Image: Hosea forgiving Gomer by Lucy Stothard
Today I wanted to share something a bit different. Since Lent is a season in which we’re encouraged to turn anew from sin and back to the God who loves us, I thought it might be nice to share an imaginative retelling of the story of the prophet Hosea. This is inspired by the Jewish tradition of midrash – putting flesh on the bones of Scripture.
For those who don’t know, Hosea lived in Samaria in around the eighth century BC. His steadfast love for his wife, Gomer, in the face of her repeated infidelity, paints a beautiful picture of the love God has for the people of Israel, but it also speaks of Christ’s love for the Church and that of God for the individual soul.
The name Hosea means ‘He saves’. It is an alternate form of the name Joshua > Yeshua > Jesus.
If you’re completely honest with yourself, you’re not entirely sure what he ever saw in you.
It’s not that you’re not attractive, of course. You are. You’re young and fertile and men look twice when they see you. You have something they want. In a world where women have no power, this knowledge makes you feel powerful.
Your people have a religion. Their God is the One True God, or so they claim. You’re not sure you believe this, and apparently a lot of your friends and neighbours aren’t, either. There are other people living nearby, and they have their own gods, their own rituals. Their rituals are a lot more exciting than the ones practiced by your own people. As soon as you’re old enough, you decide to give it a try. You discover that there are men who will pay to be close to you in the name of ‘worship’. This idea thrills you.
But Hosea is not like them. He’s a good man. A righteous man. He keeps the old religion, faithfully worships the God you’re not sure about. When he comes to you one day, you wonder for a second whether he might have been converted.
When he asks you to marry him, it’s all you can do not to laugh in his face.
But then you see the sincerity in his eyes, realise he’s serious. You’re about to refuse, but something inside tells you to consider his offer. After all, it’s not every day that a good, righteous man comes up to you with an offer of marriage. Especially not to a woman like you, a woman with a bad reputation. You can tell his intentions are good. He’ll protect you, provide for you. Might not be a bad thing. A girl’s got to think about her future, after all.
So you accept, and do your best to settle down, put the wild days of your youth behind you, be a good wife. You had your suspicions about your new husband at first because he seemed a bit too good to be true. As it transpires, he’s every bit as loving and faithful as he said he would be. You have enough corn, oil, wine and flax to keep you in comfort and security. It’s a good life. The first child comes along and, although you’re a little confused by your husband’s choice of name, everything seems to be going well.
A bit too well, in fact. Though you try to fight it, you can’t help feeling restless. Motherhood is harder than you thought and while your life is comfortable, it’s also a bit tedious. You start thinking about your old life. You know you’d be stupid to throw away what you have with this man. At the same time, you convince yourself that what he doesn’t know, can’t hurt him. One night, while he and your son are asleep, you slip out.
When the second and third children come along, you’re not sure whether or not they’re his, and you pray he won’t be able to tell. Bar two more unusual names, it’s not clear whether or not he’s figured out what you’re up to behind his back. You tell yourself you should probably quit before you get caught, but you can’t.
The problem is, people talk. One day your husband comes home, his face drawn in pain. Your heart drops to the pit of your stomach. He knows. In an instant, it’s all over. He renounces you publicly and your children do the same. Knowing the penalty for adultery in your society, you flee.
You have no place to go but to the Caananite temple, where you try to resume your old life, the life Hosea tried to save you from. You tell yourself it will be fine. You didn’t need saving in the first place. And for a while, it is fine. You earn enough to keep yourself, and you barely think about Hosea at all. After all, he knew what he was getting himself into when he married you. You’re sure he’ll get over it.
But then, little by little, the customers start drying up. At first you’re not sure why, but then you realise it’s probably because you aren’t quite as young and beautiful as you used to be. Your youth and looks were your currency, and you’ve spent them. Pretty soon, you find yourself out of a job.
Now you’re hungry, penniless and alone. By day, people cast scornful glances in your direction. They know what you are. By night, the wind blows cold and makes you shiver. Then all of a sudden, you come to your senses. Hosea’s a fool for love, and he always was mad about you. You’re sure that if you go back to him, he’ll take you back. The thought of your old life of comfort puts a spring in your step as you head off in the direction of his home.
You haven’t gone far when you’re taken captive by slavers. They beat you and put you in shackles. No, you plead, you don’t understand. I have a husband – I’m on my way back to him. They just laugh in response. Who would marry a woman like you?
The next day you find yourself in the market square, ready to be sold off like an animal. Your hair is matted, your face streaked with dirt and tears. You remember Hosea, how good he was to you, the life you had, your beautiful children. How could you have been so stupid?
The voice of the slave merchant rings out across the square. Who will give me thirty silver shekels for this woman? Your stomach twists itself into knots as you wonder who will buy you and what they might do to you. You don’t dare to look up.
Then another voice reaches your ears, calm and clear. I'll give you fifteen, and a bushel and a half of barley. It’s a voice you recognise, although for a second you don’t dare to believe it. Then, hesitantly, you look up, and your eyes fill with tears as you recognise the face of your estranged husband looking steadily at you through the crowd. Relief washes over you as you realise that he is the one who has bought you back. Your knees go weak, and he rushes forward to catch you.
You know your life is never going to be the same, of course. He has bought you back as a slave, not a wife, but you know he’s a good man who will treat you fairly. At least you’ll be fed and housed. Perhaps you might even get to know your children, albeit as their servant.
But then your new master starts acting rather strangely. He gives the children you once bore him new names. He takes you into the wilderness, brings you gifts, sings over you, speaks tenderly to you. You realise he’s courting you afresh, that he wants you back, not as a servant, but as a wife. He gazes at you with eyes filled with compassion, looking for a sign that you’ll return his love.
And it takes a while, but you do. Little by little, you learn to be faithful. You don’t always get it right, but he’s patient and kind. You start to truly know him, appreciate him in a way you never did before. Gradually, you learn to love and forgive others the way he has loved and forgiven you.
When people meet you now, they can’t deny that you’ve changed. You’re humbler. Nicer to be around. Slower to anger, more ready to bear with the faults of others. There’s a joy and gratitude about you that permeates everything you do, even on the hard days.
As for the God of your people, the God you weren’t sure about?
Well, you can’t say for sure, but it sort of feels like you’ve met Him.
by Lucy Stothard