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.

Matthew 28 – The Great Commission and More

The Marys, Matthew, and Love above all.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Hallelujah he is risen!  Happy Easter everyone! I hope you have a joyful day on this day of commemorating Jesus’ resurrection.  Jesus is always with us – to the very end of the age, as he says, but in Lent (and Advent) we recognize our “apartness,” if you will, from Christ, and it is always a good spiritual feeling to reconnect.  I have a few short, disparate thoughts that don’t really form a cohesive blog post, but I wanted to share them with you anyway because I believe they’re all worth mentioning.

First, let’s talk about the Marys.  Jesus had his disciples, but there were also women in his life, and I just want to take a moment to recognize all the wives, mothers, daughters,  sisters, and girlfriends who do the hard emotional and physical work of caring for someone.  It isn’t just women’s work – I know some incredibly caring men, but it seems that more often than not the role of caretaker falls to women.  I watched my mother-in-law take care of her mother for five years, when she broke her hip at 99 to her death at 104.  Her mother had been living with her before she broke her hip, but was then incapacitated to the point of my mother in law having to help her dress, bathe, make all her meals, and truly care for her mother’s every need.  She did this with such grace and love, and it really left an impression on me.  Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses suffered one of the hardest ordeals someone can go through: standing helplessly by while someone you love dies – not only dies, but suffers and dies.  But they did not turn away.  They stood by, offering their presence, their witness, as whatever small comfort they could to Jesus on the cross.  Then, as soon as it was possible for them to do so – dawn of the day after the Sabbath – they went to sit vigil at Jesus’ tomb.  It was very possible the guards there would have harassed them – they had been posted to make sure none of Jesus’ followers messed with the body.  But risking abuse they went anyway.  To all the women out there tending to hard needs of others – the needs of an ailing child or spouse or parent, making funeral arrangements for someone recently passed, dealing with a loved one’s addiction, or whatever your personal challenge may be, I offer you a heart-felt blessing on this Easter Sunday.

Second I want to point out vv. 11-15 as another example of Matthew’s careful, legalistic writing style.  This account of the guard’s report only occurs in Matthew.  I think he was sure to include it as a way to refute any evidence or rumors a contemporary reader might bring against Jesus’ resurrection.  Matthew, once again, is making sure to cover all bases here.

The last bit of Matthew, v. 16-20, are called the Great Commission, and I like this ending best out of all the gospels.  It is succinct and forthright-mostly.  I’m afraid “go and make disciples out of all nations” may have been perverted throughout history to forcibly convert people, such as in the Crusades.  But, if we remember what Jesus said in John 13:34,35: “Love one another. As I have loved you…by this all men will know that you are my disciples,” then really, the Great Commission is a simple request.  As the oldest child, my mother always taught me that I had a great responsibility to lead by example for my younger siblings.  Well, we all have the great responsibility to lead by example.  And if we lead a life filled with love, guided by love, then not only will we positively impact those with whom we come into contact, we set a shining example for those watching us: our children, our neighbors, our coworkers and friends.  So, dear friends, on this Easter Sunday I remind you of our Great Commission: our duty to obey everything Jesus commanded us, and our duty to teach – by example – of God’s love.  Jesus is with us until the end of the age, let’s make sure everyone else knows.

***

I’ll be taking a quick break for the rest of the week, and returning next Sunday.  We’ve read about a third of Matthew already, so I’m going to spend the next few weeks finishing the other chapters, starting with chapter 4.  Happy Easter, see you next week!

Genesis 21 – Pondering the Silences

A little (spiritual) imagination.

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

22 At that time Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. 23 Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you now reside as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you.”

24 Abraham said, “I swear it.”

25 Then Abraham complained to Abimelek about a well of water that Abimelek’s servants had seized. 26 But Abimelek said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.”

27 So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. 28 Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, 29 and Abimelek asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?”

30 He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.”

31 So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.

32 After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines.33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. 34 And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.

So much of these three stories, and indeed all the stories in the Bible, are unwritten.  This can be cause for confusion and frustration, for sure, but also a chance for our spiritual imaginations to take flight.  Some might find this a dangerous or unsettling process, but I think anything that gets us to reflect on God and the Bible is good.  I had to spend most of the day in the car yesterday, so had plenty of time to ponder this chapter.  I’ll share three very short vignettes with you that I came up with:

 

Sarah smiled down at the baby on her breast.  He had taken to feeding right away and seemed content.  She had been worried about so many things, even though Abraham told her not to be.  One of them was feeding this miraculous infant.  She had seen mothers much younger than her who’s milk had dried up or never been enough for their infants.  Some had supplemented with goat’s milk, some had wet-nurses to help them; but more than anything she remembered one poor woman who, no matter what she tried, could not get her baby to eat, and seemed to whither away as her child did.  But that would not be the case with Isaac, she was determined.  God willing, he would grow to be the man she and Abraham had dreamed of so for so many years.

***

There was not a hint of warmth in the sky when Abraham woke Hagar. There had never been any true love between them, but a shared affection had grown over their son Ishmael, whom Hagar could see Abraham adored.  Which was why she was surprised by his curt words.

“Gather your things, you must take Ishmael and go now,” Abraham said.

“Why? What has happened?” Hagar asked.

“Sarah is displeased, and the Lord has willed that this be so.”

Hagar put her meager belongings in a sack: a comb, two small clay bowls, a toy horse Ishmael had long outgrown but she kept as a reminder of the small child he no longer was. Abraham handed her a loaf of bread and some dried meat wrapped in cloth and a small skin of water. Abraham led Hagar and her son to the door of the tent, and put his hands upon their heads in blessing, “God be with you,” he said, and turned abruptly inside.  Ishmael, still bleary and half asleep, looked at his mother, confused.  Hagar’s anger welled up inside her, and she marched towards the desert, now pink with the rising sun, as if it had been her decision, as it had been years ago.

***

News of the birth of Abraham’s son by Sarah reached Abimelek, and he smiled.  He had fifteen sons by his wives and concubines, and knew the joy of securing a bloodline.  He also knew that now the time was right to summon Abraham for an oath of allegiance.  Was he afraid of Abraham? Abimelek had pondered on this question.  It is true, taking Sarah as his wife had caused great affliction in his court, and it seemed that Abraham was blessed beyond measure in everything he did, and to cross such a blessed man surely would bring no good to Abimelek or his kingdom.  No, he was not afraid of Abraham, as Abraham seemed to have no designs upon his throne.  But still, better now to ally Abraham in official treaty while his spirits were high from the birth of his son.  Yes, Abimelek thought, now is the time.