The following is an excerpt from my new book, LIBEL: SEX AND SEXUALITY IN THE BIBLE, available through createspace.com and amazon.com.
(HOSEA AND WHOREDOM)(Excerpts)
Three thousand years from now, an archaeologist in scuba-gear will break through a layer of concrete, a cloud of greenish powder will fog the water and when it clears… Paydirt! A twenty-first century landfill, brimming with informative artifacts. And, picking through sporks and irreparable i-products he’ll find a pamphlet, which will be painstakingly preserved for intensive study. It’s a folded flier about keeping women at home, bashing gays and torching abortion clinics so life can be pure and prosperous like it was in the “Good Old Days.” The writing in the pamphlet will be strident and vitriolic (and the grammar will be terrible). And the anthropologist will say “Aha! So this is what everybody believed at the start of the twenty-first century!”
WINE AND SKIN
When crops were planted and harvested, the Canaanite custom was to gather on hilltops celebrating fertility and abundance. One of the biggest and wildest parties of the year was the autumn vintage festival, celebrating the crop of new wine. Women jangled tambourines and sang love songs, animals were slaughtered on horned altars and fistfulls of rare barbecue were passed around, olive oil was splashed across a seven-foot stone phallus, a goddess of hand-crafted wood posed provocatively toward the sky, fortune tellers cast lots, a tree was decked with twinkling ornaments, and everyone’s eyes were shining from alcohol… The Israelites happily joined in these harvest parties for centuries. But not everyone was laughing. While the Israelites celebrate a vintage, Hosea and his disciples crash the party to harass the merry-makers…
HOSEA 4:11 Wine and new wine take away the understanding.
12 My people consult a piece of wood,
and their divining rod gives them oracles.
For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray,
and they have played the whore, forsaking their God.
13 They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains,
and make offerings upon the hills,
under oak, poplar, and terebinth,
because their shade is good.
Therefore your daughters play the whore,
and your daughters-in-law commit adultery.
14 I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore,
nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery;
for the men themselves go aside with whores,
and sacrifice with temple prostitutes…
18 When their drinking is ended, they indulge in sexual orgies;
they love lewdness more than their glory.
The “whoredom” and “adultery” here look at first like metaphors for being “unfaithful” to the God of Israel. But soon we discover that this is Biblical literalism, an eyewitness account of the orgiastic “festival days of the Baals, when she [Israel] offered incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers, and forgot me, says the LORD.” (2:13) We’re not told whether the “ring and jewelry” are accessories or the whole costume, but it’s a wild time. We could call it a rain dance, but the “rain” in question was believed to be the storm-god Baal ejaculating to impregnate an earth-goddess, and so the “dance” had to stimulate the horned and horny Baal to fertilize the land.
On Babylonian holidays, kings and priestesses would publicly reenact the cosmological copulations of the gods, “Under his reign may there be plants, may there be grain…May the watered garden produce honey and wine…The king goes with lifted head…to the holy lap of Inanna.” The sexual sacraments of Babylon seem to have been practiced also in Canaan, where profane priests, priestesses and amorous acolytes – I suppose we could call them “Priestitutes” – performed racy rituals to arouse their obscene deities.
When the usual raunchy rain-dances failed to produce a downpour of Baal’s sexual energy, it was assumed that the storm-god had grown bored of one-man-one-woman exhibitions, and might be aroused by some other combination. Thus we have a list of prohibited pairings in Leviticus 18, including incest, sex during menstruation, threesomes, homosexuality and bestiality. One line in particular we hear a lot in modern America, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” (Leviticus 18:22) and others we don’t hear enough of here in the South, “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness.” (Leviticus 18:6) The list ends with the command: “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves,” (Leviticus 18:24) reminding us that these were not just theoretical scenarios. When the rain didn’t fall, people were coupling in all combinations to awaken the storm-god Baal. These prohibitions pertained specifically to what must not be done on the altar during a church service – the famous ban on same-sex pairings is not talking about two guys filing their income tax together or sharing insurance benefits. What’s forbidden is ritual sexual exhibition, homosexual and heterosexual alike.
COMING OF AGE IN CANAAN
In addition to professional Priestitutes, sacramental sex also seems to have been a Canaanite religious initiation rite, like bat mitzvah, confirmation or adult baptism. “Your daughters play the whore, and your daughters-in-law commit adultery.” (Hosea 4:11) Herodotus reported a Babylonian custom, in which all women must at some point in their lives (presumably before marriage) “sit in the sacred precinct of [fertility goddess Ishtar] with a garland round their heads made of string. There is constant coming and going, and there are roped-off passages running through the crowds of women in every direction, through which the strangers walk and take their pick. When once a woman has taken her seat there, she may not go home again until one of the strangers throws a piece of silver into her lap and lies with her, outside the temple…Those women who have attained to great beauty and height depart quickly enough, but those who are ugly abide there a great while, being unable to fulfill the law. Some, indeed, stay there as much as three or four years.” Those poor unfortunate ugly women, stuck for four straight years of free food and girl-talk… Oh, come to think of it, these must have been the happiest years of their lives!
Religiously speaking, we can see this custom as a form of sacrifice, an offering of flesh, after which the silver coins would be given for the upkeep of the temple. In the book of Deuteronomy, God strictly condemns this practice: “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute. You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male prostitute into the house of the LORD your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are abhorrent to the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 23:17-18) Why on earth would anyone have done such a thing? We need to keep in mind that at around the same time the Hebrews arrived from Egypt, Canaan was devastated by plagues that carried off as much as four fifths of the population. Many of the survivors had been sterilized by sickness, causing an epidemic of what the Bible calls “barrenness,” which the early patriarchs discovered in their wives after marriage. And so it seems that “sacred prostitution” functioned as a test of fertility, that a man of Canaan would not agree to marry someone unless she were already pregnant. This may also explain some early reports of infant sacrifice, that the child of “sacred prostitution” might then by consecrated to the gods (as the monetary wages of this prostitution were offered as sacrifice).
The book of Genesis contains a narrative account of this “Sacred Prostitution” in which a teenaged widow named Tamar snuck out of her father’s house and disguised herself as a maiden, she “put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim.” (Genesis 38:14) Enaim, meaning “twin wells” seems to be an outdoor Canaanite sanctuary. The veil was likely worn to preserve the maiden’s anonymity during this display, because Canaan was a bunch of small villages, unlike the big city of Babylon. “When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the road side, and said, ‘Come, let me come in to you,’ for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me? …Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.” (Genesis 38:15-16, 18) When Tamar’s pregnancy begins to show, Judah demands that she be burned to death for participating in sacred prostitution. Then she pulls out his signet and cord, the ancient equivalent of a driver’s license and credit card, and the shepherd sheepishly admits he was in the wrong.
MESSAGE IN ACTION
Biblical prophets were known to enact their messages with publicity stunts, like Isaiah prophesying “naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered” for three years as a sign of the nation’s coming humiliation. (Isaiah 20:24) Jeremiah was commanded to wear a “yoke of straps and bars” on his neck. (Jeremiah 27:2) And Ezekiel was forced to eat “barley-cake, baking it in their sight [by burning] human dung.” (Ezekiel 4:12) When I was back there in seminary school, the name “Hosea” was an easy memory device for in case the Old Testament 101 final exam included the question, “Which prophet married a prostitute?” The book of Hosea begins with God commanding Hosea to “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” (Hosea 1:2)
The second chapter of Hosea is the story of a jealous husband terrorizing his adulterous wife. Placed between the two reports of Hosea’s marriage(s) in chapters one and three, it is sometimes read as a description of Hosea’s own abusive home-life. But here again, the idea that Hosea’s marriage(s) necessitated his messages seems backward: It was this metaphor of Israel as God’s unfaithful wife that inspired Hosea to illustrate his speech by marrying one or more prostitutes. This speech is not a glorification of domestic violence but a desperate plea for fidelity, beginning with “Plead with your mother, plead” (2:2) and ending with “I will now allure her…and speak tenderly to her.” (2:14)
HOSEA 2:2 Plead with your mother, plead–
for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband–
that she put away her whoring from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts,
3 or I will strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and turn her into a parched land, and kill her with thirst.
4 Upon her children also I will have no pity,
because they are children of whoredom.
5 For their mother has played the whore;
she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, “I will go after my lovers;
they give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.”…
11 I will put an end to all her mirth,
her festivals, her new moons, her sabbaths,
and all her appointed festivals.
12 I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees,
of which she said, “These are my pay, which my lovers have given me.”
I will make them a forest, and the wild animals shall devour them.
13 I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals,
when she offered incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewelry,
and went after her lovers, and forgot me, says the LORD.
14 Therefore, I will now allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
“The LORD, whose name is Jealous,” (Exodus 34:14) really puts the “Lock” in “Wedlock.” God’s response to these fertility festivals is that He will sabotage Israel’s agriculture and drag the people back into the wilderness (what, and nobody cheered?). It’s passages like this that cause ministers to ignore Hosea – violent images of jealousy and domestic abuse. I was teaching a course about women in the Bible, and a lady minister asked what text I’d be using so that she might plan her sermon to coincide with the lesson. When I said “Hosea,” her face soured as if an intoxicated lemon had puked into her coffee cup. Needless to say, we agreed to cover separate topics that Sunday.
When I read this section of Hosea, the image that comes to mind is not a husband beating his wife, but a lover forcing a loved one into detox from a dangerous addiction. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s easier to understand the motivation. Wait a minute…was Israel a sex-addict? No more than we all are. When a woman is out whoring for crack, it won’t do much good to say “She’s a sex addict.” The sex is a symptom of the crack addiction, so that’s where you’ve got to start the rehabilitation. Look at the purpose of these sexual sacraments: successful farming. Ever since the Garden of Eden story, God has been hostile toward humans hijacking creation for grain-farming. The first time we hear of bread in the Bible is when God punishes Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field [grain]. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground.” (Genesis 3:17-19) Then in the next generation, God rejects Cain’s sacrifice of “the fruit of the ground,” (Genesis 4:3) again meaning grain.
Israel had fallen into captivity in Egypt by getting hooked on grain (which is different from saying “hooked on food” – we might think of grain as the primary staple in the human diet, but ask a dietician and they’ll tell you carbohydrates are a tiny fraction of a natural diet). “They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; their breasts were caressed there, and their virgin bosoms were fondled.” (Ezekiel 23:3) God rescued the Hebrews from Egypt’s stockpiled stash and quarantined them – “quarantine” literally means “forty” – to break that addiction. But no sooner did the Hebrews enter the Promised Land than they fell in with farmers and got hooked again. Cultivated grain in the Old Testament is like an addictive drug, like cocaine or heroin, giving its users the illusion that they can subsist without God and reproduce without limit. Food surplus is the oldest aphrodisiac, it makes women frisky (which is fantastic. But there are side effects, you know, babies who require more food). What God threatens through Hosea is not to thrash an unfaithful wife, but to drag the people back into desert rehab. The purpose here is not to sadistically humiliate, but to sternly rehabilitate.
“And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.” (Hosea 2:19-20) God promises through Hosea that once the people of Israel have cleaned themselves up, they will be provided for in abundance again. But a close look at this promise reveals an unexpected element, not what’s there but what’s missing. Throughout the book of Hosea and the entire Old Testament, we see that Israel’s three primary crops are grain/bread, grapes/wine and olives/oil. However in God’s promise of future restoration, cultivated grain is notably absent:
HOSEA 14:4 I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.
5 I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.
6 His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree,
and his fragrance like that of Lebanon.
7 They shall again live beneath my shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine,
their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
8 O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?
It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress; your faithfulness comes from me.
The scroll of Hosea ends with an uncharacteristic flourish of tenderness inspired by, of all things, love-songs. In the imagery of God as a tree sheltering the lily Israel, we can clearly see the influence of the Song of Songs, in which a girl describes her love for a young shepherd: “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys… As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” (Song of Songs 2:1-3)
The most common question church-goers ask about Hosea is: “Hosea…he was Isaiah’s gardener, right? Hoe-sea?” The second most commonly asked question is just… “Who-sea?” And yet Hosea is the source of our most reliable information about religious customs in Biblical Israel. The Torah’s ritual instructions describe an ideal, but Hosea gives an eyewitness report of the reality.
The scroll named after him contains very little information about the man himself, but the fact that such a scroll existed tells us a lot. He clearly had disciples, students who followed him around collecting his sayings, and eventually wrote them down. That these disciples were willing to drop everything and follow him suggests that Hosea was charismatic, and also tells us that he was saying something really different. This is important, because when we read a Biblical book we can lazily suppose that the beliefs in it were “normal” for their place and time. But if Hosea had been “normal” he could have made a profitable and respectable living as a priest or “prophet,” which he clearly did not do. Hosea must have been a minority of one – and if a few people intensely loved him, it’s pretty safe to assume that more than a few people must have intensely hated him (and a lot of people must have thought he was nuts).
Three thousand years from today, anthropologists might be studying a twenty-first century pamphlet about keeping women at home, bashing gays and torching abortion clinics so life can be prosperous like it was in the “Good Old Days.” And they might conclude that it speaks for all of us. We won’t be around, you and I, to say “Hang on a minute there, that’s what a few cranks believed, and yeah they were real noisy about it, but just because this pamphlet survived doesn’t mean it speaks for all of us.” It would be nice to think that the anthropologists might read between the lines and see the freedoms that these fundamentalists were so angry about.
Note – this excerpt is about half of the essay, which contains further information and documentation. If you’ve enjoyed this section, the full essay and several others can be found in LIBEL: SEX AND SEXUALITY IN THE BIBLE.