Commentary on Hos 11:1, 3-4, 8-9
This lovely chapter on the relationship between Yahweh and Israel corresponds to 2:4-25, part of which we read on Monday, though here Israel is not the beloved, unfaithful wife, but rather the child ungrateful for all the love he has received.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him.” For Hosea the beginnings of Israel’s history begins with dark days of slavery in Egypt and the liberation of the Exodus. As we saw before, he sees the long journey through the desert as a golden age in Israel’s relations with Yahweh. He does not seem to know or ignores some of the great incidents of the earlier patriarchal period.
The imagery, too, as mentioned, changes from Israel as the unfaithful spouse to that of the ungrateful child. And that “childhood” is seen as beginning with the liberation from Egypt.
“Out of Egypt I called my son”, is the loving expression of that liberation. It is used by Matthew (2:15) in his gospel as a foretelling of Jesus returning from the flight into Egypt back to Galilee.
But it is a call that is now being spurned more and more. “The more I called them the farther they went from me.” (Incidentally, is there an image of this in the parable of the Prodigal Son?) Instead, they sacrificed to Baals and burned incense to idols. These are seen as acts of total ingratitude. For “it was I who taught Ephraim [another name for the Northern Kingdom, Israel] to walk” in the Lord’s way. It was Yahweh who took Israel lovingly in his arms. It would be difficult to find a more tender image of Yahweh in the whole of the Hebrew Testament.
“I drew them with human cords, with bands of love” indicates a truly intimate and loving relationship. Yahweh does not force them as one leading draft animals but draws them to himself with gentleness and affection. “I fostered them, i.e. the people of Israel-Ephraim, like one who raises an infant to his cheeks.” Could one find a more gentle and touching image, picture a more tender scene of love between father and child?
In spite of that, “though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know I was their healer”, that I was the One – and not the Baals – who made them whole, who fulfilled the deepest needs of their lives. The tender love of the father is spurned and brushed aside.
In other passages of the Old Testament where God’s reaching out to his people is spurned, the response of the prophet is to speak of Yahweh’s rage, anger, vengeance and the threat of terrible punishment. Here God’s reaction is shown as altogether different.
“How could I give you up, O Ephraim; deliver you up, O Israel?” How could Yahweh treat Israel, his beloved child, with the fate of Admah and Zeboiim, two cities which were destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah (mentioned in Deut 29:22)?
On the contrary, his “heart is overwhelmed, [his] pity is stirred”. Yahweh is angry with his child but he will not destroy him again. The reaction is less of anger than one of grief and of compassion for a people who do not know the significance of what they are doing.
And the reason is very clear: “For I am God and not man.” Although Israel has revealed the unreliability of the human character, God will not be untrue to the love he has shown toward Israel. Israel will be chastised but not destroyed. Yahweh is “the Holy One present among you”. He will not stoop to human ways of reacting. This is a breakthrough in Old Testament thinking; something quite new.
It is normal for us humans to hit back when we are rejected, humiliated and insulted. We call it being “only human”. And it is understandable to project our ways of behaviour on God. But our God is not “only human”. He transcends our tendency to react emotionally. He rather sees the weakness and the blindness of the one who rejects and insults. God does not need to defend himself or his good name. Nothing can change that. He thinks only of the one who is showing hurt in trying to hurt another.
We can see this demonstrated so clearly in the whole life of Jesus, who is “the Holy One present among us” and most clearly in his Passion. He it was he who told us to “turn the other cheek” and to pray for our enemies and those out to destroy us and who showed us the way by his own example. We are called to go beyond being merely “human”, that is, yielding blindly to our feelings and to operate out of a deeper level of understanding and from a position of inner security which does not need to hit back or to lower oneself to the level of the attacker.
Today’s passage should be an inspiration for us to try to become more and more like our God, with the help of the example of Jesus’ life. It is this frame of mind that Jesus urges on us when he says: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48) or as it is put in Luke’s gospel: “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36).
Let us react less in brittle anger and touchiness and reach out more in compassion to those who can only relate out of fear and insecurity of which their abusive language or anger is a symptom.