Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pope Francis with a disabled child
A couple of days ago, I ran into last week's edition of L'Osservatore Romano and read the title it gives to Pope Francis' September 15th Angelus speech: "The Force that Saves the World: only love fills the void that evil makes in our hearts and in history." 

Some might find it sentimental, but I think this statement also makes sense when we talk about Hosea’s story and ministry. Pre-exilic prophecy is very much focused on the theme of the Covenant and each one of these prophets has his own way to express his thoughts about God's relationship with Israel. Hosea's prophecy presents this relationship through allegories of several kinds of human love: between spouses, parents and children, siblings, and members of the Israelite community. 

Although the Book of Hosea (“YHWH saves” or “YHWH delivers”) is the first in the Book of the Twelve, it is of common knowledge that the prophet started his ministry about the time Amos was wrapping up his prophetic duties (ca. 753 BCE). Hosea seems to be the only northern kingdom native literary prophet. He focuses his prophecies in the political and religious centers of Israel (Samaria, Bethel, Shechem). However, he seems to acknowledge the legitimacy of David’s house rulers and Jerusalem as the rightful place of YHWH’s worship (3:5). Therefore some experts think that the prophet or his disciples started composing the book in the southern kingdom sometime after the Assyrian invasion to the north.

A strong ‘biographical’ section is developed in the first three chapters of the book. Hosea marries Gomer, a “wife of whoredom” (1:2). This complicated relationship is the key to read the book since it describes metaphorically the rapport between God and his people: unconditional love vs. total infidelity (Hosea/Gomer = YHWH/Israel). Their children are named symbolically, “God sows/scatters”, a son (Jezreel, 1:3-4), “Not pitied”, a daughter (1:6-7) and “Not my people”, another son (1:8-9). Finding so much parallelism in Hosea’s first part of its work has made commentators wonder if these accounts are biographical, metaphorical, theological or an amalgamation of these three.

Many scholars agree that translating Hosea can at times be really challenging.  Uncommon syntax, presence of hapax legomena, sudden changes in subject and verb moods and difficulty verifying certain historical events, make Hosea possess several of the most obscure passages of the whole Bible. Now, it is the prevalent opinion that the book is arranged with the relationship of Hosea and his wife as the backdrop. The idea or image of God that Hosea presents in his work is one of a personal Being, caught in a complicated relationship, a mixture of wrath against his unfaithful people and benevolence to the nation he established a covenant with. In chapters 1-3, YHWH relates as a husband to his wife and later in the book he is a father full of love for his children (1:10; 11:1-4. 8-9). On the other hand he is willing to punish harshly his beloved ones because of their ingratitude and infidelity (2:1-4; 12:2).  

As we carefully read the book from the beginning to end we can find easily the most important theological themes in Hosea. Faithfulness to the covenant is the main theme of chapters 1-2. The same image of a husband-wife relationship to illustrate the character of YHWH’s covenant is also used by other prophets like Jeremiah (3:20; 31:32), Ezekiel (16:32.45), Isaiah (cf. 42:6; 54:5.10; 55:3; 59:21) and in the NT by Saint Paul (1 Cor 11:3; 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25-33). Furthermore, as Hosea uses the husband-wife metaphor to denounce idolatry, he also applies it to condemn the political alliances of Israel with Egypt and Assyria (7:11; 8:9; 12:1).

Righteousness is the highlighted theme in the next five chapters (4-8). This righteousness has a strong connection with giving God proper worship (6:6-10). Hosea, like Amos did before him, blames the priests for neglecting to teach and practice the traditions of the covenant. In order for the sacrifices, prayers and other form of traditions to be accepted, justice and righteousness with all need to be exercised first. Faithful love, loyalty, knowledge of God and the law are essential for a good relationship with God and the community. 

Related to the first two themes, judgment on Israel is another important topic. The verdict that would befall upon Israel for her infidelity is expressed in very realistic terms either through animal (5:14; 7:12; 13:7.8) or warfare (5:9; 9:3; 9:17; 10:6-8) imagery.

Gomer and Hosea
Unlike Amos, Hosea seems to balance YHWH’s fury with many acts of mercy and compassion (11-14). Calling to mind the great heroes of Israel, Abraham, Jacob and Moses, the prophet exhorts the people to return to the values that come from the covenant with the LORD. In the midst of their “whoredom” and misery, God’s people still have a chance to come back to him and be received by their 'husband' as Hosea did with his estranged wife Gomer. As Hosea presents Israel as a child worthy of the most severe punishments, he also shows that God "cannot forsake his son."

Hosea’s life and prophecy also speak clearly to those who live in the 21st century. He is another prophet that would very much likely feel at home if he was living among us today. Pope Francis’ message, like Hosea’s works, emphasizes a change of life, a return to God, to be honest with ourselves, to be humble, understanding and to care for the disadvantaged. Giving a chance of being committed to love faithfully those who are in need of love while overcoming their own difficulties and challenges, as Hosea portrays in his book, will help many, like the Pope says, to fill that void of the evils still present in our world.

 Juan Miguel Betancourt
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