Wednesday, January 24, 2007

fed on lies about love: the story of hosea and gomer


Fed on lies about love is a series that deals with mature subject matter. For three weeks we will deal with stark openness about the biblical prophet Hosea and the story of his marriage to the prostitute Gomer. Parental discretion is advised.

We live in a world awash in love stories. Most of them are lies. They are not loves stories at all–they are lust stories, sex fantasy stories, domination stories. From the cradle we are fed on lies about love.

When our minds and imaginations are crippled with lies about love, we have a hard time understanding “love” as a fundamental ingredient of daily living. We require true stories of love if we are to live truly.

Hosea was the prophet of love, but not as we imagine or fantasize it. He was a parable of God’s love for his people lived out as God revealed and enacted it.

God goes after us at our worst, keeps after us until he gets us, and makes lovers of men and women who know nothing of real love. Once we absorb this story and the words that flow from it, we will know God far more accurately.

Steve and Angela, a young couple, have been married for about five years. Steve was a fairly successful young executive; he had a good job and made a lot of money. For most of their married life, though, Angela had been in school until recently. She graduated from school and had a problem finding a job. They only had one car and Steve took it to work everyday, so Angela was stuck at home looking for a job. You know how that can get really frustrating.

When you’re home along, you can get irritable; you don’t have anyone to talk to. Angela didn’t have any friends and television only stays interesting for so long. She began to explore a little bit of the community life you hear so much about on the Internet. She entered some chat rooms, made some friends, developed a couple of online avatars and invested herself into online community as a way to try and find meaningful relationships. She began to explore further the online world, explore further her boredom, her frustration, her anxiety and irritation, her blame and anger at Steve. She signed onto an adult personals sight where she hoped to meet someone other than Steve. She began to trawl and began looking for potential partners, people she could meet for a night or a weekend.

Unbeknownst to Angela, Steve came home a little late from work one night. She had gotten involved in something else and had forgotten to log off of this website. Steve comes home from work and sees a personal website on his home computer. He sees his wife is logged on, has created a false identity and has created an online screen name. He’s taken aback, because as far as he knew, there was never anything wrong. Sure, Angela was going through a rough time, but he didn’t know she was looking around. He closes the window and is confused as to what to do. He decides he’ll think about it a few days. Should he confront Angela? Should he get mad at her? Should they seek counseling?

He decides he’s going to try a different approach. He logs onto the Internet, signs up for the same adult personals website and creates his own fake identity and screen name. He begins to look for Angela online knowing she’s out looking for new partners. Knowing what her personality is and what her interests are, Steve begins to drop hints that his fake Steve is interested in these same kinds of things. Eventually the two of them get hooked up. Angela is pretty excited because she has found someone online who is just what’s she’s looking for. Little does she know it’s her husband who is trying to seduce his wife online.

The time comes for the two of them to exchange photographs online so they know if they’re attractive. Angela sends fake Steve her photograph and Steve sends Angela a photograph of a fake Steve. They decide they should meet and meet at a supper club one night. Angela shows up early dressed to the nines; she looks like a million bucks. Steve shows up a few minutes late dressed casual like he is every day. He’s carrying a photograph of fake Steve, the photograph he emailed to Angela.

In the supper when Angela sees her husband coming towards her, she starts to panic; she thinks she’s been busted. She’s about to have an affair and her husband is going to catch her with her lover. Steve comes to the table, looks at his wife and gives her the picture and says, “Angela, you were running around looking for someone. You were looking for a one-night stand and were going to throw your life away. You shamelessly flaunted your married self online trying to get anyone to want you. You found this guy on the Internet and begged him to meet you for one night and all along it was me. Now let’s go home.”

Sad story and it’s the same story we find in the Book of Hosea, Chapter 2. Hosea is a fascinating book, a hearting breaking book. Perhaps in our real world of momentary marriages and quick-fix romances the Book of Hosea speaks acutely to us than any other book in the Bible. Perhaps it’s the book with which we have more in common that we care to admit.

We’ve given you a disclaimer for this series. To be honest, I don’t know how to teach this book without broaching upon this subject matter. The Book of Hosea is a story about a prophet, a young man, and the rising star of Judaism. He’s young and has everything in front of him. He’s in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and God instructs him, as a living parable, to go out and marry a Temple prostitute. Not just any prostitute, but specifically someone involved in another religion. We’ve talked about the Canaanite religion—child sacrifice, Temple prostitution and the wickedness that would be universally decried by any person on the planet today that the Canaanite religions involve. God instructs the Prophet Hosea to go and marry Gomer, a Temple prostitute and daughter of Diblaim, the most famous whore in the Ancient Near East. Are you uncomfortable yet, because I certainly am?

Hosea takes Gomer to be his wife; they have children together. She repeatedly runs off on him to have multiple affairs. She returns to the Temple to her old way of living and repeatedly takes herself down several notches on the cast system in the world at that time. Again and again, Hosea goes back, gets her and brings her home. The parable we opened up talking about was what happens in Hosea, Chapter 2. Gomer runs away from her husband and looks for other lovers. Hosea dresses up in disguise to protect her from the wickedness of other men. Gomer cheats on even those with whom she cheats and Hosea is entirely unable to protect her, but he tries.

For the next three weeks we’re going to look at the characters of Hosea and Gomer, which are dealt with in the biblical book, Hosea. Their story is primarily contained in the first three chapters of that book. The last eleven chapters are prophecies Hosea uses from his own disgusting, failed, corrupted marriage to try and teach the people of God what God really wants for them. The things that happen in the Book of Hosea happen to Hosea the Prophet in real life. Those are his real kids, but they’re also metaphorically used by Hosea at the inspiration of God to educate the Israelite nation about what they’re like in the eyes of God.

We’ve talked several times here at Westwinds about the fact the people of God are, in a sense, married to God. In the New Testament that’s called the Bride of Christ. In the Old Testament the people of God are often referred to as the Bride or the Beloved or the Nurtured or the Mother of God’s People. To break down this parable we see extrapolated in Hosea, we understand God to be the husband and father, the nation and Kingdom of Israel to be the mother and the people of Israel to be the children.

This book takes place in a ridiculous time in history. To give you a quick history lesson on what’s going on, we’re talking about the years 750-720 B.C. We’re talking about the time right before Israel was taken captive by the Assyrian Empire and it’s a bewildering set of circumstance by which this happens. We know at this point in time the Nation of Israel has been broken apart into two separate kingdoms—the Northern Kingdom, which is Israel and the Southern Kingdom, which is Judah. We know these two nations didn’t really get along and at this point in time the Babylonian Empire, the Assyrian Empire and the Kingdom of Egypt were always warring with one another. In the middle of these three world powers, there is Israel and Judah and a couple of other tiny little nations, basically trading themselves off to whomever has the most power in order to be protected from the others.

At this point in history, both Israel and Judah are what are called tributaries to the Assyrian Empire, which means they pay money so the Assyrians don’t eat them. Israel is the kingdom in which Hosea the prophet prophesied. His talks are about this Northern Kingdom. His prophesies are about Israel, not about Judah. Israel sometimes in the book is referred to as Ephraim, so when you read the book and see the word Ephraim you’ll know they’re talking about Israel. That’s because the Tribe of Ephraim made up most of this Northern Kingdom.

At this point in time, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, decides it doesn’t want to be a tributary nation any more. It doesn’t want to pay for its safety anymore from Assyria. They get the idea they’re going to fight for their freedom and secede from the Assyrian Empire. They’ll no longer pay tribute; they’re going to independent. Judah decides it doesn’t want to do that. The Southern Kingdom says, “We like the Assyrian Empire. They’ve been good to us and haven’t caused any problems. We don’t want to rock the boat.” Israel gets angry at their brother state and chooses to make war on Judah. They choose to fight against their own countrymen.

We’ve often compared this dynamic—it’s a flawed comparison as they all are, but a very good one—to that of modern-day Ireland and Northern Ireland. The parallel is good because we know in recent Irish history, if you’re familiar with 20th Century history, the Republic of Ireland decided to get out of the British Empire and fight for their independence. Northern Ireland wanted to stay as part of Britain and as part of that desire to stay, they made their brother country very angry and the two went to war.

This is what happened with Israel and Judah. Israel wanted to get out of the Assyrian Empire; Judah wanted to remain. Because Judah wanted to remain, that made Israel angry. Israel, Syria and Aram all attacked Judah, their countrymen, their own brothers, who not long before had all been a part of the same country. Judah, of course, is a smaller number of people, although a larger land mass. It’s recorded in one day of this battle Judah lost 120 thousand men, so no small death toll.

Judah appeals to the Assyrian Empire for help. They say, “Hey, look, we’ve been paying you money and tribute. You’re supposed to look after us; now we’re being attacked. Could you help?” The Assyrian Empire says, “No, you’ve been paying only for our protection from us. You’ve been paying so we don’t eat you, not so anyone else eats you. If you want our protection from someone else, you’re going to have to pay a lot more money.” Does this sound familiar? It sounds like the Mob.

Judah pays more taxes and more levies and more tribute and more honor—basically sells everything they have—so the Assyrians will come and protect them and they finally do. When the Assyrian Empire comes to Judah’s defense, they destroy and capture and lead off as slaves the Nation of Israel and Syria or Aram. That’s how Israel comes to be a captive.

Hosea is the largest and last of what are called the Pre-Exile Prophets. That means concerning the Nation of Israel, Hosea is their last chance to see what’s about to happen. There is a lot going on in this story. Israel, who has been identified as the people of God, turns away from God prostituting themselves to other religions. We’re not talking about religious difference here or freedom of religion. We’re talking about the way you worship is killing babies and sleeping with prostitutes. We’re talking about extreme things, things for which we do not have any justifiable parallel or context in North American today. God says, “Look, you’re supposed to be my people. My people are not supposed to do this. My wife is not supposed to look around for other lovers.”

God sends prophet after prophet after person after person to stop them from what they’re doing. The last-ditch effort is this poor, young schmuck named Hosea, who thinks he’s going to have this bright future and be the rising star of Judaism. He thinks maybe his oracles and prophecies will be the ones that turn the country around. Instead, he’s told to marry a prostitute. Isaiah got visions of the throne of God, Ezekiel saw fiery beasts and Hosea had to marry Gomer.

Today we’ll talk only in overview about the first three chapters of Hosea. In Chapter 1 God says to Hosea, “Go and take yourself this woman to be your wife. Love her and stay with her.” In Chapter 2 she runs off and they’re essentially divorced in that culture. In Chapter 3 Hosea goes back and reclaims his wife. Throughout these three chapters, there are a number of verses that are promises which God makes the proclamation he will restore his people. Those promises are important to the story of Hosea. Even in the midst of her cheating, the Prophet Hosea knows he’ll take back his actual wife, just like God, even in the midst of his people running off and prostituting themselves, knows he’ll go back and reclaim his people.

The names of the children in the biblical text are important names. They’re important names because they’re all symbolic. They had three kids, the oldest of whom was named Jezreel. Jezreel was the name of a place of particular bloodshed, where Israel always turned coat. God instructs the Prophet Hosea to name their firstborn Jezreel, which is a crummy name. It’s like naming your firstborn Benedict Arnold—not a great prophecy for what is to come on this poor kid’s life.

The second child is named “no mercy.” Gods the motivation, he says, “The reason I’m instructing you to name your child, a daughter, “no mercy,” is because I’m not going to have any mercy on you for your repeated wickedness. Most commentators believe the reason she was called “no mercy” and the reason God said, “I’m going to use ‘no mercy’ as an illustration,” was because “no mercy” should have been called “no Hosea,” because her daddy was someone other than the young prophet. That’s entirely likely given the particular free time/past time practices of Gomer.

The third child gets the best name of all, because Hosea names the third child, “not mine.” The Message translates that name as “nobody,” but it’s more accurately rendered “not mine.” Again, and we are all certain of this one, this third child definitely was not Hosea’s. This is the Brady Bunch of the Ancient Near East—a very blended family. There’s a lot of heartache that goes into this story.

I think we’d be wrong for us to omit a significant part of what’s happening here. It may seem very obvious to you, but it’s something that has a lot of relevance for us. In the story of Hosea and Gomer, just as in the story of God and his people, the thing that’s really happening at the root of all this is sin; in Greek it’s called hamartia.

People like to talk about sin, especially religious people. We get this question all the time at Westwinds, “Why don’t you talk about sin more?” People love to talk about this concept of sin and sometimes sin is misunderstood. Sometimes people like to use sin as an accusation or a system of control. I’m not sure we really want to be guilty of that, but I’m sure there is sin with which we each wrestle. There is sin in each of us—sin that must be overcome, sin that must be fought. At some point, it seems mandated by scripture we talk about it.

It’s not just that Gomer was a bad wife and Hosea should have had more grace for her. It’s that in Gomer there was this spiritual cancer. It’s not just that God’s people loved someone other than God. It’s not that they were controlled by God and he was an unjust husband. We’re talking about God—love, goodness incarnate, the Supreme Being, the One Above Whom There is No Other. We’re talking about God—perfection, the author of perfection. What’s really wrong with the people of God is this spiritual cancer.

Let me see if I can define for you in really functional terms what sin actually is. Sin is the breaking of relationship. A couple fellows from the Foursquare Church wrote a book, Relational Holiness, a number of years ago. A great book where they talk about the definition of sin is the breaking of relationship.

You can sin against God; you can also sin against other people. I know when I sin against God, I know when I have rebellion against God and I know when I’m disobedient against God. I also know when I’m rebellious against the people in authority over me. I also know when I’m unkind against the people in authority over me. If you look at the Ten Commandments or any of the seven hundred specific laws that are part of the Old Covenant or any of Jesus’ teachings, you realize very quickly what is broken in the midst of sin is the relationship between us and God or between us and other people. What are the two greatest commandments? “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The breaking of relationship is sin.

The sin of Gomer was the breaking of relationship with Hosea, not to say at all how that affected the breaking of relationship with her children and how that affected the relationship of the children to their father. The sin of the people of Israel was to the breaking of relationship with God. They broke that relationship into a million little pieces, but it’s that relationship that was broken.

There are fifteen different words for sin used in the Book of Hosea to describe the people of God—fifteen! I don’t think we can ignore that piece in the text or ignore that piece in ourselves. Maybe we can give you some toeholds to understand that sin.

There are three different kinds of sin in Jewish mindset. That mindset, of course, Hosea would have known and understood. The people to whom he was writing all would have known this loose definition of sin. One is intentional, deliberate sin like premeditated sin. Another is an unintentional sin like a mischief, where your lack of self-control gets you into trouble. The last sin is the sin of complete ignorance; you don’t know you made a mistake.

What I find interesting is they are all sin. Typically, I’m led to excuse at least two out of three of those and sometimes even the premeditated one. If someone gets carried away with their personality and with who they are, we tend to write that off. You could make the argument Gomer got carried away—her mom was like this, she was like this, she was raised in a culture like this—but I don’t think the biblical text allows for that argument to stand. In fact, it’s quite direct in saying this is bad.

Sometimes people make a mistake and they unintentionally offend someone else. You could make the argument because they didn’t know, it’s not really that bad. Maybe they should feel sorry, but it’s not really that big of a deal. Well, apparently, it is, because these things are equally a breaking of relationship.

Here’s the lesson Gomer didn’t learn and the people of God didn’t learn in this book and maybe we can take from them. According to Jewish commentaries or the Jewish encyclopedia, sin against another person that isn’t put right can never be said to truly be repented. Unless you mend that relationship, it still is sin; it’s not forgiven or forgotten, because the relationship is still broken.

When we sin against God, we know how to make that right. We run to Jesus and say, “Oh, God, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” We accept the grace of God; we accept the grace of Jesus Christ. We accept union with God; we become more like God. We allow the spirit of God to transform. In simple ways we say, “Help! I’m sorry.” In complicated ways we say, “Oh, Lord, please make me whole.” Whether it’s complicated or whether it’s easy, we know how to mend our relationship with God when we sin against God. When we break relationship with God, it’s by pursuing God, by allowing and accepting God to join with us once again that we make that relationship whole again.

When we sin against other people—when it’s you in the chat room, when it’s you in the supper club, when it’s you running down your spouse or your co-workers, when it’s you hating people, when it’s you plotting against people, when it’s you double-crossing people—those relationships are broken too. It’s not enough to feel sorry or just feel regret; we have to make it right. If sin is the breaking of relationship, then restoration is the making whole of that relationship.

Restoration never happens in the Book of Hosea. Restoration with Gomer never truly occurs, despite all of Hosea’s best efforts and despite all of his taking her back. Restoration with the people of God never happens in the Book of Hosea, despite God’s many efforts and many promises to make that relationship whole.

We can’t just treat that all as an intellectual abstraction or a story of another time, because it’s our story. It’s in our Bible for a reason—to teach us about the breaking of relationship, to teach us about faithfulness, to teach us about wholeness and restoration, to teach us about un-sin or post-sin.

I wonder if we might leave you with some questions, heavy questions, because it’s a heavy subject. The questions are about you and your relationships. Maybe you can relate to the story of Hosea and Gomer. Can you ever think of a time where you’ve been involved in a broken relationship? Maybe there’s one that sticks out in your mind; maybe one God’s bringing to your mind at this moment to remind you. Can you think of how that relationship got mended? Can you think of what it took for there to be restoration? Maybe there wasn’t restoration and that thing is still broken. Have you done everything you can to make that relationship whole?

My wife is a teacher and in her education, they taught her about restitution as one way of disciplining children. One of the keystones of this principle is where educators and disciplinarians sit down with kids who have done bad stuff and say, “What are you going to do to make this right?” Great approach—not a flawless approach, but a great approach.

In your broken relationships, what are you going to do to make it right? Is there something that’s still broken you’ve got to do what you can do to make it right? In your relationship with God, is there something you’ve got to do to make it right? For many people the question is, “Is it even worth making it right?” It is a pain and a lot of heartache to make broken things whole.

By no means are we saying you have to go out and have the same relationship with everyone you ever had a relationship with. We don’t mean call up your ex-boyfriend and get back together with him. We don’t mean go back to your ex-spouse. We are saying: Is there something you can do to restore what has been broken?

At the very least, when you go to bed at night, you feel good about knowing you’ve put things right. What is that for you? What does that look like for you? These are the questions Hosea leads us to ask ourselves: Have we been unfaithful? How? Can we make things right? How? Are the people of God today like the people of God then? How?

You have a copy of the Draft and we’ve put something on the back that is very useful in thinking about Hosea. It’s called “Your Vow.” Because the metaphor of God as husband and the people of God as his bride are extended throughout the Bible, it’s reasonable for us to understand that metaphor is extended also to today. It’s reasonable for us to imagine ourselves as God’s bride—collectively, but also individually. You, by yourself, are also his bride.

It’s customary when people get married to take vows. Sometimes they write their own vows, sometimes they use the vows supplied by the State or Church. We thought it would be useful for us today to write our vows to God. Your vow can be anything you like.

When people get married and they ask me, “Dave, how do we write our own vows?” There are typically requirements for writing vows. You’ve got make them pursuant to exclusivity—it’s you and only you. You make vows that imply longevity—til deal do us part. We typically instruct people those vows are also a-circumstantial—I’m going to love you no matter what.

We want to give you a few minutes to write your vows to God. God is a vow-keeping God; he keeps his promises even when we don’t remember them, as in the case of the people of Israel. God’s a vow-making and a vow-keeping God. As such, we are never closer to him than when we make and keep our vows. Take these few minutes and write them out from what you feel, from what God is sponsoring in your heart, and keep them with you for this series. Share them with others, share them with us. Let’s use this as a prop for the spirit of God to speak to us about how we know and love him.

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