The book of Hosea uses family images to describe the relationship between the Hebrew people and God. In this particular passage the focus is on God as a parent of a rebellious child. The passage begins with love and protection. God watches this child grow up and learn to walk. God was there through nightmares and illness. God was the one to comfort and feed and play with the child.
As the child grows up, they begin to experiment. This child worships Ba’al and offers incense to idols. In other words, this child that is loved and valued, strays from the way in which they are raised. God is patient and tries everything possible to show the child they are loved, tries to bring the child back, tries to help them heal.
And God, the parent, can see bad things coming because of the choices the child makes. God can see an enemy on the horizon and war waging around them. The survival of the Hebrew people is dependant on returning to God and God’s ways. If the Hebrew people cannot find their way back to God, just like a rebellious teenager, they are in danger of being lost. God can see this child, the Hebrew people crying out in anguish and is helpless to change the course of their life.
And God laments and cries out.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?”
This lament contains so much more than just lament. Ephraim is used as a name for Israel. According to laws found in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 a rebellious and unmanageable child is to be taken to the city gate, where they will be stoned to death. By law, the rebellious child is to be destroyed for the good of the larger community. The references to Admah and Zeboiim are cities that were destroyed in a fire storm along with Sodom and Gomorrah. In this part of the passage, not only does God see disaster looming but God is required by the laws of the Hebrew people to participate in the destruction of a beloved child.
And God can’t do it. God cannot be the bringer of destruction. The thought of destroying a beloved child is repulsive to God. The NRSV translations says, “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” The Inclusive translations says, “My heart is aching within me; I am burning with compassion.” The sense lament and even horror at the violence that is expected comes through in this part of the passage and David Garber writes that “God is moved by compassion to pursue justice by forgiving, not punishing.”
In our own lives it is tempting to want to destroy people who seem to be going in the wrong direction or—at the very least—cause some hurt so they might reconsider their ways. As a child, I can remember more than one fight with my brother where I tried to get him to do what I wanted or what I thought was best by hitting or shoving. Most of the time it didn’t work. Our culture encourages us towards violence and punishment as a deterrent towards crime. War often comes from a place of what we might perceive as righteous anger. Most of the time, this violence only entrenches the divisions. My violence towards my brother often made him more determined to do what he wanted instead of what I wanted.
In this passage, we see a God who is struggling. We see a God who has tried everything and nothing helps this beloved child. God doesn’t know what to do and so violence looms as a real possibility and even as a requirement. This is a God who has wrestled with the same questions we are faced with. How do we respond when things are going in a bad direction and nothing seems to make any difference? Can the violence be justified if it has good intent? We are made in the image of this God who struggles with violence. Walter Brueggemann writes that “God’s recovery, [from violence] like everyone’s recovery, is slow and sometimes disrupted. The kicker, moreover, is that we are made in the image of this God. As the newspapers make unmistakably clear, we also are “in recovery” from violence. We share that addiction with the God in whose image we are made.”
As much as we might dislike violence and the hurt it causes, most of us have at some point used violence—physical, verbal or emotional—to force others in a particular direction or out of sense of revenge for being hurt. It is hard work to choose something else. Denis Bratcher, reminds us that “God chooses to do less than his law allowed. . . . Here is a God who is totally free, and who exercises that freedom, not in a capricious way, but for the sake of compassion and mercy.” God could have chosen the violence and destruction because the law allowed. How often we do we witness violence or punishment and say things like, “they deserved it” or “that’s what they get for…”
The witness of this scripture suggests that in the moments when we want punishment or revenge we are called to respond differently. But God doesn’t just throw up her hands and walk away at the end of the day. God remains present—still loving and still inviting into right relationship. There is a sense as this scripture moves on that God continues to encourage the Hebrew people to return to walking in God’s way and return to worshipping God. As followers of God and being made in God’s image, we are also being invited to struggle with how we use violence. We are being invited to choose love and compassion and mercy in our lives, in our relationships with the people around us. We are invited to seek hope and healing for the world rather than the destruction that comes with violence.