Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, “When Gomer Looks More Like God”

Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney

At the Nevertheless She Preached Conference, Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney nourished my mind and spirit with her life-giving, female-affirming sermon on the book of Hosea.

Sermons I have heard on this biblical book have focused on the unfaithfulness of Israel, imaged as Gomer, the “adulterous” wife of Hosea. In these interpretations of the relationship between God and Israel as a marriage, Hosea represents God, and Gomer represents Israel. Hosea forgives Gomer, as God finally forgives the repentant Israel.

In her sermon Rev. Dr. Gafney sets the record straight, reversing the symbolism of the Divine as male and the sinful as female. Her sermon illuminates Gomer as the most compelling image of the Divine in the book of Hosea.

Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney

You can read the full text of  Rev. Dr. Gafney’s powerful sermon, “When Gomer Looks More Like God,” on her blog. Here are excerpts:

Some men love to call women whores. Some women do too. The biblical writers use the word whore and accusations of whoring freely and freely attribute them to God. Reading a text like Hosea can easily have you convinced God–or somebody–is fixated on women’s bodies and sexuality as though we are the genesis of everything that is wrong with the world. (I’m looking at you Tertullian and your modern day disciples who are too numerous to name.) Today I want to talk about what happens when that pastor you respect and believe hears from and speaks for God starts slut-shaming women from the pulpit and then before you know it, you are the woman he is calling a whore and it is your children he is publicly denouncing as bastards. What would you do if he was your pastor? What would you do if he was your husband?

When I shared these questions online I got two interesting responses. From a woman, “I hope I would gather my little ones and walk out. But that kind of insult could render a woman almost unable to move. Shame on that pastor!” From a man, “Curb stomp him into the pavement as the congregation watched.” To each of them I replied, “That’s not how people treat the book of Hosea or any other biblical book in which women are accused of whoredom or Israel is accused of whoring just like a woman.”

Reading Hosea as scripture means taking seriously that as a part of the canon it holds authority; however that authority is assessed from community to community and person to person. For me that means I can’t easily write Hosea off, not as a pastor, priest, or preacher, and certainly not as a black woman who is a womanist. The spittle-laced violence with which this word has been imposed on women and girls often accompanying or preceding physical violence, and the enduring emotional and spiritual violence it begets mean that I cannot remain silent on this text. Neither can I by any means leave its proclamation and interpretation solely to the lips of those who will never hear this epithet hurled towards them.

But I don’t run from a fight or a hard text or a fight with a hard text. I believe in wrestling the bruising words until I squeeze a blessing out of them, no matter how down and dirty it gets or how out of joint I get. So I’ve been preaching about women called whores and the men, prophets, and God who use that language for some time now. I also don’t run away from the word whore or soften it to harlot because that’s not a word we use, but every day some woman somewhere is being called a whore. . . .      

The texts of Hosea and Jeremiah present prophets who heard and spoke for God in and through the vernacular of their culture. As Dr. Weems taught us (in Battered Love), that vernacular was androcentric with a mean misogynistic streak, and in a shame/honor society the worst thing you can call a man is a bad woman. But I know that God is bigger than all of our images and idioms including biblical ones, and I know no one is disposable no matter how the text frames them. While some of you can roll with Hosea’s God I needed a different vision of God, so I went looking for and to Gomer and her daughter, Lo-Ruhamah, she whose name meant She-Will-Not-Be-Mother-Loved, there will be no mercy, pity, or compassion for her.

That name is assigned to Gomer’s baby girl before her birth and waiting for her at the exit from her mother’s womb to shape her destiny and serve as an example to Israel. She is a sermon illustration, whether God’s or Hosea’s. But how did we get here? The text would have us believe God told Hosea, “Go find you a ho.” I have questions for male religious leaders who condemn women’s expressions of sexuality but find loopholes for their own.

Then we meet Gomer bat Diblaim. In spite of the way the deck of the text has been stacked against her, not even the text calls Gomer a whore. What it does call her is daughter of Diblaim. Whether Diblaim is her mother’s name, her father’s name or her home town she is somebody. She is somebody’s child. She comes from somewhere. She has a name. She has people. Whore is not her name. Her name is Gomer and unlike the vast majority of women in the Hebrew Bible her name is among the nine percent of all names in the Hebrew Bible that belong to a woman. Her name is Gomer. Whore is not her name. 

In chapter two God will accuse Israel of whoring, threatening her with violence. The portrait of Hosea’s God in these two chapters is more batterer than beloved, even with the wilderness reconciliation and second honeymoon in the promised land; it all reads like a domestic violence cycle. In chapter two with all the references to land it is clear that Israel is the whore, a slur intended to infuriate and humiliate into repentance the men who led Israel. Yet in our text Gomer is never called a whore.

The reader/hearer is supposed to assume that Gomer is a whore because she is who Hosea chose. In fact there is nothing in what the text discloses about Gomer that makes her out to be a whore if that is supposed to be code for prostitute. The standard translations, wife of whoredom, harlotry, or prostitution, seem to miss the fact that the word at stake, zanah, is one letter away from the word that means sex-worker, zonah. Dr. Gale Yee (in the Woman’s Bible Commentary) teaches that promiscuous is the better translation. Translation matters. And who translates matters. Gomer is a promiscuous woman; woman and wife are conflated into a single word in Hebrew. Now I hear the charge to Hosea differently: God called Hosea to marry a promiscuous woman. . . .

Now, somehow the good prophet knew exactly where to find a promiscuous woman. And he knew how to woo and wed a woman who made her own choices about her own body. It would seem that Hosea had untapped depths. Then Gomer did what faithful wives in that context did, she gave birth to a son for him. . . .

Gomer, like Isaiah’s partner, partners with God in the production of this prophetic sign-child. She is more than a clergy spouse who types, edits, and gives feedback on sermons. Without her there would be no sermonic baby for God to name. God names Gomer’s baby Yizrael, one letter away from Yisrael, just as promiscuous is one letter away from whorish in Hebrew articulation. Yizrael, Jezreel, is the place where Jehu went on a killing spree and assassinated Jezebel’s son King Jehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah after Elijah anointed him. He then had Jezebel thrown to her death and trampled under horse and hoof on the killing ground that was Jezreel in Jehu’s bloody game of thrones. God said name the baby Jezreel, “…for I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel.” Gomer’s son is a living word of prophecy that she birthed into the world proclaiming judgment against a man who thought his anointing entitled him to do anything he wanted. 

Some years pass, one, two, perhaps five, while Gomer wifes and mothers with scandal hanging on her name but no evidence of scandalous behavior since her marriage. Whoever she was in the past is past, but folk just won’t let it go. Then Gomer and Hosea have another child, another living breathing word of prophecy that Gomer births into the earth. This child, Gomer’s daughter, has an even heavier name to bear. Her name testifies to the withholding of mother-love, that love that is rooted in and includes the womb like the heart in heartache or the head in headache. The cycle repeats and the child that represents a third prophetic production incubated in Gomer’s womb is born and he is named, Lo-Ami, Not My People.

But there is a note between the births of Gomer’s second and third child that was not present between the first two: “When Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah,…” My friend Mark Brummitt points out that the baby, then toddler, at Gomer’s breast named She Will Be Devoid of Mother-Love: “has been so, so loved and nourished all along” at her mother’s breast. And there it is, the place where I see God’s promiscuously extravagant love in the text, not in Hosea’s words or even God’s, but in Gomer holding to her breast that baby girl who had to go through the world with a label on her saying she would be bereft of maternal love, pity, or compassion the same way Gomer has had to go through world of the text and its interpreters with the label whore hanging over her head. Gomer persisted in loving that child no matter who said otherwise.

It is there in Gomer’s mother-love that the love of God so often couched as mother-love in the scriptures but translated as mercy, pity, or compassion shines. That is why translation matters and who translates matters. Gomer is a representation of God to me. She shamelessly mother-loves her children no matter how their names are rightly or wrongly tarnished. She loves those who others say don’t matter. She loves the folk some preachers count out as dirty, soiled, ruined. And she loves promiscuously.

God’s love is promiscuous. She just can’t keep it to herself. She loves wildly and widely, freely and without fetters. She loves those who have been deemed unlovable, illegitimate in who they are or how they are, the circumstances over which they have no control, or might not even want to change. God loves with a flagrant love those who have been told they are unworthy because of who or what they are, who they love, how they love, what they have done, or even what has been done to them. God’s love is insatiable. She is not content with a single beloved people, church, denomination, or even religion. All the earth is the fruit of her womb and she loves us all fiercely. She even loves men like Hosea and his interpreters who relish shaming and subordinating women, men who inflict violence with their words and hands and weaponize their bodies and sometimes our bodies against us. It’s as though God doesn’t have any standards about who she loves.

But God does have standards about how those whom she loves are treated at the hands of those she also loves. Gomer’s first child was named Jezreel as an indictment of all the blood spilled by Jehu who was one of God’s chosen anointed kings; he was beloved by God but ultimately he was held accountable for his actions. Some of the blood that Jehu spilled was the blood of Jezebel; she didn’t even serve the God of Israel and yet she too was beloved. The name of Gomer’s first prophetic child covers even her blood shed in violence.

I see God in Gomer’s love and in God I see a love that has no equal. And I see Gomer in God’s scandalous, flagrant, and promiscuous love. A love that would see a young girl in Nazareth called every name that Gomer was ever called by Hosea and everyone else for conceiving a child but not with her partner. I see the shameless love of God enter the world through the parts of women that men like some of the bible’s prophets and some men and women today see as unclean, dirty, and shameful. I see the inexhaustible love of God in human form held to the breast of that scandalous, infamous mother. I see the steadfast love of God in that child turned man who sought out the company of women like Gomer rather than the company of men like Hosea. And I see the love of God begin to come full circle when one of those women put her hands and her hair on that man’s body in a shockingly intimate scene. I see it when scandalous women and those who might have called them scandalous stood together at the foot of that cross watching their beloved, God’s beloved, die at the hands of violent men. And I see the death destroying love of God in the commission of God to those infamous women to preach the gospel of that grave shattering love whether men would believe them or not.

They called her a whore but nevertheless Gomer persisted in loving a child called Loveless and in her love we see God’s love.

Read the full text of Rev. Dr. Gafney’s sermon.

 

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the author of Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne, Commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and ZephaniahDaughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel and co-editor of The Peoples’ Bible and The Peoples’ Companion to the Bible. She is an Episcopal priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth, and a former Army Chaplain. A former member of the Dorshei Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia, she has co-taught courses with and for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies from Duke University, and the M.Div. with Special Recognition in Homiletics and Hebrew Bible from Howard University School of Divinity.

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