The Book of Hosea is about adultery; no one who reads it can avoid that. Hosea’s wife, the adulteress named Gomer, reinforces the verbal message by graphically reenacting the story of Israel’s infidelity to God.

Yet, mysteriously, three-fourths of the way through the Book of Hosea there appears a remarkable passage on parenthood. For 10 chapters God has likened Israel to a woman who first wed him and then sold herself to other lovers. He expressed the jealousy and rage and hurt of a wounded lover. But in chapter 11 the tone dramatically shifts.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called my son.…

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,

taking them by the arms;

but they did not realize

it was I who healed them.

I led them with cords of human kindness,

with ties of love;

I lifted the yoke from their neck

and bent down to feed them.”

An image leaps into my mind from a videocassette of a young girl learning to walk. The mother is on her knees, coaxing forward her young daughter, who has both hands extended and is rocking perilously from side to side. The camera lurches wildly in the father’s excitement. Both parents are grinning from ear to ear. Their daughter can walk! They play the tape over and over.

Like that, like a doting parent, God taught his people to walk. He expresses a feeling of nostalgia in this passage from Hosea, recalling the joy of parenthood. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” he suddenly cries out in a stab of pain. “How can I hand you over, Israel?” His heart is changed within him; his compassion is aroused.

What can account for this tender passage in the midst of an adult story of seamy prostitution? God is borrowing from the two deepest human relationships, parenthood and marriage, to express his profound feelings for his people. As I puzzled over the extraordinary mixing of these images in Hosea, I settled on one word, dependence, as the key—the key to what they have in common and the key to how they differ.

For a child, dependence defines the relationship. A baby depends on parents to meet every need, and parents learn to perform distasteful chores—staying up all night, cleaning up vomit, teaching toilet training—for they sense the child’s dependence, and they love the child. With no parent to care for her, the child will die.

But such a pattern must not last forever; a good parent gradually nudges the child from dependence toward independence. My friends taught their daughter to walk, rather than pushing her around in a large carriage for life, although they knew full well she might one day walk away from them. Some parents, sadly, fail this test. I know a mother who keeps her 37-year-old son at home; she pockets his paycheck at the end of each week and insists that he ask her permission to go out. Anyone can sense their lack of health. In parenthood, dependence should flow toward freedom.

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Lovers reverse the flow. A lover possesses freedom and yet chooses to give it away. “Submit to one another,” says the Bible, and any couple can tell you that’s an apt description of the day-to-day process of getting along.

The romanticist Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote this in a sonnet just before her marriage to Robert:

And as a vanquished soldier yields his sword

To one who lifts him from the bloody earth

Even so, Beloved, I at last record,

Here ends my strife. If thou invite me forth,

I rise above abasement at the word.

Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.

In a healthy marriage, one submits to the other voluntarily, out of love. In an unhealthy marriage, submission becomes part of a power struggle, a tug-of-war between competing egos.

God grieves in Hosea because Israel had disrupted the flow of dependence in both relationships, as a child and as a lover. God had nurtured Israel in the wilderness in order to bring her to adulthood and the freedom of the Promised Land.

But she seized that freedom and like a rebellious child—like Gomer—flouted it by running away from God. She never learned the meaning of marriage; she never learned to give herself voluntarily, in love, to God.

Looking back, the apostle Paul saw the entire history of Israel as a progression from childish dependence to freedom. (The law was a “schoolmaster to lead us to Christ,” he said in Galatians, and, a few chapters later, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”) The nation of Israel never learned to handle freedom, and Hosea records the deep sadness of God who wanted a lover, but found only a child. God had to revert to the method of a parent: punishment.

The pattern of dependence can, I think, teach us much about God’s design for the human race. As I read Hosea and its striking mixed metaphors, I had to examine my own life.

Do I prefer the comfort of a “childish” relationship with God? Do I cling to legalism as a form of security, and a delusive way of getting God to “like me better”?

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Is my love for God conditional, like a child’s? If things go poorly, do I want to run away, or yell “I hate you!”? Or is it more like a marriage partner’s—the old-fashioned kind of marriage, in sickness or in health, for better or for worse, till death us do part (or, in this case, till death us do join)?

The progression in the Bible, and especially in Hosea and its mixture of images, teaches me what kind of love God desires from me: not the clinging, helpless love of a child who has no choice, but rather the mature, freely given love of a lover. Although both loves express a form of dependence, there is a vital difference between the two—the difference between parenthood and marriage, between law and Spirit.

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Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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