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Hosea 11:1-8

Poetry is hard. There-- I said it. It does not come naturally to me and I am pretty sure that I am not alone in that. There are a myriad of reasons one might cite for this difficulty. One reason that is never cited but plays a larger role than I think many realize is that the reader of poetry does not have the upper hand. Poetry requires a releasing of the (illusion of) control we hold to so dearly. Poetry is not bound by the rules of other writing genres. It utilizes language in ways that both chip away at the world as we have come to take it for granted and open new worlds up to us (as well as opening us up to new worlds). Poetry is difficult.

Poetry is an essential tool for the prophets of the Old Testament[1] and Hosea may very well be its most able wielder. Hosea uses a wide array of poetic metaphors and images in his attempts to color a picture of what God is like. Our passage today contains one of the most powerful of these metaphors— the relationship between a parent and child. The preacher could not ask for a richer or deeper image/metaphor to work from than is present in Hosea 11.

Before proceeding, I want to be sure to note that the gender of the parent in this particular metaphor is not specified. The temptation is to fall back on our all-too-often uncritical use of the masculine pronoun for God and automatically assign the male gender to God even when it is not specified. It is important for the preacher to resist this inclination. There are traits and actions that are commonly associated with parents/guardians of both genders at work in this text. To resolve this ambiguity is a blow to the impact of the poetry of this pericope.

It is important for the preacher to understand this passage against the historical and theological backdrop of eighth century Israel. At the beginning the eighth century BCE, both the northern and southern kingdoms were at the pinnacle of their economic wealth and political power since the division of the monarchy. Both Israel in the north and Judah in the south had tremendous successes against their old familiar foes, expanding their influence beyond their own borders. This success abroad contributed to increased prosperity at home, building a sense of security that God’s people had not since known Kings David and Solomon. It would have certainly seemed to anyone living in Israel or Judah during this time that the golden days of God’s people had returned.

The prevailing theological assumptions of Hosea’s day directly and permanently linked this prosperity and security to divine favor. The first of these assumption had its roots in the deuteronomic tradition. Taking its name from law code of Deuteronomy, this tradition holds that the favor and promise of God to the people of Israel is conditional. Should they obey God’s laws, all will go well with them. Should they disobey God’s laws, they will wish that they hadn’t. The second theological assumption operative in eighth century Israel and Judah emerges from the royal-priestly tradition. Because God had chosen the children of Israel as God’s people and promised that there would always be a Davidic heir on the throne, it was assumed that God’s people were privileged among the peoples of the world and that God’s blessing on them was unconditional.

Against this backdrop, the first two-thirds of Hosea 11 do not communicate anything out of the ordinary. There is memory of the beginnings of God’s relation to Israel and anger and wrath over the disobedience of Israel. God is mulling over what form of punishment or discipline may be best suited for Israel’s disobedience. While the effect of the imagery is not lost, the first seven verses are conventional and could serve to reinforce the popular theology of the day. However, something happens between verses seven and eight. You can almost feel the transition as you read the passage. It is as though God steps away, sighs deeply and, looking on Israel, has a change of heart. The original language conveys an almost violent turn in the mind and heart of YHWH-- it is the same word used to describe, among other things, the destruction of Admah and Zeboim[2] (or, as they are more widely known, Sodom and Gomorrah).

The radical nature of the revelation of God in this passage cannot be overstated. No longer was the relationship of God to Israel and Israel to God defined by an overly simple calculus of reward and punishment or the gangrenous egotism of privilege. The relationship between God and Israel can no longer be understood simply in contractual terms. Familial relationships continue in their brokenness and they are not ended by fracture. Even when a family member is absent from one’s life, that absence still bears itself out in the other’s life. There is a new dynamic at play in Israel’s life with God (or perhaps an already operative one just now revealed to Israel).

In this reading, it is as though Hosea pushes open the bedroom door of God and allows us a peek inside the inner life of God. Perhaps we see mother/father God sitting on the bed, mourning in the midst of the ash heap of their memories, perusing old photo albums of all of the wonderful moments they have spent with Israel. Israel’s first steps. Israel’s first words. Birthdays. Wrestling matches and the injuries they caused. They argue, trying to decide what to do with their rebellious child. According to the law God had given Israel, the parents of a rebellious son were to bring him to the elders of the town to be stoned.[3] Perhaps the father argues that they must show tough love, delivering the child over to the consequences of his actions. “We have to cut him off,” we might hear him say. Maybe we hear the mother argue that no matter what Israel does, he will always be their child and that there is nothing that can change that. God considers what actions might or should be taken and even ponders sending Israel back to Egypt. The Exodus narrative is the first place in Scripture that God speaks of Israel as God’s child.[4] Sending them back would be the complete undoing of Israel’s relation to God.

Can you recall seeing your parents fight for the first time? Maybe you can’t recall the first time you saw them argue, but you can certainly remember other instances. For some it may have been a single mother arguing with a grandmother. For others, you may have never witnessed your parents argue or fight, but you might have lived through a divorce nonetheless. Regardless of how or when, there is some point for everyone when all that you assumed about your parents and family comes crashing down. There comes a moment when we are disillusioned about things or people that anchor our understanding of the world and we are left feeling like our world is in pieces. Hosea is speaking to God’s people in the northern kingdom. Their defeat at the hands of the Assyrians is a devastating blow in