Selections From the Prophets Week 6
By Jeffrey Keuss
Professor of Christian Ministry, Theology, and Culture
Read this week’s Scripture: Hosea 11:1-12:1
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 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 bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
Ephraim has surrounded me with lies,
and the house of Israel with deceit;
but Judah still walks with God,
and is faithful to the Holy One.
Ephraim herds the wind,
and pursues the east wind all day long;
they multiply falsehood and violence;
they make a treaty with Assyria,
and oil is carried to Egypt.
Pledging Our ‘Troth’ in Love
In his book To Know as We Are Known, Parker Palmer addresses the challenge of building community in this day and age. Many people will come to churches and schools seeking truth as the basis for why and how a community forms and is sustained. Yet, as Palmer reminds us, what many people see as “truth” is merely information and not intimacy:
The English word “truth” comes from a Germanic root that also gives rise to our word “troth,” as in the ancient vow “I pledge thee my troth.” With this word one person enters a covenant with another, a pledge to engage in a mutually accountable and transforming relationship, a relationship forged of trust and faith in the face of unknowable risks. [Author’s Note 1]
Truth is not merely information. It is more intimate and deep than repeating phrases together and saying something is either “true” or “false.” “Troth” — which is the root for our word “betrothed” —calls us into something more than mere fact or commitments based on mutual tolerance. This is a profound mutual accountability that transforms all members of the relationship into a newly forged intimacy of trust and faith.
In our previous reflections on Amos, we encountered the reality of God’s profound righteousness and commitment to justice. Amos paints a fairly exacting portrait of God bringing down all who oppose the ways of the Lord. Now, as we turn to the prophet Hosea, we encounter another passionate declaration from God, this time framed in the metaphor of marriage and fidelity.
Unlike Amos, this is not a declaration of punishment on behalf of the poor and marginalized. No, in Hosea we encounter another passionate expression of God: the overwhelming call of love by one lover to another despite current obstacles and past infidelity. [Author’s Note 2] As we see in this further exploration of the prophets, the God who calls to his people is not only a God who demands justice, but also a God who is passionately in love with his people and will go to great lengths to secure this love and to remind his people of the vows they have taken in covenant.
As noted by David Allen Hubbard and other scholars, the central identity of the prophet and his message is spelled out in the first two verses:
The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel. When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD” (1: 1–2).
Here we find right away that Hosea is a prophet of the Northern Kingdom. Since we have no other written record in the prophetic literature of this region, Hosea offers a unique perspective. [Author’s Note 3] Yet, with the list of kings ranging from Jeroboam II to the destruction of Jerusalem, Hosea offers us a bridge from the prophecies of Jonah and Amos to the time of Isaiah and Micah, which is vital to the canon of scripture. [Author’s Note 4]
Daʿat ʾĕlōhîm — To Truly Know God
Central to Hosea is the fact that the people do not “know” God intimately, and that is why they have strayed away. The Hebrew verb yâdaʿ — “to know” — is used quite a bit throughout Hosea, as is the phrase daʿat ʾĕlōhîm, which means “knowledge of God” or “sympathy of God.” [Author’s Note 5] As noted by Abraham Heschel in his book The Prophets,
Hosea seems to have seized upon the idea of sympathy as the essential religious requirement. The words daath elohim mean sympathy for God, attachment of the whole person, his love as well as his knowledge; an act of involvement, attachment or commitment to God. The biblical [person] knew of no bifurcation of mind and heart, thought and emotion. He saw the whole person in a situation …. daath corresponds to hesed, or love. What is desired is an inner identification with God rather than a mere dedication to ceremonies …. As an antithesis to “the spirit of harlotry,” knowledge of God must mean an intimate relation to, or a feeling for, God. [Author’s Note 6]
The place that Hosea wishes to draw Israel into is a place where they can experience God’s reconciliation. But, in order to experience this, Israel must “know God” deeply:
- Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel; for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God (daʿat ʾĕlōhîm) in the land. (4:1)
- My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge (daʿat); because you have rejected knowledge (daʿat), I reject you from being a priest to me. (4:6)
- For I desire steadfast love (ḥeseḏ) and not sacrifice, the knowledge (daʿat) of God (ʾĕlōhîm) rather than burnt offerings. (6:6)
Similarly, as we hear in our passage for this week, God acknowledges that, while the people continue to practice the external rhythms of sacrifice, the inner knowledge of God — daʿat ʾĕlōhîm — is lacking:
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 from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols …. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. (11:1-2, 4)
Cords and Bands — the Context of Intimacy
In our passage for this week, God is seeking to love Israel in a nurturing fashion as a mother loves a child. While Israel has been unfaithful and followed after other gods and other cultic practices, God desires to bring Israel into a renewed relationship and raise her from infancy. In many ways this passage is echoed in Jesus’ telling Nicodemus that he must be born “from above” (John 3:7) [Author’s Note 7]. Like Nicodemus, Israel has led a life that has strayed from the face of God, and the return to innocence is almost unimaginable.
Here God looks upon Israel with a repose of absolute and complete acceptance — ready to nurture, to feed, and to bring close. Two of the more provocative words to this effect are found in 11:4, where God states, “I led them with cords (ḥeḇel) of human kindness, with bands (ʾăbôt) of love (ʾahăḇâ).” It is important to note that the words translated as “cords” and “bands” are distinct from each other. The word for “cord” (ḥeḇel) refers to a measuring line or standard by which things are framed [Author’s Note 8] (we will come back to this notion of a measuring line in a few weeks with Zechariah), while the word translated “band” (ʾăbôt) denotes something woven together, therefore suggesting intimacy [Author’s Note 9].
While similar in form yet distinct in purpose, these two metaphorical threads draw us into the truth of love (ʾahăḇâ) [Author’s Note 10] that is offered by God. Love is not merely standards and expectations, nor is it merely intimacy unbridled in boundless ecstasy without responsibility. Here God outlines the geometry of love as the bringing together of “cords of human kindness, with bands of love” in the abandonment to reconciled lives.
Go and Do Not Sin Again — Cords and Bands of Love in Jesus’ Ministry from John 8
Hosea’s prophetic call is to “pledge our troth” to the living God, who is seeking after us in our brokenness and sin, who desires to see us as newborns who are without separation and fear, and who desires to embrace us completely. This is echoed in Jesus’ standing alongside the woman caught in adultery in John 8. As startling as God’s call to Hosea in 1:2 to “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom,” is the way that Jesus in John 8 binds his life to the concerns and brokenness of a community in sin that is ready to stone one person in her brokenness to alleviate and dismiss the brokenness in their own lives.
Jesus moves into the center of the drama and aligns himself — pledges his “troth” with the woman — and subsequently underscores that in order to be with him we need to bind our lives to sinners as well. Similar to the cords and bands of Hosea 11:4, Jesus places a measuring line before the community (“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7)), and weaves bands of love that constrain the woman to holiness in a way that releases her into the life of love (“And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your own way, and from now on do not sin again” (8:11)).
To truly know God is daʿat ʾĕlōhîm — to be deeply known by God and know God to our core. This is the ravaging, passionate love with which God pursues us. This is not merely festivals and ceremonies. This may seem as outlandish or appalling as it would be to chase after someone who is faithless in order to pledge them your troth. This is the full-bodied intimacy with which God is choosing to love and embrace the people in a way that mirrors the loving care of a parent to a child.
In this we have a foreshadowing of the enfleshment of love that is the incarnation of Christ, who as Emmanuel draws close to a retreating and fearful world. And this shows a love that will stun people into silence, as stones fall from clenched hands, so that they too may take up the cords and bands of love offered to us over and over and over again by our God, who never ceases looking for and loving us completely.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Hosea is called to seek after and bind his life to someone who is so broken and unfaithful that it is appalling to many. Are there any relationships in your life that might require a similar type of relational sacrifice? What might it look like to love this person in-line with the radical and selfless example of Hosea?
- In what ways does Hosea explore the theme of knowing God? What words of challenge or encouragement does this speak into your own relationship with God?
- What does the Lectio writer say about “cords and bands?” In what ways does this imagery embody the message of Hosea? The message of the Gospel?
- The book of Hosea describes a deeply intimate relationship between the prophet and his wife, Gomer. What does this tell us about God’s desire for relationship with humankind? In what ways is it difficult or challenging to hear that God desires that level of intimacy with us?
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