When I was in seminary, in one of my classes, we were discussing this great book, Jon Levenson’s Sinai and Zion, and we got to talking about how in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible—for the whole first three-fourths of our Bible, salvation is something that happens to a people, to a whole people. The Scriptures aren’t so much worried about the salvation of this person or that person, but in a collective future for the people as a whole. God saves a community, a people, God’s people, not just individuals, which means each person’s fate is bound up with all the others, my salvation is bound up with yours, and yours with mine.
The person sitting next to me, a fellow student—she was older than me, in her 50s, and she was shaking her head, slowly, pensively, I noticed her in the corner of my eye. When there was a lull in the class discussion, I turned to her and asked if she disagreed with what I was saying if she disagreed about the book, since she was shaking her head. She replied, “No, it’s not that I disagree,” she said. “I’m shaking my head over here because if this is true, then I’ve got to be worrying about what you’re doing with your life, if I’m thinking about my own salvation. And I don’t know nothing about you.” Then, right there, in the middle of class, she asks me, “So, you alright, you living right?”
The Scriptures aren’t so much worried about the salvation of this person or that person, but in a collective future for the people as a whole. God saves a community, a people, God’s people, not just individuals, which means each person’s fate is bound up with all the others, my salvation is bound up with yours, and yours with mine.
That should be our frame of mind, as we hear these prophecies—the words we heard from Amos over the past two weeks, and these words from Hosea today, and next Sunday. These scriptures are about the moral life, the spiritual life, of a people—the salvation of a society. The sins of a nation have jeopardized the safety of the people. God has told Hosea that they are living at the edge of collapse—their economy, their military, their government, their nationhood. The future is bleak. On the horizon, there’s nothing but devastation.
The prophecy comes from a crisis of faith, because Hosea, like his friends, his neighbors, his kin, his religious family, everyone in his political home, had trusted God to protect the community, to care for them, to watch over their lives. But God let him glimpse the reality on the horizon, the future fast approaching, where everything will soon crumble—their way of life, their finances, their employment, their families, their culture, their faith, the foundations of their lives will be shaken, nothing will be the same, they will be conquered and deported, sent into exile, to live among strangers, enemies, where they will have to pick up the pieces of their faith in a foreign land.
This will be judgment for the sins of the people, the wrongs of their leaders, the power brokers who betray the masses, the kings and the barons of agribusiness who have taken land from the peasants, from subsistent farmers, turning the land into a commodity and people into indentured servants, selling their labor to produce luxury items for the global market.
Amos and Hosea prophecy around the same time, during the same situation. We already heard Amos speak words of judgment against the wealthy for their treatment of the poor. He spoke in economic terms, if you remember the past couple of weeks— Amos talked about the marketplace, about weights and measures, of owners cheating the workers, as they built their luxury homes on the backs of the peasants of the land.
There’s a difference between Amos and Hosea. Amos is not from Israel, he’s from Judah. Amos is from the Southern kingdom, and he offers words of God’s judgment against his neighbors to the north, to the Northern kingdom. Amos prophecies at a distance. He’s not speaking about his own family, his own community. Amos is from Judah, prophesying against Israel. Hosea, on the other hand, is from the Northern kingdom. He is an Israelite judging Israel. His prophecy is personal, domestic, intimate, the land is part of his household and people are his home—so he reaches for the most personal, most domestic, most intimate violation he can imagine, sexual infidelity. The leaders have betrayed the wellbeing of the people. The leaders, who happen to be men, have been unfaithful to the land, to the household of the nation—they have betrayed their kin, their family, their partners in God’s covenant.
We know that this imagery of sexual infidelity is a problem here. There’s a sexism written into the text, because Hosea uses a woman as the embodiment of sexual transgression, the woman as sinful. That only makes sense in a patriarchal world—patriarchy as the long history of trying to control women, to possess the female body. In Hosea’s prophetic imagination, with his mind as a product of patriarchy, he sees the betrayal going on all around him and thinks of his wife Gomer, imagining what it would be like if he couldn’t control her, to bring her back home, to his household, his domestic kingdom.
I don’t know any way out of this problem, in terms of reading this story, this part of our Bible, other than to say that sexism takes advantage of people—that there’s a vision here, in Hosea, that hurts people, that harms women, because it perpetuates a stereotype: that women are sinful in ways that men aren’t. Obviously that’s wrong—it’s always been a dishonest way to think of the world. It’s a myth that the men who rule the world use in order to justify their power, our power, me here speaking as a man who benefits from all of this, especially as a pastor.
If there’s anything going on in this passage that’s subversive of any of this, it’s that Hosea lumps together all the people charge of the direction of the nation—who happen to be men, of course—and says that they are the ones who are betraying the people, that they are the unfaithful ones in the relationship, that they are guilty of infidelity, as they sell themselves to foreign powers, as they sell Israel’s labor and land to anyone and everyone in the region, all to amass more power and wealth for themselves.
And, because of all of this reality, Hosea prophesies judgment for the whole house of Israel—not just the people who have made the mess, but everyone, because this kind of judgment will be the natural consequences of the exploitation of land and people. Society will fall apart. The Assyrians will take advantage of their foothold in the region. They will soon conquer all of Israel.
Hosea, as a book in the Bible, is a prophecy that comes from a crisis in faith, a faith on the edge of collapse—visions from God to a person, to a people who are trying to hold on while the world is falling apart, while everything they hold dear is being taken from them. Maybe that’s your story too, maybe that’s our story.
There’s no singular speaker in these pages. There is not a single voice. These pages don’t record a monologue. It’s a dialogue, that’s what we have, the record of a conversation—maybe one person speaking to himself, as he makes sense of a word from God; or a group of prophets, reasoning together about what God is unfolding before their eyes, as they wrestle with an unimaginable revelation, struggling to hear the good news, despite the odds against them. There’s a back and forth in these pages, a call and response, disagreements working their way to hope.
We can hear these voices in dialogue in the two chapters we heard today. In chapter 1, verse 8, God calls Israel “Lo-ammi,” which means “you are not my people and I am not your God.” That’s one voice of the prophecy, perhaps describing what God’s rejection feels like, a person, a people, convinced that the devastation they are suffering is a result of God’s judgment. But that’s not the only word. There’s a response in the next chapter, another voice—this is chapter 2, verse 23, God’s speaking again, “I will say to Lo-ammi, You are my people,” and the people shall say, “You are my God.” The truth is that God will not abandon the people—no matter what happens, no matter what they do to themselves, God’s love is steadfast.
But Hosea gets to this point, to this revelation of God’s steadfast love, through the conversation that happens from one chapter to another—and this conversation opens up to us, to open these pages is to join the conversation, to wrestle our way into a revelation from God, to take hold of the hope.
That’s the gospel working its way through this passage—that hope happens, that the God of these Scriptures is a God of hope, even if it takes some work for us to get there, even if we have to strive with one another until we catch a glimpse of hope, a revelation of hope, for us and for our world.
That’s what we hear in the second chapter, that’s the vision in verse 18: the day when God will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land. There’s a wholeness to this vision of hope—like that story I started with, of the women in my class who realized that her salvation was bound up with mine, that God came to save a people. Hosea extends this to the land, to the produce of the earth—this is an environmental hope, for all creation, the salvation of all of us bound up with the grain and grapes and olives in verse 22, who call out to God, along with the earth, the soil, the landscapes, their voices reaching into the heavens, asking for salvation, prayers for the redemption of all things.
“I will answer the heavens,” God says in Hosea, “and they shall answer the earth; and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil.”
When the world feels like it’s in collapse, and our lives along with it, the work of faith becomes celebrations of joy, to prophecy with our lives that there is goodness worth celebrating, all around us, the resilience of the earth, the beauty of life—to be people of faith means we prophecy hope, that there is love, steadfast love, God’s love holding us together, the whole world in God’s hands.