“I Will Betroth You to Me in Lovingkindness”: God’s Hesed in the Book of Hosea as an Apologetic Tool
According to Richard Dawkins:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.1
One example he finds grievous is the jealousy of God in the Old Testament, which he attributes to insecurity.2 The caricature Dawkins’ describes is a deified infant, violently incapable of coping with humanity’s free will.
When taken as a whole, the Old Testament contradicts Dawkins’ hermeneutical train wreck. Over and over again, the stories echo of a God willing to pursue His chosen people out of love for them and the entire world (Genesis 12:3), despite suffering rejection. Anyone with a basic understanding of the covenantal relationship between God and His people understands the natural consequence of Israel’s infidelity was exile and loss of intimate fellowship with God.
Without the bigger picture, the consequences of Israel’s spiritual adultery may seem extreme. Given a more nuanced hermeneutic, the pain Israel suffered as a result of their actions was actually God’s providential method of getting their attention to guide them into renewed relational intimacy. God does not punish out of insecurity or abusiveness but with a corrective posture.
C.S. Lewis honed in on this truth in The Problem of Pain when he observed, “No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”3 One of the most cogent Scriptural examples of this concept can be found in the prophet Hosea’s relationship with his unfaithful wife, Gomer.
The prophet Hosea ministered sometime in the eighth century to the pre-exilic Northern Kingdom of Israel. God instructed him to take a “wife of harlotry” with whom he had three children (1:2, NASB). At some point, a cataclysmic shift in their relationship occurred and she left him, likely due to a relapse into her old ways. Even though Hosea felt confident in saying their relationship was over (2:12), God instructed him to “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress” (3:1a). Though the text never reveals what exploits Gomer had gotten into, but she was in slavery when Hosea found her. He bought her back but she had to be broken of her habitually unfaithful behavior by being forced into seclusion before the relationship could be restored (3:3-4), a pattern which mirrors Israel’s experience in exile.
The unfolding drama in the book of Hosea is symbolic of God’s love for His idolatrous people. The purpose is to show God’s hesed. This Hebrew word can be found in 2:19 where God says, “I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness [hesed] and in compassion” (emphasis added). The NIV translates it as “love,” while the NLT says “unfailing love” and the ESV chooses “steadfast love.” Although these are certainly good translations, they miss out on the fullness of the word. The more complete understanding is in the covenantal picture of a “life-long, faithful marital covenant.”4 In light of this, God is depicted as “jealous” in Hosea (13:4-6; also see Exodus 34:14 and Deuteronomy 4:24). Yet, it is not a petty jealousness derived from psychotic narcissism. Rather, this jealousy is based on the violation of a sacred, covenantal relationship, making it wholly valid. If a husband is not jealous of his wife’s marital unfaithfulness, it is a cause for concern because it proves a lack of real love. So it is with God and His people.
When Dawkins and other New Atheists provide their laundry list of objections to the God in the Bible, they attempt to show that God is petty and, as a result, created in our image.5 While Scripture as a whole contradicts this, the story of Hosea and the concept of hesed offers a tangible Old Testament counter-argument. The narrative shows His unrelenting and unconditional love. Even while His people reject Him, He continues to pursue with what Catholic mystic Brennan Manning describes as the “furious love of God” which “knows no shadow of alteration or change. It is reliable. And always tender.”6 A jealousy rooted in insecurity is self-serving. However, jealousy based in covenantal depth creates an avenue for reconciliation and redemption. Hesed is the prophet willing to redeem his wife from her way of prostitution to restore their marriage. It is God willing to redeem His people from exile and restore their covenantal blessings. It is Christ crucified on the hard wood of the cross with his arms outstretched, inviting all to be rescued from sin and restored to himself. The rhythm of hesed drives the narrative of the Old Testament and salvation history as a whole. Maybe Richard Dawkins cannot see this, but for Christians it is evident that God is good and God is love (1 John 4:8). The value of this identity as an apologetics tool should not be overlooked.
(1) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 51.
(2) Ibid., 278-79.
(3) C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper One, 2002), 605.
(4) Elizabeth Achtemeier, Minor Prophets I, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 28.
(5) These critiques are not new, such were also the accusations of early heretics including Marcion (85-160 CE).
(6) Brennan Manning, The Furious Longing of God (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), 35.