God is not seen in a violent man, but in a woman known for her love. (Listen.)
Like so many women, I know what it is to receive unwanted attention and even assault. The comments about my breasts in primary school and, later, the wolf whistles; the propositions. The unsought gawkings and strokings and gropings. The encounters where consent was murky at best. And given what so many of my sisters have experienced, I consider myself one of the lucky ones.
Like so many women, I know what it is to hear preachers denigrate me as a sexual being. I know what it is to be told that women are made not so much in the image of God, but in a misogynist picture of Eve; I know what is to feel humiliated; I know what is to be painted as a conniving woman by a pastor. For, as hilarious as it might seem now, I was once called a ‘seducer’ and a ‘Jezebel’ who was ‘luring my husband away from the church.’
Like so many women, I have been told countless stories of preachers who condemn women’s desire while grooming women and sometimes children for their own illicit activity; or who blame women for their own victimization; or who, from their position of power, tell women who experience sexual violence that their only role is to submit and forgive. (It’s not.)
And like so many women, I have watched as scandal after scandal after scandal unfolds at Hillsong, in the Southern Baptist Convention, throughout the Catholic church, and elsewhere, as preachers and priests have harmed those entrusted to their care while institutions have largely protected, even elevated, them.
So perhaps you will understand why I exercise a hermeneutics of suspicion these days. Perhaps you will understand why I ask, Who profits from this preaching? Who pays? And is this really the image of God?
For example, when a minister insists that women mustn’t speak in church, I find it interesting that his theology preferences his own voice. When a pastor tells me he cannot meet with women for mentoring or pastoral care because to do so is inherently dangerous, then I wonder what’s going on in his heart. When an eminent speaker jokes that he’s married because he persuaded his wife that this was God’s desire for her, I see that God is an object pressed into his service; I hear the whisper of blasphemy. When a megachurch pastor publicly describes his wife as a ‘hottie’ and suggests that every woman should learn how to pole dance, well, words pretty much fail me.
And when Hosea announces that God told him to marry a promiscuous woman, I raise an eyebrow. When he declares that their marriage is an object lesson for how God loves a faithless Israel, I think, ‘Oh, really?’ When he says God told him to name their daughter Lo-ruhamah, meaning ‘deprived of mother-love’, and their youngest son Lo-Ammi, meaning ‘not mine’, my skin crawls. When he goes on to describe God inflicting pain then showering gifts, I remember the cycle of abuse. And when he describes in great and lascivious detail the punishment God will inflict on Israel, the punishment he reckons she deserves for her so-called faithlessness, I hope his wife has triple-0 on hot dial.
Because it’s no step at all from an image of God to an expression of that image in a person: especially when that person has cast himself in God’s shoes. And this is precisely what Hosea has done. For Hosea has portrayed himself in this preaching as God, which should set off our alarm bells Every. Single. Time.
For by his telling, Hosea is the husband who represents the Holy One; whereas his wife, slut-shamed from the pulpit; publicly humiliated then showered with gifts then sexually spurned (3:1-3); whose children are named for lovelessness and rejection: well, she’s merely the corrupt and faithless Israel, about due for a good beating.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Every prophet, every preacher, makes choices about which texts they elevate, which metaphors they use, and how they speak of God and people. Hosea might have been working at a time when violence against women seemed more socially acceptable; but most of the prophets said no. Most of the prophets used other ways to speak of God, and of God’s relationship with Israel.
And Jesus, too, said no. ‘You have heard it said,’ he would begin, quoting the Jewish scriptures, ‘but I tell you …’ And the way he told it was love. The way he told it was to empty himself of power and to raise up others and to fill them with the free gift of his Spirit. The way he told it was that those who seek to dominate will be last in the kingdom, while those who are vulnerable come first. The way he told it was that women can be ministers and children are central; and if our words or deeds trip up their faith, it would be better for us to wear concrete boots and be thrown into the sea. The way he told it, no woman was too slutty, too despised, too bloody, too forward or too foreign to be treated with respect and love. The way he told it, he came not to condemn; and men shut their mouths and put down their stones and quietly slipped away.
The way Jesus told it, Hosea does not look like the image of God: for this would mean looking a whole lot more like Jesus. Because we are followers of the One made known in Jesus Christ, not the person of Hosea.
So, do we throw Hosea away? Perhaps. But I think there’s an alternative, and I find it in the phenomenon of preaching. Like so many preachers, I’ve had times when someone has come up to me after the service, tears in their eyes, and said, ‘Thank you. When you said blah blah blah, something deep clicked in me; something powerful; something healing; something true.’ And I’ve thought, ‘Woah! I never said that.’ But I keep my mouth shut, because I recognize in this the work of the Holy Spirit, who moved between us and opened their heart to what they needed to hear.
And so I believe God can speak even through Hosea—though perhaps not in the way Hosea planned. Because if we sit with this passage, we just might find an image of God: an image which is Christlike, and powerful, and healing, and true. But this image is not found in Hosea, the violent and abusive husband. Instead, it’s found in the slut-shamed woman whom Hosea never calls by name: Gomer daughter of Diblaim.
Gomer, who marries Hosea and joins with him to form a prophetic family.
Gomer, who conceives and bears and raises three children.
Gomer, who does this even as scandal and shame and her own husband’s words hang over her like a cloud. Because through it all, he describes her as promiscuous—and he doesn’t mean it kindly. Nor do most all-male translation committees, who usually describe her as ‘whore.’ But the Hebrew isn’t the word for sex-worker. The better translation is ‘promiscuous.’ That is, Gomer is a woman who loves abundantly, recklessly, without shame.
And while there is no evidence of her being unfaithful once married, I suggest that she does continue to love abundantly: for the text hints that she loves her children.
For Gomer carries them and births them, and, the text tells us, she breastfeeds them until they are weaned. Even little Lo-Ruhamah, the one apparently deprived of mother-love, is held skin-to-skin against her mother’s heart, as she suckles her mother’s breast and plays with her mother’s hair and gazes adoringly into her mother’s eyes. Deprived of mother love? Really? Frankly, I don’t buy it.
Indeed, Gomer feeds and nurtures all her children. Whatever her husband or anyone else calls them, and whatever they call Gomer herself, Gomer quietly rolls her eyes and holds her children close and loves them.
And in this love, this promiscuous overflowing abundance of love, I see the face of God. I see the one who knit us in our own mother’s wombs; and the one who longs to gather us as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings. I see the one who is described as she-eagle or mother bear, fiercely protective of her cubs. I see the face of the God who throughout the scriptures mother-loves, even as translators and preachers iron out the feminine and flatten it to ‘shows mercy’ or ‘has compassion.’
But misogynistic manipulation of the text can’t change the fact: God is promiscuous in love: God loves like Gomer. Because God loves those whom nobody else loves, and tenderly touches those whom no one else will touch. God loves insiders, yes, but will not be limited; God crosses all boundaries to love. God loves Jews and Gentiles and Ethiopian eunuchs; God loves bleeding women and leprous men and epileptic children: because God loves and loves and loves.
God loves those who have been told they are unworthy and those who have been rejected, whether for who they are or for their actions or for what others have inflicted upon them. God loves feminist preachers and misogynist pastors, even those who misrepresent Her and use Her to inflict violence. Because God loves sinners and the righteous; the just and unjust; God loves and loves and loves.
This is the God I see in Gomer: the One who entered the womb of a young girl in Nazareth, that girl who conceives a child out of wedlock and is called every name once hurled at Gomer. I see the One who called a despised woman ‘daughter’, and the One who would not cast the first stone. I see the One who chose to spend time with women who were much like Gomer, rather than hang out with Hosea-style theobros.
I see the One who relaxed as he was massaged with fragrant oils then caressed by a promiscuous woman’s hair, and the One who would not be shamed for it nor allow others to shame her. I see the One who lay down with the Beloved Disciple nestled against his breast. I see the One who bore rejection, humiliation and shame on his own body, and who refused to retaliate, and who was condemned and killed by violent men. And I see the Risen One who commissioned shocked and scared and grieving women to proclaim the joy of resurrection and the death-shattering power of non-violent love, knowing they would not be believed by the men.
You have heard it said … well, many things.
But I say to you: In the slut-shamed woman who is known for her reckless love, in the mother who pours love into children branded with lovelessness and rejection, in the woman who intimately knows abuse, humiliation and shame: in this woman, in Gomer, we see the love of God, and we see the face of Christ. Thanks be to God: Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver: one God and Mother of us all. Amen. Ω
Reflect: Which biblical images of God trouble you? Might a hermeneutics of suspicion bring new insight? Pray about this and ask God to help you see through the lens of Christ.
If you are experiencing intimate partner violence (which can include public humiliation, name calling, shaming and verbal abuse), submission is absolutely *not* your Christian duty. Call 1800RESPECT, a free 24-hour national domestic and family violence and sexual assault counselling service for help, or visit http://www.1800respect.org.au. For a Jesus-centred reflection on what love looks like in an abusive situation, go here.
This reflection owes a massive debt to Rev. Dr Wil Gafney, whose sermon ‘When Gomer looks more like God’ sharpened my thinking and influenced both the structure and examples of this piece. You can read it here. A reflection by Alison Sampson on Hosea 1:2-10 (Year C Proper 12) given to Sanctuary on 24 July 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. Photo by Luiza Braun on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here.
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