There are bad dads and then there are bad dads. Some fathers subject their kids to cruel disciplines to teach them a lesson. Hosea was cruel to his kids to teach his country a lesson. He named his kids awful things, so his country would know how bad things had gotten. He was a very bad dad. Okay, so God was the one who told Hosea what to name his kids, but this fact makes me glad I am neither a prophet or the son of a prophet. If you don’t know the story, here are the details from Hosea 1:
When God first spoke to Hosea, he told him to find a prostitute for a wife (more about this in a later post). He married Gomer, daughter of Diblaim and together they had three children. The first was a son. Hosea called him Jezreel and God’s behest. The name was a double entendre. It referenced the valley of Jezreel, the place where Jeroboam II’s great grandfather, Jehu, deposed the previous royal family, the house of Omri. Evil queen Jezebel’s body was torn to shreds by dogs at Jezreel, the king and the rest of the family were massacred, just as the prophet Elijah foretold (2 Kings 9). This was God’s judgement on Israel’s kings for leading the Israelites into Baal worship. When Hosea named his son Jezreel, he was warning Jeroboam. A similar judgement would await him if he and his family didn’t repent of their own idolatry and wicked dealings. The name Jezreel also means YHWH scatters (or sows). It foretold future judgment—a nation scattered to the wind and carried into exile by the Assyrian army.
The next time Gomer got pregnant, she gave birth to a bouncing baby girl. God told Hosea to name her Lo-Ruhamah, meaning Not-Shown-Mercy or Unloved. Knowing Gomer’s history, Hosea’s friends may have wondered if the name indicated the child was not really his; yet the reason for the name Lo-Ruhamah wasn’t personal but theological. The Lord would “no longer show mercy on Israel or forgive them.” The child, in name, became the embodiment of Israel’s broken relationship with God. When Gomer weaned her daughter, she became pregnant again with another boy. Hosea called him, “Lo-Ammi”—Not my people. So, Hosea named his kids after a national Massacre (like calling your first born Wounded Knee), Unloved and Not Mine!
I don’t know how Hosea’s kids turned out, but eventually these younger two get a name upgrade: “Say to your brother, Ammi, and to your sister, Ruhamah”(Ho 2:1, NRSV), meaning ‘my people’ and ‘loved one.’ The older son, Jezreel hears how his name, YHWH sows, will come to describe God himself re-sowing Israel. The scattered will be gathered, the unloved will be shown mercy and will be valued, a rejected people will find themselves back in their Lord’s embrace.
Still, Hosea and Gomer’s three children spent the first several years of their lives enduring constant negative messaging from their father (and Heavenly Father?). This is significant time for early childhood development. Healthy attachment sets children on the path toward future success. Did Massacre, Unloved and Not Mine experience the love of their parents? Did Hosea hug and nurture his sons and whisper to them how much he loved them? Did he tell his little girl she could become anything she wanted to be? Did he swell with pride at every developmental milestone? And smile as they mispronounced words and laugh at their nonsense rhymes? When his children grew, did they feel their father understood and respected them? Did Hosea’s stern demeanor soften as he aged? Or did his prophetic austerity make him always enigma to them?
We don’t have enough information to know what kind of father Hosea really was. We only know he named his kids horrid things as an object lesson (I’ve been a pastor and I know how easy it is to carelessly turn your kids into object lessons). My guess was he really was a bad dad, the way we all were when we first became fathers. He, like us, was human, and thus a mess of contradictions. Thankfully the final word Hosea hears God declare over his children speak of restoration, hope, return, renewal, love, life.
Hosea’s names for his kids shock us today. I don’t think the names were any less of a shock in his own time. Hosea wanted to make vivid for his compatriots the reality of God’s judgement and their brokenness and alienation from God. Does Hosea’s kids’ names make vivid our own sins too? Will it shake us to repentance? Can we learn from this bad dad?
What is our Jezreel? In what ways do our leaders repeat sin and unhealthy patterns of the past? Manifest Destiny and the American Militarism? The idolatry of consumerism? How are we cut off from God’s mercy? How do we fail to trust God, and continually reject Him by our actions? In what ways are we not God’s people?