Second Sunday after Pentecost

A major theological problem: the God who heals is also the God who punishes

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Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

June 11, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Hosea 5:15-6:6

Like almost every other passage in Hosea, 5:15-6:6 should come with a warning label for preaching and teaching: “Handle with Care.”1 Continuing the theme of broken relationships personified by the marriage metaphor in Hosea 1-3, this passage presents us with a poetic dialogue—a melancholy duet—between the two parties in the covenantal relationship. God plays the role of a broken-hearted, but powerful and punishing, authority figure. The people play the role of the prodigals who have betrayed God, but who also know that only God has the power to rectify their current distress.

The lectionary text includes Hosea 5:15, where we first hear the voice of a despondent and punishing God in retreat, waiting for the response of the human community he has both chided and claimed to love. This transition verse points backwards to God’s wrath upon Israel, likened to a deluge that crushes a population (5:10), maggots that rot the nation to the core (5:12), and a lion that tears apart its prey (5:14). Now, God will remain silent until the people realize their distress and beg for divine forgiveness.

Chapter 6 introduces the voice of the despairing people who see their only salvation in the hand that has dealt them this punishment. In the radically monolatrous theological perspective of Hosea, God both causes the calamity and is the only one with the power to reverse it. In an amazing leap of faith, the people’s voice boldly proclaims that after a brief period of two days, YHWH will resurrect them.

Ironically, the final statement of hope by the people here involves storm-God imagery. How will God rescue the people? God will become like sunshine and rain that revive a withered plant. This language is reminiscent of the theology of Ba‘al, the Canaanite storm god whom Hosea repeatedly condemns. By claiming this imagery, the people’s song identifies YHWH as the real Ba‘al. YHWH alone provides both sunshine and rain and has the potential to revive a decimated Israel.

If we were to stop reading in Hosea 6:3, perhaps we might be able to forget about the problematic divine abuse in verse 1. We could suggest that God has punished in the past, but now God has forgiven and will revive. We could live in the hope that once God restores us in mercy, we could return into a right relationship and worship God once more in spirit and truth.

This passage will not allow us to do so, however. In verse 4, the song switches singers again and God laments the fleeting nature of the people’s love that dissipates like the morning cloud and evaporates like the dew. God uses the same storm-imagery the people use with these two metaphors, but reverses it to highlight the community’s untrustworthy nature. 

As if to explain his violent actions, God again claims to have “slain” the people by the words of the prophets, announcing judgment. The conclusion of this strange passage focuses on ethics over empty ritual, a theme we see elsewhere in the prophets of this era (see, for example, Micah 6:6-8). God desires covenant loyalty instead of a well-being offering and knowledge of God rather than a whole burnt offering. God does not want a show. God wants the people’s love.

Such is the way that Hosea explains the relationship between a punishing/forgiving God and a wayward Israel in the eighth-century BCE. But what are we to make of this passage with our congregations who embrace God’s mercy so thoroughly through the life and deeds of Jesus Christ? It would be easy for us to focus on the resurrection language of Hosea 6:2 and slip into a Christological reading of this text. It would also be easy for us to dwell on the hope of verse 3, likening God to the nourishing rain and sunshine. This melancholy duet, however, does not let us do that.

Instead, this passage confronts us with a major theological problem prominent in the book of Hosea: the God who heals is also the God who punishes. In an era where we understand relationship dynamics and the cycle of violence in abusive contexts, this theological perspective is difficult to embrace.2 We must remember, though, that in the eighth century BCE, the Israelites had a very different notion of how God interacts in human history than does twenty-first century Christianity. This prophecy likely foreshadowed the Assyrians’ conquest of the northern nation of Israel, culminating in the destruction of Samaria in 722 BCE. In the theological understanding of the ancient Near East, military defeat either meant that your god was angry with you or that the foreign nation’s god had defeated yours. While the former may seem harsh, it was certainly preferred to the idea that God was dead, powerless to save. The theology of God as the punisher still left room for the hope of redemption.

Only by realizing this historical-theological context can we begin to make sense of this passage or the book of Hosea as a whole. Perhaps we must stretch our understanding of biblical authority and what the prophets have to teach us as Christians in the twenty-first century CE. While it might be tempting to set this passage aside and turn to the other texts in the lectionary for this week, we can still learn from it. By understanding the circumstances that faced the powerless in Israel, we might begin to comprehend the plight of those suffering around us, those who often blame God or themselves for their circumstances. In thinking of Hosea’s reward and retribution theology descriptively, perhaps we can help move our communities towards the healing.



  1. This commentary, originally commissioned and written in 2015, is just now published on this site because of a lectionary miscalculation. Thanks to the author for his patience in waiting for Ordinary 10A to reappear on the RCL lineup.
  2. See, for example, my commentary on Hosea 1:2-10 and Gale Yee’s book, Poor Banished Children of Eve: Women as Evil in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).