It had been a hard day in the fields. The sun had beat down without mercy on my back. Twice or three times, my team of oxen had stumbled and I had had to stop and help them up out of the miry clay, lest they break their legs and be useless. I’ve always found that it’s not hard to stop and care for the beasts; they’re always so grateful when you help them. Not like people, who will turn on you in a minute and whose loyalty is like a morning cloud that flits away when the sun gets warm.
The day had been harder than usual, too, because I had been breaking fallow ground. There was a field I had not used for more than a year in order to let it rest. We’ve learned, you know, that if you take care of God’s gift of the land, it will take care of you. We of Israel do not suppose, as the men of Canaan do, that you must ply the idol Baal with chants and sacrifices and even worse in order to get the crops to grow. We of Israel trust in the Lord and live responsibly before Him. At least that is what we are supposed to do. That is what I, Hosea the farmer, was taught to do by my father Beeri.
I had been plowing up the stones and breaking the hard crust of the earth under the burning sun, yes, and it was a weariness to the flesh, but two things kept me going. Two things filled my mind with joy and promise.
The first was the news from our capltal city of Shechem here in the kingdom of Israel. A traveler had come by my fields early in the morning, on his way home from Shechem, full of what had been happening there. It seemed that Jeroboam, our king, had achieved a stunning military success, and that Israel may at last be free of the tyranny of paying tribute to Syria. The traveler told me that Ben-hadad, the Syrian king who had long oppressed us and had exacted tribute money from us, had been defeated by the rising Assyrian empire under Adadnirari. Thanks to this savior from the unlikely hordes of the Assyrian host, we are saved and we will be free to prosper and grow on our own. In fact, so the traveler told me, King Jeroboam has gathered the armies of Israel and has pushed northward almost to Damascus. Why, Jeroboam may be able to make the Hebrew people as great as we were in the days of David and Solomon. He has already extended our lands into Moab in the south and Ammon in the east. Oh, it will cost some blood, just as the old King Jehu spilled blood in the valley of Jezreel. Now if only... if only... we could come together with Judah again. If only our brothers in the southern kingdom of Judah, our brothers in one faith could unite with us again, we would be powerful.
But for now, at least, my heart raced with the thought of the growth of Israel’s power and the success of her arms. Goods were flowing freely along our trade routes. Long caravans were coming through and paying tolls to our king. There was word that ships were being built at Tyre for use by Israel’s businessmen, and that our engineers were reopening the great copper mines along the wadi Arabah.
In fact, my traveler friend spoke with particular force about the rich palaces and fine public buildings of Shechem. Our king and the merchant princes there were raising great buildings and filling them with ivory and gold, with silver and fine linens. Such peace and prosperity Israel has not known for several generations!
There was only one disturbing note to all of this. And that is that I heard that the people of Israel were deserting the Lord our God and were turning to Baal, the gods of the Canaanite people, among whom we still live. I do not understand how they can forget that it was the Lord who spoke to Moses, it was the Lord who led them through the Red Sea and the wilderness; that it was the Lord who made a covenant with them on the height of Sinai and who then raised up Joshua to bring us into this land. How can they go lusting after Baal, the gods of the Canaanites, when the Lord God swore that he would make a sure covenant with David forever? I tell you, it all started when old King Ahab, the ancestor of our present king Jeroboam, married that woman Jezebel. She is the one who made it popular to worship the Baal, and we have not gotten rid of her influence yet, a hundred years later!
I did worry a little that day about our people going in for the worship of Baal. But I supposed you had to say, "To each his own". After all, I thought, as long as you are sincere in your religion, it doesn’t matter much what you believe.
But I have told you that two things filled my mind with promise and kept me going during that burning hot day in the fields. The first, as I have said, was the news about the prosperity and peace of Israel, the word that we as a nation were pushing back our frontiers, despite our spiritual wanderings.
The second thing that filled my mind and kept my heart strong during the hours of labor was the image of my young and lovely wife. I had not been married long, and had never dreamed as a single man that marriage would be so fulfilling, powerful, all-absorbing. I had courted Gomer the daughter of Diblaim and had won her heart readily. Now that I look back at it, perhaps too readily. There were rumors about Gomer, but I loved her and I chose not to believe those rumors. Our love was all that mattered. And I sang through the day, driven onward by the thought that soon I would be at my home and hearth with Gomer at my side. In one another’s arms we would rest and would plan for the child she was now carrying, our firstborn.
So wonderful were those thoughts that I decided to go home early. Usually we farmers would work until the shadows of the setting sun told us that our workday was over. But today, something in my heart told me just to go home and to be with my wife rather than to work. The tasks of the fields could be completed later. Let me go and love my Gomer and repeat my promises to her!
But when I reached my door and called for her, I found Gomer gone. She was not in our house, nor was she at the well, nor among the sheep. And since the fire was cold and there was no food ready, it seemed she had not been there all day. Where could she have done? Where could she be? There were only a few houses huddled together in the village at the mouth of our fertile valley, and so I went to the home of our neighbor Mizpachach. Old Mizpachach had lived in this village for many years; some said she was as ancient as the hills, nearly sixty years old! If it was worth knowing, she knew it. I asked Mizpachach if she had seen Gomer.
I could not imagine at first why the old woman turned her face to the wall instead of answering me directly. She seemed not to want to speak with me. She was hiding something. And so I blurted out my question again, “Where is Gomer? Have you seen her? Where did she go today?”
Mizpachach turned and looked at the floor in front of my feet as if the wisps of straw that lay there held some mysterious secret. Slowly, almost inaudibly, she muttered one word, “Bethel”. Puzzled, I asked her to repeat what she had said. The answer came even more hesitantly, “Bethel. Your wife is at Bethel.”
But why? Why would a young woman trudge off, by herself, to a town an hour’s walk away, a town where things got boisterous sometimes and young toughs hung around the temple of Baal to jeer at the women who …
Bethel! The temple of Baal. The young toughs jeered at the women who prostituted themselves in the service of Baal. The women who gave themselves to man after man, farmer after farmer, in rituals the Canaanites believed assured the fertility of the fields and the birth of both beasts and babies. In an instant I knew what Mizpachach was telling me without telling me. The rumors. My wife Gomer… the bride of my joy ... the one to whom, I was so sure, the Lord God had led me. Gomer, they said, was a prostitute in the temple of Baal. She was giving to other men what should have been kept only for me, only for her husband.
I can scarcely begin to describe for you now all the pain and anger that went through my heart that day. When Gomer came home and I confronted her with my suspicions, she denied nothing, but did promise to change her ways. I was hurt, but thought that her promise might settle things. And when our son was born, I was delighted, but decided, in the manner of my people, that his name should carry a message. The name of this child should say something in our village.
I named him, “Jezreel”, which means, “God sows.” God sows. You can read that several ways. God sows ... this is the child which God has given. Or Jezreel, the valley of Jezree1, where old Jehu’s bloody battles had soaked the earth... and where Israel’s greatness ... or maybe Israel’s end ... had been sown. My son would be Jezreel, God sows whatever He sows.
For the next year or so, I practically forgot about Gomer’s old life. She seemed fulfilled, and so did I. We cared for our son, we went about our lives without event or turmoil. Our neighbor Mizpachach avoided both of us and seemed unwilling to say anything to me other than minor pleasantries about the weather. I wondered why she was so secretive.
One night, however, as Gomer was undressing, I noticed on her legs long red scratches, ugly things, as if some animal had attacked her. I asked about them, and she passed my question off as if it were nothing. I looked more closely at the scratches … they were about as far apart as the fingers on a man’s hand. I reached out my hand and traced my fingernails along the lines on her flesh; it was unmistakable. This had been made by the hand of a man. I flashed in anger, “Have you been back to Bethel? Have you? Have you?” She turned toward me with a snarl on her lips, and snapped out, “Well, what if I have? What does it matter? I am serving a god. It happens to be Baal rather than the God of Israel, but our land will prosper and our flocks multiply because of it. Besides, Hosea, who do you think earned money for your fine wool cloak and your flaxen blankets? How do you think we can afford the oil we burn in our lamps every night?”
I screamed in anger and lunged toward her, my first raised to beat her. I think I could have beat her senseless, and maybe would have, except that she grabbed my arm by the wrist and bleated out, “Baby. Don’t, Hosea, I’m going to have a baby.”
During the months of that pregnancy I brooded in silence, hurt silence. My pain was so deep I could not open up to anyone. I could not even pray. So many things tumbled through my mind, not the least of which was the nagging question as to whether this was even my child. Gomer had been with so many men. How could I know that this was the product of my love?
When the child was born, a girl, I could not tell. I wanted to believe that she was mine, but I could not get rid of the nagging fear that she was not. My heart grew stone cold, and I treated both her and Gomer with disdain and distance. I named this girl, “Lo-ruhamah”. Lo-ruhamah. It means, “Not pitied.” No mercy. The name meant that I had no feeling, no room to forgive Gomer.
The next several months we spend avoiding one another. I went out to the fields day by day, I did my work, I came home as late as possible. Sometimes I labored fiercely in the fields, almost hoping I would pass out and die, so that people would look on me with pity and say, “Poor Hosea; how hard he worked and how faithful he was, and that woman of his, that Gomer, is no good at all." I admit, I had a few deliciously sinister moments imagining my own funeral with everyone feeling sorry for me and hating my wife.
During those months Gomer and I did not come together at all as husband and wife. I did not touch her. I didn’t want to. I could not bear the thought of intimacy with one who had become a stranger to me and had gone eagerly after other men. I left her strictly alone.
That is why I knew that when her belly began to swell again, this child was certainly not mine. It was not possible. If she was bearing another child, then she was up to her old tricks again, and this child was the product of one of those many liaisons in the temple of Baal in Bethel.
When this boy was born, then, and they said to me, “Hosea, what will you call this son?” my answer was as swift and as cutting as a knife. Name him "Lo-ammi ". Lo-ammi. Not my people. Not mine. Lo-ammi.
And I sent her away. When her baby was only a few weeks old, I sent the two of them away. I could not take the shame of it any longer. I could not stand old Mizpachach and her sly looks. I could not go anywhere near the town of Bethel without thinking that every man on the streets of that place had been with my wife. I sent her away and set out to get rid of every vestige of my life with her. I threw away her jewelry. I destroyed the clothes that she had bought with her earnings. I even tore out the vines and fig trees I had planted for her. I wanted to obliterate her memory entirely. No wife. No child. Nothing. Nothing.
But I found I too was nothing. I was miserable. I was desolate. My feelings played tricks on me. On some days I was so angry I told myself I would go up to Bethel, and I would find her and taunt her, perhaps even beat her. Who knows, maybe even kill her. The law would allow me to do that. I could go up and destroy her and no one would begrudge me that.
And then on other days my heart would grow warm and tender and I would remember how in the pleasant times of our youth we would whisper to each other and promise undying love. O Gomer, Gomer, how could you? How could you be unfaithful to me? Do you not remember all I have done for you? Do you know now that it was I who gave you a home? Oh, Gomer, Gomer, my Gomer!
I thought, what would it accomplish for me to execute my fierce anger? No, no, I will not. I still care for you, Gomer, though you have played the prostitute and made me look like a fool.
And so yesterday I went up to Bethel, my saddlebags filled with barley and wine and my purse laden with fifteen shekels of silver. A handsome price. Nearly all that I had. But I knew that by now my Gomer was the property of Baal; her life was captured by her sin, and it would take extreme measures to bring her back.
There in Bethel, just outside the temple square, I saw it: the slave block. On this slave block they sold, every day, the women who had been in the temple too long and who were worn out, no longer attractive to the men of Canaan, no longer able to ply their trade for Baal. Slowly, unsure of myself, feeling dirty, I entered the tents on the slave block, and looked for her. Over in a corner, cowering like a whipped dog, her child nestled in her arms, was Gomer. Tired, worn, sallow, old; but Gomer, my Gomer.
As we made our way quietly back to our village that night, it was as if I could hear a voice speaking:
"Hear the word of the Lord, 0 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 in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed."
It seemed to me last night that God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was speaking to me. It seemed that in the pain and anguish of my soul the God who had called as his prophets Elijah and Elisha was now calling me, Hosea, to be his prophet.
I heard more. "... Israel is not hidden from me; Israel is defiled. Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of whoredom is within them, and they do not know the Lord... therefore my judgment goes forth as the light. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."
Look at Gomer. Just look at her! Worn but still beautiful; tired but still the bride of my youth. I think of Israel, the people of God. I see her as God sees His people. The Lord says, "How can I give you up ... ? How can I hand you over...? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not destroy… I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden. 0 [Israel], it is I who looks after you!"
Can you feel it, people of God? My home is in God’s heart. My home teaches me the steadfast love of the Lord. When I paid the redemption price for the love of my life, my heart beat with the heart of God. And God will someday pay the redemption price for us, His people.
My home in God’s heart. God’s heart our home.