Part 2 of the series “Major Lessons from Minor Prophets”
It must have been frontpage news at the supermarket checkout counters in Israel, right next to the hummus and the Tic-Tacs: “Local Prophet Marries Prostitute” screamed the headline of the Israel Inquirer. “Holy Man Hosea Hooks Up with Hooker” winked the Samarian Post. You can just imagine the pictures—the paparazzi following Hosea around, the seductive poses of his wife Gomer there in the centerfold. If the Israelites had had Google, Hosea and Gomer would have been the number one search term in about 750BC, especially given that in 2015 the number one Google search term was former NBA star Lamar Odom being found unconscious in a Nevada brothel.
Americans love a good scandal. Whether it’s a government official getting caught in an affair or celebrities hooking up in secret, we want to see the pictures. Somehow it makes us seem more self-righteous, which may be why most people feign disgust at the tabloids but then secretly buy them. Tabloid sales are increasing while newspaper readership is decreasing. The more salacious the news, the better it sells.
We might look at the book of the prophet Hosea as a kind of tabloid story in the midst of the grand narrative of the Bible—like a National Enquirer tucked into the middle of the New York Times. I mean, look at how the story starts: “Go take for yourself a wife of whoredom,” God tells Hosea, “and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (v. 2). The fact that God commands this of Hosea, a faithful prophet, makes it even more intriguing. Inquiring minds want to know why.
Read deeper into the Scriptures, however, and you’ll see that God is making the prophets do this sort of thing all the time. Isaiah walked around Jerusalem barefoot for three years as a sign of God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies. Jeremiah walked around with an oxen’s yoke on his next as a sign that Judah would be under the yoke of Babylon. Think of these as a kind of political theater designed as a public display that would get people thinking about the symbolism. Hosea’s task, however, may have been the most personally difficult of all the prophetic tasks—to intentionally go out and marry a woman who we knows will leave him for liaisons with a host of other men.
Why does God make Hosea do this tabloid-worthy task? We get a clue here in the second verse of chapter one: “The land commits great whoredom (NIV says “adultery”) by forsaking the Lord.” One of the most common biblical metaphors for the relationship between God and Israel is that of a marriage: God as the loving husband and Israel as his bride. But Israel has been an unfaithful spouse, forsaking God and running after the gods of wood and stone that their pagan neighbors worshipped. Rather than relying on God’s provision and love, they sought the comfort and pleasures of Canaanite idolatry, which in the ancient world often involved sexual promiscuity. The Israelites thus broke the covenant that God made with them at Sinai—a covenant where they pledged fidelity by having or making other gods, particularly gods made in their own image.
Remember that God had made this covenant with Israel has his chosen people—a people who would be a light to the rest of the world by being holy and set apart; a people faithful to one God and to each other. Israel’s sin broke that covenant, much like infidelity breaks the marriage covenant between husband and wife. Hosea’s marriage would be an acted parable of how far the relationship had deteriorated.
So Hosea marries Gomer and, in the midst of this scandalous relationship, they have three children whom God tells Hosea to name. The first is Jezreel—Jezreel was the fruitful plain in the northern hill country, and the site of many of Israel’s battles. It was also the route of enemy of invasion into the northern kingdom of Israel. By naming the firstborn son Jezreel, God foreshadows that Israel will be invaded as the result of their sins. You can imagine the tabloid shots of little Jezreel and the speculation about his name there at the checkout counter.
The second child, a daughter, is name Lo-ruhamah or “not pitied.” The sign is clear: God will have no pity on those who forsake him. And the third child, “Lo-ammi’s” name delivers the starkest image yet: Israel is “not my people,” says the Lord, because of their flirtation with other gods. As God is wont to do, he will punish his people by giving them exactly what they want, letting them court other gods as lovers who will ultimately use them and sow the seeds of their destruction.
Indeed, this is what Gomer, Hosea’s wife, does. She goes after her lovers who use her and provide her with gifts (2:5). She doesn’t realize that it is Hosea who provides for her and really loves her, just like Israel does not realize that it is God alone who loves and provides for her. If you read this story in the tabloids, you would certainly support Hosea in cutting this woman loose, just like we would support any man or woman dealing with an unfaithful spouse. We might even expect God to go and find another people who might be more faithful to him.
But here’s the real scandal in the story. Rather than leaving her, which would have been far less embarrassing in a culture of honor and shame, Hosea goes after her and pursues her. Chapter three begins with Hosea going to redeem his wife by buying her with a ransom and bringing her back home to live with him once again. She must give up the promiscuous life, but she is no longer condemned. She is home and part of the family again.
This is an extraordinary measure of grace toward one who deserves only condemnation, but it is not only Hosea’s way—it is God’s way. Like Hosea redeeming his wayward spouse, God will redeem his people. Look at 2:19—even after all of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God says to her, “I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.”
And then look down at 2:22. Notice what God does for the children: Jezreel will be prosperous with produce and not blood. God will have pity on Lo-ruhamah, the one who had no pity. And Lo-ammi, the one who was not my people, will be God’s people again. A faithful God redeems his unfaithful people and reconciles with them through his love.
This story, at its heart, is the story of God’s coming to ransom and redeem a people who have long been searching for love in all the wrong places.
And another prophet, Isaiah, tells us that God will do it by naming a child – a child who’s name isn’t “no pity” or “not my people”: his name is Emmanuel—not “God against us” or “God apart from us” but “God with us.” God takes the extraordinary step of coming to his people in person to redeem them and dwell with them, to make a home with them. That’s what John writes in his Gospel: The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). He came not to condemn, but to buy us back with the ransom of his own blood.
When Jesus began to preach, that immense and free mercy found out many people who themselves had lived scandalous lives:
He came upon a woman, much like Gomer, who had been caught in the act of adultery with another man. Jewish law said that she deserved to be stoned to death, and should receive neither love nor forgiveness. Jesus offers her both and embarrasses the hypocritical crowd.
He met a woman in Samaria who had had five husbands and was living with another man. She is much like Gomer. He offers her living water, a new chance at life and grace.
He encounters Zaccheus—a man who cheated and swindled his neighbors from behind his tax collection table. He is sitting in a tree when Jesus finds him. Jesus takes the risk of going to his house and eating with him, which causes Zaccheus to begin living as an honest and generous man.
He tells a story about a wayward son who squanders all his inheritance and then comes slinking home back to his father who, in a stunning reversal of convention, runs out to meet his son, embraces him, and welcomes him home. It’s embarrassing, scandalous, and unexpected. But that’s the nature of grace!
Jesus didn’t come to bless the perfect, or to do the expected. Jesus didn’t come to point his fingers at those on the tabloid pages or those who keep secrets in dark alleys and bedroom. He came to ransom them—to ransom all of us. He came to pursue us out of a deep love for us. He came to offer forgiveness, love, reconciliation. He came to bring us home, not just to some faraway heaven, but to a real life here and now.
Most wayward people stay away from church because there’s no one willing to pursue them in love, to offer them grace, to welcome them home. The church of Jesus Christ has largely lost his pursuit of scandalous love—radical, unconditional, redeeming love for the world; love that costs, love that risks embarrassment, love that reaches out to the broken with an open hand rather than a clenched fist.
Do you know people around you who are in need of some scandalous, unconditional, reconciling love? Are we willing to go out of our way, maybe even risk embarrassment, to extend a hand, a word of grace, an offer of Christ?
Or, maybe it’s you who need it. Maybe you have been wandering far off, looking for love in all the wrong places. Christ says to you today, “I want to take you home. I’ve paid your ransom with my life. Won’t you come home with me?”
Hosea intentionally married a spouse who soon left him. God intentionally came to a people who had left him. Can we live in, or give in, to that scandalous kind of love?