From the Prophet Hosea:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hosea 11:8 – October 6, 2012)
This passage is one of my favorites in the book of the prophet Hosea. (I’m a fan of that prophet for a number of reasons and this little-remarked verse is one them.) Hosea’s major metaphor for the relationship of God with Israel is that of marriage. Hosea portrayed God as Israel’s “husband” and condemend the nation because of the “adulterous” relationship it had had with other gods. As a “prophetic act” Hosea married a prostitute named Gomer, with whom his relationship parallels that of God with Israel. He tells of Gomer running away from him and having sex with another man, but he loves her and forgives her. Similarly, even though the people of Israel worshiped other gods, Hosea prophesied that Yahweh continues to love his people and does not abandon the covenant with them. This verse, however, departs from that metaphor and presents, instead, a maternal and feminine image of God.
At the heart of this verse are two Hebrew words, one of which is translated as “heart”; the other, as “compassion”. The first is leb and in Judaic understanding it refers not merely to the body’s physical heart, but to the innermost being of the human person. It refers to the center of personal life, to a human being’s psychic and spiritual energies upon which the whole moral and religious condition of a person completely depends. Here, it is God who has this sort of inner core of being, and the center of God’s Being is inextricably linked in this verse with God’s compassion.
Our English word compassion derives from the Latin for “suffering together”; compassion is the ability to share in the suffering of another, to be empathetic. The Hebrew word translated as “compassion” is rechemet, which comes from the Hebrew root rechem which literally means “womb”. The Hebrew understanding of compassion is deeply maternal, rooted in a profound metaphor of birthing and motherhood; compassion in Hebrew thought might best be conceived not as “shared suffering”, but as “womb love”. This word applied to God conjurs a beautiful image of God as our mother doing all the amazing and miraculous things a life-giving, birthing mother does. She protects her unborn child; she nourishes, cradles, and prepares her child. She gives birth to her child and after delivering her child, how can she give up or forget her child? “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” asks God in Isaiah, “Even these may forget, yet I will never forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)
My father died when I was five years old and, though my mother remarried when I was ten, for five important formative years of my childhood my mother was the only parent I knew; so this maternal metaphor for God speaks loudly to me. I do not have a problem with patriarchal imagery and what hymnist Brian Wren called “kingafap language” (King-God-Almighty-Father-Protector) for God, but I know that many do. For them, Hosea’s and Isaiah’s maternal images may be even more powerful.
We must always remember that every word we speak, every image we conceive, every verse of Scripture we read about God is a metaphor and every metaphor is limited. Still, this often-overlooked verse from the prophet Hosea reminds us that we are God’s children and that at the center of God’s Being is the womb-love of a mother for her child, for us.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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