My reading project is Jon Levenson’s The Love of God.
One of the complaints about the so-called feminizing of the church is that some contemporary worship songs are basically about Jesus as my boyfriend. Of course, it is not just contemporary songs that do this. Think about the Mary Magdeline reference in the popular old hymn, “In the Garden”. “He walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own”
Those of us who don’t like this would find an ally in Jon Levenson, who fears “the perception that all talk of God’s love or loving God is, at base, a treacly thing that appeals only to the emotionally weak–a crutch,perhaps, to help them avoid facing the lovelessness, or some kindred deficiency, in their own lives” (p. 91).
The preeminent metaphors for God’s love and relationship to us are king-subject, father-son, and shepherd-flock. To concentrate, as modern, romantic sentiment would entice us to do, on the metaphor of lover-beloved would detract from these. However, the love of men and women is still a biblical metaphor for God’s love. So Levenson has a discussion of this “erotic dimension” of the love of God.
He notes that the Bible, in Deuteronomy 7:7, it says that God has “set his heart” on Israel and that this is the same phrase used in Genesis 34:8 for Shechem’s crush on Dinah.
Today I will just deal with what he says about the metaphor in the Book of Hosea where sexual infidelity gets extensively compared to Israel’s lack of loyalty to God. God’s people figuratively become prostitutes. Levenson points out that prostitution itself did not carry the same stigma in ancient Israel that it did later, but that for a married woman to act like a prostitute is what carried the stigma. And this is what Hosea applies to Israel.
So the comparison between Israel and an unfaithful wife is in the covenant breaking, not the promiscuity itself. So, unlike in modern America, the solution is not simply for the couple to break up or divorce and go their separate ways. This is not possible because covenant includes permanence and unconditionality in its nature.
But Hosea does not call for reconciliation by simply forgiving and forgetting. There is no cheap grace here.
He calls on his children to renounce their mother and he apparently physically prevents her from going to her lovers. Levenson says that it is unlikely that those who heard Hosea’s prophecy would have heard it in the same offensive way modern feminists do. Men would not have identified with God as a vengeful husband. They would have identified themselves with Israel as the shamed, wayward wife.
Levenson thinks that the notion that love requires equality is modern and has nothing to do with the biblical idea of a suzerainty covenant between unequal kings. Hosea’s wife, Gomer, and God’s covenant partner, Israel, have both failed to respond with gratitude to the gratuitous love of their benefactor. So they have committed violence against the covenant.
Yet at the end of Hosea 2, God promises to heal and renew the relationship. God betroths Israel again and apparently pays a new “bride price” for her.
In human law Hosea could have divorced Gomer or, in literal biblical law, even charged her with a capital crime. But God calls upon him to restore the relationship with Gomer as a sign of God’s willingness to restore his relationship with Israel. This is more profound than the schmaltzy ideas of romantic love.
The words of Hosea 2:19-20 (verses as in English Bibles) :
I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,
In lovingkindness and in compassion,
And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.
Then you will know the Lord (NET Bible).
are in the Jewish liturgy for putting on the tefillin when wrapping them around the knuckle. So each weekday the person observing this ritual “accepts God’s offer of marriage, pledging himself individually to faithfulness within the larger relationship of God to Israel. The strap around the finger has become, as it were, a wedding ring” (p. 107).