Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Hosea 6:4-6) transports me to Azerbaijan, Iran, where a woman named Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani awaits execution in the Tabriz prison. Ashtiani was convicted of adultery, received 99 lashes in a public courtroom flogging and was then sentenced to death by public stoning. We can only imagine how brutal these executions can be, and books/movies like The Kite Runner serve to confirm our imagination. The perpetrator is buried up to the waist, and the crowd enthusiastically begins pelting the perpetrator with rocks large enough to injure but none big enough to kill with one blow. The blood soon starts seeping through burkas, with death sometimes taking an hour or more. The children of Sakineh Ashtiani are doing all they can to help their mother avoid such a fate. They do not deny her guilt; they simply plead for mercy. Their campaign to spare her life has gained the attention of human rights advocates and national leaders around the world. Their advocacy work succeeded in getting the Iranian government to suspend, at least for the time being, the original sentence of death by stoning, and now she officially is awaiting the hangman’s gallows. The Iranian Parliament has presumably been hard at work amending their legal system with regards to public stoning, because of world pressure, but no reporters are allowed in to cover those proceedings, so it is not clear how their system will deal with lover’s quarrels and adultery in future cases.
The passage today describes the scene of a lover’s quarrel gone bad, with disturbing images of domestic violence used to describe God’s response to Israel’s infidelity and spiritual harlotry. It is such a jolting juxtaposition of images to see God’s words quoted by Jesus: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, preceded by the less than merciful words of judgment, also from the mouth of God: I cut you in pieces, I killed you. . . my judgments flashed like lightning upon you. This kind of violent response to an adulterous partner sounds more like the Taliban than the One True God, more like the harsh and brutal judgment of a tribal warlord than the Lord of Mercy.
The clearest expression of mercy in this prophetic story comes not in how God speaks directly of his dealings with Israel (even though the violence is mitigated by promises of restoration). The clearest demonstration of mercy comes from the symbolic actions of the prophet himself, in how he dealt with his own unfaithful spouse. The back story to this is fascinating: Hosea makes a trip over to the Holy Land red light district where God has instructed him to go and find a prostitute to marry. Gomer is the pretty woman who lands the deal to get off the street corner and into a home. Pretty soon, Hosea is singing his own brand of blues, I gotta little woman, she won’t be true, hey hey, what can I do? Here’s the merciful part: nowhere in the book does Hosea give a hint of responding to Gomer’s adultery with violence. Gomer bears children (not all with Hosea as father); the couple goes through a divorce, and then the prophet spends the rest of his time searching for her in order to restore their relationship. No cutting in pieces, no killing, no lightning flash judgment, no public flogging. Simply restoration. Mercy. In spite of all the harsh words emanating from the mouth of God, the book of Hosea winds up painting an awesome picture of the lengths to which God will go to restore our relationship. As another Gomer might say, Shazzam!
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Mercy and Sacrifice.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.