Hosea 03 – Women in the Bible: Gomer

How she functions in additional religious metaphors.

The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”

So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.”

For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days.

I wanted to talk a little more about Gomer, because this is the last time she is mentioned in the Book of Hosea.  The metaphor of Hosea’s personal marriage is abandoned for direct charges against Israel and Ephraim after this chapter.

There is no way to know whether Gomer was real or not.  Some scholars argue that Hosea’s whole relationship to Gomer was simply a religious vision, an allegory either dreamed up or divinely inspired (or both) to make a point. Whether she was real or not, Gomer does serve as a metaphor for many things.  The most apparent and universally accepted metaphor is that Gomer, and her infidelity, are the embodiment of an unfaithful Israel.

There are two other metaphors we can see in Gomer to which I want to draw your attention.  First is a theme we unfortunately see throughout the Bible:  (male) authors trying to establish male dominance over female sexuality and fertility.  It is an idea not my own, but I first introduced it on this blog when writing about Sarai and Hagar. Again, the overarching theme of Hosea is God’s relationship with Israel, but it is not only God speaking of Israel but also Hosea speaking of Gomer in 2:3 when he says “I will make her like desert, I will turn her into a parched land,” and in 2:12 when he says “I will ruin her vines and her fig trees.” Deserts are a symbol of infertility, vines and fig trees a symbol of fertility.  I’m not exactly sure how Hosea would make Gomer infertile (as God could make Israel infertile), but the imagery is very clear:  the female character, whether it is Gomer or Israel, is not the one in control of her own fertility, her own sexuality.

Conversely, only when the male character (again, God – as God was considered masculine at the time – or Hosea) decides to reconcile with the female character, is any sexual expression allowed.  As mentioned in my first post about Hosea, the “door of hope” in chapter two is a euphemism for vagina, and “sing as in the days of her youth” means orgasm.  These sexual references are only allowed under the full control of the male character.  Indeed, Gomer is mute and nameless in the short chapter of today’s blogpost.  She is bought, as a slave, and told how to conduct herself sexually.  I’m a big fan of monogamous relationships, and again, it’s important to remember that this whole marriage is an allegory. But even given those constraints, it is telling that Hosea, a man, is the one who decides when Gomer will be monogamous or not.  She doesn’t even get to answer, even in meek agreement, in this chapter.  Hosea’s domination of her sexuality is complete.

Secondly, I see Gomer as a necessary metaphorical stop on our journey to a redemptive God.  I read a handful of articles on Gomer in preparation for this post, and the one that most informed this idea was this article by Pulitzer prize winning author and religious scholar Jack Miles.  To paraphrase, Miles says that there is a journey in the Old Testament from “God as Master” to “God as Father.” That transition to “God as Father” is even more fully completed in the New Testament.  In a nutshell, I think it was a theologically murky time when these prophets were writing – not much different than today, in that respect.  They were trying to figure out their relationship, indeed, humankind’s relationship, with God.  And the journey to that understanding almost always goes from a punitive God to a redemptive God – or from that of a master to a father.

We can find metaphorical aspects of a loving God in any loving and intimate relationship.  I think we see an early, and therefore a little wonky, attempt at creating a metaphor for a loving relationship between God and humanity in Hosea’s marriage to Gomer.  Hosea was burdened by the biases of his time, which again, at their base aren’t all that different than many biases we may encounter today: sexism, xenophobia, probably a rigid belief that his truth was the only truth in God.  As such, his marriage to Gomer, real or visionary, comes across to the modern reader as unequal, controlling, and quite frankly unenviable, especially if you’re on the Gomer side of it.  But there is strong possibility here, and that is why I think Hosea chose the metaphor of marriage as a metaphor for Israel’s, and our, relationship with God.  You don’t have to dig very deep to say that, while imperfect, Hosea and Gomer’s marriage is also a relationship with aspects of forgiveness, acceptance, and mutual enjoyment.  I know I just used this as a metaphor for sexual control, but Hosea does give Gomer that metaphorical orgasm in the desert, people.  Not all husbands – then or now – are that in tune to female pleasure.  That verse could have just as easily read something about only Hosea’s own sexual fulfillment.  He also redeems her from slavery and gives her the protection of his house, two things that may not be as necessary and valuable to the female population at large in modern, first-world countries, but back then was a big deal.

I think Hosea and Gomer illustrate something really beautiful about the Bible and it’s authors:  our fallibility.  Yes, I think the Bible is divinely inspired, but it was recorded (and re-recorded, and re-recorded, untold number of times), by imperfect people.  It is easy for past generations to cast judgment on Gomer the prostitute.  It is easy for more recent generations to cast judgement on Hosea the male chauvinist.  But who are we to do so?  Who are we to cast the first stone? I certainly hope that I have benefited from some collective spiritual growth in the past twenty-some centuries since Hosea was prophesying, but I’m not perfect. What is important is that we also see God’s working in the Bible, indeed, in all things.  It wasn’t God who made the marriage between Hosea and Gomer an unequal one.  That, again, was how society functioned at the time.  What God did do was open the door to all those positive aspects: forgiveness, acceptance, mutual enjoyment.  What we can do is continue to act in and promote the qualities we so desire in our own relationship with God.  And that, above all, is love.  Will we get it wrong from time to time? Of course.  Scholars of future centuries will probably look back at our own religious leaders, even the forward-thinking ones, with raised eyebrows.  But if we keep God, and love, in our hearts, we are already on the right path.  We may have far to go, just like Hosea and Gomer, but we’re getting there, one step at a time.

Hosea 01 – Hosea is Cuckolded and Likes It

Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was not a sterile prophetic calling.

The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel:

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.” So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

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.”

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. 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.”

After she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, Gomer had another son. 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.

10 “Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God.’ 11 The people of Judah and the people of Israel will come together; they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.

I like to spend Advent reading the prophets – it seems like a fitting thing to do while preparing your heart for the return of Christ.  Advent is still a few weeks off, but I thought we’d get a head-start on Hosea, and get the whole book finished by Christmas.  I’m going to tell you right now, though, that this isn’t going to be some warm-and-fuzzy pre-Christmas reading.  Hosea is kinda kinky in some places, and downright dark in others.

We’ll get to the dark in some future chapters (oh, boy, will we get to some dark!), but let’s start with that kink.  Actually, let’s back up a step.  I think it’s important to say now: Whether you believe Hosea and his wife, Gomer, were both real people, or whether you believe Hosea’s marriage was simply a vision and not “real,” or even if you believe that Hosea himself was not “real” but this whole story is just an allegory, the point remains that Gomer’s faithlessness to Hosea is a very direct allegory to Israel’s faithlessness to God. I’m not even going to attempt to count the number of times the word “adultery” or some form thereof is used in this book.  Not to mention words like “promiscuous” or “unfaithful.”  The theme is pretty clear.

Okay, now with the kink.  If you skim through the book of Hosea, you get the impression that this guy digs being cuckolded.  He enjoys talking about adultery and infidelity, which becomes more and more apparent in the later poetry of the book.  Intrigue and relishing in the misdeeds of others from afar is, unfortunately, just a natural part of human nature. Perhaps Hosea’s excitement over all this could be chalked up to exactly that, or it may be chalked up to true religious fervor for his divinely appointed message.  But the thing I find interesting is how desirable Hosea finds his unfaithful wife, Gomer, even after all of her infidelities.  Now, we all love a juicy story, but not usually when we’re a part of it.  Gomer’s adultery is more than just some good gossip, it’s Hosea’s own wife.  Even when casting her out, he seems attracted to her.  And they did have three kids together.  But there’s two quotes from later in the book that I want to skip ahead to in order to make my point.

This first racy quote is technically God speaking about Israel, but again, Hosea’s whole marriage to Gomer is an allegory for God’s relationship with Israel.  “I am now going to allure her,” God says through Hosea, “I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her, I will give her back her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.  There she will sing as in the days of her youth.”  (2:14-15)  That bit is about sex, people.  Wild, crazy sex.  First, he’s straight up “alluring her.”  Not only that, he’s alluring her into the desert, a place of untamed wildness, away from prying eyes and inhibitions; a place where even Jesus himself was tempted in his own ways.  Then, he will “make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.”  First off, “Valley of Achor” means “Valley of Trouble,” which can certainly be a reference to the space between a woman’s thighs.  A door is definitely a vagina reference.  This adulterous woman, with her valley of trouble, is going to finally succumb to his wooing, open her door and give her vagina – oh, I mean, her heart – to him.  Then she’s going to sing as in the days of her youth?  Sounds like an orgasm to me!  I honestly think Hosea is looking forward to being able to satiate a woman who has been with so many other men. By alluring her into the desert and getting her all hot and bothered to the point of orgasm, he essentially claims sexual primacy over all of her other lovers.

Then, in chapter three, Hosea is commanded by God to “show your love to your wife again.” (3:1)  And Hosea does.  He brings Gomer fifteen shekels of silver, a bunch of barley, and kind words.  It’s very possible he buys her out of slavery for that much and she isn’t being gifted that silver and barley, but the kind words remain, as does the protection of his house.  Hosea let this woman under his protection fall into prostitution – perhaps even pushed her into it (more about that in chapter 2), and then welcomes her back with open arms.  Not only with forgiveness, but, it sounds like from the verses in chapter two, with an eager sexual anticipation.

So in the grand scheme of things, what does this matter?  Does it prove some more patriarchal bullshit going on in the Old Testament? Maybe.  Is Hosea’s marriage any less of a metaphor if he was a willing cuckold as well as a prophet of God?  Not necessarily. One might even say his whole-hearted dedication to his role of cuckold shows his full dedication to God’s message.  Should we take Hosea’s prophetic career less seriously because he had some unusual sexual preferences – or, much more damning – some very poor taste in kid’s names and parenting tactics?  I don’t think so – lots of prophets had some serious lapses in judgement, so Hosea is no different.  But this unorthodox relationship Hosea has with Gomer was the first thing I noticed, and I didn’t want to let it go unremarked.  The Bible is full of not-so-Sunday-school themes, and we do it, and ourselves, a disservice to gloss over or ignore such themes.

Long story short, Hosea’s sexual preferences and personality quirks probably don’t matter – but it does make for interesting reading.  Second to the hypocrisy with which Christianity can be accused of throughout the ages, I think it’s second-biggest sin is being boring.  You know how many more young women would pay attention if we celebrated the bravery and brilliance of some of the lesser-known women in the Bible, like the Caleb’s daughter Achsah? How many more young boys would pay attention if you led into a sermon talking about the gory end of some king, like Zedekiah’s eyes being put out?  How many more teenagers would pay attention if you talked about King David very possibly having gonorrhea? We probably don’t want to stick only to the realm of STD’s and violence (female intelligence is good, though), but these interesting stories get people, well…interested!

In the end it is important to remember we are looking for big-picture truths here.  And, spoiler alert, the big-picture truth of the whole book of Hosea is God’s unending love for us.  The first three-quarters of this chapter detail Hosea’s (supposedly) unhappy and definitely ignominious marriage, with warnings through his kid’s names that get increasingly worse: Israel’s defeat in Jezreel, the loss of God’s love in Lo-Ruhamah, the loss of God Xyrself in Lo-Ammi.  God couldn’t be angrier with Israel, accusing them up one side and down the other of their unfaithfulness, threatening to turn Xyr face and favor away from them.  But yet, the chapter ends this way: “The Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God.’ ”  God may be angry with Israel, but in the end, they are still Xyr children.  God’s love returns. And returns. And returns.   Through all the scary, weird, depressing and sexist stuff we’re going to read in the next few chapters, remember that.  God’s love will always return.

Genesis 22 – A Response to the UMC General Conference

Keep the faith.

 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lordcalled out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

20 Some time later Abraham was told, “Milkah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), 22 Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” 23 Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milkah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. 24 His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maakah.

I love the concentric story telling of the Bible, like a water drop rippling outwards in a pond, providing us a visual focus for meditation. I love how stories foreshadow other stories and narrative and theological themes emerge and merge.  This is a great – maybe even the best – example of this.  Obedience and willing surrender to God have already been established as tenets of good Faith, and that is what this story is all about.  It also foreshadows Christ: Isaac, Abraham’s only son (by Sarah at least), carries the wood for his own funeral pyre up the mountain to be sacrificed, much like Jesus, God’s only son, carries his own cross up the hill to be sacrificed. And once again we see if we trust in God, His mercy and goodness prevail.

I do want to point out the timing of this test Abraham underwent.  He is well over 100 years old now.  In my post on chapter 17 I discussed how perhaps there was a reason God waited until Abraham was 99 to establish the covenant of circumcision: basically, he was mellowed out enough to accept it.  Since then, God has literally appeared to Abraham and basically had a dinner party with him, Abraham has watched the wrath of God wipe two cities from the face of the Earth, seen his 90 year old wife miraculously give birth to Isaac, and God spoke to him once more regarding Hagar and Ishmael.  I’m not trying to make light of God’s request of Abraham, I’m sure he had at least some trepidation, but I also want to point out that Abraham, by this point, must have been as secure in his faith as humanly possible.  I say this to encourage everyone who may feel weak right now, and like they could never be as faithful as Abraham is.  Don’t worry, God isn’t asking you to be. Of course He wants you to be faithful and good and dedicated to Him, but He also isn’t asking us all to go around sacrificing our kids, right?  Working on trust is a good enough place to start.  When we’re ready, he’ll lead us to higher callings.

Which brings me to the UMC General Conference vote last week.  First, let me summarize: the United Methodist Church (like many denominations) is actively wrestling with issues pertaining to sexuality.  The General Conference that happened last week was convened to vote upon plans addressing these concerns.  Delegates representing UMC congregations from all over the world, in a surprise move, voted to stick with the Traditional Plan, which reinforced it’s commitment AGAINST ordaining LGBTQ clergy and NOT performing same-sex marriages.  (Most, including me, thought they would go with the One Church Plan, which allowed for individual congregations to make up their mind over whether they would accept a gay minister or perform same-sex marriage.) Most of the news reports made it sound like half the congregations that make up the UMC will no longer be in the UMC by the time this is published.  In truth, there’s still a lot of road ahead: First, the judicial body of the UMC has to review the decision to make sure none of it violates the church’s constitution, and then, for those churches that may still want to leave, decisions have to be made about assets, as the UMC as a whole, instead of individual congregations, own the physical churches/grounds/etc.  So long story short, nothing is settled yet, but it was still a blow to progressives and the LGBTQ community.

Dear friends, it is tempted to be discouraged by this. But it simply means we have more work to do.  Please, do not lose faith.  I understand if you want to leave the United Methodist Church, but I hope you don’t turn your back on Jesus.  There are lots of moderate and progressive UMC congregations that disagree with this decision.  There are also lots of open and affirming churches of other denominations, too.  If you are searching for one, I suggest trying out an Episcopal, Lutheran or United Church of Christ to see if those feel more like home.  Personally, I will still be attending my UMC church.  I think work needs to be done from within, and, I’ll be honest, even with this issue still in limbo it is the best fit for me and my family in our community.

But again, please do not lose faith.  What Christianity, and the world, needs now is more examples of faithful allies, not less.  If we can provide a loving and united voice in favor of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters (and non-binary siblings!), I believe we will win.  We will make the world a better place, where people’s humanity isn’t question, where people’s love for one another isn’t questioned, and where more people feel welcomed in the church.  And isn’t sharing the good news of Jesus one of Christianity’s major goals?  That everyone can come to know Christ and also God’s infinite love for us?  Like Abraham, God will work through us when we are fully ready, we just need to keep practicing our faith.

***

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent.  I’ll be opening Lent by contemplating Psalm 38, and then spend the rest of Lent upon the first 18 chapters of Job, if I counted correctly.