- Theological Education
By Walter Brueggemann — Hosea 11:1-11
This poem in Hosea, by the force of prophetic imagination, takes us inside the troubled interiority of God. It does not, however, start there. It begins, rather, with an external encounter between God and God’s people, Israel. The poetry is cast in the imagery of “father-son,” with God cast as father and Israel cast as son. (It could as well have been cast as “mother-daughter,” but that would not happen in that ancient patriarchal society). The imagery of “father-son” was operative in Israelite imagination since God’s first declaration, “Israel is my first born son” (Exodus 4:22). Status as first-born son carries with it immense entitlement, but also inescapable responsibility to uphold the honor of the father and the family.
The divine oracle expositing “father-son” (God-Israel) extends through verse 7 and divides into two parts. In the first part, the father reviews, with and for the son, the long history of their relationship with an accent on the generous, tender care that the father has shown toward the son (vv. 1-4). Indeed, in a patriarchal society this father has exhibited amazingly tender attentiveness toward the son. Their relationship begins in Egypt with the emancipation from slavery in the Exodus. But from that first act, the son, like a two-year-old, has been wayward and refused the father by acting out other loyalties (idolatries). The father, nonetheless, has been patient and kind. He taught the little child to walk; he carried the little child in his arms and attended to every fall, every scar, every scab, every wound, and every fear. The father supported the little child with embraces of love, held him close, stooped low to attend to him, and fed him. Thus the father has guarded and guaranteed the son when the son was a little vulnerable child. It is all a narrative of graciousness.
The cadence of the oracle shifts in verse 5. Now apparently the vulnerable little child has become a recalcitrant teenager. The teenage son, bursting beyond vulnerability, has refused the attentions of the father. He has done so by seeking military alliances with the Assyrians, and more disastrously with Egypt, the very source of initial slavery. Hosea alludes to the eighth century BCE policies of Northern Israel when the government in Samaria entered into alliances that, in Hosea’s purview, violated the covenant with YHWH.
As a result, Israelite society is devoured by militarism. That disastrous policy leads to the verdict of verse 7: “My people,” that is, my first born son, is resolved to reject me. Thus the conclusion echoes the initial judgment of verse 2. The son rejects the life-giving relationship with the father. Consequently, when the foolish son calls for help God will not answer. We can imagine that verses 5-7 are a shrill rant, the kind a teenager can evoke from even the most caring father. The father is completely exhausted with the son and is willing to leave the son to the consequences of his recalcitrant choices. Israel is abandoned to its self-destruction, the kind in which any teenage son may find himself when the father acts in tough love.
But then, abruptly, the oracle of dialogic engagement breaks off after verse 7. With verse 8 there begins a wholly different rhetoric in the form of a divine soliloquy. It is as though God has finished with that external relationship and has no will to be the father. Now God turns inward in a moment of acute critical reflection. The poem permits us to listen in on God’s probe of God’s own interiority. We note how unusual that rhetoric is, because in both popular religion and in stringent orthodoxy, God is not said to have any unresolved interior life. But here the poet gives us access to divine self-critical reflection in which God recalibrates. The move from oracle (verses 1-7) to soliloquy (verses 8-11) is as though the father, in the middle of a rant, catches himself up short, as though to say to one’s self, “What are you doing?” It is as though this father “comes to himself” as the son “came to himself” in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:17). Only now it is the father who comes to self-critical reflection, not the son.
The father comes to recognize that the one against whom he rants is his well beloved first-born son. As a result, the father asks himself four probing questions that are in exact parallel: “How can I…?” Give up, hand you over, treat you like Sodom (Admah), like Gomorrah (Zeboiim)! It is as though God recognizes the unacceptable conduct of treating his well beloved son in such a harsh, rejecting way. These are serious probes on God’s part, as the father sees that his actions toward his son are not really what he wants to do and are quite inappropriate.
The father responds promptly to his own probing wonderment: “I am a father with warm and tender compassion. That is who I am.” More than that, my heart recoils, that is, churns in dismay. The father resolves that he himself is totally different from his own ranting conduct toward his son. The father is disconcerted by his own out-of –control reaction to his son.
That in turn leads to new resolve in verse 9 with three first person resolves that move decisively against the previous resolve of the rant. God fully regrets that angry reaction to his son:
I will not act that way again;
I will not destroy again.
And the reason the father will not move violently against the son is that the father comes to a fresh recognition of his own identity: “I am God.” I am not simply a macho guy that emotes in destructiveness. I am the Holy One of whom more is expected and from whom more is promised. I, as Holy One, will turn ordinary rage into viable relationship. More than that, I am the Holy One in Israel. This first born son is the one to whom I made covenantal commitments already in the Exodus in verse 1. I will not go against my better self. As a result of this divine about-face, the father intends a huge homecoming for the son from Egypt, Assyria, and all places of displacement. The son Israel, by the will of the father, will be restored to at home well being. It is all because the father has caught himself up short, has remembered who he is, and acts not in reaction to his recalcitrant son but according to the father’s own best self. The resolve of the father at the end of the poem is completely congruent with the first love of verse 1.
This is an extraordinary poem that dares to take us inside the conflicted interior life of God in order to see that the father has acute “heart problems” and is torn between emotive rage and self-disciplined fidelity. With this text before us, we should I suggest, sit in silent amazement and ponder the God disclosed to us in this poem. This is not the God of stringent orthodoxy who can be reduced to a syllogism. This is not the God of popular piety who is “best friend” in a therapeutic culture. Rather, this is a God of deep and complex emotive honesty who violates all conventional God talk and who must therefore be rendered in poetry, because poetry allows for abrupt transition from oracle to soliloquy, from emotive alienation to self-critical reflection and new resolve.
After we have honored the poem in its peculiar disclosure, we may take a next step. We may ask, “What would it mean to be made in the image of this God? What would it require to imitate this God in our own life?” My thought is this: we live in a society of intense communicative interaction in which we freely emote with the other. It happens in all too convenient electronic connection. It happens in public discourse that regularly escalates difference into ideological absolutism. It happens with all too much fatigue so that we are left without self-discipline or self-restraint. Such fatigue quite frequently yields an all out rant that makes “the other” a target for assault. The self of the selfie is incapable of self-criticism.
What is lacking in such dominant modes of social interaction is any internal life or self-critical distance. We are too busy, too accessible, too fatigued, too eager to score, too “other-engaged” to have an internal probe of who we are and who we intend to be. The result is an absence of silent self-probing and the organization of society into little cells of absolutism, the kind of absolutism the father voiced in the initial oracle of the rant. The disappearance of the self-reflective self is a betrayal of covenantal faith that depends upon a self capable of integrity, freedom, and discipline without which costly fidelity is impossible. More than that, this absence of self-critical capacity makes democracy almost impossible, for democracy depends upon a critical, knowing citizenry capable of more than reactive responses. The dominant world in which we live is a public that is largely lacking in those who have “come to themselves.” Too much religion, moreover, features a God who never comes to God’s self.
The poem permits God to be more honest and more self-knowing than that. That honest self-knowing on God’s part makes new futures possible for God’s people that would not be possible as long as God remained in the mode of a rant. In Hosea’s presentation, the future of God and the future of God’s people (and the future of the world) depend upon that self-critical presence that permits God to ask “What am I doing? What will I do differently to be my true self?” Without such self-critical reflection, here made manifest in divine soliloquy, the future can only be a continuation of the present. To have a future that is in any way discontinuous from the present depends upon “coming to one’s self” in a self-critical way. God models and performs that self-critical act in this rhetorical move from oracle to soliloquy. We might indeed be imitators of this God who moves from rant without reflection to genuine dialogic relationship.
Bible Study Questions:
- Have you ever had a time when you 'came back' to yourself after behaving in a way that did not jibe with your best self?
- Brueggemann discusses the interiority of God. Do you recognize your own interior self and life? How often do you take stock of your self?
- Sometimes we all need to stop or start doing something to reconcile ourselves to our best self. What have you changed in order to realign or reboot?
For Further Reading:
An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture Jan 19, 2016
By Peter Block and Walter Brueggemann
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