Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85:8-13
Nothing is more powerful than a good love story. I am not talking about Ali McGraw batting her eyes at Ryan O’Neal and saying the most ridiculous line written in the ego-centric 1970’s, “Love means never having to say your sorry.” I am talking about a real love story like Romeo or Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, or Heloise and Abelard. I am thinking of a story in which love and tragedy are intermingled leaving us both fulfilled and empty. I am thinking of desperate measures creating life changing consequences such as Grace Kelly, a life long pacifist shooting a member of the Miller gang in order to save Gary Cooper. In a classic love story, the need for transformation and grace are central to the plot.
How many of you are familiar with the love story of Hosea and Gomer? You might be surprised to know the Old Testament is filled with love stories. There is Abraham and Sarah; Jacob and Rachel; David and Bathsheba; Solomon and every woman he ever met. And then there is this gem located deep in the Minor Prophets. It begins with less than appealing first line, “Hosea, go take for yourself a whore, and have children with this whore, for Israel has become a whore by forsaking the Lord.”
We much prefer the more familiar, “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean and a pair of star-crossed lovers take their lives”, (Romeo and Juliet, Act 1 scene 1). I entreat you consider another tale of woe in which, “righteousness and peace kiss as faithfulness springs from the ground” (Psalm 85:10).
The book of Hosea, written in the last days of Israel, begins by telling a tragic story between a man and his adulterous wife. It is a metaphor depicting the unfaithfulness of Israel and the eternal steadfast love of God. It is a story for any generation.
Hosea seeks a wife. This is not the teenage Romeo seeking out the youthful and chaste Juliet. This is an older man seeking out a woman who has a history. Can you imagine what the neighbors said when Hosea announced the wedding?
“Poor Hosea, why did he choose her? There were so many other women/nations that would have been a better choice. Why go with Gomer/Israel when Syria, or Lebanon or even Babylon would have made a better bride? She has been unfaithful in the past; she will be unfaithful in the future. She will not change.”
Despite all of the warnings, Hosea vowed his love to Gomer. Soon Gomer was pregnant with their first child. Keeping with the cultural tradition, the naming of the child was very important. Names like David or Abraham honored their storied past. Hosea chose Jezreel a name which means “God plants”. That sounds great except we are told that the name also predicts Israel will be destroyed in the valley of Jezreel. Speaking of postpartum depression, the naming of the child probably depressed the whole community.
A year later Gomer gave birth to a daughter. Her name was Lo-ruhamah which means “not loved” or “not pitied”. What a marvelous name for one already suffering from low self esteem.
But Hosea wasn’t finished. A second son was born and was given the name Lo-ammi which means, “Not my people.” Imagine about dinner time in their little community, all the children are playing together when Gomer goes to the back porch and hollers, “Jezreel, Not pitied, Not my people, come home to dinner.” I suspect word got out that the Hosea backyard was off limits.
Eventually Gomer had enough. There was no fourth child. She left Hosea and the children. Gomer returned to her former occupation, wanting to get as far away Hosea as possible. If it wasn’t a love story, this is where our tale would end. But if it stopped here, the story would not be worth telling.
Hosea had been humiliated. The neighbors laughed at Hosea and ask what he really expected would happen when he married a whore. Hosea even questioned God, thinking the Almighty was also responsible for his humiliation. But God did not have time for Hosea’s embarrassment. God spoke to the distraught prophet and said, “Buy her back. You love her, you promised to protect her, you made a covenant with her. Go downtown to her owners and buy her back.”
This would be a wonderful time to do a psychological profile on Gomer or make some disparaging remarks about the overt sexism of both Hosea and God but let’s refrain from both. Ignoring the obvious flaws that are present in the story let’s continue to move forward. Hosea sought Gomer out. At first she was not to be found. She was no longer young and desirable. She no longer demanded top dollar. Truth is Gomer was hardly wanted at all and those that do buy her further abused both her body and soul. Hosea found her in the back of a deserted room, more dead than alive. She was beaten so badly that he hardly recognized her. But Hosea still went to the men who owned her and asked, “How much?”
They respond, “For an hour or the night?”
Hosea replied, “For a life time.” Homer met all their demands. He gathered Gomer up, took her home and washed her wounds and her loved her forever.
I know some of you are shaking your heads. What kind of love story is this? Is Gomer going to be any happier with Hosea the second time around? You might even be thinking this is really a tragedy. At least in Pretty Woman the prostitute is the one who controls the final word. In Hosea, it seems as if Gomer is the victim and will continue to play second fiddle to the desires of both Hosea and God.
Perhaps that is the problem with any metaphor. First metaphors are intentionally over the top. Second, a story told 2700 years ago about the relationship between God and Israel, today becomes a character study on a bad marriage. We look at Gomer as the victim. We want to not only care for her but release her from her history of male domination. It is only logical that we might feel this way. The problem is, by concentrating on Gomer, by lifting her to status of heroine, we risk missing the actual message of this story.
Let’s get one thing straight. Israel was not innocent. The people had embraced a covenant relationship with Yahweh. They had built a place of worship at Bethel. But the demands of the covenant i.e. that they worship only one God, that they live as one with all their neighbors, that they regard lying, coveting and stealing as sinful weighed heavy on the heart of a people who were being courted by a different lifestyle. The worship of Baal demanded little and expected less. By following Baal the people of Israel chose the desires of their personal appetites rather than those things that make for a healthy community. They abandoned the Torah and wrapped themselves in the joys of personal delights. Within a generation, the concept of community was lost, the gap between rich and poor broadened, and all civic pride was lost. Despite this, God still loved Israel.
This vivid, striking, even offensive metaphor, reveals the heart of a God who passionately loves, seeks, forgives, waits, pleads and finally saves. William Willimon writes, “This is the story of a God who just does not sit and wait for us to come to our senses but rather it is the eternal story of a long suffering spouse who is willing to be in pain for us. God actively pursues us until we turn, return, repent, relinquish, and come back.”
Love stories turn on choices made. Romeo kills himself when he thinks Juliet is dead. Guinevere became a nun. Abelard became a monk. The choice in the story of Gomer and Hosea was and still is that God will not give up on us. For those of us who claim Christ, there is a direct line between God’s grace toward Israel and God’s grace poured out on Calvary.
When I think of grace my mind quickly turns to another love story, Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, in which early choices are made because of love, or duty or obligation. Years past and those choices were second guessed and even grieved. But in the midst of the unexpected feast General Loewenhielm comments, “Man is frail and foolish. We have been told that grace is to be found in the universe but in our foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble. We tremble before making choices and then we tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened and we see and realize grace is infinite. Grace demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace makes no conditions and singles none of us out. Grace takes us in its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and truth have kissed one another.”
My friends never forget this. God loved us in the beginning. God has loved us through out the history of humankind. And God will love us tomorrow.
To God be the glory. Amen.