Why Are We in Our Predicament? Hosea on the Failure of the Theologians

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This is a meditation upon encountering the Prophet Hosea.

Today is Day 200 of the Year 2022. There are 165 days left in this year. Every year I read through the Bible. To go through the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the Middle Testament (Apocrypha) and the New Testament, I average about three and a half pages a day, which translates to about 15 to 20 minutes at lunch every day. That puts us in the middle of Hosea for today, Hosea chapters 4-9. I interpret Hosea 4-14 as the “sermons” the prophet preached during the many years of living during chapters 1-3. His life is a parabolic message of the long suffering of Yahweh’s own experience.

Hosea, a man whose home life was a disaster, is the prophet of Hesed. Hosea would never make it past the initial screening of contemporary “ministerial search committees.” Israel (i.e. God’s people), like the prophet, is falling apart. The question is how and why? Hosea minces no words: The Theologians have Failed!

The “Theologians” are the priests and the prophets of Israel. Hosea 4.1-10 offers an analysis of the root issues in the whole book of Hosea. The “theologians” have neglected real ministry in verses 4 to 6. And verses 7 to 10 states that the disgraced theologians are the reason the “laity” (the people) are going astray. It is “like people, like priest” (4.9).

The short answer, Hosea insists, is the people have no idea who God is because the theologians do not know the ways of God themselves.

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge” (4.6).

God will deal with the failed theologians (4.5). But I am sure the “theologians” disagreed with Hosea. In fact the “church” denies the charge.  So, we hear them say in 8.2,

O, our God,
we acknowledge you!”

They in fact probably thought of Hosea as a false prophet. Just look at the bad joke of a family life he has.  

Hosea’s fundamental critique is the folks who are supposed to be most connected to deity have no idea what God is interested in. I find this troubling and bristle at the suggestion. Am I guilty?

Reading Hosea from within my religious tradition, located in the USA, is extremely interesting. Hosea never once tells the Israelites they are worshiping incorrectly (he does mention idolatry). He never tells them they should not go to Bethel. He never tells them they ought to be going to Jerusalem (the word Jerusalem in fact never occurs in Hosea). He does not chastise them for offering wrong sacrifices in the wrong places.

Hosea guts all of that. He says, rather, Yahweh wants something the theologians completely miss. God wants Hesed. God wants connection. God wants authentic relationships.

For I [Yahweh] desire HESED (steadfast love) not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment [da‘at] rather than burnt offerings.” (6.6).

If Hosea’s contemporary helps us out, we see that Israel of Hosea’s day loved “going to church.” They loved sacrifices. They loved the festivals. They loved singing the songs. They certainly imagined they “knew God.” Interestingly enough, Amos, likewise, never once accuses Israel of failing at Precision Obedience. He never says “your sacrifice is rejected because it should be in Jerusalem.”

Hosea comes along and reframes the entire discussion. The Theologians have failed because they did not teach what God actually demands. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

Hosea certainly deals with idolatry. It seems that idolatry and injustice are closely linked. The opposite is also true, knowing Yahweh and justice, on the other hand, are inseparable. The sin of the theologians (and the people) is greed (4.8, NRSV). Paul explicitly calls greed idolatry (Ephesians 5.5; Colossians 3.5). But Israel is greedy. They love money, not justice which is the manifestation of hesed. They are to “maintain love and justice” (12.6). But greed uses false scales and amasses wealth at the expense of others (13.7-8). The People of God are foundationally the opposite of Yahweh.  Hosea sums up charges in today’s reading,

There is no faithfulness [‘emet], no hesed,
no acknowledgment [da‘at] in the land
” (4.1)

The fundamental character of Yahweh was revealed to Moses by Yahweh in Exodus 34.6.  The heart of that “God Creed” is missing in the land. There is no ‘emet, there is no hesed.  The People cannot claim to know the God of Israel while devoid of truth/faithfulness and grace/steadfast love. Hosea immediately articulates what a lack of ‘emet and hesed looks like. And it looks like the second half of the Ten Words, bloodshed captures the whole (4.2) to the extent that “the land mourns” (4.3). Creation is suffering because there is no “faithfulness” (‘emet) and “steadfast love” (hesed) in the land (see also read 2.18-20 with 4.3).

I desire HESED rather than sacrifice” is Hosea’s way of saying what Amos had done earlier,

Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5.23-24)

When I read Hosea from my North American context, I wonder what he would say to the clergy theologians in our history. Do we know God?

Have we substituted precision obedience to rituals (let’s put aside the question of the the validity of the PO for the moment) while at the same time completely missing the boat about what the Torah, knowing God, is all about? The whole law is, according to the greatest interpreter of all, love God and love our neighbor (Mt. 22.34-40). That is in fact hesed with one another. Hosea knows the great Mosaic text of Deuteronomy 10.12-22.

Let me make this as applicable as possible to my tribe and myself. On any given day I can see dozens and dozens of memes, articles and posts (of the harshest kind) regarding:

– baptism (and precisely only baptism for the remission of sins)
– the sin of instrumental music
– the identifying marks of the true church
– Lord’s Supper every Sunday (and only on Sunday)
– Women are to be seen and not heard

Other stuff occasionally shows up as well. But the vast majority will be the above listed items. These come with great frequency. We would be forgiven if we believed that these folks believe the Bible is about baptism, about the sin of instrumental music, about the identifying marks of the church, about the frequency of Communion, etc.

Yet these same sisters and brothers never mention the poor, never mention loving the aliens (except as problems and being “illegal”!), never mention practicing Hesed. Those kinds of sermons (Baptism, Instrumental music, identity of the church) are the same sermons that were preached in Churches of Christ in Montgomery Alabama when Rosa Parks, Fred D. Gray and Martin Luther King Jr began a movement for HESED in the Bus Boycott in December 1955. And white Churches of Christ opposed it. They got on the TV and condemned it. They dared to say that no Christian could participate. The irony is that some of the preachers in those congregations could probably quote Hosea 4.6.

But twenty-two out of twenty-seven books of the New Testament never say an iota about the Lord’s Supper. There is neither a jot nor tittle about baptism in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude and Revelation. There is not a single verse anywhere in the New Testament that is about instrumental music (God apparently likes it in Revelation!). And some think this is, seemingly, the essence of Christianity.

Why are we where we are?
Because the Theologians have failed us.

We have entire congregations completely ignorant of Greek but will try to tell you about the word psallo, yet have never heard the word hesed (which Hosea declares to be the essence of knowing Yahweh). We will find debaters say “eis takes the accusative” (and literally have no idea what that means) but opposing any movement for justice and righteousness as foreign to God’s ways.

It was the Theologians who taught the people the “mark on Cain” was “blackness.” It was the clergy that taught us the “Curse on Ham” was chattel slavery upon the Children of Africa. It was the pulpit proclaimed that Black Women and Men were of a lower created order than whites (if human at all). It was supposed Bible scholars who defended racial slavery to the death and vowed to take up the gun to keep black image bearers in slavery. It was clergy that was the gatekeeper of white supremacy and established Jim Crow, segregation, and peonage. The Theologians did not “hold fast to love [hesed] and justice” (Hosea 12.6).

All the while various Christian denominations went to war with one another over this idea or that practice. They condemned each other to hell. But Methodists, Baptists, and yes, the Stone-Campbell Movement joined hands together before the idols of slavery, Jim Crowism, and white supremacy.

As God raised up Hosea, so Yahweh has sent Lemuel Haynes, David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr and many more. King addressed the Theologians of Birmingham Alabama in an epic Epistle from a Birmingham Jail in 1963. He laments the very things Hosea does. Look at all those steeples across the land … What God do they worship in those places?

And Hosea comes along and he most certainly could have excoriated Israel for its technical failures on the fine points of worship practices. But the inspired man of God never utters a peep about it. Instead he says, “your entire conception of being God’s people is utterly off base because you have no idea who God is and what God actually wants. Your theologians have misled you.” Neither the People nor the Theologians were happy with those words.

So badly are we misled that when a disciple comes along and does teach matters of justice, mercy, compassion, active love for aliens that disciple is called a “liberal” or a “social gospeler” or simply “not a Christian.”

I am a “theologian/minister.” I am not the enemy of ministers. I know many devoted, loving, hardworking, underappreciated ministers. But I also know that we (and I include myself here) Theologians are addressed by Hosea (he is hardly alone too). We often preach about things the Bible says not a word about and never say a word about the things it literally speaks to in hundreds of verses. We have failed to engage the biblical narrative and we have failed to teach what genuine knowledge of God is.

I desire HESED and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

According to the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord Jesus spent serious amounts of time reflecting upon Hosea. Perhaps that is why he commanded us to “go and learn” from the Prophet Hosea (Matthew 9.13; cf. 12.7).

With Malice toward none, I offer my lunch reflection upon today’s reading from Hosea.

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