When we were house-hunting, we came across a house that was described in the listings as having "good bones." Seeing that it was within our price-range, we went and had a look.
As we walked through the door, stench of urine hit us without warning. Strong and concentrated. The carpet was blackened with grease and mud. I could see where the couch had been. There was a time when the carpet was not black. I heard water dripping somewhere behind the walls of the moldy bathtub, covered in thick black slime. But I can't be too sure because none of the lights were working.
Then, my heart sank. Along the walls, I saw the familiar scribbles of crayon and markers. Children lived here. Babies crawled on this carpet. Good bones or not, my children will not step foot in this place. It's not worth it. Forget this.
But I couldn't.
Weeks later, the scribbles along the walls and the crawling darkness stayed with me. My mind was staring the chaos of my heart when the Lord found me, devastated and lost. That godless place I thought I had forgotten, or try to not remember. There was nothing desirable or beautiful there. Certainly nothing that was worth his death on the cross, the atonement of his blood.
There was a time when I loved historical fictions. I probably still do, but reading fiction is a luxury I cannot afford with two little boys running around. Years ago, when I was in my teens, I read a retelling of the story of Hosea, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. A few of girls at church read it recently and asked for my thoughts. I am revisiting it for their sake. Because it is my (delightful) duty to teach them the Bible, I am primarily going to comment on whether this book is drawing us nearer or further away from the original story.
As I scrolled through the reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, I was most concerned to find that so many (women) identify themselves with Gomer and see God as the husband who continues to love and pursue them. Though there are some things to say about the depiction of Hosea, for the sake of your time, we are just going to focus on Gomer for now.
In Rivers' retelling of the story, Gomer is depicted as an exclusive, upscale prostitute. In fact, she is the most desired prostitute among lustful men. A victim of a horrifying childhood, she is raised by a pedophile, and knows nothing else except bad, bad men who take advantage of her. The rest of the story is about how she fears happiness and distrusts his husband's love, runs away from him again and again, and how her husband continues to pursue her.
Unlike Redeeming Love, the book of Hosea does not tell us very much about Gomer's background except that she was the daughter of Diblaim. But one thing is certain: Gomer is not a victim. Gomer loves being a prostitute. She adorns herself and pursues after her lovers. It concerns me whenever we give excuses for our sins and put the blame on our lot in life. I would know, I am the queen of excuses. Just ask Hans. Or, maybe not.
True, we are all victims of deceits in one way or another, but we are also fully culpable. We want to believe in these lies. We love our idols more than we love God. It's not that we are incapable of being happy, it's that we seek after happiness in things other than God. And other things can never fulfill.
Secondly, the book of Hosea does not say much about Gomer's looks. The Bible is not incapable describing fine-looking women (think Genesis). However, it is silent in this story precisely because it doesn't matter. In Redeeming Love, however, Gomer's beauty is emphasized again and again. She is described as the desire of every man, the most beautiful woman, a frozen heart behind a "flawless veil." Men are enthralled, they get lost looking into her eyes, etc. Though it may not be historically inaccurate, emphasizing her beauty changes the story.
Imagining Gomer as a beautiful victimized woman changes the story. Women lust after the desire of men. We want to be desired and rescued. This is what women daydream about. The story sells. But in the original story, Gomer is despicable in her unfaithfulness. She pursues and loves other men. We should be disgusted with Gomer. We should not desire to be like Gomer in any way.
When Nathan tells King David the story of the rich man who killed the poor man's beloved sheep, King David is disgusted with the rich man. He does not identify with rich man, or try to see things from his perspective. No, David finds the rich man to be revolting. In fact, it is his abhorrence toward the rich man that propels him to see his own sin, and repent.
To emphasize a fictional detail that Gomer is beautiful is like saying, the house that we saw had some good features, but it had a pungent odor. That's not the same story! The house now sounds as though it has desirable quality that is worth saving. In such imaginings, we de-emphasize God's grace, his mercy, his compassion, his steadfast love -- which is the essence of the story of Hosea.
God loved Israel. He chose Israel not because she was better than the other nations. In fact, Israel was powerless and her people were slaves. She was rebellious and ungrateful, unworthy in every way. She continued in her unfaithful ways and pursued other gods. There was nothing desirable or beautiful there. Certainly nothing that was worth his death on the cross, the atonement of his blood.
I find John Piper's narrative poem on Hosea to be a more faithful rendition of the original story. In it, the old woman Gomer tells her husband at the end of their years together,
Your love for me
Was like a mountain waterfall,
And I the jagged stone. Of all
The knives and hammers once applied
None made me smooth or clean. They tried,
But harlotry was in my blood,
Until your love became a flood
Cascading over my crude life
And kept me as your only wife.