Formations 07.26.2020: A Mother’s Love

Hosea 11

Hosea 11 begins with God lamenting Israel’s rebelliousness. Like a wayward child, Israel has rejected seemingly everything that God has ever done for them. In fact, the more God seeks them, the more violently they turn away.

How does God feel about this? In the opening chapters of Hosea, the prophet explores the metaphor of God as the jilted husband of an unfaithful wife. Chapter 11 expresses God’s heartbreak in different terms. Here, God longs for Israel as a mother longs for a wayward child. “How can I give you up?” God asks, “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (v. 8).

God feeds Israel—an exclusively feminine image in the era before formula and baby bottles, lifts Israel to the cheek, and yearns to comfort them even in their rebellion.

We’re accustomed to seeing God compared to a father in Scripture, and that is certainly a valid metaphor. But all metaphors break down if we press them far enough. Like everywhere else in the Near East, ancient Israel was a highly patriarchal society, and modern readers don’t really understand what that entails. I don’t care how strict or old-school your dad was, he was a softy compared to the ancient world’s ideal father.

Fathers were a law unto themselves in this culture. They held the power of life and death over the entire household, and they tolerated no dissent, no rebellion against their authority. It was literally their way or the highway.

I once had a student from Nigeria who helped my class understand what fathers are expected to be like in that kind of traditional society. Discussing the parable of the prodigal son, I asked him how the most traditionally minded people in his culture would react to the father running out to meet his wayward child and welcoming him home. He said a father might act like that, “but only after a lot of begging.”

So after the powerful maternal imagery in verses 1-4, God considers destroying Israel as Admah and Zeboiim were destroyed alongside Sodom and Gomorrah (see Deut 29:23). But God can’t do it: “I will not execute my fierce anger” (Hos 11:9). Why not? God tells us in verse 9, but unfortunately the NRSV misses the mark.

There are two Hebrew words that are commonly translated “man.” ’Adam means “man” as opposed to animals, angels, or God. Nowadays, translators are more likely to translate this word as “human” or “person.” The second word, ’ish, means “man” as opposed to woman. It refers to a male person or sometimes to a husband.

So why won’t God destroy Israel? “Because I am God and not an ’ish.” Literally, “I am…not a man” or “not a male.” God is not wrapped up in the power dynamics of patriarchy. Ultimately, God deals with Israel not with an ancient patriarch’s iron fist but with a mother’s warm and tender compassion (v. 8).

Discussion

• How closely did your parents conform to “traditional” gender roles? How does this shape your understanding of mothers and fathers?
• How can Hosea’s maternal imagery shape our understanding of God and God’s love?
• How does God the mother who cares for Israel relate to the earlier metaphor of God the husband who punishes Israel?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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