A history of sin, a lifetime of forgiveness – Thursday, 14th week in ordinary time – Hosea 11:1-4,8-9

The liturgy of the word at the Eucharist will cover the book of Hosea, all fourteen chapters in a span of a week. Hence it is important to place each text in its context within the book. Chapter 8 among other texts in Hosea, spelled out Israel’s apostasy.  In chapters 9 and 10, Yahweh recounted Israel’s sins and punishment, but now the tone becomes personal and affectionate; it speaks of God’s love and compassion.  The text of today offers striking testimony to the gracious, merciful, and steadfastly loving character of God. In the earlier chapters, we saw Yahweh’s anger, here we see Yahweh’s broken heart.  Yes, Israel has been unfaithful.  Yes, they deserve punishment but it breaks Yahweh’s heart to punish them.

While the message is much the same, the metaphor employed is different. In chapters 1-3 the metaphor used to describe the relationship of God and Israel was that of a marriage between God as a faithful husband and Israel as a unfaithful wife who prostituted herself.  In chapter 11 the metaphor changes; it is that of parenting. This metaphor too, like the first one, is full of poignancy and power.The parental image in verse 4 is particularly note worthy. When Israel was a child, Yahweh loved him and because Yahweh loved him, Yahweh established a covenant relationship with him. While older  commentaries were inclined to describe verse 4 in terms of a loving father, the portrayal is almost certainly of God as a loving mother. 

God  recalls His tender love for Israel when more than 500 years before the time of Hosea He brought them out of Egypt. Like Hosea chapter 1, Hosea chapter 11 alludes to the exodus (see Exodus 4:22)where Israel is called God’s “son”. The deliverance from captivity and oppression in Egypt was an act of love. It established a relationship and constituted a call to honour that relationship, as a children honour their parents. Despite the attentive nurture and loving care of the faithful parent (verses 3-4) Israel’s response to this devotion was rebellion and Israel proved to be a wayward child (verse 2). Rather than acknowledging their divine parent, they worship other deities like the foreign storm god Baal (Hosea 11:2). God called Israel out of Egypt, but the idolatry of the Baals called to Israel, and they forsook the LORD and followed the Baals (the local deities of Canaan).

Israel’s apostasy began almost immediately upon leaving Egypt.  Before crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites complained, “For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12).  Not long afterwards they made and worshiped a golden calf (Exodus 34).  Even before entering the Promised Land, they yoked themselves to Baal” (Numbers 25:3) and after entering the Promised Land, they quickly succumbed to Baal worship (Judges 2:11-13; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6; etc.)

 Despite the pain of rejection, God admits feeling internal turmoil at the thought of disowning his children: “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender” (verse 8). Yahweh is no aloof-detached deity like Baal. Rather, God’s relationship with humankind involves an emotional risk. When you make a choice to love you make a choice to open yourself to pain. Grief and pain are the price we pay for love. This passage therefore, has the ability to shock many when one reads of the divine vulnerability of God. 

 Yet the matter of judgment remains. Once again we hear Yahweh’s anguish as he contemplates Israel’s punishment.Though the dark clouds of judgment are on the horizon, God takes no pleasure in the chastening about to come upon Israel. Instead He says, “My sympathy is stirred.” Because God’s “compassion” prevails, there will be no further destruction (verse 9). “How can I make you like Admah?”  says God. “How can I make you like Zeboiim?” he asks in verse 8. Admah and Zeboiim were two cities near Sodom and Gomorrah that were also destroyed (Dt 29:23). In short, God is moved by compassion to pursue justice by forgiving, not punishing.Yahweh would certainly be justified in destroying Israel.  Jewish law requires parents of an ungovernable child to identify the problem to the elders of the city, who then become responsible for stoning the ungovernable child to “put away the evil from the midst of you” (Deuteronomy 21:21).

 But God’s love and forgiveness are of a different order. Indeed, such sheer grace defines what it means to be “God and no mortal” (verse 9). Thank God that he judges us by his standards and not human standards. Such compassion, such suffering-with, such amazing grace is what makes life and hope possible for Israel. And such grace means that we have to now re examine a fundamental definition of holiness. No longer can holiness mean separation from the sinner. God is “the Holy One in your midst” (verse 9). He becomes the one who bears the burden of our sin

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