Saturday, June 07, 2008

God's Righteous Anger

Hosea 5.15-6.6
Romans 4.13-25
Matt 9.9-13, 18-26

This passage is just one of a series of quite disturbing oracles in which we learn that Israel has incurred the wrath of God and he is going to tear and devour her much as a young lion might or, if she were already prostrate or dead, a swarm of maggots.

There is an uncomfortable ambiguity here, for the Prophet acknowledges that although God smites Israel he also loves and cares for. The oracle is not unlike the protestations of a partner who perpetrates cruel acts of domestic violence, only to shower the victim afterwards with love and attention. We are told that God will tear Israel, and then heal her; strike her down, and then bind up her wounds.

Of course, there are clearly differences here from genuine domestic violence. First, this is metaphorical language. God is not going to inflict actual bodily harm on Israel. Instead, she will be attacked by some of her human enemies. The Prophet's message is that God is so angry he will not protect her from harm, which begs the question just how far God intervenes in history to do his will through human events such as invasions and wars.

Second, Israel is not an innocent victim. The nation has been faithless - although isn't that the justification that's often used for domestic violence, too?

Third, the tone of the oracle changes completely if God himself is being wounded and torn by the suffering of his people, despite their guilt. There is nothing in the original oracle to suggest this, except the interesting parallels with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Hosea says that on the third day God will raise up his people, just as Jesus will one day be raised up from death on the third day after suffering for the sake of other people's guilt.

'On the third day' is a turn of phrase in Hebrew meaning 'very soon'. So God's rescue mission to Israel after she has been punished is as predictable, and as close by, as the new dawn or the next shower of rain. What a pity, then, that Israel's repeated faithlessness is also as predictable as the evaporation of dew or early morning mist when the sun rises.

Paul makes the point, in today's passage from his letter to the Romans, that trying to be obedient to rules and laws is not the way to avoid the wrath of God, because the task is impossible. Being put right with God, and avoiding his righteous indignation, is a matter of faith and relationship. It is about trusting God to save us from ourselves. It is about loving God, and relying on God's love for us. It is about depending on God to give us the capacity we need to be more truly human, and then relying on that God-given power to enable us to act as if God also depends upon us to be his servants and co-workers.

Abraham is the exemplar of this kind of relationship with God because he was trying to get close to God before the religious laws of Israel even began to be codified. That meant he had no alternative but to embark on a pilgrimage of faith.

The two short passages from Matthew's Gospel also give priority to faith over law and offer the antidote to Hosea's vision of an angry God, striking out at his people in spite of his love for them. In Jesus' understanding God is no less intolerant of sin, but he desires mercy rather than sacrifice and only wants to end suffering, not to cause it, and to give fresh heart and new life to those who are in despair.

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