Marriage vows presume that both spouses know, with all that biblical innuendo, and love the other; however Hosea described God as a jilted lover—unloved by the people He covenanted to be with, Israel. There was no knowledge of God in the land (cf. Hosea 4:1c). Hosea named the people’s wanton abandonment of God as the root of their problems, though clearly Israel had other sins (e.g. violence, injustice). Derek Kidner observes”Sin can be against oneself (1 Cor. 6:18) and against one’s neighbour; but the flouting of God is always the length and breadth of it.”1 The big sin of Israel was their bad religion: the worship of idols.
Politics and religion weren’t easily divided in the Ancient world. Kings were masters of coopting religious language to effect their imperial aims (not much changed there). Priests—purveyors of religious devotion—called afternoon showers signs of God’s blessing instead of speaking truth-to-power and naming where things went amiss. But kings and priests were not alone in rejecting their covenant God. The people of Israel likewise rejected YAHWEH and chased after the gods of the nations.
N.T. Wright writes, “You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship.”2 One of the problems with idolatry is that we become bad versions of ourselves. Bad religion makes us bad people. We are as in danger of spiritual malformation as Israel was. Hosea 9 begins with this snapshot of religion gone bad:
Do not rejoice, O Israel!
Do not exult as other nations do;
for you have played the whore, departing from your God.
You have loved a prostitute’s pay
on all threshing floors. (Hosea 9:1)
Threshing floors were large communal properties, flat ground, where the farmers gathered to thresh and winnow the grain. Because of the economic importance of agriculture, these threshing floors doubled as open-air facilities for religious rituals, business transactions, and public gatherings. The Ancient Near East worship of the surrounding neighbors took the shape of fertility cults. Temple prostitutes were employed for their services—drunken orgies of delight were meant to appease Baal and ensure the fertility and prosperity of the land.
Israel was simultaneously obsessed with sex and their own economic security. Imitating the nations, their worship employed sex with prostitutes as a technique to ensure a good harvest and prosperity for the nation. But economic security was meant to be a byproduct of faithfulness to Yahweh, and not a result of religious technique and ritual. False worship led to using people (in this case, prostitutes) to achieve economic growth. The unhappy result for Israel was crop failure and famine (9:2), military defeat and exile (9:3-7, 15-17). Hosea warned of the coming judgment but Israel decried this prophet as a mad fool (9:7).
We may cringe at the particulars of ANE religion, but are we really that far removed? Are we not, as a nation, likewise obsessed with sex and economic security? We just elected a president who promises to fix our economy and bragged on video about sexually assaulting women. But Trump’s presidency is merely symptomatic of our American idolatry. One curious feature of our democracy is that our government of the people, by the people and for people
elects a leader every four years, which reflects the soul of the nation. We may decry Trump’s orange glow, petulance and his tiny hands forming a Vitarka Mudra
, but he is a mirror to us of our own inner life. Like our president, we are fearful and angry at the world, worried about the economy, distrusting both the media and the establishment, and we prefer our own alternative facts to the true truthiness of truth.
If Wright is right and we are becoming like what we worship, what does this say about us? Israel’s worship of idols caused them to forgot their God
which also caused them to forget the image of God in their women. They used them for sexual pleasure (and to procure financial gain). What is the god envisioned in America’s cultural landscape? Is it the god of the prosperity gospel, promises riches to those where to sow the right seeds? Is it the hedonist god of celebrities—narcissistic and decadent? Does the god of our nation value the dignity of all human persons as co-bearers of God’s image? Or are some humans viewed as less worthy than others? Does our god thwart justice for women, orphans and aliens dwelling in our land?
It is not enough for us to assert we are a Christian nation. In the years leading up to Israel’s exile, when they were an Assyrian vassal state, Yahweh was still nominally Israel’s God.3 In reality the people (and their leaders) were worshipping at a different altar. If the God who is revealed to us in Scripture was at the center of our national life, our priorities (political or otherwise) would look vastly different. Like Israel of old, bad religion has poisoned the well and there will be reckoning.
God break down our idols that we who are made in your image, can represent you and be your Presence on the earth. In our hearts and in our land, let us make You great again.
1. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 208
2. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 148.
3. Interesting to note that the oracle of Hosea 9, never mentions Baal worship, just bad religion.