(Or What I Learned About Preaching Hosea in the Red-Light District)

When people hear that I visited Amsterdam on a sabbatical from teaching preaching at a theological seminary, they often ask, “Did you go to the red-light district?” I smile and answer, “Yes, I went to church there.” On a brisk November morning, my wife and I attended services at the Oude Kirk, the oldest church structure in the city that dates back to the 1500s—the state-approved pleasure district has grown up around it. There we worshiped with a small but proud congregation in a central space within the great unheated building, surrounded by the graves of past generations of worshipers, their flat stone markers serving as the floor. The preacher read the story of Jacob wrestling the man, the whole story from Genesis 32, two times in two different translations. I had learned enough by that time to know what was going on.

A few years earlier, while teaching literary-rhetorical approaches in a class on Genesis 37—50 (The Story of Joseph and His Family), I found the Genesis commentary by Karel Deurloo and Martin Kessler, so I contacted the authors and read as much as I could of what has come to be known as the Amsterdam school. Kessler sums up the method well: “The ‘Amsterdam combination’ has come up with a unique balanced style of exegesis, which takes seriously the text in its ultimate form…with a theological orientation directed toward a biblical theology rooted deeply in the text itself.” I made plans to visit Deurloo and others in Amsterdam to learn about Scripture study, but I also found these scholars are very committed to teaching biblical preaching and practice it themselves. A brief description will explain what I mean.

The Amsterdam school has maintained an appreciation for Jewish interpretation of Hebrew Scripture, recognizing the community that has preserved the text and a tradition for reading it, especially reading aloud. For example, Deurloo helped start a preaching group that he still attends 25 years later. Members take turns making a translation that becomes the basis for study and discussion. The translation preserves Hebrew wordplay and other rhetorical techniques, and it follows the cues of the Masoretic text for reading aloud by setting cola on different lines to mark where the reader breathes. We can do the same in hopes of recovering “a sense of spokenness, of rhythmicality, of recitation—a word not mastered by the timelessness of the written word.”

The Amsterdam school places its emphasis on close reading of the text before studying the original context or other historical matters. The study group I mentioned believes in the importance of sounding the words in the study and in the sanctuary. It also places great emphasis on careful reading and study of the words as they appear on the page. The pastors make their way slowly through the Hebrew text, collecting insights on the way. Often they will say, “Yes, I can use that,” or some Dutch equivalent to “That will preach.” The first to say, “Let the text speak for itself” when he wrote in the 1940s, Kornelis Miskotte gave priority to the Old Testament in biblical theology, centering on “the Name.” Today, the Amsterdam interpreters remind us the Scripture texts were designed to be read by later generations of believers, not just by an original audience.

Finally, the preacher/scholars of the Amsterdam school believe the key words and word pairs are the building blocks of a biblical theology. Those words draw together the particular message of the text and the larger development of themes throughout the parts and whole of the Hebrew Bible. The Old Testament does not speak in abstract categories, but in names of persons to whom God spoke and places where God acted. Often these descriptions come in pairs, such as “heaven and earth” or “exodus and exile.”

In short, through conversation with the scholars and preachers educated in Amsterdam (most I met are both), I learned once again that preaching is essentially an act of reading; that has strengthened my conviction that in order to preach well, we must learn to read well. Therefore, in this article I hope to offer some options for interpreting and preaching the prophetic books and illustrate by reading from Hosea 1Daniel 2Hosea 3.

If I may speak in some broad characterizations about the difficulties we have with preaching the prophets and reasons we may avoid them: 1) The prophets’ words are some of the hardest to read, interpret and apply; 2) The prophets’ words of judgment are not very inviting to listeners; 3) The prophets’ words sometimes seem to mean something quite different from the way the New Testament uses them.

As a way of handling these challenges, I want to propose three ways of reading I practice and teach that were reinforced and redefined in Amsterdam: 1) close reading that attends to the details of the text; 2) holistic reading that attends to the immediate context of the book; 3) intertextual reading that attends to the larger canonical context of the Old and New Testaments.

Close Reading
The prophetic narrative in the first three chapters of the Book of Hosea is distinct from the oracles to Israel that they introduce. From here preachers have drawn out the story of Hosea’s troubled marriage to Gomer, so it is the best-known part of the book. What else might be learned from a close reading of these chapters?

The first of the key words appears in verse 2. Whoredom (Hosea 1:2) is repeated three times in this verse (the root znh also shows up in vv. Hosea 2:4, Hosea 2:6, Hosea 1:7; Hosea 3:3; Hosea 4:10-18 [8 times]; Hosea 5:3; Hosea 9:1). Throughout Scripture, the word is used for any sexual activity outside of marriage, so while it can be used for prostitution, it doesn’t have to be. Here is it used to describe the adultery of Hosea’s wife and God’s people Israel. We read on and see that Hosea does just what God says to do, even though the command to “take a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom” is shocking; the jolt is part of the poetry, and we should keep it before our eyes.

Another cluster of key words appears three times in the names of Hosea and Gomer’s three children: the repetitions (and eventual reversal) of the names in verses Hosea 1:4-11Hosea 2:1 and Hosea 2:22-23 point toward restoration. The name of the first son Jezreel is symbolic of punishment (the name puns on Israel and means, “God scatters” or “God sows” depending on its context). So also in verses Hosea 1:6-9, the naming of two of their three children with the word not (Hebrew lo, “not shown compassion,” “not my people”) has hints of reversal, and already we hear words of punishment followed by words of promise: “But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God” (v. Hosea 1:7).

In sum, the main rhetorical device in these chapters is reversal, and that turnabout is central to Hosea’s message. Therefore the term compassion/mercy (root rhm) that frames chapter 2 and used throughout Hosea stands out as a key word and theme. Another reversal appears in the framework of chapters 1—3 that begins with a story of judgment and ends with Hosea’s first-person account of redeeming his estranged wife. The two stories frame the oracles of judgment and hope. Each of the major sections of the book does the same (vv. 4:1—11:11; 11:22—14:9). Each begins with the threat of judgment and ends with promise of salvation.

What is God doing here? The startling command to marry a woman called a whore or adulteress, followed by even more shocking commands to give names of rejection to their children, speaks to God’s pained and enraged reaction to Israel’s faithlessness. Would anyone do such a thing in real life? Of course not, the Lord seems to say, but that’s what I did in choosing you, Israel; you acted more like a whore than a wife, so I’m rejecting you in divorce and rejecting your children. Likewise, God’s words promise the reversal of that judgment and the restoration of the people.

Therefore, if we want to follow the text we will make more of the speech that initiates and explains the symbolic action than what happened in the prophet’s life. The two symbolic actions—taking a wife and bearing children in chapter 1, and taking a wife again in chapter 3—tell us less than we would like to know about the prophet’s family life. Rather, they tell us about the problems of God with Israel, problems attributed to a “spirit of harlotry” (vv. Hosea 4:12; Hosea 5:4).

Notice that our preaching often does the opposite. In our sermons we try to find ways to find contemporary human analogies in broken marriages or stories of steadfast human love in the face of unfaithfulness. While they may have their value, they always seem to fall short. Illustrative stories of marriages gone wrong and then renewed miss the point. Would anyone ever marry someone known to do what undermines marriage unless God commanded it? I believe it is better to use stories of unfaithfulness that are more illustrative of life as we know it to get at the surprise of God’s words.

For example, in the movie Ray viewers learn Ray Charles’ wife, Della, knew about his drug use and his many mistresses while away from home on the road; one of those lovers even had a baby, to whom Della secretly sent money to support. In time, she also had withdrawn physically and emotionally, still pleading for him to change. When he is caught with drugs the second time, she brings it to the crisis point. She hands him his son’s baseball trophy and says: “Look at it,” as he runs his fingers over its surface. “You were not there for his proudest day because you were high, and he knew it. I’ve stuck with you this long, but either you get help, or I’m leaving.” So, Ray Charles checked into rehab and followed up with counseling.

Now that sounds as if I’ve just turned the story of Hosea around. The wronged spouse wants to leave, not stay. However, don’t the oracles the story introduces say that if Israel continues to turn away from the Lord, there would be consequences, even divorce? Doesn’t the story of Ray get across the shock of the names (“Not loved, not my son”)? We believe it is just plain wrong for a father to reject or ignore his son, so that became the tipping point for Ray’s wife, Della. Hosea 1—3 is not a moral discovery based on experiences in the prophet’s life, nor is it particularly useful for marital counseling.

My point is that no story about the home life of the prophet or any contemporary analogy can improve on this story of a prophet acting on the word of command and then delivering the word of judgment and grace in the oracles. We make a mistake when we isolate the story from its context in the Book of Hosea and the history of Israel, drawing attention away from the Word of the Lord and perhaps even misreading the story. It is the difference between God’s love and common understandings of marriage and family that should be at the center of our preaching.

Therefore, I would preach the passage this way: “‘Go,’ says the Lord: ‘Take a spouse that I’ve told you will prove faithless, that you know will turn away from you. You wouldn’t do that, would you? Yet, that’s what I’ve done with Israel.’

“‘Name those children,’ says the Lord: ‘Jezreel, to remind Israel of its past in syncretism and violence, because that is what is in the land now again. Name those children No-Mercy and Not-My-People. You wouldn’t do that with your family, would you? Yet I will do that with Israel. Why? Because this divorce and total rejection is the only way you will see the effects of what you are doing. Listen to Me as I change the meaning of the names. There will be reconciliation because I will not go back on the promises I made to the people Israel. The children will be called, Mercy and My People (vv. 1:10; 2:1; 2:23). You wouldn’t expect Me to do that either, but I will.'”

In this way, the Word of YHWH is the primary actor (v. 1:1), reminding us to consider whether we give enough focus to what God is doing in our preaching. Marianne Meye Thompson has asked what would happen if we preached the gospel as the gospels do, making Jesus the subject of our sentences: Jesus heals, Jesus teaches, Jesus forgives…

Holistic Reading
A common image of the prophet is the solitary social critic, and so we think (paraphrasing the old saying), “If you can’t say anything nice, then you are probably cut out to be a prophet.” Preachers often ask how they might translate words and images of judgment directed toward Israel into principles for today. Perhaps we are tempted to preach the story of Hosea without naming the problem of spiritual adultery, glossing over the fact that we, as was ancient Israel, are tempted to chase after other lovers to provide what we need and want.

The scholars/preachers of Amsterdam invite us to look again at the wide range of prophetic themes as a reminder that the oracles of judgment and the oracles of salvation belong together. They recommend a holistic reading that attends to the dynamic unity of judgment and grace in the prophets. We see the key words and themes are linked so that every declaration and image of judgment is answered by an accompanying statement or picture of grace.

A simple computer search on the Hebrew word shub (root meaning “turn”) shows this interplay of judgment and promise continues throughout the book. Israel the wayward wife says, “I will return to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now” (v. 2:7), because the Lord has taken back her wine in season (v. 2:11); indeed, Israel will return and seek the Lord (v. 3:5). The Lord will repay them for their deeds (v. 4:9); indeed, their deeds do not permit them to return (v. 5:4), so the Lord will turn from them until they admit their guilt (v. 5:11). Then Israel will say, “Come let us return to the Lord” (v. 6:1).

At the time the prophet speaks, Israel refuses to turn to the Lord (v. 7:10) and instead turns to Baals (v. 7:16). As judgment they shall return to Egypt, and Assyria will rule over them (vv. 8:13; 9:3; 11:5). Finally, the prophet urges the people to return “to the Lord your God (v. 14:2), to take words and return (v. 14:3). In response, the Lord promises to hear because His anger has turned away (v. 14:5), and so they shall return and live in His shade (v. 14:8).

So the very arrangement of oracles proclaiming judgment and restoration guide us in maintaining a unity and balance of these themes. Making sure our preaching dispenses equal measures of judgment and grace will help us avoid the excesses of judgmental and moralizing preaching on the one hand and cheap and easy grace on the other. As one practical application, I’d like to recommend the trouble-grace dynamic as developed by Paul Scott Wilson.  Wilson instructs us to identify the concerns in the text and analogous concerns we have today. Those concerns either can be classified as having to do with trouble (human sin) or with grace.

Intertextual Reading
Sometimes, Christian readers claim the New Testament tells us all we need to know about the prophets because it shows how their words were fulfilled in the life and work of Jesus (although they often are surprised the words seem to mean something different in the Old Testament). Another way of putting it in broad caricature: The New Testament has done our work for us, selecting those texts that preach good news and providing a kind of Cliff Notes for the prophets. Even if this is not the view of the preacher, it may be in the minds of some who hear us preach, so we need to name it and present a more comprehensive approach.

Intertextual study shows us the New Testament writers’ use of the prophets grew out of their broad-based understanding of their message, not some selective quotation of texts. Those writers entered the long-standing Israelite practice of appropriating ancient texts for contemporary purposes.  New Testament quotation and allusion is an extension of a very old process of reclaiming tradition and giving it new meaning for the present time.

Intertextual study also helps us pay attention to the way these texts “speak to one another” as they are read, and it helps us ask deeper questions about what is being said when a text is quoted or “echoed.”  Too often commentaries and the sermons that use them are content to list an Old Testament source without providing any sense of why it was used or the theology at work there.

With that brief survey in mind, we can ask what the New Testament writers found in Hosea, and how we ca lead our listeners there. The phrase, “Not my people” is used three times (Romans 9:25-26; 1 Peter 1:9-10; Revelation 21:2-3), with the second stating, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Peter, citing Hosea, spoke of the church as beloved, as was Israel. That identification also includes rebellion: “once you were not a people…once you had not received mercy.” All of Israel’s story by analogy is the church’s story in an ongoing sense—called and covenanted in love, wandering away in foolishness, suffering the consequences, then taken back. “Once you were not a people,” names our own turning away. “Once you had not received mercy,” suggests we, too, were “by nature, children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).

Our own identification with the story of Israel means we think of ourselves as having a past that keeps us humble and self-aware. So, each week we preachers rightly proclaim that our sins are remembered no more and are removed as far as the east is from west, but we also declare the people of the Old Testament were told to remember their entire story including their follies and waywardness as a way to inspire thanks and faithfulness. It is not the happiest news, but it is sound theology. We are kept from presumption and pride when we remember how easy it is to fall.

One might say it is hard to live for God if you are always tied up, trying too hard to avoid sin; and with that I agree. A former professor of preaching at the seminary where I teach, Wesley Nelson, once had the students in chapel clutch their arms to their chests with clenched fists as a sign of self-control. “Can you live like that,” he asked, “or like this, opening your arms wide to receive grace?” That is my point exactly, that our identification with the story of Israel in Hosea means that when we hear Peter say, “now you have received mercy,” it means we hear our unworthiness, but also we also hear God say, “My people” with all the love and passion He sang for them.

As my wife and I left the Amsterdam church that November morning, I noticed there were men hosing down the streets and sweeping out the sex shops while some women were already taking their places in the storefront windows, waving to passers-by as they called them to come in. It seems everyone is involved in the business there, not just the women on display. So during my time in Amsterdam, I learned the story of Hosea and Gomer is not so much about a fallen woman as it is about a fallen people. As is often true of us, the people of Israel believed they could find what they wanted and needed from some other relationship, yet God still extended His mercy and love.

The readers and preachers of Amsterdam help us remember this truth with their focus on close reading that attends to key words and word-pairs, holistic reading that builds on the key themes of judgment and mercy, and intertextual reading that brings the riches of the Old Testament to preaching from the New Testament. Simply put, they carefully attend to the details of a text by reading it in ever-widening contexts. Deurloo reported the approach has been noted in the Netherlands churches. “We like the Amsterdam-trained preachers,” he said, “because they are biblical.” What more could we ask for our own preaching?

See also his sermon, “Take Words.”

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