by Daniel Harrell
There are few things uglier than divorce court. Couples who had pledged undying love to each other now only want each other dead. Heated courtroom battles rage over previously ridiculed wedding presents. Accusations fly over formerly adorable habits. And of course the kids are stuck in the middle and forced to choose sides, all the while watching the two most important people in their lives ruin everything. This being America, we’ve managed to turn divorce into entertainment. Three times a day in Boston, you can tune to WFXT to watch Divorce Court, now in its eleventh season. Viewers can witness firsthand the embittered fighting between husbands and wives. This week’s episodes featured one wife divorcing her husband for pawning her grandmother’s rosary beads. Another has a husband admitting to sneaking through his wife’s belongings where he found love letters and a picture of another man on her cell phone.
Of course you don’t have to watch Divorce Court on TV. There are plenty of places to turn away from such scandalousness. Unfortunately your Bible is not one of them. Hosea 2 is Biblical divorce court. Last Sunday I began a tour through the life of this prophet―a life embittered by his own obedience to the Lord. Because the most effective communicators are those who speak from experience, God gives Hosea an experience he would have never picked for his worst enemy. He commands Hosea to go out and [quote] “marry a whore, and get children with a whore.” Why? “Because the country itself has become nothing but a whorehouse by abandoning Yahweh.” Remarkably, Hosea goes out and does it. He enters a marriage that was as horrible as it was necessary. In his miserable marriage, Hosea empathized with God. He grew to understand that his own personal sorrow echoed God’s sorrow. Hosea suffered what God suffered—and therefore could speak for the Lord.
Chapter 2 works as a poetic replay of chapter 1. Same sordid beginnings. Same unexpected ending. The difference is that rather than viewing Israel’s predicament through the literal lens of Hosea’s predicament, chapter 2 features the Lord himself as the jilted husband. God takes Israel, his two-timing wife, to court and there instructs their children to denounce their mother. Who are the children here? There are three of them, represented by Hosea’s actual children whom the Lord named Jezreel, No Mercy and Not My People. Jezreel (which deliberately sounds like Israel), hearkened back to a time when Israel’s King Jehu was commanded to eliminate all idol worship, but he became enchanted with it instead, taking everybody else down with him for years afterward. Thus the Lord pronounced No Mercy and Not My People, for to God, idolatry was adultery of the highest order. Bad enough that idolatry credited other gods for creation and the provision of crops and rain. Worse that these other gods didn’t actually exist but were made (and made up) by human hands. Why? To make up your own gods means you can make up your own values and ethics too. You can do unto others however you want. You don’t have to deny yourself for anybody or anything. You can forgive whomever you like, or not. You can say whatever you want. You can keep all your money for yourself. You can sleep around. You can ignore needy people and not feel guilty―or at least pretend that you don’t feel guilty. All the while feeling good about yourself since you’re so religious.
It’s sad, really. Why do people chase after pleasures that are so selfish, yet capricious, hurtful, and ultimately disastrous―and then rationalize, minimize and blame everybody else? Hosea will write that we do it because the human heart is deceitful. We want what we want. Though we were made, theologian Richard Niebuhr wrote, “to stand in the presence of eternal, unending absolute glory, to participate in the celebration of cosmic deliverance from everything putrid, destructive and defiling, to rejoice in the service of the stupendous artist who flung universes of stars on canvas, sculptured the forms of angelic powers, etched with loving care miniature worlds within worlds… we throw away that heritage and are content with the mediocrity of an existence without greater hope than the hope for comfort and for recognition by transient others. Human beings made to be great in the service of greatness, make ourselves small by refusing the loving service of God; and in our smallness, we become very wicked and covetous of the pleasures that soon will be taken away.”
You’d think this would make God sad too. But instead, it just makes him mad. If ever you have loved and given yourself completely to another only to have that love betrayed and abandoned, then you know the hurt and the grief and the anger that ensue. Thus God angrily announces in chapter 2 that Israel is no longer his wife. Eugene Peterson taps into that anger with his own translation, The Message: “Haul your mother into court. Accuse her! She’s no longer my wife. I’m no longer her husband. Tell her to quit dressing like a whore, displaying her breasts for sale. If she refuses, I’ll rip off her clothes and expose her, naked as a newborn. I’ll turn her skin into dried-out leather, her body into a badlands landscape, a rack of bones in the desert. I’ll have nothing to do with her children, born one and all in a whorehouse. Face it: Your mother’s been a whore, bringing bastard children into the world. She said, ‘I’m off to see my lovers! They’ll wine and dine me, dress and caress me, perfume and adorn me!’ But I’ll fix her: I’ll dump her in a field of thorns, then lose her in a dead-end alley. She’ll go on the hunt for her lovers but not bring down a single one.”
Now a bit of metaphorical clarification is in order. If Israel is the adulterous wife, and her children are Israel the unfaithful children, who’s accusing whom? Most commentators make the distinction between the government, priests and kings of Israel as the mother, and the ordinary citizenry as its children. Thus having the children denounce the mother here is not unlike Massachusetts voters electing Scott Brown. Arrogant leaders who take voters for granted get their due. If such is the case in modern democracies, how much more in ancient Israel where God himself directly determined who sat on the throne? Facing the wrath of voters is one thing. Facing the wrath of God is another. This goes for everybody.
Understandably, the adulterous wife attempts a turnaround. Sounding a lot like the prodigal son in verse 7, she says, “I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.” But unlike the waiting father, God as the cuckolded husband knows better. He’s got history. He refuses to be taken in by fake sincerity or phony contrition. He continues to read off the charges.
Verse 8. “She has not acknowledged that I was the one who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil, who lavished on her the silver and gold—gifts which they then wasted as offerings to Baal.” Baal, remember, is kind of the catch-all name for Israel’s pagan idols. Baals were believed to be patrons of fertility and thus you had to pay homage to them if you wanted a bounteous crop come harvest time. This not only included the kinds of offerings and sacrifices you were supposed to pay God, but it also included having sex with temple prostitutes―a blatant and adulterous violation of sex as the expression of marital faithfulness. It was twisted stuff—made even more so by the belief that to have sex with these prostitutes was to have sex with the gods and somehow to tap into their virility for yourself. Like taking some ancient version of Viagra. Except that temple prostitution was not just personal sexual sin. It was a personal grab at divine power. Having an idol meant you had control of your personal universe, that you could do whatever you wanted, or so you thought.
In this way some suggest an analogy between ancient idolatry and modern science. Just as local idols were understood to account for natural phenomena in Israel’s day, so in our day science explains natural phenomena, and if you can explain natural phenomenon scientifically, who needs God? Moreover, if you can explain it you can eventually control it, or so we think. But if God is the author of nature, then he is the natural source of nature’s ability to do all that it does. A natural explanation is not a godless explanation because God made nature. As creatures made in God’s image, we are given power to creatively and humbly participate in the goodness of God’s creation. But whenever that participation becomes an arrogant and idolatrous power-grab―from atomic energy to genetic engineering―harm and disaster are genuine dangers.
Verse 9: “I will take away my grain when it ripens, and my new wine when it is ready. I will take back my wool and my linen,” says the Lord. “I will expose her nakedness before her lovers, all of whom will be helpless to help her.” The punishment will fit the crime. The Israelites literally uncovered their nakedness in temple prostitution as part of the Baal fertility rituals. Yahweh will, in effect, give them the nakedness they wanted, only not the way they wanted it. Yahweh will withhold the agricultural fertility they sought from Baal resulting in their own “nakedness”—a metaphor for destitution and shame and ultimately exile—all of which Baal is powerless to do anything about. Hosea foretells famine and finally God’s abandonment of Israel to the Assyrians, a military calamity that will finish off the northern kingdom.
It was a bitter lesson to be learned. And Hosea tried to warn them. It’s like the Ohio mother who just before Christmas called the cops on her 6-year-old daughter after she caught her shoplifting a package of stickers. “You’ve got to catch them when they first start if they do something wrong,” said the mom. Bloggers and child psychologists were predictably aghast, labeling the mother abusive and uncaring. (Though the mom did turn down the $30 reward from the store for catching a shoplifter.) I thought my own dad abusive and uncaring when he marched me back to the store from whence I’d lifted a candy bar as a 6-year-old. I had to shamefully confess my sin to the store owner and not only give back the candy bar, but pay for it too—a tough thing to do when you have no income. I hated it but have to admit it did me some good. Here I am a minister. It’s easy to read God’s punishment as abusive and uncaring too. He names Hosea’s kids No Mercy and Not My People. He decimates their fields, their country and allows them to be taken captive by their enemies. And yet this is not the end of the story. The Lord punishes Israel but he has never ceases to love her.
Nowhere is this more evident than in verse 14, where Hosea offers the third of three “therefores.” The first was in verse 6: “Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way.” Israel deserved that. The second is in verse 9: “Therefore I will take away my grain when it ripens, and my new wine when it is ready.” Israel deserved that too. The third shows up in verse 14, where you rightly expect a deserving final declaration of divorce and retribution. But instead you get the gospel—an unexpected expression of mercy. “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert…” Now for every Israelite, “desert” was a code word for abject failure. It was in the desert that their forebears so abysmally messed up on their way to the Promised Land. Despite being rescued from Egyptian slavery by God in truly miraculous fashion—ten plagues, Passover, Red Sea crossing, pillars of fire, the works—they rolled out a golden calf―an idol ―and showed their gratitude to it instead. It was adultery of the highest order. So why go back to the desert and risk all of that again? Because the desert was also the place where God and Israel had their first date. God takes Israel to court, but what he wants to do is court her. He uses every art and tool to win a response that will make reconciliation genuine. “I am going to speak tenderly to her.” I’m going to romance her and win her back. I will give her back her vineyards, roses and wine, and she will sing as she did when she came out of Egypt, before everything went wrong. It’s a chance for a do-over.
Hosea makes it sound so promising. Verse 16: “In that day,” declares the LORD, “you will call me ‘my husband’….” Verse 17: “I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips,” Verse 18: “I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” It does sound so promising―but it also sounds crazy. Ask any marriage counselor and they’ll tell you that going back to the beginning doesn’t fix anything that’s bad about a relationship. You have to fix the people involved.
Which is what God does. Verse 19: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.” God lavishes bridal gifts on his wife again, only the gifts he gives are the gifts of himself. Righteousness, justice, love and compassion are all core traits of the Lord. God gives his whole self to this new marriage. But God wasn’t the problem. Marriage is a two-way street. What about Israel? What’s going to make her faithful this time around? The answer is God. Verse 20: “I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD.” It’s a shotgun marriage. Or better―a crucifixion marriage. God takes Israel back to the desert, but this time, rather than relying on her to keep faith, God keeps it for her through Christ. Jesus takes Israel’s place―he takes our place―at the altar. Jesus came to earth as God in the flesh to be sure, but he also came to earth as representative of all humanity. When Jesus confronts Israel’s temptations in the desert―satanic temptations to cheat on God by bowing to the devil himself―Jesus stays faithful. As our representative, his faithfulness becomes our faithfulness. His obedience becomes our obedience. And his death becomes our death and his resurrection becomes our resurrection too. God fixes his people. He fixes us. “I have been crucified with Christ,” is how the apostle Paul put it. “I no longer live. Jesus lives in me.”
And it is to Jesus in us that God responds. Verse 23: “I will show my love and mercy to the one I called ‘No Mercy.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people, ‘‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” The whole thing sounds just like a renewal of marriage vows. And it is. Only this time, in Christ, the vows have been kept. The do-over has become a done deal. As the apostle Peter writes, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises [and serve] the one who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”