* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hosea 1-3: Retribution and Reconciliation, and Our Ability to Develop Integrity

During the span of rulers breezed through in 2 Kings 15, the authors of that history lament that people in Judah and Israel continued to worship foreign gods. A couple of those kings gained the approval of the historians, but even during the reigns of those kings who "did right in the sight of the Lord," the people they governed were doing some things of which the authors couldn't approve. Then, during the reign of Pekah, the Assyrian ruler Tiglath-Pileser conquered large swaths of Israel and carried captives back to Assyria. Hoshea (an usurper) assassinated Pekah and became the last king of ancient Israel. Hoshea's penchant for treachery led to Israel's destruction and exile in 722 BCE, at the hands of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser.

Of course, many biblical writers interpreted this destruction as the just consequence for the nation's religious behavior. People had done things that Yahweh forbade, and thus Yahweh punished them for their transgressions. Along with the historian authors of Kings, who certainly concluded that Yahweh's anger was the driving force behind Israel's destruction, the prophet Hosea came to similar conclusions. Hosea most likely lived during the last few decades of the northern kingdom of Israel, and he was possibly the first prophet to write of the relationship between Yahweh and his people using a marriage metaphor -- imagery that would influence later authors, like the writers of Jeremiah.

In the first three chapters of Hosea, the prophet tells of his marriage to a prostitute and the names given to their children. The marriage, of course, is symbolic of Yahweh's relationship to his people, who have become spiritually adulterous by adopting the religious practices of other peoples. The names of Gomer's children are also symbolic. Jezreel means "Yahweh sows," and it was the name of a valley where the kings of Israel had caused a great deal of bloodshed over the course of the nation's history. Lo-Ruhamah means "not loved" or "not pitied," symbolizing that Yahweh will not be compassionate toward Israel (although he hasn't given up on Judah at this point). Lo-Ammi means "not mine," because Yahweh (according to Hosea) is thoroughly rejecting Israel; they are no longer his people, and he is no longer their god.

The passages that follow Hosea's description of his unenviable marriage reflect his imagining of Yahweh as a scorned and enraged husband. Obviously, a husband is seen here as the victim of a wife's adultery, and with a husband like Yahweh, no holds are barred when it comes to retribution. After the utter and complete disciplining of Israel, however, Hosea suggests that Yahweh will entice Israel back and restore her to her former glory, in a kind of twisted co-dependent reconciliation. Hosea likewise purchases his wife back and forgives her betrayal.

There's more than one problem with this whole scene, obviously, but the biggest glaring issue is the assertion that the adulterous wife is going to change. If Israel lacked the ability or the will to be spiritually monogamous before, why would one ever expect different behavior? Perhaps a less kind question is, if Yahweh had been a god worthy of Israel's devotion and fidelity, why would the people have gone looking for a better deity in the first place? And what kind of wife or people, after being beaten within an inch of survival, will respond to sweet enticing words with renewed adoration and commitment? Shall we understand Yahweh to say, "I'm sorry I stripped you, made your lands parched and unable to produce food, showed hatred toward my children, and took away any reason you might have had for celebration, honey, but you know you really deserved it. Come on back, and things will be different"? If Yahweh or Hosea could control what Israel or Gomer did, things would have always gone ideally. So, there's no way that Hosea can honestly say what Israel or Gomer will do once restored, and it's a bit silly to assume that habitual behavior will change.

This is a big issue with externalizing the causes of the results in our lives. We cannot assume that because we go and purchase someone with some silver and barley that she will be faithful. We cannot assume that a wrathful episode of discipline will make a person or a people more receptive to love. We cannot assume that other people will change habitual behavior because of something that we do. When people change, it is because of a choice they make. Certainly we can understand what Hosea is envisioning, but the means by which he sees a more idealistic set of circumstances emerging is naive at best. We can influence the behavior of others, but we cannot control the behavior of anyone but ourselves. Apparently, not even Yahweh can control the behavior of anyone but himself -- otherwise Israel and Judah would never have been destroyed, if the theology of the biblical writers is followed.

Where does this leave us? If we release the Hebrew scriptures' depiction of Yahweh as an archaic bit of folklore that was useful for a particular people at a particular time trying to make sense of their world, then we are left with human behaviors to address. At some point, the people of ancient Israel started doing things that did not line up with the values that had been established for their culture. Perhaps some individuals had a different set of values that drove their behavior, or perhaps there were unaddressed fears that overrode deeper values. They spiraled out of control, failing to reconnect with those ideals that might have allowed them to thrive.

Every day, we have a multitude of chances to choose how we will align with our deepest values, our guiding principles. If we choose to react impulsively to irrational fears, we will walk a road of destruction. We do this, for instance, every time we believe that we must be defensive or retributive toward others. We also do this when we make decisions based on the belief that we are unlovable or  unworthy, or that we are superior or entitled. We don't have to believe in a god who will punish us; we are capable of destroying ourselves without any help from the supernatural.

If we choose to act in harmony with a deeper set of values -- values that recognize the merits of equity, compassion, and justice; values that foster emotional maturity and personal responsibility; values that recognize the beauty, inspiration, and worth of every person -- if we choose to act in harmony with those things, we walk a path of life. If we are willing to see the divine as an internal human characteristic rather than an external independent entity, then we might even speak of aligning with divine will. However we see it, when we act with integrity to our deepest values, it doesn't actually matter what other people do. If other people are unfaithful, their actions reflect their own choices. They do not trap us into any requisite reaction. We can respond to their choices with integrity to our own guiding principles. We can be reconciled to others as we choose, regardless of their actions. We start by being reconciled to ourselves.

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