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The presence of three collections of sayings in the book of Hosea is easy enough to see.

Chapters 1–3 concern aspects of Hosea’s personal life; there is nothing comparable in the Bible. Chapter 4 begins with a powerful saying addressed to the women of the ruling class. Chapter 11 is a reversal of the attitude that has preceded it; God at the Bible’s best: ‘It was I who taught Ephraim [= northern Israel] to walk, I took them up in my arms … I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love’. Chapter 12 ignores the reversal; chapter 14 returns to the theme of the reversal, ‘I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely’ (14:4). The collections probably are Hosea 1–3, 4–11, and 12–14.

Where chapter 1 is concerned, it is not for the squeamish. Oceans of ink have been poured out trying to clean it up; it was all Hosea’s idea. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t; it is proclaimed as God’s. If we can get over being squeamish, the chapter gives one of the Bible’s best theology lessons: we are loved, miserable rotters though we may sometimes be. Well, Israel sometimes was. So there is hope for us.

It all begins with a third-person report about Hosea. ‘When the Lord first spoke through Hosea’ (v. 2). ‘First’ tells us the writer is aware of a ‘second’; the second time may be different from the first. We are entitled to hope.

The text says God told Hosea to marry a prostitute and have children with her. The pious say Hosea thought this up when his marriage went on the rocks; the text says that God ordered it. God gives a reason for it too. Israel is behaving like a prostitute in abandoning all sense of fidelity to its God. God’s command makes Hosea a symbol of Israel. There will be a happy ending, but it is slow in coming.

God intervenes three more times, giving the prophet a name for each one of the three children. The names are definitely bad news: Jezreel (inviting three puns, all of them unpleasant), Not-pitied (no pun needed), and Not-my-people.

The third one is the climax: Not-my-people. The only thing that the people of Israel had going for them was that they believed they were God’s chosen people. Here the prophet claims that God told him to name his child Not-my-people, because Israel wasn’t God’s chosen people any more. These are not your ordinary, everyday children; these are a prophet’s children. For people of faith, this is a very scary situation.

After verse 9, the next three verses reverse the situation (different translations number the verses differently). Forget Jezreel; it will be ‘children of the living God’. For Not-pitied, the lovely name Ruhamah, Pitied; for Not-my-people, a name to rejoice in, Ammi, My-people. The Roman Catholic lectionary stops at verse 9, which benignly interpreted is most unfortunate. One may hope it was not anti-Semitic; simply unfortunate.

The reversal is spelled out in chapter 3, without reference to the children. This time, it is a first-person report, ‘The Lord said to me again’. Hosea is to love an adulteress; we presume it was the same woman from chapter 1, who had walked out on him. Once again, it is the reason God gives that matters: ‘just as the Lord loves the people of Israel’ (3:1). We can love those who do wrong. According to Hosea, so does God.

My dear Saint Paul, you’ve been beaten to the punch by a mere eight centuries or so. We believe we are loved by our God, sinners though we are. What joy!