The God Who Roars

In the middle of God’s indignation God hesitates, with parental love doubting how he can give this one he loves over to punishment. God is at once judgment and grace, destruction and life.   One of the things that makes this passage so powerful is that Yahweh’s holiness and love come together in oneness. Yet God turns from terror and wrath. “My heart recoils within me” God says, “my compassion grows warm and tender”. This ‘holy one in your midst’, this divine presence is at one moment will break the age long cycle.


 

You don’t need to be an Old Testament scholar to notice that the text of Hosea, including what we have today, is not only very difficult to grasp, it is partly untranslatable. It has a pretty simple structure and is based on the Exodus story and not on the patriarchal tradition of Israel. In the first four verses we have the love of Israel and the call of Yahweh. The picture of the father’s love is not only wonderful but foundational. Then, in the next three verses we have the counterpoint of the total expulsion, punishment and extermination of the people. Verse 7 says that there is no possibility of escape. The judgment not only will come, it has already begun and the people just have yet to perceived it. They continue their worship of Ba’al. Like leaders of today they are trying to be ‘realistic politicians’ attempting to improve the situation and defend their national integrity. Hosea’s words are obviously not believed.  

The turn around in verses 8 and 9 are cause for whip lash they are in such contrast with what went just before – hope in the face of hopelessness, hope expressed in the love for Israel and in the character of God.

 

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I 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. 5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.

8How 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. 9I 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. 10They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They 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. Hosea 11:1-11

 

Here we have the story of God’s conversion.

On one level God’s story is the story of a parent in every age who experiences the rebellion of the wayward offspring. And at a more poignant level it could be read as the reunion of parent and child after an inexplicable separation at the birth of the child. In a movie we watched an important piece of the story was that the step-mother of two girls, whose birth mother had died when the girls were very young had consistently kept from them the regular birthday and Christmas cards sent them by their grandmother. That’s the kind of reunion I imagine is at work in the words of Hosea. But even more to the point would be a birth parent who was required to provide support and watch from afar their child’s growing up and then seeks reunion.   And the more the parent reaches out the further the child pulls away and in this heart wrenching anthropomorphism, like human parents, God wonders what to do.

There is no more tender language or image of God in all of scripture. The Jewish Publication Society’s translation of Hosea 11:2-3 gets it right as it notes that God ‘fell in love with Israel/ when he was still a child.” And God “pampered Ephraim, ’Taking them in My arms”. But alas, Israel “did not know that I (Yahweh) healed them”. The connection to parallel language in Exodus 15:26 that reads “I am the Lord who heals you” isn’t easily missed. And like their grain, wine and oil of Hosea 2 they “did not know” that God was its source. And Hosea insists that it was not Ba’al who is the Lord of healing and harvest, but Yahweh. The God of the exodus is the one to trust to care for Israel. Israel, however doesn’t yet know this and so flees to the worship of Baal. They didn’t know. In a way what they thought was sacrifice and worship to Yahweh, what they practiced they sincerely believed to be correct or at least permissible acts of faith practiced within Canaanite fertility cults. As Martin Buber suggested, Israel had ‘ba’alized’ Yahweh.   Because of the way the story has been traditionally told, when you read of Hosea’s wife Gomer in the first three chapters of this remarkable book you might be surprised to learn that she was not called a ‘harlot’ but “a wife of harlotry” which meant that she was a woman who participated in Canaanite fertility worship. These were a very religious people indeed.

Like all pre-exilic prophets, Hosea is a prophet of judgment. For Israel there was no help and no escape for their covenant violations. According to Jeremiah, return in repentance was not even a ‘legal’ possibility. Caught up as they were in the international conflicts of the eighth century and refusing to rely on God as their help ‘the sword rages in their cities’. Israel is not only unwilling to return, but a possible return has no future. And again, what will God do? Or, even better, what can God do, especially in the face of a child who refuses God’s help?   Is it simply that God should give them up, leaving them to the destruction that had been meted out on communities in earlier days. Deuteronomy seems to require exacting the death penalty for the rebellious son who refuses to obey his parents.

But God can’t go there – not because of who Israel is, but because of who God is. Humans might follow such a prescriptive course but as our text says: God is ‘no mortal” and “will not come in wrath”. Here before us is a wholly new definition of God’s holiness: God is not ‘holy’ in God’s fierce wrath, as we find in Amos, Isaiah, and Micah, other Eighth century prophets, but in grace. Nothing turns out to be so ‘other’ than God’s refusal to condemn. God can not be contained in any simple image. God is the iconoclast that breaks all images that would seek to define, contain or domestic – tools for us to use to manipulate or control. Yes, we have the image of God as parent but not as mortal. God is father, but not a ‘man’. God is personal but not a human person. God says of himself: For God am I, and no ‘ish’. That is no man, no mortal, no maleness, no human person, no human husband. The image of God describing God’s relationship with Israel is the image of the loving father but that too will fail for God cannot be captured even in that image. So we are offered yet another image – God’s roar remains fearsome, but now it is the roar of an avenging lion. Here God is fearsome and holy in God’s turning toward Israel in grace. This is one parent who will never cease to seek out the child, to turn the child from the path of destruction, to ‘roar’ the child home.

Hosea presents to us a self limiting God. “Not again” God promises with regard to the destruction of Ephraim. There are things God will not do, places God will not go because God is God – and not human. Of course this is not the only place we find this in scripture. Out of strength of character, not out of weakness God limits God’s own possibilities when God promises to ‘never again curse the ground because of humankind’. Here in Hosea God specifically limits divine wrath “for I am God and no mortal”.

In the middle of God’s indignation God hesitates, with parental love doubting how he can give this one he loves over to punishment. God is at once judgment and grace, destruction and life.   One of the things that makes this passage so powerful is that Yahweh’s holiness and love come together in oneness. Yet God turns from terror and wrath. “My heart recoils within me” God says, “my compassion grows warm and tender”. This ‘holy one in your midst’, this divine presence is at one moment will break the age long cycle.

Without a doubt, the promise of redemption is not the result of the repentance of Israel; it is solely the work of Yahweh. What causes God’s anger to turn form them. This is key: not because Israel has finally gotten its act together so that God can love him again. But because of God’s recognition of who God is.

An incomplete reading of this book would leave us with the idea that God remains an abusive husband; the wife strays, the husband batters, the wife pleads, the husband relents – a pattern that recycles forever. Neither God nor we could escape such a vicious pattern of behavior: we sin, God punishes, we repent, God forgives and then again and again.   In Hosea God breaks the cycle by choosing to heal their disloyalty and love them freely. To heal disloyalty is quite different from demanding or enforcing a return to loyalty in some order in which we are made worthy. No, something new is created here.   The old pattern of sin and retribution has been broken and in that break, new patterns and new possibilities emerge. To love freely is precisely not to love only once the other has come to his or her senses. And Hosea helps us understand that God breaks the old cycle of give and take not only for Israel, but for God. God has come to a new place and nothing will ever be the same.

As funny as it is to hear, Mark Twain’s observation that the “the two Testaments are interesting, each in its own way. The Old one gives us a picture of these people’s Deity as he was before he got religion…” is misleading at best because this God as portrayed by Hosea is the God of the whole Bible; not an Old Testament God of wrath who needs to be ‘fixed’ by the love of Jesus.

We need to question who in God’s sense our God is? What do we over hear of who God is for the sake of the world?

Hosea helps us to see the wonder of grace that breaks all the dead end cycles of “I will if you will” to which we humans are forever prone. God isn’t mortal: God alone will love freely, and that love opens up new possibilities for those of us who embrace it.

And, hearing Hosea’s story calls to mind Jesus’ story of the son who is received back home after his wandering and Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek as the only way to end human violence, made possible by the freely given love we first receive from God.

Paul says it this way: “God has done what the law…could not do” that is to say, breaking the eternal cycle of sin, punishment, repentance and forgiveness. In Jesus we see who the God of the Bible is. He didn’t come to appease an angry God. He didn’t come shrinking from the divine wrath but to live into God’s grace. Is there a word of grace that God desires to speak into your life, your situation, a word of grace and undeserved acceptance? A word you are open to hearing?

 

 

 

 

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