There are so many good reasons to hate the book of Hosea, but today I want to tell you about my top three.
I’m sure it doesn’t help that the last time I heard it preached was on Mother’s Day. Yes, you read that right–Mother’s Day. That may seem like an odd pastoral decision, but it’s not all that unusual and in a way it serves to illustrate one of the core issues I have with the book.
Just a Prop
My first problem with the story of Hosea’s is how little effort was put into writing it. The female lead is scarcely more than a prop, disappearing from the narrative after only the first chapter out of fourteen. Gomer appears in no more than a dozen verses out of about 200, and no attempt is made to understand the motivations for anything she does.
She’s like one of those green sponges that directors put on the end of a stick while filming against a green screen so the actors can have something to talk to. Her main function is to be a blank canvas upon which Hosea can project his own predetermined message.
In itself, that’s no big deal since this story is clearly just a sermon illustration told at the beginning of a series of speeches aimed at reprimanding the Northern tribes of Israel for turning away from Yahweh. It’s a preacher’s story–a setup for the message that follows, like a joke with a punchline that anticipates the theme of the sermon.
But people don’t understand that, so they approach the story as if it really happened, diving into it in order to search for themselves in a tale that they believe illustrates how gracious God is for taking us back after each time we turn away from him. Francine Rivers based her novel Redeeming Love on this story, selling over a million copies and eventually landing a deal for a full-length feature film due out next year. In her hands, it becomes a romance novel symbolizing the individual’s personal relationship to God, whom Hosea is clearly meant to represent.
American Christians like to make the Bible about them, so it escapes them that Hosea’s message was originally meant to invoke collective responsibility. He was addressing an entire nation, but Christians in America see moral issues in primarily individual terms, so sins like greed and racism can only exist on the personal level. Concepts like institutional racism and social injustice are categorically dismissed as absurd.
Their egocentrism is annoying, but that’s not one of my top three reasons for hating this book.
Get a Load of This Guy
Reading this story now as a grown-up, the second thing that strikes me is how little emotional sense it makes for any of the characters to do what they did. Again, this shouldn’t matter since it’s clearly just a preacher’s story, but people want to believe these events really happened, so they make them real in their minds. Even worse, they believe it’s supposed to inform their image of what God is like.
But the protagonist who emerges from this exercise should horrify you. In this story we meet a man willing to seek out an unfaithful woman so that he could marry her for the sole purpose of gaining a good sermon illustration. Go read it for yourself if you think I’m exaggerating. What kind of man would do something like that?
I’m only two verses into the story and I already don’t like Hosea. I get the feeling that if I met this guy in real life, we would not be friends. Generally speaking, professional prophets were odd ducks anyway, so I suppose that’s not saying much. But the more I read about him, the more this guy makes my skin crawl.
People invent nicer motives for Hosea to marry for a publicity stunt like this, but in order to do so they must overlook a number of things. Remember that he married Gomer for the express purpose of having a wife who would cheat on him so that he could use it in his public ministry. Just think about that for a minute.
You can almost hear Hosea at parties introducing his wife, the harlot. “AND WHY DID I MARRY SUCH A WHORE, YOU MIGHT ASK? I’M SO GLAD YOU BROUGHT THAT UP!” Wherever he went, he would raise his voice and use his wife as his living illustration of how Israel keeps forsaking Yahweh, turning to other gods to protect them from the neighboring tribes and bless them with bountiful crop yields. This guy is a jerk.
The truth is he needed her to be unfaithful to him in order for his message to sell. What good would it do him if she were happy in the marriage? That would ruin everything.
But why would a woman who was quite possibly born into sex trafficking later return to her previous preoccupation after having been rescued from such a state? What would motivate a woman to do that? This is one of the places where the book’s utter lack of emotional awareness becomes plain as day.
Being neither a woman nor someone who ever had to offer his body to someone else stay alive, Hosea believed it must have been because she was too emotionally attached to her former lovers, and she just missed them too much to stay away.
But sex work* in the ancient world was rarely a voluntary thing. It wasn’t a life people sought because they just really liked sex a lot. It was an occupation for people at the very bottom of the socio-economic food chain, people with nothing to trade for food and shelter except their own bodily autonomy. The only thing I can see that would cause Gomer to return to that life was if she wasn’t being cared for the way she would have been if she had been in a normal, healthy marriage.
But Hosea was using her, just like all the other men before him had used her. She was always someone else’s property, the main difference now being that she’s no longer a rental. If that sounds objectifying it’s because it was.
I would give more credit to Hosea for including neglect for the poor in his list of national sins if it weren’t for the fact that in his personal life he showed so little awareness of how they actually live. He went out and married a wayward woman and then did such a poor job of caring for her needs that she eventually had to return to her trade. Just like he had hoped.
Don’t Listen to the Preachers
The third thing that bothers me most about this story is the way that it punches down, shifting the burden of responsibility onto those with the least power to shoulder it.
The Bible does this a lot, by the way. Lot knocked up his own daughters after his wife mysteriously disappeared (he swears she turned into salt), but the way the story is told nearly absolves him of responsibility. He was drunk, you see–his daughters got him sloshed so they could take advantage of him, perfectly timing their childbearing scheme according to their own synchronized ovulation cycles.
I myself have four daughters and I can assure you that no amount of alcohol would render me unable to recognize my own girls. I also know that men old enough to have teenage daughters can only take in so much alcohol before they become incapable of doing the things they can do when they’re sober, if you get what I’m saying. So this story, too, makes no sense.
Why do so many Bible stories feel like they were written by people who have no idea how people actually react to things?
Israel turned to other gods because the one they were worshiping wasn’t doing anything. Yahweh promised them they wouldn’t have to develop advanced weaponry or curry the favor of neighboring nations because he himself would protect them. Their primary weapons were thoughts and prayers, and for some reason those weren’t enough to keep Israel from being invaded and taken over again, and again, and again.
Can you really blame them? The truth is that the Northern tribes of Israel were being invaded continually, having their wives and kids hauled off to be slaves in other nations and in reality it wasn’t because they weren’t worshiping correctly. Just like our current fights against deadly pestilences, wars are won by investing more into developing the kinds of resources that a nation needs when thoughts and prayers aren’t cutting it.
Israel might have learned from these tragedies if preachers like Hosea hadn’t kept shifting the blame onto the nation for not living right. He’s like the preachers you see today on TV and YouTube who insist the reason we’re getting more destructive weather than ever before is that we’ve been letting the gays get married. And here I thought they didn’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. Do they think there’s something about gay sex that’s hotter or something?
The great thing about magical thinking is that it doesn’t have to make sense. It requires no logical connections between cause and effect, which means you can point fingers toward whatever your beliefs say matter most to the offended deity, and no one can tell you that you’re wrong. Who are they to question divine wisdom?
I think I’d be less upset with books like Hosea if it weren’t for the fact that worst character in the story turned out to be the the one representing God.
If the story of Hosea teaches us anything, it’s that Yahweh is the kind of deity who would seek out objects of affection specifically because he knows they will fail to reciprocate. He’s also the kind of god who would refrain from providing what people need if they aren’t living up to his moral standards. If any divine promises fail to materialize, it’s their fault.
But that’s how authoritarian power structures work–credit always flows up while blame always flows down. When it comes time to interpret whatever went wrong, blame will always be placed on those in the equation with the least power to determine what happens in their lives.
In ancient Israel, women were seen less as people and more like commodities to be traded. If you happened to sleep around as well, you lived near the very bottom of the social hierarchy in that place and time. That’s why comparing Israel to a harlot struck such a nerve for everyone, earning Hosea’s place in the Hebrew canon. It was such a brutal insult.
It was a scathing criticism at the expense of a person who had no voice in the story at all and most likely little choice about where she ended up in the world. Making her the prop for a message of condemnation tells me everything I need to know about Hosea and by extension about Yahweh himself.
We should have quit reading this book right then and there.
* It is unclear if Gomer was written as a prostitute or just a promiscuous woman, but the ultimate issues are still the same in either case.