for my midterm exam in older testatment prophets, I was given the assignment to come up with how I would introduce a 3-week adult religious education forum on the prophets, focusing on a specific 1 to present at the 1st meeting. I had 2 hours to write it up, which is why it's longer than my usual essays--as I mentioned to a classmate last night, I didn't have time to write fewer than 5 pages. (I had to cut out, in the interests of keeping it fewer than 6 pages, the 2 paragraphs making more explicit the analogy between hosea and pat buchanan; I also cut it out because I think if buchanan were to read this, he might be flattered by the analogy, and I don't want to flatter pat buchanan.)
“CROSSFIRE”, WITH HOSEA
[My context: The forum I’ve been asked to teach is centered on a mid-sized Unitarian Universalist congregation in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. As such, the class will be composed of people who are mostly retired, primarily from teaching or engineering backgrounds, with a smattering of younger adults with small children. Almost all of the participants will be white with a few younger Hispanics. Some identify as Christians. All will have had at least some college and consider themselves literate and informed. All will see the Bible as a form of literature but not all will see it as relevant to their lives or to contemporary society. All will have access to an NRSV or NIV Bible and I’ll furnish other texts they may thumb through. This is my introductory lecture.]
The world is full of frightening things. The earth quakes, tsunamis wash out whole towns and families; tornadoes uproot communities as well as individuals; floods engulf coastal areas and people too poor or too frail to evacuate are devastated; regimes that people have learned to live under for generations shift suddenly, it seems overnight, leaving chaos and fear in charge; volcanoes erupt, spilling lava and blotting out the sun with ash, oil leaks and decimates whole bioregions, blizzards freeze animals and people and entire economies, and when it happens everything we have ever known and trusted and counted on is smashed within moments so we don’t know what is up and down, who we can trust or where to turn for solace.
If we’re bent toward Buddhism, we reflect that being alive is suffering and our suffering is no more or less important than anyone else’s and no more or less is asked of us than is asked of anyone else. If we’re bent toward Hinduism, we recognize that this is simply the last turn of the wheel for us in this life and take comfort in our having lived lives that allow us to return for another go. If we’re bent toward paganism, we accept that this is the result of massive disturbances in the ecosystem, some of which we had a part in, and the result of our suffering may be a lesson for others. If we’re bent toward an Abraham religion—Judaism, Christianity or Islam—we may see the hand of a mysterious God that has decided, for reasons we may never understand, to touch down in this way at this time in this place.
The ancient Jews, from whom the Older Testament of Abraham religions derive, looked to their prophets, their seers, their men and women of God, to explain why such things occurred to them. After all, weren’t they the beloved of the Creator? Didn’t they benefit from the covenant with God which lay out in legal terms what God gave to God’s people and the fidelity God’s people returned? Unitarian Universalism is a result, however we might like to deny or ignore it, of Abraham thinking, for good and for bad, and as a result looking to the prophets and their answers resonates with us as it did for the people of ancient Israel. In this course we’re going to examine how the prophets responded to the physical, social and political upheavals of their times so to keep the people faithful to God at the same time recognizing that real people were being hurt and killed in real ways. Tonight we’ll look at what a prophet was in general and at one prophet, Hosea, in particular.
When we talk about someone today as a “prophet,” we generally mean that she sees the future somehow, not necessarily in specifics but maybe in broad strokes. Brother R.G. Stair of the Overcomer Church in South Carolina thinks of himself as this kind of prophet, or Madame Helena Blavatsky of Theosophy or Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant. Ohio Representative John Boehner was called a political prophet when the midterm elections of last year swept many conservative Republicans into major offices. We call speculators like Jim Cramer economic prophets when their predictions about minor blips and dips on the stock market pan out and charlatans when they don’t. Prophets are people who’ve already seen the movie and know how it’s going to end.
But that isn’t what prophets in the sense that the term is used in the Older Testament means. “Older” and “Newer,” by the way, are the preferred terms in contemporary Biblical scholarship since they’re less suggestive of out-datedness or replacement. Prophets, from what we understand of them, had a complex relationship with their communities. Some, like Samuel, prophesied for individuals for a fee in addition to their more communally based prophecies; some, like Elijah, were marginalized members living on the forbearance of the community, while others were in privileged positions of authority, like the female prophet Huldah or Isaiah; some were members or founders of schools, like Elisha. What they shared in common was an ability, not to foresee the future, but to read the signs of the present.
While some were called “seers” and others called nabi “speaker, messenger,” what they did was to pay close attention to events, reflect on the meaning of those events, and then explain those events for the community. Their role was political—Martin Buber even calls them “theo-politicians”—whose position as messengers of Yahweh allowed them to focus on the bigger picture of political and social events and whose pronouncements were an articulation of the action Yahweh expected Yahweh’s people to take. To a degree, you can think of the ancient prophets Elijah and Samuel and Huldah and Ezekiel as the Rush Limbaughs and John Stewarts and Rachel Maddows and Glen Becks of their time.
In this analogy, the prophet Hosea is the Pat Buchanan of 6th Century BCE. He is convinced of the inevitability of decline and judgment. The people have strayed, he explains: like Hosea they have taken for themselves “a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (:2). After Hosea’s wife Gomer (representing Israel) gives birth to a daughter Yahweh tells him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house on Israel or forgive them” (:6); when she conceives a son, Yahweh says, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God” (:9).
Hosea, probably a contemporary of Amos, for whom another book we’ll look at is named, was one of the longest-working prophets. The events he commented on took place over three decades; and while it’s true Hosea is not himself the author of the book for whom he’s named, it was probable that the book, redacted or edited and added to over the course of centuries, was the product of his followers and sympathetic later editors. He rails against the ease with which life under King Jeroboam II, then ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, has degenerated, and follows Amos who had prophesied the kingdom’s mistreatment of the poor and indifference to justice. Israel, he says, has forgotten Yahweh: “Hear the word of the Lord, O People of Israel…There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish…” (4:1-3).
For Hosea the awful judgment of Yahweh is unquestioned. It will come, it will be terrible, and it will be just. “[Yahweh] will become like a lion to [Israel], like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart…” (13:7-8). Swift, punishing retribution is what the people deserve for turning away from Yahweh.
But there is a second, equally strong current in the prophesies of Hosea. Yahweh continues to feel compassion for Yahweh’s people, despite their sinfulness. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son…I took them up in my arms…I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks…How can I give you up…How can I hand you over, O Israel…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (11:1-8).
This is a God who would be merciful (hesed) in remembering God’s covenant with God’s people. Even within the boundless and justified rage of Yahweh’s judgment, punishment is not for punishment’s sake. Like the Great Flood of Genesis, it is Yahweh’s way of erasing the corrupt and troubled worship and attention by past administrations so that the people, chastised and humbled, will return to their true god. “For the Israelites shall remain many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar…Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek the Lord their God…they shall come in awe to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days” (3:4-5).
Here we see the primary emphasis of Hosea’s prophetic passion. The people have turned away from their true path and are being punished justly for it. But the punishment is meant to punish Yahweh’s people the way a parent spanks a child, as a method by which the parent reminds the child that there are rules by which the child must live and that acting contrary to those rules has consequences. Don’t be confused that this simple analogy, bloodless and petty as it seems to us, was what Hosea was offering. After all, he would have seen up close the suffering and destruction that political change wrought. He saw the assassination of four kings over the course of his work, and for every king killed we can assume hundreds or thousands more died violently in the upheavals, sieges and campaigns in the wake of political turmoil. We are inured by the bloodless shifts of political parties into thinking that it was always this way. For the people of Hosea’s time, a change in leadership often swept away as many people as the recent Japanese tsunami did, and about as effortlessly, about as mercilessly. The mercy available in such an event, Hosea suggests, is in the response of his people after the destruction.
Two questions, then, for discussion: Is this the message we ought to take away from Hosea’s prophecy, that the response to disaster of any kind is humility and acknowledging there is a greater power? And if this is so, how should we behave toward that greater power?