In one of my recent Old Testament classes we embarked upon the subject of Old Testament prophets. The subject usually arrives about mid-way through any given semester and by that point my students have realized they are encouraged to think critically, to raise questions, to delve deeper into Scripture not afraid of finding inconsistencies or presumed problems.
On this day, I expected to have considerable questions about the nature of prophecy itself, especially since our course reading had included an introduction to the idea that the Old Testament prophets were addressing social injustice and were not predicting the future, certainly not our future.
We had worked our way through Amos, often called the prophet of doom for his stinging diatribes against the nations and for his brilliant rhetorical strategy enabling him to lash out most strongly against Israel because it had succumbed to the practice of oppressing the poorest of the poor and had failed to provide protection for those most in need. Amos called them out for their sin and hurled indictment after indictment for their actions.
After recollecting ourselves from Amos’ attacks, l turned our attention to Hosea, the prophet often noted for his unconditional love. One of my students in the back row raised her hand and tentatively said: “I just don’t get it. I read it all the way through and I don’t get it. Why does the author keep mentioning a whore and whoredom and Hosea buying Gomer?”
In response, I offered her the usual metaphor: Hosea’s actions of taking Gomer relates to the love God shows to the Israelites who repeatedly turn their backs against God and worship other deities. The student replied: “I guess I understand the metaphor apparently at work, but I just don’t get it. Who is this God who treats people this way? Why is it always the women who are viewed so negatively? What if Gomer didn’t want to return? Was she forced?”
Ah, there it was! And, thanks to a bright student I didn’t have to point out the very problematic plot that is Hosea.
So, we went on to talk briefly of the challenges the Bible creates for women: on the one hand it can be life-giving and on the other hand it can be oppressive. This complex experience of reading our sacred text that is at once thoroughly patriarchal and also divinely inspired is generally unrecognized (or, at least not widely acknowledged) by pastors and participants in many of our churches.
But on an ordinary Monday night, there it was in a university classroom: the dawning realization that while the Bible is a tool to help us connect with God it can also be a weapon to alienate faithful people from God and from faith communities.
In this moment of paradox, where the metaphor failed but the invitation to wrestle with truth was accepted, I believe God was present. Too, I am grateful to experience every now again the important reminder that one path of spiritual formation is the journey of faithful doubting.