Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Like last week’s Old Testament lesson (Hosea 1:2-10), Hosea 11:1-11 offers striking testimony to the gracious, merciful, and steadfastly loving character of Israel’s God.

August 1, 2010

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Commentary on Hosea 11:1-11

Like last week’s Old Testament lesson (Hosea 1:2-10), Hosea 11:1-11 offers striking testimony to the gracious, merciful, and steadfastly loving character of Israel’s God.

While the message is much the same, the metaphor is different (and almost certainly less problematic) — not marriage this time, but parenting. And clearly, this metaphor too is full of poignancy and power. As Walter Brueggemann observes, Hosea 11 is “among the most remarkable oracles in the entire prophetic literature.”1 But perhaps this assessment is too modest; according to H. D. Beeby, having arrived at Hosea 11, “we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.”2 In a word, what the prophet finds in God’s innermost mind and heart is grace.

Like Hosea 1, Hosea 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 (verse 1), establishing a relationship and constituting a call (see “called” in verses 1 and 2) to honor that relationship, as a child honors her or his parents. But Israel proved to be a wayward child (verse 2), despite the attentive nurture and loving care (see “loved” and “love” in verses 1, 4) of the faithful parent (verses 3-4). The importance of knowing God is a central theme in Hosea; and as here, Israel consistently fails to know (see 2:20; 4:1, 6; 5:4; 6:3, 6; 8:2; 13:4; 14:9).

The parental image in verse 4 is particularly worthy of note. Older commentaries were inclined to describe verse 4 in terms of a loving father, but the portrayal is almost certainly of God as a loving mother. A translation of the Hebrew of the middle poetic line of verse 4 is contained in the NRSV note b, in which case the image belongs in the realm of animal husbandry. But a very slight re-vocalization of the Hebrew text results in the NRSV’s “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” This rendering maintains the consistency of the parent-child metaphor. It also results, of course, in the striking portrayal of God as a nurturing, indeed nursing, mother (a helpful balance perhaps to the portrayal of God as an aggrieved husband in chapters 1-3).

Verses 5-7 seem to articulate the well-deserved punishment of the disobedient child, and they may well reflect historical realities in the years following 733 BCE when Assyria invaded and conquered parts of the northern kingdom. The “return to the land of Egypt” (see also 7:16; 8:13; 9:6) may suggest that some Israelites fled to Egypt as refugees in 733 in the face of Assyrian domination. In any case, it also suggests something like a reverse-exodus, in sharp contrast to verse 1. The key word in verses 5-7 is Hebrew shub (“return”), which occurs twice in verse 5 and as “turning” in verse 7. These three occurrences anticipate verse 11, where a fourth occurrence finally communicates a positive sense (see also 14:1, 2, 4).

The positive direction begins already in verses 8-9. Indeed, it seems that the punishment may not happen at all; or if it has already begun, as verses 5-7 suggest, it will not continue. The reason has nothing to do with the people’s change of heart and mind — that is, the rebellious son does not repent (indeed, 5:4 has suggested that the people are incapable of repentance). Rather, the remarkably different direction of verses 8-9 has to do with the heart and mind of God, whose questions in verse 8 indicate that God agonizes over the future of the disobedient child.

According to the Torah, rebellious sons are to be stoned to death (see Deuteronomy 21:18-21). As for Israel, it deserves destruction, like Admah and Zeboiim received for breaking covenant (see Deuteronomy 29:22-23). But God cannot bring the divine self to follow through with what is deserved. God is even willing to break God’s own Torah for the sake of the life of the beloved child/people! As Beeby puts it, “The rebel against the law is now not Israel but the heart of God as it recoils within [Godself].”3

Because God’s “compassion” prevails, there will be no further destruction (verse 9). In short, God is moved by compassion to pursue justice by forgiving, not punishing. Indeed, such sheer grace defines what it means to be “God and no mortal” (verse 9). And such grace necessitates a fundamental re-definition of holiness. No longer can holiness mean separation from the sinner. God is “the Holy One in your midst” (verse 9), thus bearing the burden of the people’s sin. As Karl Plank concludes, “To be motivated absolutely by concern for the other — this is what it means to be God, not human. . . . Holiness is the turning of God.”4 Given the people’s unwillingness and/or inability to repent (turn), God will do the repenting (turning)!

Such compassion, such suffering-with, such amazing grace is what makes life and hope possible for Israel. As suggested above, the occurrence of “return” in verse 11 recalls verses 5-7, where Israel’s turning/returning is all wrong. The repetition is another reminder that it is ultimately and solely God’s perpetual willingness to turn/return to sinful Israel that makes possible for the people a “return . . . to their homes” (verse 11).

The mention of Egypt and Assyria again in verse 11 also recalls verses 5-7, and suggests that Israel’s infidelity has had “punishing” consequences. Infidelity always does. But Israel’s sin is not the determining factor for its future. Rather, what is ultimately determinative is God’s grace.

Christian readers of Hosea 11 will be reminded of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, or more aptly, the Parable of the Loving Father. Here too, things are set right by forgiving, not punishing. Or, as the apostle Paul put it, God justifies — that is, pursues justice — by grace. It is the gospel, then and now.

1An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 218.
2 Hosea: Grace Abounding (International Theological Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 140.
3Ibid., 146.
4“The Scarred Countenance: Inconstancy in the Book of Hosea,” Judaism 32 (1983):354.