A Mother’s Grief, and Cry For Justice, is Overwhelmed by Compassion
Dane's Place - © 2004
The ancient Hebrew book found in the Old Testament section of our modern English Bibles, and known to us as Hosea, is a book filled with impassioned pleas – pleas that are significantly etched with deep hurt, inspired by grave betrayal, and sprinkled upon with a tempered anger. The emotionally charged message of the book seems to reach a lamenting crescendo in the Eleventh Chapter. It is there that the prophet Hosea provides for us a bittersweet dirge, which depth is very difficult for us to fully fathom. And it is there that we cannot but wonder if we hear the vociferation of a wounded mother being sounded over her wayward son’s choices.
Although the book of Hosea begins in the third person narrative, the language soon shifts to the first person singular as Hosea begins a soliloquy over Israel, which is borne out of his own experiences (chapters 2-3). Having been intimately acquainted with betrayal through his marriage to Gomer – a harlot – Hosea speaks from his personal despair, likening his hurt to the betrayal that God has experienced at the hands of unfaithful Israel. The text remains in the first person tense for most of the book, and it is this first person voice that calls out to us in Chapter Eleven. But, whose voice is it that speaks to us from this Chapter? Can the source of this lament be traced to Hosea? Or, do these words reflect a different wellhead?
As we look toward the first verse of Hosea, Chapter Eleven, we find a quick reference to an historical moment in Israel’s past – the Exodus – and a clue as to the source behind the voice. The speaker takes credit for having called Israel out of Egypt. We know from this inference that Hosea cannot be speaking from his own experiences, for he was not yet living when Israel struggled for freedom from bondage in Egypt. Who then speaks? The orientation is too clear to deny – this is no longer Hosea speaking, but is God’s voice calling to Israel.
As we continue reading, we find within the early verses of Chapter Eleven, an imagery that gives us a glimpse of how God views the relationship that God has with Israel. The imagery is that of a parent (God), and the parent’s child (Israel). Through our natural understanding of relationships, we know that a parent/child kinship can develop in only one of two ways: by natural birth, or by adoption. Whether the child in Hosea Chapter Eleven is seen as the natural offspring of the parent, or has been adopted, we cannot know from this verse. Nelson’s Bible Dictionary points out that to the Hebrew, “adoption was never common,” and that there “is no Hebrew word to describe the process2.” In either case the authority of the parent is the same, and the legitimacy of the relationship remains unquestionable.
In Hosea 11:1, the child (Israel) is identified as a son. The gender of the parent (God), however, is not clearly revealed. It is easy to assume in Western society, because of our language and tradition, that the child’s father is speaking. However, an examination of the text may suggest a hint of feminine care.
God claims to have taken childlike Israel by the arms and “taught” them to walk (verse 3). Certainly a father might lead in the responsibility of taking a child by the arms, and teaching him or her to walk. But, as the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia points out, the “love of offspring was deeply imbedded in the heart of Hebrew women3,” and it might be easier for us to envision a mother fulfilling this role in the Hebrew household. Furthermore, the celebrated Hebrew woman of Proverbs 31 is described as having arms that are “strong” – strong enough, no doubt, to teach a child to walk (verse 17).
The parent’s voice that calls to Israel also reminds them that he/she “bent down to feed them” (verse 4). Again, although a father might perform these duties, would it not seem more reasonable to think that the role of feeding the family most often fell upon the shoulders of the mother – especially when the child was very young? The same poem in Proverbs 31 that describes the strong arms of the Hebrew woman, also teaches us that a godly mother provides food for her family (verse 15).
Could this be one of those rare glimpses of God setting aside fatherly attributes, and instead, showing forth the characteristics of a loving mother? If so, then mayhap the early words of Hosea Chapter Eleven reflects for us the unique anguish that a mother endures as her beloved son chooses to walk in rebellion. As we see that an overriding theme in the book of Hosea is unfaithfulness through adultery, it is not difficult to understand that the unique position of a mother lends additional insight into the hurt described here. Who else but a mother can know both the sorrow that comes from a wayward son abusing himself through unfaithful relationships, and the anguish of knowing that other women, and their families, are also being harmed?
Throughout verses 1-4, God the parent, continues pleading a case against unfaithful Israel – citing examples of how Israel turned from the divine family and pursued impure relationships. Then, in what appears to be a tone of scornful anger, borne out of this blatant betrayal, God seems to set aside the mourning shawl of parent, and instead dons the robe of judge, and sword of executioner.
For Israel’s unfaithfulness, God announces that Israel will go into bondage beneath the Assyrians just as they were once slaves in Egypt (verses 5-7). A violent siege of their cities is predicted as God warns Israel of the coming sword (verse 6). These verses leave us with the impression of a righteous and lasting judgment coming for a people who are “determined to turn from” God (verse 7).
Then, rather suddenly it seems, without offering a connecting conjunctive, God’s tone appears to change once more. God, who is consistently depicted throughout scripture as unchanging4, now by God’s own admission, has a change of heart (verse 8). Rhetorically, God asks how the child Israel can be handed over for this harsh judgment, and then announces that the fierceness of the punishment will be held in check.
Verses 8 & 9 seem to suggest to us that there is a struggle going on within the heart of God. It reads as if, hearing His5 own words of judgment, God cannot bear the thought of the child Israel enduring such punishment. Of this inward struggle, Charles F. Kraft, in his commentary of Hosea, writes, “God’s … inner struggle between wrath and love is over6.” The cry for justice will not go unanswered, but the depth of God’s love for the Israel child will also be recognized.
Although there is nothing after verse 9 suggesting a pause in the poetic flow of this sweet hymn, it seems natural to linger long with the closing words of verse 9: I will not come in wrath. With the reading of that declaration there seems an innate closing to the words of wrath and promise of judgment. A hush in the text is experienced with the closing of verse 9.
In the stillness of the hush God promises to the Israel children that there will be restoration. When God’s voice will be sounded and heard like the roar of a lion (verse 10), the children will leave their temporary homes of bondage, and return to God like trembling doves.
By human standards the promise of restoration in verses 10 and 11 seem like fitting places to end the text. But God is not human (verse 9), and abruptness seems to be a trademark of this chapter. The quiet, hopeful words of verses 10 and 11 now tremble with harshness. God ends the chapter poem with a stinging review of northern Israel (Ephraim), who is described as deceitful and a liar, and of Judah, who is described as unruly toward God.
It would be hard to find a chapter in the Bible filled with more raw emotion than Hosea Chapter Eleven. But the rawness of the chapter gives us an opportunity to see how God views our rebellious natures, and the grief that it causes God. It also gives us the perfect vantage point to see how that grief, and the demand for justice are overwhelmed by God’s compassion for us.
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1 For the purposes of this paper all Biblical references, unless otherwise noted, will be based upon the New
2 Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright (C) 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
3 International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database Copyright (C) 1996 by Biblesoft
4 See Hebrews 6:17.
5 This writer recognizes that some might be offended by the use of the masculine pronoun here. It is used
only because the English language does not offer a gender-neutral pronoun that will imply personality.
6 Charles F. Kraft, The Book of Hosea, The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary On The Bible, © 1971,
Abingdon Press, pg. 458.