*This sermon is the second in a series of sermons entitled: Textual Objects: Women in the Bible as Daughter, Wife, and Widow. It was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, June 10, 2012.
The cover story of a 2004 Newsweek magazine featured an article entitled “The New Infidelity.” Now, can someone tell me just what’s so new about infidelity? The article told the stories of married women who commit adultery. With more women in the workplace, overscheduled lives, easy access on the internet, and inattentive husbands, more women are now cheating in their marriages. Studies seem to indicate that the rate of adultery for married women is now approaching that of men. What an accomplishment! Unfaithfulness is becoming an equal opportunity destroyer of marriages.
Stories of unfaithful women can be found not only in the pages of Newsweek, but they appear frequently in the pages of the Bible. The metaphor of the unfaithful wife is found frequently among the prophetic writings. The adulterous woman is a central metaphor in the book of Hosea. This prophet from the Northern Kingdom of Israel used the metaphor of marriage to talk about the relationship between God and Israel. Hosea’s prophetic speech occurred in the eighth-century B.C.E, a time of political maneuvering in Israel. Israel’s ruling elite forged foreign alliances and engaged in commercial “intercourse” for her economic prosperity. Agribusiness was booming. The export of grain, wine, and oil benefited Israel’s wealthy ruling class, while they “lusted after” more tilled land for producing cash crops. And guess who got the short end of the stick. The rich got richer and the poor…Well, you know how that tired old story goes. Bad foreign policy, business monopolies, benefits for the wealthy, and the poor were left to fend for themselves. We sure don’t see that sort of thing today, do we! In essence, Israel was serving Baal, the god of commerce, who symbolized the alliance of the prosperous, oppressive state and unfaithful religion. Israel’s foreign allies became her “lovers.” Israel’s unfaithfulness to God had to do with the male ruling elite’s “illicit” relationship with these foreign alliances and her unjust domestic policies, all tied up and legitimized by the religion of Baal.
The metaphor of marriage seemed to be a most appropriate rhetorical device for the prophet to talk about the divine/human relationship. It seemed so appropriate that, according to Hosea, God told him to go and marry a promiscuous woman, as if God was sanctioning infidelity. How odd of God! Hosea, you go out there and get yourself a loose woman, by God. Marry an adulterous woman? The marriage was doomed from the start! Not only that. The text says something like: Hosea, have yourself some “children of promiscuity.” Scandalous! Why would Hosea be told by God to marry a promiscuous woman? The answer? Because the land has been unfaithful to God.
Now, did God really tell Hosea to go marry a promiscuous woman? A literal reading of the text seems to say exactly that. If you are more of a biblical literalist, then you may have to struggle with the meaning of this a bit. This command by God was so scandalous to the Jewish philosopher Maimonides that he interpreted the book of Hosea as a vision and not something that really happened. Others would come to interpret this divine command to Hosea as being after-the-fact, that is, Hosea was supposed to marry a woman who would become unfaithful. How do you interpret this command of God?
Some biblical scholars call Hosea’s marriage a “symbolic action.” Some of us common folk just call it plain nuts! But, prophets often did odd things to symbolize some bigger message. But, marry a loose woman in order to symbolize a spiritual truth? Isn’t that taking symbolic speech just a bit too far? Is this a marriage for the sake of metaphor? In any case, Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was to be a symbol of God’s relationship to Israel. Whatever way you may want to interpret God’s command, one thing’s for sure. Those ancient prophets did a bunch of crazy stuff in the name of God. And Hosea was no exception. Marrying a promiscuous woman as a symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God? Now, that takes the cake, the wedding cake at that!
First, let’s look at this marriage on the positive side. It does have potential, metaphorically if not literally speaking. The metaphor of marriage in Hosea is an emotionally powerful image the people could identify with. It served as a dynamic metaphor for illustrating God’s intimate relationship with Israel. God and Israel were interconnected in a covenant relationship. The marriage metaphor movingly illustrated a wide range of issues in this divine/human relationship; love, jealousy, fidelity, unfaithfulness, punishment, and reconciliation. The marital bond of love, commitment, and obedience are like the divine/human relationship. The breaking of that relationship through infidelity is a heart wrenching experience. With this metaphor the people could feel the agony of God as a betrayed husband and understand deeply their own unfaithful actions.
Not only that, the metaphor was used to address the underlying truth of real oppressive foreign policies and economic injustices that benefited the male ruling hierarchy of Israel. Hosea castigated Israel’s wealthy, male ruling class by depicting them collectively as a promiscuous woman, unfaithful to her spouse. Depicting men collectively as a woman would have been bad enough, but as a promiscuous woman was even worse. The purpose of Hosea’s marriage metaphor is a call to social justice and a rhetorical symbol of God’s desire for Israel to forsake her promiscuous relationships with Baal and to be faithful to their covenant relationship with God.
We can appreciate the thrust of Hosea’s message, while at the same time recognizing some crucial limitations and problems with such a mixed up metaphor. For starters, from our contemporary point of view, one of the problems with Hosea’s marriage metaphor for us is that it is based upon a dominant/submissive view of marriage. Although this hierarchical marriage was to be a loving and intimate relationship, marriage in those days was not co-equal. The culture of Israel was patriarchal. The male was dominant in all arenas of life, especially marriage. The female, daughter and wife, were considered the property of the man, father or husband. Strangely enough, the view that women are male property is still symbolically re-enacted in some contemporary marriage ceremonies when the father “gives away” the bride to the husband as in a legal transfer of property. As property the female’s sexuality was supposed to be under the control of the ruling male. Therefore, female promiscuity brought particular shame to the male, which would call for drastic measures against the woman; either divorce, stoning, or physical abuse.
There was even a provision in the Mosaic law, known as the Sotah, for jealous husbands to put their wives to a test to see if they were being unfaithful (Numbers 5). It was an ordeal worse than the results of those lie detector tests given to suspected spouses on the Maury Povich Show. The test went something like this. The couple goes to the preacher. The preacher says to the wife, “Here, drink this Drano. If you haven’t been sleepin’ around, it won’t harm your insides. And if you have been unfaithful, on top of being sterilized, or driven to an early grave, I will curse you for good measure. What if the husband’s suspicions were unfounded? We’ll, who can blame a jealous husband. And…of course, there was no such test of fidelity for husbands.
So, although the patriarchal marital relationship of a superior to an inferior may have been swallowed easily by Hosea’s audience, it may sit on our stomach’s about as smoothly as that priest’s potion. Understanding the context of marriage in the ancient world, the marriage metaphor may work for some as a way to reveal the dynamics between a superior God in relationship with inferior humans, but I suspect the implications of this metaphor might cramp the style of many women…and men, in this congregation.
Another way to state the problem with the marriage metaphor is to say that for us today it is just plain sexist. The male in this metaphor symbolizes a faithful God. The female symbolizes unfaithful Israel. Blameless male. Sinful female. Hey, that metaphor could just as easily have been turned the other way around, someone might say. Well, if it were that easy, why don’t we ever find Israel depicted as a promiscuous male in the Bible? Casting Israel in the role of the promiscuous wife would have been a powerful way to bring shame on the people.
One of the worst implications of this marital metaphor in Hosea concerns where it finally leads us; to a dead end, or should I say a “deadly end.” In an ancient, male-dominated culture, where women are property with little or no power, how do you imagine God’s judgment upon Israel’s injustice using a marriage metaphor? Well, one could use the image of divorce to talk about breaking of the covenantal relationship. More deadly, you could talk about stoning of women as an image of judgment upon the unfaithful Israel. The last option Hosea picks up in chapter two.
The marital metaphor reaches its lowest point in a number of passages within the prophetic writings. If I would have had somebody, possibly a woman, read the verses from Hosea 2, along with those from chapter 1 and 11 during the scripture reading today, the reader may have fallen silent, and mothers may have had to cover the ears of their children. Some women and men in this congregation may have blushed or squirmed in their pews at this reading of scripture. And one can only wonder how the prophet’s words in Hosea 2 might have been heard by women who may have been abused by their husbands or another male in their lives? Hosea, and even God, might not have come out smelling like roses. That’s because name calling, verbal threats, forced seclusion, physical and sexual abuse, and the public degradation of a woman are rhetorically used to depict God’s judgment upon Israel.
Hosea, who is the victim of Gomer’s infidelity, calls upon their children to take sides against their own mother. He wants them to recognize that she is not his wife. Hosea tells his children to plead with their mother to put away her “whoring,” while he tells his own children that he will have no pity for them either. Hosea, or is it God?, will shame her, call her derogatory names, strip her clothes off, publicly expose her nakedness, and kill her with thirst, just to name a few horrible acts done to this woman in order to warn Israel of God’s judgment. If that were not bad enough, after all those violent threats of Hosea against Gomer, or is it God against Israel, he will woo his promiscuous wife back and give her gifts of grain, wine, and oil. Some violence, then make up. Hit her, then bring her flowers.
At this point in Hosea metaphor and reality get mixed up. We get confused about whether it is about Hosea and Gomer or God and Israel. Whether human metaphor or divine reality, where have we heard of this kind of behavior before? Walk into any women’s shelter and talk to a battered wife. That’s how she will describe the pattern of her husband’s behavior; abuse and violence, then making up. To say the least, this marriage metaphor has its limits in addressing the unfaithfulness or injustices of Israel, particularly when a marriage goes awry.
Yes, that may be true, but in the book of Hosea we are dealing with a metaphor, not real women. This is just vivid, poetic language. Seventeenth-century mystic poet John Donne used images of sexual assault in a well known sonnet:
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you
As yet but knock, breath, shine, and seek to mend.
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall I be free
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Isn’t Hosea’s marital image, like Donne’s verse, mere metaphor, poetic language? What’s important is the message behind the metaphor. That’s partly true. The marriage metaphor in Hosea was a powerful rhetorical devise for communicating the truth to the people and culture in which it was spoken. But, we must recognize the negative consequences of such images when trying to communicate God’s desire for justice. Metaphors can mix up our message. Imagine this scene. A father comes into the living room, puts his hands on his hips, and with furrowed brow he sternly lectures his son: “Son, you must stop threatening to beat up kids in school, even if it is just words. Your teachers are trying to attack this problem with every weapon they have. Your mother and I are battling it out to make a good home for you. Your older sister is taking a stab at helping you. We are all in a war trying to beat off your enemies. So, we just can’t go around using such violent threats in school anymore!” You see, metaphors can mix up the message.
Metaphors matter, particularly when they’re intended to image God or call us to do justice. Language can mend or mar. As kids did any of us really believe in our heart of hearts that sing-song saying “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but…”? Words can wound, even words from sacred texts. What might words, such as those in the second chapter of Hosea, do to real women battered and abused, who live with the daily threat of violence? What about using the words of genocide and the taking of the land of the Canaanites as God’s command to address the issues of Native Americans or Palestinians? Words can become weapons. What about a white slave owner reading the biblical admonition “slaves obey your masters” to his servants on a Southern plantation? Texts can enslave. What about words like “women should keep silent in the churches,” whether from sacred text or bishop decree, pronounced to women and men in the Mennonite church? Texts can negate and subjugate. What if we only sing of God as father, lord, king, or he? What does that shape young children, women, and each of us over time?
How we use and interpret biblical texts and words is not a small matter. At the same time, are there not other words in our sacred texts that say to women that you are born again, new creatures, God’s very image, co-workers, disciples, deacons, elders, apostles, ministers, gifted by the Spirit, baptized into Christ, where there is no longer male nor female? Words can heal and liberate!
Hosea’s marriage metaphor is both illuminating and deadly. It reveals the utter seriousness of personal and corporate fidelity to God and the utter horror of wife abuse. Mixing up metaphors can make for a deadly potion.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger said that language is the “house of our being.” It is where we live and move and are shaped as human beings. Words are a lens through which we see the world. Language is not mere words. Rhetoric reflects reality. Behind the sexist language in the Bible are real wives subjected to the power of their husbands. Behind the language of sexual violence were real stories, or as Phyllis Trible calls them “texts of terror, like Jephthah’s daughter, burned as an offering by her father because he made a rash vow or the Levite’s concubine, raped by strangers then sliced and diced into twelve pieces by her outraged master to represent the twelve tribes of Israel or…no, I could go on, but that’s quite enough. You see, metaphors matter. They mirror and mold reality.
Our language today is still used in sexist, violent ways. Just one example, women are devalued and degraded, humiliated and violated, metaphorically speaking, in popular music; rap and rock, heavy metal and punk, are supported by recording companies that make profits from “artists” who degrade women. Dehumanizing women is part of the economics of pop culture. Some dare call it “poetic license.” Where does this language come from? Behind these wounding words is a culture of terror where each year as many women are beaten to death as those killed in the World Trade Center bombings. Sticks and stones…fists and guns …can kill. Words not only reflect, but create an environment that legitimizes a fractured culture.
Just as pacifists question the violence of the bible in the light of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, so we need to question some biblical images of women. We can learn to better understand the cultures out of which these images, metaphors, and stories arose and why they were used and became part of scripture, while at the same time seeking to grapple with the divine message they try to communicate. Speaking metaphorically, we can approach the Bible like Jacob, the Old Testament character who wrestled with an angel at the River Jabbok. As Christian men and women we can learn to wrestle with the biblical texts, and not just take them “at their word” as literally the very voice of God, so that we might, in the end of our wrestling receive their blessing. But remember, like Jacob we may walk away from our wrestling match with some biblical texts with a limp. And don’t forget this when it comes to reading the Bible; Our God is not bound by our culturally-bound Bible.
Reading the bible is always a moral and political act. How we read, interpret, and apply biblical texts can be life-giving or death-dealing. For these sacred texts can shape or misshape us as believing communities and how we live and practice our relationship with God. How we image God is a significant act. And we should always remember that whatever metaphor we use of God is limited. Hosea himself reminds us of this, where he seeks to speak for God:
I am God and not a man, holy in your midst,
and I do not come to destroy (11:9).
God is not male. God is not human, with all our gender, cultural, and political biases. God is not married. God is not a god of death and destruction. God is loving and compassionate. God is like Jesus, the living metaphor of God, who said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” This does not mean there is no place to speak of God’s judgment upon unfaithfulness and idolatry, sin and injustice. Hosea tried to do that with the marriage metaphor. But, that metaphor has serious limitations and dangerous implications. Every metaphor we use to speak of God is limited and fragmented. By consciously recognizing that God is far beyond the language and metaphors we use to speak of God, we can approach our sacred texts not only with a discerning eye, but with an eye open for language and images that are healing, nurturing, and life-giving.
Maybe our eyes will fall upon alternative, nurturing images of God, like the one in the eleventh chapter of Hosea. Imagine God as a mother and Israel as her child. She loves her child dearly. She would give her life for her beloved. She called her son out of slavery in Egypt. She gave her child a home in which to grow. As her son turned into a teenager he became rebellious. His life was in grave danger by those he associated with. He turned his back on his mother. Yet, she was the one who taught her son to walk and held him in her loving arms. She was the one who healed him when he fell and scraped his knees and took him to the doctor when he was ill. Though her umbilical cord was long ago severed, she was still connected to her child by threads of love and kindness. She was one of those mothers who lifted up her child and placed her warm cheek next to his. As a mother she bent down and nursed him. O, how can this mother give up on her child? Her heart aches for her son. Her compassion grows more warm and tender with each day. How can she be angry with her dearest child? She cannot bear to think of his destruction.
Can you imagine God’s love for us being like this mother? But, since women are not just mothers, this metaphor also has its limitations. What about God as a lover, friend, bakerwoman, Sophia-wisdom, rock, fire, or wind? Many nurturing, liberating, creative human metaphors are needed to speak of the Mystery we call God.
There are many healing and nurturing, loving and compassionate metaphors in our sacred texts. Each has its limitations. Even marriage can serve as a life-giving metaphor for how we can understand our relationship to God. In one Midrash, a textual commentary written by Jewish Rabbis, there is a story of a king and a noble woman which speaks of God’s relationship to Israel. The king and noble woman are to be married. Each plans to bring precious gems to offer each other for the wedding covenant. The woman happens to lose her gem. She searches everywhere for her prized jewel so that she may bring to the relationship something precious, something she can share out of love for her partner. The king takes his gem away so as not to dominate their relationship with his gift alone. Finally, she comes across her lost gem. The king and the noble woman bring their gems together. The king makes a decree that a crown shall be made from both gems and it shall be placed on the head of the noble lady. The rabbi’s comments continue…”In a like manner God too has set up two gems, namely loving kindness and mercy…Israel lost theirs…So, God took away His…and after Israel restored theirs, God has given his back. And God will say, “Let both gems be made into a crown and placed on the head of Israel.”
This is the loving and compassionate God who desires to finally say to you and me, male and female, flawed and unfaithful though we may be:
I will marry you forever
I will marry you with righteousness and justice
and with goodness and mercy
I will marry you in faithfulness,
and you shall know I am your God.