Wednesday, January 24, 2007

fed on lies about love: the breakdown


Fed on lies about love is a series that deals with mature subject matter. This week we are dealing with the infidelity of Gomer, the prostitute who married a prophet. Parental discretion is advised.

Chapter 2 of Hosea deals primarily with the violent and pornographic nature of Gomer’s marital crimes. Our world is stained with this violence. It is the weapon of un-love. It is the axe of the absence of beauty and grace.

For us to fight back we cannot use weapons of sentiment and/or neurotic distortions of passion. We must, instead, proclaim an integrated wholeness of lives marked by love–love that loves when wounded and love that welcomes wayward loved-ones home.

Steve and Angela had been married about a dozen and a half years and weren’t happy. After years of misery in their marriage, they finally decided to call it quits; they just couldn’t take it anymore. They have three kids in high school. Steve was consistently angry and frustrated with Angela (primarily because of her many [and public] affairs). Beginning with her escapades on the Internet, Angela had met and spent time with several “fellows.” At some point she had ceased to hide her infidelity from Steve and her children. Steve had nothing but hatred for Angela; Angela had nothing but contempt for Steve.

At some point during the divorce proceedings the kids got involved. Kids, of course, come with their own range of emotions, sense of injustice and their own hurt and bitterness. They began to sling accusations at their mother, calling her names and indicting her. Now when Steve would do these kinds of things, it bounced off Angela, because she didn’t really care about him, but it was a whole different story to hear that kind of garbage from her kids–it cuts her badly.

Angela responded in anger and confusion and said, “Mind your own business. Shut your mouth and get out of here.” Angry at their mother, isolated from their father, these three young kids ran away and end up on the street. That was the last time Angela ever saw her children.

The story of Steve and Angela continues, but the story of Angela and her kids stops right here. It’s a heart-breaking story. We see the illicit affairs, the frustration, the boredom, the cheating, the anger and hatred–all the broken relationships (between wife and children, between dad and kids). These are just some of the ways that marital infidelity messes up the family.

It seems like a tragic story, but it’s really not that uncommon. It’s the kind of story we hear far too often–a story of quick and unmeant marriage vows, a story of broken families, a story of kids ripped apart by the ugly behavior of their parents.

It’s a story told in the biblical text in the Book of Hosea. Written in the 7th Century B.C., Hosea tells us this awful narrative, contained primarily in the first three chapters, about a young prophet (called and ordained by God to bring hope to people) who’s instructed to marry a prostitute. His wife, Gomer, was a Temple prostitute involved in a ritual kind of pagan worship.

Oftentimes, when we hear things in the 21st Century concerning conflict between religions, we immediately start thinking about religious freedom and the freedom of people to have their own beliefs; that context in 7th Century B.C. is very different from our context. We’re not talking about Gomer just having a different faith than her husband. We’re talking about this gal being involved in the Canaanite cult in which babies were ritually murdered, women were held as hostages, and prostitutes were used in several acts of idol worship.

This story of Hosea and Gomer concerns Gomer’s frequent cheating on Hosea, repeatedly going back to the Canaanite cult and to her old life. It’s the story of their divorce (told primarily in Chapter 2). It’s the story of her children showing up at their divorce and (with their father) yelling accusations at her about her marital unfaithfulness. It’s the story of brokenness all the way around.

As long as there have been people, there have been broken relationships. As long as people have been looking for truth or meaning, wrestling with the issue of God, there have been broken spiritual relationships. Hosea has a lot to teach us about rebellion, faithfulness, and the pain that comes from these broken relationships. Metaphorically, Hosea teaches the people out of his own painful experience what it’s like to love God and be loved by God. Gomer stands in for a parallel for the Hebrew people, and Hosea and his faithfulness to his wife stands in for a parallel for God.

Now, whenever we hear about a sad story–a divorce, an argument, a falling out–we always try and see both sides. You always try to make excuses for the people who look at first like the bad guy. You hear, “So-and-so was mean to me,” and you think, “Yes, but I’m sure you probably deserved it.” So when I read this story of Hosea and Gomer, and I see that Gomer is the bad girl throughout the book, I start thinking of all the ways in which maybe she’s misunderstood, and she’s not really the bad person. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be anything redemptive about the character of Gomer within the book of Hosea.

I’ve read about twenty different commentaries–I’ve done my homework–and I haven’t seen anyone even hypothesize that she was actually “good,” and we’ve just messed up the story somehow. Whether Hebrew or American, British or Eastern, Catholic or Protestant, nobody postulates that Gomer was just misunderstood, because the biblical text doesn’t allow for that kind of interpretation.

Because we don’t have a ton of other sources about Gomer, we’re forced to draw our conclusions from the story of Hosea, in which we’re told that there were two primary reasons Gomer ran off again and again. The reasons are common to a lot of people. The first one, of course, is sensuality.

Gomer likes sex; she likes weird sex. She likes being involved in a Canaanite fertility cult; she likes sex for worship. The way she is described in the first couple of chapters of the Book of Hosea leaves no room for the imagination. The accusations her children level against her and the way Hosea uses her character to instruct the people of Israel about their national spiritual identity leaves no room for the imagination. She has given herself over completely to the pursuit of her sexual expression at the substantial cost of her marriage, her worth and value, her reputation, her kids, and has now become (twenty-seven hundred years later) the archetype of an evil spouse.

But it wasn’t just wanton sexuality that led Gomer to be so unfaithful. In many ways, she was trading favors to get some security. She needed hope; she needed a promise. She needed to know she was going to be taken care of. She needed to know she was going to have enough money to buy all the nice things. She wanted to know she would be pampered her whole life.

Ironically, Hosea made those things available to her all throughout the book. We’re told Hosea pursues her sexually; we’re told Hosea makes things available to her so she can have a good life. Remember, she was a Temple prostitute–which, if you’re sorting out the caste system of the 7th Century B.C.–you can be sure a prostitute was fairly low. In the eyes of society and in the eyes of the cultural milieu of the time, she was bumping up several notches by marrying Hosea (from prostitute to wife of prophet was a big step up). He made these things available to her, but repeatedly she ditched him.

In the case of God and his relationship with the people of Israel, we know God made these things available to the people as well. He invented pleasure; he’s not afraid of it. He promises pleasure to his people throughout different passages of the Old Testament–pleasure in art and pleasure in marriage. He promised and created these things for the enjoyment of his people and yet repeatedly the people of Israel perverted it and made it something weird and dirty. Not just weird and dirty in the normal ways, but they made it ultra weird and dirty and turned it into a human-sacrifice-and-sex cult.

Furthermore, God supplies promise for these people over and over again. He says, “I gave you the earth under your feet. I gave you the earth. I gave you your whole kingdom. I gave you your sense of confidence. I gave you a king. I gave you your political structure. I gave you prophets so you knew exactly what I want. I gave you a history. I gave you everything; I gave you myself.” But the people messed it up. They spurned it; they walked away. They wanted a different story, a different set of promises, something that felt better and was gotten a little bit easier.

Before we continue, a little historical context might be helpful. At this point in time in the Middle East, you had Israel and Judah and Syria and a couple other smaller nations all clustered together in between three super powers–Egypt, Assyria and Babylon–and these littler countries were trading favors with all the big guys to keep from getting swallowed up.

Remember, the memory of the Hebrew people, albeit short sometimes, is full of stories of God showing up in miraculous, supernatural ways and chasing off other armies–pulling apart the Red Sea, sending legions of angels. They have these things as part of their national identity. They remember what it’s like to be protected by Yahweh, but they don’t accept these things and instead prostitute themselves to other religions, to cults, to foreign powers, to other ideologies instead of staying with the God who identifies them as his in a marriage covenant. So in the midst of this, God indicts the people of Israel and says, “You’re looking to Assyria to give you safety when I have said I would give you safety.”

What I find weird, though, is that the people of Israel almost seem to hedge their bets. They do all this bad stuff, but then they keep doing the good God’s stuff they’re instructed to do. They keep having worship at the Temple; they keep offering sacrifices. They keep praying in public and paying their religious professionals. They do all of this outward stuff to keep up the appearance of pleasing God. But in Hosea, Chapter 6, we read a leveling accusation against this kind of behavior. God says, “I’m sick of it. I don’t want your burnt offerings or your dumb prayer meetings. I want you. It’s not about the religious things you do; it’s not about your rituals. It’s you I want.”

In the NIV, Hosea 6:6 says:

I delight in loyalty over sacrifice and in the knowledge of God versus

burnt offerings.

In The Message:

I’m after love that lasts, not more religion.

Jesus references this passage in Matthew, Chapter 12:

I desire mercy and not sacrifice.

Doing good deeds and/or keeping up the appearance of nicety is not enough to please God. That doesn’t make him happy. Being a good person isn’t really what it’s all about. What God wants is us; he wants that relationship.

Last week we defined sin as the breaking of relationship. Sin is oftentimes used by religious people as a way to make people feel guilty; but the reality is that we all wrestle with (and are guilty of) sin. The reason we’re guilty is because sin is the breaking of relationships–the breaking of our relationship with God and the breaking of our relationship with other people. We break those relationships by the offenses we commit against the other person.

Now, God isn’t just after behavior modification–he’s after whole relationships. He doesn’t want us to behave and “stay in line” and look right–he wants us. The more we pursue and engage God, the more our behavior is going to change–we’ll become more patient, more kind, more gentle spirited, more long-suffering and charitable. God does care about our lifestyle and personal standards of holiness; but, more than that and first and foremost, he cares about our hearts.

I’m not much of an artist, but I’ve done some diagramming here for you (see above). We might understand this diagram as a diagram of God’s pleasure–things that make God happy. Because God gives us so many instructions about the way we ought to live, we understand that holiness and goodness are important to God, but that understanding actually somehow misleads us in our divine understanding.

See, we think that if God is perfection, then all the people who are closer to being perfect will make God happier. The guy or the gal who is right next to God on the diagram makes God really, really happy, because they’re a really, really good person. They’ve got nothing wrong with them–nice family, nice house, nice car–they look after people, and they’re polite. The person in the bottom corner who is far from God and well away from God then obviously must make God unhappy. But that’s not what the biblical text supports.

Oftentimes, we make the mistake of thinking it’s our position that makes us holy or our position that makes God glad. We think if we’re positioned closer to being really good, that makes God a whole lot happier than if we’re positioned way out in left field living life like a wreck. But holiness isn’t about position as much as it’s about orientation and heading. Orientation is the term used to describe which way you’re facing. Heading is the term used to describe which way you’re going.

Our position doesn’t really tell us how happy God is. If we add some directions, then you get the idea that the people who are heading towards God (i.e. pursuing and engaging God), regardless of what their life looks like right now, are the people that make God happy. The people that are disengaged from God, moving away from God (i.e. oriented away from God), are the people who break God’s heart. Even though this little guy or gal way down here in the corner is far from being perfect, because they are oriented towards God, they make him happy. In addition, we know that because they’re pursuing and engaging God, over time they’re going to be transformed, and consequently their life will also start looking a little bit different.

That’s why we have these scriptures like Hosea 6:6. It’s why we want to make the point over and over and over again that what God is really after is you. He doesn’t want all kinds of behavior modifications most–he wants you most.

Now, repeatedly through the text Hosea pursues Gomer–he wants his wife back even though she had done some bad things. Even in the context of their family falling apart, their kids running away, and in the midst of his own hatred, Hosea wants her back. Even in the midst of the national sin of Israel and their spiritual infidelity, God wants his people back. He’s a god of restoration, of reconciliation, of un-sin, of un-brokenness, of making broken things whole again.

In Chapter 2 we come to this powerful piece of the Bible. This is Hosea the Prophet speaking on behalf of God addressing the Nation of Israel. But like most of the Book, it’s very easy for us to understand Hosea is also saying these things to Gomer, his wife.

And now, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to start all

over again. I’m taking her back out into the wilderness where

we had our first date, and I’ll court her.

I’ll give her bouquets of roses. I’ll turn Heartbreak Valley into

Acres of Hope. She’ll respond like she did as a young girl,

those days when she was fresh out of Egypt.

“At that time”–this is GOD’s Message still–“you’ll address me,

‘Dear husband!’ Never again will you address me, ‘My slave-


Listen to the choice of words being used here. Knowing what we know about restoration, about wholeness, about being made one again, don’t you think it’s significant God will be addressed as “Dear husband” instead of “slave-Master”?

I’ll wash your mouth out with soap; get rid of all the dirty false-god

names, not so much as a whisper of those names again.

At the same time I’ll make a peace treaty between you and wild

animals and birds and reptiles…

…and get rid of all weapons of war. Think of it! Safe from beasts

and bullies!

And then I’ll marry you for good–forever! I’ll marry you true and

proper, in love and tenderness.

Yes, I’ll marry you and neither leave you nor let you go. You’ll

Know me, GOD, for who I really am.

That’s a cool promise, a fantastic promise. I don’t know what it would have been like to be around at that time, so I have a hard time imagining Hosea saying to Gomer, “What is she thinking at this point?” She never readily responds to him. It’s not like she says, “Oh, good, I’m so relieved. Thanks so much. I love you; it’s my mistake.” She never does that. I have a hard time imagining what it must be like for the people of Israel to be looking at Hosea, who married a prostitute. What are they’re thinking as they look at him and he’s using their failed marriage as an illustration to teach about God’s love?

Yet it’s not such a huge stretch for me to see in my own life the same seeds of destruction that are sown into the life of Gomer and the Nation of Israel. Aren’t there times, if you’re honest, where you look somewhere else for the promise of security? Certainly there are plenty of stories of marriages in which one or both of the spouses look for pleasure outside of the marriage.

It’s not so hard to imagine, though the particulars are different, those same things are the things we wrestle with. I think the very reason this book is in our Bible is to tell us, “Yes, we all wrestle with this. Yes, it’s awful, but even more than the awfulness of our garbage, more powerful than that is the grace of God. The unending, limitless grace of our supernatural husband who always wants us back.”

This grace is described in many places, several of the most potent of which are found within Jewish literature. In the Babylonian Talmud, which is a rabbinic commentary, a Midrash, in the Old Testament, there are thirteen different kinds of mercy ascribed to the person of God.

  1. God is merciful before someone sins, even though God knows that a person is capable of sin.
  2. God is merciful to a sinner even after the person has sinned.
  3. God represents the power to be merciful even in areas that a human would not expect or deserve.
  4. God is compassionate, and eases the punishment of the guilty.
  5. God is gracious even to those who are not deserving.
  6. God is slow to anger.
  7. God is abundant in kindness.
  8. God is the god of truth, thus we can count on God's promises to forgive repentant sinners.
  9. God guarantees kindness to future generations, as the deeds of the righteous patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) have benefits to all their descendants.
  10. God forgives intentional sins if the sinner repents.
  11. God forgives a deliberate angering of Him if the sinner repents.
  12. God forgives sins that are committed in error.
  13. God wipes away the sins from those who repent.

What I find most fascinating is that these Rabbis make special mention that God has mercy on everyone who accepts it. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, no matter how bad your life is, no matter what you’ve done right up until this point or even what you’re going to do after, God is merciful to you. If you want to be whole with him, you can. That’s powerful.

It’s not common for us to talk about sin and separation and metaphysical, supernatural reality in our day. It’s not the kind of thing we talk about, but it’s that which goes deepest in us–the fulfillment for which we fight, the significance, the meaning, the pleasure center of our soul.

The text of Hosea brings us again and again back into an awareness that more than anything God wants us. He wants us oriented towards him; he wants to love us. He wants to start fresh with us–with you. If we’ll allow ourselves to be open and engage God and allow ourselves to pursue him, he’ll grab us by the hand and run.

Will you do it? Will you give yourself to God? Will you allow that relationship to be made whole?

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