There is an ancient story of a time when God, having grown tired of the wayward tendencies of his people the Israelites, uses the life of the prophet Hosea as a real-life object lesson.
God commands Hosea to marry a woman who had or at least would have significant problems with fidelity and to start a family with her. What God called Hosea to do was pretty much beyond sensational. It was the makings of a reality tv show of epic proportions. But as would be the case for a reality series, there was not a big finale show with a trip around the world to the winner at the end. Hosea’s challenge wasn’t just a 6 week set-up to test the limits of the human body, mind and spirit or to entertain millions of viewers. It was this guy’s life. His whole life. And ultimately, it is the story of what Jesus does for us.
Many of us have married a person knowing that we know is not absolutely perfect, but that is a far cry from what Hosea was called to do. He was called to pledge his life to a person who is actually categorized in the divine text as a harlot or a prostitute, depending on which translation one is reading. Though we’re not privy to the motivations or unfortunate circumstances leading to Gomer’s profession, we can assume she was not a person bent towards fidelity since God’s aim in setting up this situation was to paint a picture of Israel’s unfaithfulness towards Him.
I keep trying to imagine the dynamics of this relationship. The dinner conversations. The introductions to each other’s families. What they might have liked to do on date night together. Hosea is a prophet of God, most likely having built his lifestyle around principles of order, clean-living, solitude, and meditation. Gomer is a woman who appears to have a little more chaos in her life, maybe a partier, not one who likes to stay in one place or with one person for very long. This was not a set-up for a traditionally loving and mutually beneficial marriage relationship. It really is a nearly unimaginable union! But in the end, it becomes a beautiful story of redemption and restoration and ultimately it really is a perfect illustration of God’s love for us.
So Hosea is called to take this deeply broken, potentially untrustworthy woman into his home and share everything that was his with her and love her as a wife. He must deliberately and tenderly weave together his life and his flesh as one with a person who appears to be significantly challenged in regards to her psychological and/or moral wholeness and may even be physically ravaged by the demands and consequences of her trade.
Soon after Hosea married Gomer, they started a family and had three children together. Reading the story, it’s possible that at least the last two children they shared may not have even been Hosea’s biologically. What we know for sure is that Gomer cheated on Hosea with at least one other lover. And when Gomer had left Hosea for that other man and eventually found herself destitute and enslaved, Hosea is told to find her and redeem her life, buying her back out of slavery and taking her again as his wife.
I don’t know if I would have read the story the same way 5 years ago, but I’ve found myself identifying in an oddly strong way with Gomer. I didn’t realize how much my life was built around other “lovers” until those lovers had started coming up short and I found myself beat down, stripped bare and worn so very thin I could hardly recognize myself anymore. I can read the second chapter of Hosea, which is actually a description of wayward Israel, and it starts to sound uncomfortably familiar.
If you do actually go to scripture and read Hosea 2 you are in for some salty language especially if you look at a version like The Message. Hosea tells Israel that if they don’t change their ways, God will strip her bare and make her like a desert, a parched land dying of thirst. Except it gets worse, much worse, as you read on. In fact, I can’t even bring myself to write it here because it is deeply disturbing for me to think of God talking like this to Israel or to me. This passage is painful to get through because it leaves absolutely no doubt how seriously God has been offended by the infidelity of His people.
How could God do something so severe when He has promised to bless and to love his people with an everlasting love? My best guess is that God wouldn’t actually have to do this to Israel (or Gomer or me). Continuing in her ways would lead her to this wilderness place and God is perhaps just warning her that he will honor her free will and let her do this to herself if she continues to fight against his best for her. But there are many better-trained and better-read professional theologians who I will leave to battle out that one.
The way I came to appreciate and even cherish this story, though, is not by starting at the beginning of Hosea and cringing my way through the graphic descriptions of harlotry and infidelity and God’s offense at it. I somehow was first directed to Hosea 2:14, where it describes how God calls her out to the wilderness to woo her and speak tenderly to her. Eventually, I came to read through verse 20 and heard my heart’s desire articulated in the words I found there. I had been in a barren wasteland, destitute in my soul and feeling definitively un-worthy of wooing and yet yearning for the Lord to speak tenderly to me. I desperately needed water and wondered if I’d ever bear fruit again. I wished that my Valley of Trouble could turn into Door of Hope. I longed to know, truly know, my identity as a beloved of God rather than someone who felt herself too often operating out of fear.
Only after seeing my own heart splayed out on the page so plainly did I back up in scripture and also begin hear myself reflected in the words describing wayward Israel at the beginning of Hosea 2. I wasn’t literally engaging in prostitution, but I started to realize that I certainly had pretty well fooled myself into thinking I did not really need God all that much. Like Israel, I’d gone to other people and other places to get my needs met. I’d relied on my intellectual abilities and achievements, on my career successes, on my social connections, on affirmation from other people and my own good deeds to establish my identity and fulfill my desires.
I had a relationship with God, but I think I mostly found myself going to Him when all my other options failed me. I wouldn’t have been able to say that was the case then, but I think the real test of how dependent on these other lovers I was- how much I trusted in them more than I trusted in God- was that if I didn’t feel like God was getting me what I wanted fast enough or in the way that I thought I should get it, I was oh-too-quickly turning to my own tricks to get what I wanted some other way. As the story goes, I was saying, “Ok, well if He’s not gonna do it then ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’” And then, just like Israel, when I got what I wanted I would say, “‘These are my wages, which my lovers have given me.’” I’d unknowingly harbored somewhere deep inside the false belief that my natural abilities or my hard work or my good deeds should be enough to let me have a certain kind of life. It’s not that everything I was doing was wrong, but I certainly wasn’t acknowledging God and God only as the meeter of my needs or seeing him as my provider of only good things. I was running myself ragged to do it myself, afraid to put my faith in someone who might disappoint me like every other lover had.
But God’s love for me is so deep that he wasn’t going to allow me to keep up that exhausting and ugly way of doing things forever. After some very painful years of kicking against the goads I came to realize that I was on a road towards where I thought was best, but really I was just doing everything I could to settle for less than what God wanted for me and bloodying myself in the process. I found myself in a placed hedged with thorns, walled in to prevent wandering away, with no open paths to successfully pursue and gain my own desires. Slowly I realized that it was God “who gave [me] the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which [I] used for Baal.” Even when I am not fully faithful to him, He has been fully faithful to me. He was the source of my every good thing. And ultimately, it is His faithfulness and lovingkindness and mercy that have brought me back home to Him.