I was watching an old movie on television and I heard a line that I’d missed before. The villain of this comedy was talking on the phone and said something like: “Sure, I know what kind of low-down person would sue his own mother, but we’re not talking about me!” It caught me off-guard and I had quite a laugh. Yes, that villain was the kind of low-life who would sue his own mother.
But the fourth verse of Hosea 2 (in the Hebrew) or second verse in the English catches us off-guard in a different way. The Hebrew verb that is used twice in the command form here means to bring litigation against someone, to take a person to court. So, Hosea is literally commanding someone to take a mother to court. And he isn’t doing it for laughs like the line in the movie. He’s using shock value to show all of Israel how sinful she is.
“Sue your mother! Sue her
Because she isn’t [really] my wife
And I am not [really] [her] husband.
Let her rid her face of marks of prostitution,
And signs of her adultery from between her breasts.”
And you know what really hits me? In the context, it sounds like this is Hosea continuing to use his children as object lessons. It sounds like he starts out telling his children to take their mother to court right out in front of everyone in order to get the attention of the Israelites as a larger audience. Then, by the time we segue into verse 5 in the Hebrew (3 in the English), it becomes clear that he isn’t really speaking of Gomer. Gomer isn’t likely to become a wilderness. And though Gomer might have had access to wool, flax, olive oil and wine, it is highly unlikely that she raised them all. And Gomer doesn’t have New Moon feasts, Sabbaths, and festivals all by herself. By verse 15 in the Hebrew (13 in the English), we get it. “The very words of Yahweh.”
Of course, the Israelites who were listening to Hosea must have gotten it by then. Together, they combine to become the “mother” practicing adultery and they are the “wife” that Yahweh is divorcing because she isn’t acting like a wife. Her fertile lands will become a wasteland and God will take away her economic abundance. Why? Israel had chased after Baal as a fertility god to bring them offspring (to work the fields and provide for them in old age) and prosperity (in their agrarian culture).
Isn’t it ironic? Most people commit adultery because they want their lovers to give them something that their spouse isn’t giving them (or they don’t perceive the spouse as giving them). But the lovers can never provide for them the dependability and sustainability they need in a relationship.
In the same way, I see even God’s people of today as courting lovers other than God and settling for something other than a sustaining relationship. When Israel said that she was going to court her lovers (Hebrew 7, English 5) who give her bread, water, wool, flax, oil, and wine, she wasn’t that different than those of us who have one standard for church and another standard for business. We have one vocabulary for church and another for business. We have one ethic for church and another for business. We espouse compassion at church, but practice ruthlessness in the office. And when we act in this way, we are courting another lover. We call this lover, Success. Israel called this lover, Baal.
How many times have we heard people protest that, “I have to do this or I’d get fired!” or “I have to do it this way or I’d never succeed in business!” I’m reminded of Truett Cathy’s chicken franchise, flourishing throughout the South in spite of being closed on Sundays. He believed that it was important to keep the Lord’s Day and even closes high traffic mall locations on Sundays. He refused to sleep with the goddess of Business As Usual and opted, instead, to keep his convictions at work the same as his convictions at church. And God has blessed him.
But we have members of Christian churches in America who think it is okay to have an affair with the modern Baal of “Good Business” rather than to depend upon God for provision, protection, and blessing. Lies, cutting corners, shirking responsibility, and throwing out a lot of spin is the modern version of chasing after Baal. So, I’m wondering (and I’m not trying to be a doomsday prophet here) if modern believers don’t need to take some of Yahweh’s divorce suit against Israel to heart.
This is a “good news/bad news” scenario. Verse 8 (Hebrew, 6 in English) begins with “Therefore!” Now, in prophets like Amos (who uses this word for “Therefore” seven times), Micah (6x), Isaiah 1-39 (14x), Jeremiah (ca. 50x), and Ezekiel (about 50x), “Therefore” is usually followed by a statement of punishment. Here, God says that He will hedge Israel’s way with thorns. It sounds like punishment, but it sure isn’t punishment for punishment’s sake. It sure isn’t God being vindictive.
Planting hedges of thorns was not unusual in Israel. You would plant hedges of thorns to keep certain wild beasts out and even to keep your domesticated livestock from wandering into a field or vineyard and doing a lot of damage. Like an electric fence around modern farms, I doubt it’s pleasant for the livestock or wildlife when they hit it, but it does provide some protection for the crops in some situations and some protection for the livestock in keeping them in relative safe pastureland in other situations.
God clearly states that His purpose in hedging Israel is to frustrate her in her chase after her lovers. If she gets frustrated enough, she may go back to her real husband. And we need to realize that sometimes God lets the stock market fall, gives us a scare at work, allows an extra medical expense to challenge us, or frustrates us with a mechanical problem (car breakdown, appliance failure, etc.) to hedge us in so that we’ll turn back toward Him. But the passage shifts back and forth between the potential promise of getting back to God and what God has to do in order to get Israel’s attention. In fact, God doesn’t always get our attention, does He?
In verses 9-13 (English) or 11-15 (Hebrew), God says that He’s going to withdraw his blessing from the corn crop and he’s going to ruin the wine. He’s going to take back the textiles (wool and flax) that this unfaithful wife uses to cover her nakedness so that everyone can see her as vulnerable, weak, and shameless as she really is.
If you’ll pardon the frivolity, it sounds like the reverse of that song from the Broadway musical, “Guys and Dolls.” There is a song in the musical where the nightclub singer sings about a man who has showered her with gifts in order to obtain certain sensual favors. She sings, “Take back your mink, take back your pearls. What makes you think that I am one of those girls?” Well, in our passage, Israel HAS been one of those girls and God is taking away the mink and pearls that she THOUGHT she had gotten from Baal.
In fact, verse 14 (12 in English) tells us that God plans to turn the fertile vineyards and fig orchards into thickets where the wild beasts can ravage them. Now, I don’t know about you, but as I’ve watched my 401K become a 301K or 201K to a 101K, I’m thinking that we’re getting pretty close to the “thickets” with regard to what was once a fertile vineyard on Wall Street. What happened?
My personal opinion, before we get back to what the Lord specifically said, is that both the financial industry and the manufacturing/distributing/retailing industries in the United States became obsessed with quarter-to-quarter profits and lost sight of building a business. They quit worrying about quality and about building relationships with their customers that would engender loyalty. At the same time, customers became so price-sensitive that they began to look for discounts more than quality and they showed no loyalty. The financial markets indexed their future to quarter-to-quarter profits such that there was no vision of a long-term future. Everything became a house of cards. We spend more time pushing paper and holding meetings than we do accomplishing anything.
But the beautiful part of this passage is that God expresses His intent to lure Israel (verse 16 in Hebrew, 14 in English) and speak to her heart (communicate directly to her will). God’s intent is to turn the Valley of Misery or Misfortune into an Entryway to Hope. The Valley of Achor is traditionally identified with the sin of Achan (possibly, only by sound). It is a place that brought shame, hurt, disgrace, and defeat upon Israel. But God doesn’t want Israel to stay defeated.
God wants a relationship with believers, but there are times when alleged believers are more interested in profits than prophets, in convenience than contrition. Yet, even though we are free to choose other “lovers,” other priorities and other loyalties in our lives, God doesn’t want us to settle for alternatives that bring shame, hurt, disgrace, and defeat into our lives. God wants our focus to be on the Best. So, in verse 18 (Hebrew, 16 in English), God expresses the desire of being addressed in loving terms as Israel’s husband rather than as her “baal.”
Baal is not only the name of the Canaanite fertility god, but baal was also used in the ancient world as the equivalent of lord, boss, or husband who owns a woman as though she is property. This verse suggests that Israel gave up her loving relationship with God as husband for an unsettling, subservient relationship to the false god. She became enslaved when she thought she was enamored. Yet, God promises to break that slavery [“I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth” v. 19(17)].
The best news comes when we reach verses 20-25 (Hebrew, 18-23 English). There, God promises to provide a positive relationship with nature, peace from Israel’s enemies, and a secure life (literally “I will make them lie down in safety” (v 20/18)). This sermon foreshadows Jesus’ promise of eternal life in that God says He will make Israel His own forever, but it also demands an obedient relationship because they are supposed to act within God’s idea of justice and faithfulness.
If they can learn to live in proper relationship, God will not only bring the rain (v. 23/21) and the good harvests (v. 24/22), but God will reverse all the negatives just pronounced on the children (v. 25/23). Jezreel becomes God’s special planting, No Feelings becomes God’s Compassion, and Not My People (Not Mine) becomes God’s People (God’s).
Of course, the strangest part of this whole passage for those of us reading it with modern eyes is that it defies consistency. At various points in the passage, the hearers/readers of Hosea were supposed to identify with Israel as the idolatrous and adulterous wife. At other points, the hearers/readers were supposed to identify with the children who had negative names. I think it’s easiest to understand this in terms of the wife being Israel as a whole and the children being the Israelites as individuals. In both cases, God wanted to provide not what they deserved or what they thought their destiny might be, but God wanted to provide a positive relationship which would, in turn, provide tremendous advantage—more advantage than those false gods/lovers. For the modern world, think of the church as the wife (after all, the New Testament calls the church as a whole “the bride of Christ”) and each believer as a child.
So, whether you have willfully chosen different priorities than those of God and taken on the role of an unfaithful Israel or whether you feel like everything’s against you, God’s promise is for you. God wants you to depend upon Him. God wants what is best for you. God wants to woo you and speak compassionately to your heart. God wants the church as a faithful spouse and all believers as children who can reach full potential. Do you want the full potential God promises you?