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"Lesser Known Women of the Bible - Gomer"

Hosea 1:1-9 & 3:1-5

Am I real? Or am I allegory?

If I am real, the meaning of my name is almost prophetic, an early indication of where so many have assumed my life led. For “Gomer” comes from the Hebrew verb גמר/gamar and means “to complete or bring to an end.”[1] A tongue-in-cheek moniker for a woman who’s been dismissed by generations as a harlot, a fornicator, a whore.

I will be the first to admit that I am not a perfect woman. It’s possible I have not always been faithful to my husband. In my male-dominated world, this is a shocking “first-class offense”[2] for men have “absolute right to the sexuality”[3] of their women. I have been branded as the worst kind of woman so often and so long it matters very little that the root of the word Hebrew word znh, which your Bible translates as “whoredom,” “commonly refers to either a promiscuous person or someone, usually female, who is merely displeasing in some way.”[4]

For years your interpreters have created elaborate, sensational backstories for me.[5] In the 20th century, scholars described me as “a temple prostitute who had sex with the priest of the god Baal as part of a fertility ritual.”[6] I suppose it’s unimportant that there’s no basis for such a description in the text, or that scholars now know prostitution is not part of my people’s religious practice.[7] It seems I will remain a pariah, an example for other women to avoid.

Even your modern novelists cannot resist my story, transforming it into a sweeping romance during the California Gold Rush. Soon my story will be a movie and reinforce the message that I am a poor, misguided woman who needs saving by an uncommonly patient, God-fearing man. At least I hope the message will be so generous.

But how does my story change if I do not share my body but am merely displeasing to my husband? Does that remove your visceral reaction to me? Does such knowledge ease your emotional response to hearing me described with such loaded, ugly words?

My story is told in snatches. Bits and pieces are woven together for my husband’s prophetic purpose. I am the mother of three children and play a central role in Hosea’s story. My history, actions, and very person are a source of stress and contention for my husband, yet you never hear my voice. You “have no access to [my] perspective.”[8]

How do I feel about marrying Hosea? If I were honest, would I own my promiscuity? Or know only that my husband finds me displeasing? If I’d been given a choice, what would I have named my children? Did I care about my husband, who was tasked by God to wed me?

And if I am real, how do you respond to the second chapter of my husband’s work? Read it and you will see his threats to withhold my food and clothing, expose the most private parts of my body, end my laughter, and destroy my vineyards and orchards. In short, Hosea makes no secret of his plans to publicly humiliate me as “compensat[ion] for his own public loss of honor”[9]

You will understand the most insidious parts of Hosea’s plans for you know that battered women, after being punished, after being abused, will often be seduced by their husbands as Hosea outlines in his second chapter.[10] Battered women will also be pursued by their husbands as I am in Hosea’s third chapter, pulled from the new beginning I made thinking myself free of his control.

If I am real, can you settle your heart after hearing my story? Or do I make you uncomfortable and unsure? One more story in the Bible you don’t know what to do with? Is it easier for you if I am allegory?

To be fair, most modern scholars don’t believe I am real. Not a living woman but a literary device the Minor Prophet - remember “minor” has to do with the length of the prophet's work, not his importance - Hosea uses to describe the intimate relationship between God and the people.

Writing in the eighth century BCE from Israel, the northern kingdom, Hosea’s prophetic voice sounds at a tumultuous time. This is after the death of Jeroboam II and Israel is “plagued by several assassinations of its kings, court intrigue, imprudent political alliances, the Syro-Ephraimite war, and incursions into Israelite territory by the Assyrian leader Tiglath-pilser III.” In a few years – 721 BCE – Israel will fall to the Assyrians and it’s into this political instability Hosea’s living and speaking.

He struggles with what he sees as the Israelites’ perversion of their religion as they chase after Baal the Canaanite storm god and other Canaanite deities. Hosea cannot tolerate what he sees as the people abandoning YHWH or, at minimum, making other gods YHWH’s equal.

So, he creates me, a “literary motif”[11] your scholars call “the ‘prophetic marriage metaphor.’”[12] This is not a new approach, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel used this tool as well. But Hosea’s metaphor is particularly vivid as he casts himself, the husband, as God and me, the unfaithful and promiscuous wife, as the people.

This metaphor wouldn’t be problematic if I were created as Hosea’s equal. If our marriage – real or allegorical – was entered into willingly. But as you know, in my world men have the power and marriage is not about equality but ownership. I am not given a voice or a choice in my union to Hosea and am painted from the first as unfaithful. Hosea, on the other hand, is faithful, a “noble male character who…lower[s] himself”[13] to marry me.

Woman bad, man good. Woman sinful, male divine. If I am allegory, then the picture I paint is one of misogyny and patriarchy. If I am allegory, the picture I paint is one of a people in an abusive relationship with God who relishes their suffering.

And while later in Hosea’s work God’s frustration and hurt give way to Her constant, unbreakable love for the people, I remain. Neither a real woman to be mourned nor a workable allegory in your time of female equality and the continued dismantling of the patriarchy.

So then, what am I?

There are no easy answers to this question. How do you live in the tension stories such as mine create? How do Hosea’s words and writing tools make you feel about God? What can you possibly take from my story?

Perhaps my story fully examined can serve as a reminder that while Hosea’s words are ancient and culturally driven, you do not have to communicate along the same gendered lines. The prophet created me to drive his work and develop a metaphor people could easily understand. Along with this good work, he developed an outlook that through me paints women as sinful and in need of saving by long-suffering faithful men. If such rhetoric is not understood for what it is and reserved in its historical context you run the risk of allowing wildly unequal and unhealthy comparisons to be drawn between men and women.

And if nothing else, my story serves as your reminder to acknowledge that there are voices in your own world you do not hear. That’s why I, Jillian, tried to put words to Gomer’s story this morning. Not to speak for her, not to assume that even if she is allegorical that I understand the life of ancient women. But to remind myself of all the voices I don’t hear. All the voices it’s more comfortable for me to blur into background noise.

As commentator J. Blake Couey says so well, this passage encourages us to reflect on “who gets to speak for themselves in our society and who has their identity defined for them without getting to weigh in.” Do we treat them as real people or uncomfortable allegories?

My friends, it’s time for us to be quiet and listen.

[1] [2] “Hosea” by Gale A. Yee from Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Editors, pg. 210 [3] Ibid. [4] David G. Garber, “Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10,” from Working Preacher, [5] J. Blake Couey, “Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10,” from Working Preacher, [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid. [9] Newsome and Ringe, pg. 212. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid. [12] Ibid. [13] Ibid.

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