum, in the first room you enter, is a permanent exhibit that will bring you into immediate contact with the Assyrian empire. There you will find a marvelous display of stone plates, spread across an entire wall, that were taken from the palace of Ashurnasipal II at Nimrud near Ninevah – stone reliefs that decorated the palace of this ruler of Assyria in the years around 850 BC. The story of how these stone reliefs came to Dartmouth is quite interesting and is outlined at the exhibit. Suffice it to say that it had to do with the influence of American missionaries and British archaeologists in the 19th century, along with the rivalry between Dartmouth and Williams colleges. It is a fascinating story – and you should go and look at the exhibit, which is permanently on display. But my point now is that the exhibit reminds us of the reality of the situations that Amos and Hosea addressed; a struggling small kingdom constantly at the mercy of a larger empire. Both Amos and Hosea were right in asserting that the northern kingdom of Israel would be destroyed. In the year 721 BC, after several more minor invasions, the northern kingdom of Israel was devastated by the Assyrians, who populated the area and produced, by intermarriage and conquest, the people known in New Testament times as the (despised) Samaritans.
Are prophets always speaking doom? No, not always, but frequently. Both Amos and Hosea called Israel to account, calling them to return to the true worship of God, but the two prophets are very different. Hosea’s message was, like Amos’, a call to repentance, but it was also, and perhaps primarily, a message of God’s faithfulness, even amid and despite the faithlessness of the people of Israel.
As you will know from reading the book, Hosea’s message begins with a very dramatic event. He feels called to go and marry a prostitute – one whom he knows will be unfaithful to him, even while he is faithful to her. This marriage symbolizes God’s faithfulness to Israel, even when his bride, Israel, is unfaithful to him. Hosea’s marriage to Gomer, the prostitute, is the central metaphor of Hosea’s prophecy – but it is not simply a metaphor, it is a reality. Scholars have debated – did Hosea really do this, or was he just speaking metaphorically. The strong opinion is, yes, he really did it. Prophets often really did (and really do) strange things that other people only talk about. But Hosea’s action makes more sense when one looks more closely at the situation he was addressing.
You see, when the tribes of Israel established themselves in the land called Canaan, contrary to the impression given in some parts of the Bible, they did not really obliterate the people living there. Rather, they inserted themselves into a culture that already had its own religion – and this religion was quite typical of the fertility cults that were prevalent throughout the middle east, and, indeed, elsewhere. Fertility cults were based on the need to seek good conditions for crops and flocks. Today, many of us have forgotten what our ancestors knew – that we human creatures are dependent upon the earth for our very survival, and that we cannot control all the conditions that make for good crops. Therefore actions and imprecations to the powers beyond us have been prevalent throughout history. In ancient times, often these actions and imprecations involved ritualized sexual activity, designed, it seems from a removed perspective, to encourage fertility in the earth and powers beyond us. So sites of sacred or ritualized prostitution were part of Canaanite religion – practices that occurred on the “high places” where cultic prostitutes were part of the sacred rituals to the God called Baal. Israelite religion, of course, was incompatible with such practice. We know that Israelite religion involved the sacrifice and sacred consumption of animals and fruits and grains: Israelite worship was something like the annual homecoming service at my church in Alabama: an hour of prayer and sermon and singing, followed by a gigantic feast. The sacrifices offered to Yahweh were consumed by the priests but also by the people. Food is still a part of our worship experience. But fertility cults, the worship of the god often called Baal by having sex with sacred prostitutes – this was not part of Hebrew worship. Still, one can perhaps understand its continuing appeal. By contrast, Hebrew worship was somewhat austere, and the emphasis on the holiness of the one God whose name could not even be uttered was hard to maintain. It faced continual competition.
It was in this context that Hosea was called to dramatize the nature of the God of Israel – by marrying one of these cultic prostitutes, having children who may or may not have been his own, and proclaiming thereby, dramatizing, that though the people of Israel were forsaking Yahweh, Yahweh, the true God, the holy one, would never forsake them. Yes, they were doing things that would lead to destruction; Hosea saw the coming Assyrian invasion as a direct result of God’s rebuke of his people. All Hosea could say was that, even so, God would be faithful, and his people would not be totally destroyed, and that Judah would continue faithful to Yahweh. Hosea continues to use the word Ephraim, as he does in the passage we read, to refer to the love that God has for the people who have forsaken him. Ephraim was, you may know, the favorite son of Joseph, who was the favorite son of Jacob. So Ephraim represents the beloved son of the beloved son (Joseph) – perhaps the most beloved. The genealogy in Chronicles indicates that King Jeroboam was in fact a descendant of Ephraim. So when Hosea decried the faithlessness of Ephraim, he was speaking of the pain of a lost son, and at the same time of the faithfulness of a loving God, a loving parent, who will never forsake the beloved wife, or the beloved child.
And so, though Hosea’s words are word of discipline and destruction, they are also words of comfort and pleading, words of constancy and faithfulness.
At Dartmouth, it has been a pleasure and honor for me to work with so many outstanding students, who are generally motivated by a great desire to succeed and, usually, to please their parents. These high achievers are often so motivated, but not always. I have also, over the years, seen the child who chooses a different path, sometimes a self-destructive path, usually marked by abuse of drugs and alcohol, whose parents mourn the loss of the promise that they had cherished in their child. Sometimes there is nothing a parent can do except stand by and watch and pray – like the father in the story of the prodigal son, when messages even of love and support are spurned and rejected. There is no pain like it, I know.
And such is what we feel when we read these tender words from Hosea;:
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 away 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 hands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
The essence of Hosea’s prophecy can be summarized in one sentence: we are loved by a love that will not let us go.
Let us return for a moment to Bill McKibben, our contemporary prophet. Bill has spoken to us continual words of warning. He has pointed to our extreme climate events – floods and hurricanes and tornadoes. He has pointed to the melting icepacks, to the rising sea-level, and to the rising level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. There have been warnings and crises, but little change. I asked a student, a thoughtful, good student – the other day how he thought about the inevitable climate change that would create a crisis for his generation. He replied, honestly, “well, I guess I’ll just have to move to higher ground.” If Bill McKibben is right, it won’t be that simple. We continue, as a people, to live carelessly, extravagantly, and heedlessly. Unfortunately, humans, as a group, do not usually -change unless they are forced to do so by a crisis of gigantic proportions. And sometimes, it is too late. The warnings come; God’s love for us remains, but we sit like paralyzed frogs in a pan of warmer and warmer water until inevitable destruction comes.
Hosea wanted Israel to remember its history and its God. He counseled the nation to be aware that self-indulgence – whether it be financial or sensual - is not what the God of Israel expects from us; indeed, Hosea predicted that by such behavior we will destroy ourselves and grieve the God whose love for us is unfailing. As another prophet – Jesus – said: “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”