Prophets in the Old Testament got told to do some pretty outrageous things. And I think what God told Hosea to do is up there with the worst of them. What do you think?
In the first chapter of the book of Hosea – which we’ll be studying for the next couple of weeks – God gives his prophet one of the worst assignments you could imagine:
Hos 1:2 When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the LORD.”
(There’s much debate about whether she was already a woman “of reputation,” or simply a woman he was to marry in the knowledge that she would be unfaithful. The fact that the whole setup in chapter 1 is designed to shock even before his wife cheats on him – check out the world’s worst baby names in verses 6 and 9 – points to the first option.)
At any rate, Hosea’s marriage is to be symbolic of the covenant relationship between God and unfaithful Israel, to draw attention to his message of judgement.
No way, Hoe-sea!
At which point you’d expect Hosea is thinking: do we really need an object lesson? Can’t I get Israel’s attention some other way? But in the absence of PowerPoint – and the extent of Israel’s ingrained infidelity – it seems that God insists. And Hosea complies:Hos 1:3 So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.
After settling on their celebrity couple name (personally I’d go for Homer over Gosea), they get down to the task of choosing a name for their newborn: except God decides that he’s doing the naming.Hos 1:4-5 Then the LORD said to Hosea, “Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel. In that day I will break Israel’s bow in the Valley of Jezreel.”
“Jezreel.” There’s a lot of significance in that name.
For a start, it’s the name of a significant place in the history of Israel, about 100 years prior to Hosea’s ministry. At Jezreel, the idolatrous Queen Jezebel was killed, and a whole lot of slaughtering went on. You can read about it in 2 Kings 9-10 if you like. Although the precise details of why God brings up Jezreel are unclear, the point is straightforward enough: just as Jehu ended the idol-worshipping dynasty of Omri, so too the current dynasty of Jehu will be ended, along with the entire kingdom of Israel.
(At this point in history, “Israel” refers to the northern tribes who rebelled against King Solomon’s son and set up their own king. Hosea’s prophecies are all directed to the northern kingdom, which was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722BC. It’s the southern kingdom, called “Judah,” which preserved Hosea’s prophecies in the form we have in our Bibles.)
And “Jezreel” also sounds a lot like “Israel” (when you say it in Hebrew), linking the kingdom of Israel with the scene of a great dynasty-ending massacre. Which sounds a bit ominous (or Omrinous).
What’s more, “Jezreel” can be translated “God sows”, which is generally a positive image about fruitfulness and prosperity; but it can also mean “God scatters,” which is what ends up happening to unfaithful Israel a few decades hence. So the message to Israel, then, is something like this: although you might think God will make you prosper, because of your unfaithfulness God will instead scatter you among the nations.
Not looking good for Israel, is it? Maybe there’s some better-sounding news with Gomer and Hosea’s next baby.
Lo-RuhamahHos 1:6 Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the LORD said to Hosea, “Call her Lo-Ruhamah (which means “not loved”), for I will no longer show love to Israel, that I should at all forgive them.
Now that’s just plain mean. (Hosea: Seriously, God, can’t I just name some sticks and snap them in half instead?) But schoolyard bullying aside, it symbolises a revoking of the covenant between God and Israel: although God is a loving/merciful God, because of their unfaithfulness God will no longer show love/mercy to Israel.Hos 1:7 Yet I will show love to Judah; and I will save them—not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but I, the LORD their God, will save them.
Many scholars think this abrupt, out-of-context reference to Judah was an addition when Hosea’s prophecies got collected in the southern kingdom. (Especially since Judah didn’t suffer the same fate – at least, not for another 150 years.) But it may also have been a way of showing that God hadn’t completely given up on his people, or his promise to David.
And then we get the third child:
Lo-AmmiHos 1:8-9 After she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, Gomer had another son. 9 Then the LORD said, “Call him Lo-Ammi (which means “not my people”), for you are not my people, and I am not your God.
This one’s a straightforward reversal of the covenant made with Israel when God rescued them from Egypt, for example:Ex 6:7 I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.
Ex 19:5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.
Because Israel had failed to keep the covenant, their status as God’s people will be revoked, and he will no longer be their God.
What does it all mean?
God takes idolatry seriously. If you want to read about how things got this bad, just read the accounts of the kings of Israel (the northern tribes) in the books of 1 and 2 Kings. Whereas Judah had the odd good king who destroyed idol-worship and periodically brought the nation back to God, the account of the northern kings is pretty much going from bad to worse. Having sent warning after warning, through prophet after prophet, by the time we get to Hosea (mid 8th century BC) God has finally had enough. Israel is about to be obliterated.
But will that be the end of the story? More tomorrow.