True love and marriage in the Old Testament: The book of Hosea

I picked up a copy of Abraham Heschel’s The Prophets the other day from the library for my next book. I have read Heschel’s God in Search of Man, and was stunned by his beautiful explanation of the Jewish faith. The Prophets seemed like a fitting book, as we are currently reading the Old Testament in Sunday School.

I wanted to touch on a chapter that has been most significant to me this past week. The chapter deals with a lesser-known prophet by the name of Hosea. Hosea was prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel prior to their scattering in the 7th century BC. He was king of Israel’s version of Jeremiah to the southern kingdom of Judah before they were taken captive into Babylon. One of the central themes in the book of Hosea is the story of his marriage and how it reflects the Lord’s relationship with his people:

Hosea was told by the Lord to marry a girl named Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, whom he loved. For a time they were happy in their mutual affection… Subsequently, however, he discovered that Gomer had been unfaithful and had given herself to many lovers. She could not remain his wife. She then left him, or was sent away by him. That was the legal way… But God’s way is higher than the legal way. The Lord said to Hosea: “Bring Gomer back to your home, renew your love for her, even as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other Gods.” Hosea did bring her back from the slavery into which she had fallen; the marriage was renewed. God cannot abandon Israel. He will not forsake her in spite of her faithlessness.

Hosea

 

In Judaism, this marriage arrangement was anything but conventional. “The account of this strange incident has puzzled commentators. They have found it morally repugnant that God should have commanded a prophet to remarry an adulterous woman. The suggestion has been made, therefore, that the incident took place in a vision or a dream and was never carried out in real life.” His community probably looked down upon him for even trying to make such a marriage work. But there was a purpose to it. I loved Heschel’s explanation:

As time went by, Hosea became aware of the fact that his personal fate was a mirror of the divine pathos, that his sorrow echoed the sorrow of God. In this fellow suffering as an act of sympathy with the divine pathos the prophet probably saw the meaning of the marriage which he had contracted at the divine behest… The marriage of Hosea was no symbolic representation of real facts, no act of recreating or repeating events in the history of Israel or experiences in the inner life of God. Its meaning was not objective, inherent in the marriage, but subjective, evocative. Only by living through in his own life what the divine Consort of Israel experienced, was the prophet able to attain sympathy for the divine situation. The marriage was a lesson, an illustration rather than a symbol or a sacrament. Its purpose was not to demonstrate divine attitudes to the people, but to educate Hosea himself in the understanding of divine sensibility.

Hosea’s marriage was intended for him to learn about divine love, so he could begin to fathom the depth of the love that God had for his people. It was only through personal experience that he could have learned that.

It reminded me of a similar explanation from a favorite author of mine, C. S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves. Lewis expands such a lesson beyond the scope of Hosea’s marriage, and examines how marriage in general teaches us of the Savior’s love:

The husband is the head of the wife just in so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church. This headship, then, is most fully embodied not in the husband we should all wish to be but in him whose marriage is most like a crucifixion; whose wife receives most and gives least , is most unworthy of him, is — in her own mere nature — least lovable. For the Church has no beauty but what the Bridegroom gives to her; he does not find, but makes her, lovely. The chrism of this terrible coronation is to be seen not in the joys of any man’s marriage but in its sorrows, in the sickness of sufferings of a good wife or the faults of a bad one, in his unwearying (never paraded) care or his inexhaustible forgiveness: forgiveness, not acquiescence. As Christ sees in the flawed, proud, fanatical or lukewarm Church on earth that Bride who will one day be without spot or wrinkle, and labours to produce the latter, so the husband whose headship is Christ-like (and he is allowed no other sort) never despairs….

To say this is not to say that there is any virtue or wisdom in making a marriage that involves such misery. There is no wisdom or virtue in seeking unnecessary martyrdom or deliberately courting persecution; yet it is, none the less, the persecuted or martyred Christian in whom the pattern of the Master is most unambiguously realized. So, in these terrible marriages, once they have come about, the “headship” of the husband, if only he can sustain it, is most Christ-like.

I believe there is purpose and wisdom to be gained not only in the good times in marriage, but in the hard times as well. Perhaps especially so. I would think that today’s culture takes such moments as a sign that something has been lost in the marriage, and that perhaps it signals that the marriage is coming to an end. The circumstances can’t be summarized into on hard rule, and each couple needs to prayerfully determine these things for themselves. This is no justification for remaining in an abusive relationship. But I think it gives needed perspective in showing one of the central purposes of marriage in God’s plan: to teach us from first-hand experience the depth of God’s love for his children.

Image: Amazing Love

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