Thursday, July 7, 2016

Hosea: Out of Egypt, Fruitfulness

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hosea (image from Wikipedia)
“Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.” So begins our reading today from the prophet Hosea. And fruitfulness—or the lack thereof—is the major theme of this prophet’s book. Hosea lived in the 8th century B.C.E., around the same time as Amos. The two of them preached against the corruption that was rotting the northern kingdom of Israel during that time. The introduction to the book of Hosea says that he was a prophet during the reign of King Jeroboam of Israel and the reigns of four consecutive kings of the southern kingdom, Judah. Hosea’s book is relatively brief—only fourteen chapters, during which the prophet employs some shocking metaphors that can still trouble us today.

Hosea’s first prophetic act is to marry a prostitute named Gomer. And when she bears children for him, he gives the children prophetic names: Jezreel, which means “God sows”; Lo-ruhamah, which means “not pitied”; and Lo-ammi, which means “not my people.” These names are meant to display both God’s power and God’s disfavor with Israel. God says to the Israelites, the chosen people, “You are not my people and I am not your God.”

One theme that runs through the remainder of the book is that God plans to send Israel back to Egypt again. This is a metaphor, because the nation of Egypt does not literally enter into Israel’s story again. But God, who took Israel out of captivity, is perfectly capable of undoing this work. Assyria is the new Egypt; it will invade Israel and take its people into captivity beginning around the year 740 B.C.E.

The theme of prostitution, begun with Gomer, also continues throughout the book. Hosea proclaims that Israel has “played the whore” by worshipping idols. Hosea’s next prophetic act is to take a mistress, a woman who is already an adulteress. But God says that while this woman is to appear as Hosea’s mistress, she is not to have sexual relations with him. This is to show that “Israel shall remain many days without king or prince.”

Hosea’s prophetic acts trouble us because they are abusive. We can’t imagine God’s hand at work in the victimization of these women and children. We also don’t know how much of this literally happened, though it is true that the prophets of ancient Israel did some very strange things to make a point. Metaphorically, women and children are of the world of fruitfulness; without them, the men who were clearly in charge of society could leave no legacy, no lasting mark of their existence. In the same way that an Israelite man understood the fruitfulness of marriage and family, he could also understand God’s need for the people of Israel in order to make God’s actions fruitful in the world. It is through human beings that God makes Godself known.

One key wordplay underscores both the metaphor of fruitfulness and the metaphor of a return to Egypt, and that is the name Ephraim, which comes up again and again. Ephraim was one of two sons of Joseph, who had gone down to Egypt in the Book of Genesis and had established the presence of the Hebrews there … and in Hebrew, the name Ephraim means “fruitful.” By referring to the people of Israel as Ephraim repeatedly, Hosea sets up the irony that Israel is not bearing fruit after all. In chapter 9, just before the passage we heard today, Hosea lays the metaphor bare: “Ephraim is stricken, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit.” Ephraim was also one of the first Hebrews born in Egypt, so his name is of particularly fitting use to refer to a people who are in imminent danger of going into captivity again.

And so we come to today’s passage, in which Hosea talks of the fruit that Israel bore in the past. But the fruit Israel bore led the people not to give glory to God, but to themselves. And a new metaphor comes in: that of Ephraim as a trained heifer that must now get to work breaking the fallow ground to plant new seeds. For all his talk of “gloom and doom,” Hosea is actually a prophet of hope. Though Israel will fall to the Assyrians and the people will be scattered, God will not give up on the chosen people.

And Christians can pick up an echo of Hosea’s hope in today’s gospel passage, in which Jesus sends out the twelve apostles to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Like the twelve tribes of old, Jesus has handpicked a new twelve to break up fallow ground and to begin planting seeds. Jesus intends to do away with the idolatry in our hearts, not through punishment, but through the ultimate sacrifice of self-giving love. God loves and cares for God’s people and will go to any length for us, no matter how often we turn to the idols of self-reliance.

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