What’s in a Name? – Rev. Yena Hwang (audio available)
Scripture: Hosea 1:2-10
Title: What’s in a Name?
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet,” declares young Juliet, who has fallen in love with a boy with the wrong name, the name of her family’s enemy (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, II, ii, 1-2). So what is in a name? Although I sympathize with young Juliet in love and agree that which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, or a skunk named Rose would smell just as stinky – there is a lot in a name.
In most cultures, names reveal a great deal about the family of origin and ancestral lineage. In all cultures, names carry family history and hope for the future. In India, there’s a complex set of naming conventions that differ from region to region and the names reflect not only their family connections, but also their cast and religious connections. In Korea, during their pre-industrial age, parents purposely waited to name their children, because the infant death rate was so high. Especially, in the lower socio-economic classes, parents gave undesirable nicknames like “rock head” or “dog poop” to the baby, until they survived infancy, because they believed this practice tricked the evil spirits from tampering with the baby or desiring to take the baby away. Of course, this is no longer the case in Korea and the names of Korean children now reflect more modern and postmodern culture of 21st century Korea.
We know that the names in the Bible are also very revealing of the familial and national history of the people of Israel. Looking in Genesis, some names expressed personality traits like Esau (Red) & Jacob (Heel grabber); some names revealed divine purposes – like Abraham (ancestor of a multitude); some reflected prophecies of the future – like Israel (You have striven with God and prevailed); while some reflected circumstance of the birth – like Isaac (laughter).
In Hosea, we see the significance of naming taken on another level. Hosea was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during a politically turbulent period of 8th Century BCE. There were strings of assassinations of kings, rampant Baal worship, Assyrian encroachment, a widespread of economic abuses and corruption in court, not to mention the strained relationship with the Southern Kingdom of Judah – these were some of the issues of Hosea’s time (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 7, page 200).
God is angry with the moral depravity of God’s people. God is not only angry, but also hurt, and God chooses Hosea to send God’s message of judgment in an “acted sign.” Let me explain what “acted sign” is – “acted sign” is a symbolic action or activity that directs the people’s attention to some aspect of God’s message to the people. Prophets usually performed “acted signs” in response to a direct command by God. For example, Isaiah was told to walk around naked in the streets– because it was to be a sign that captives will be led away naked to a foreign land in the future (Isaiah 20). Jeremiah was forbidden to marry or attend funerals – because this was to serve as a sign that there will be no time for marriages or funerals in the time of judgment God has in stored for the people (Jeremiah 16). Ezekiel was made to eat scroll and he was made mute among many other strange things as signs of what God was doing to the people of Israel (Ezekiel 3). Prophets actually carried out these “acted signs” – no matter how strange or strenuous to their life, because the Israelites needed to see and hear God’s message. So, in Hosea’s case the “acted sign” was to take a wife of “whoredom” to illustrate how the people of Israel have been unfaithful to God. The focus of Hosea’s message, however unconventional the method, was that Israel failed to remain faithful to God and God alone. People were worshipping other gods and the political leaders of the time were forming foreign alliances that displeased God – putting their own desires before God’s desires. Therefore, God was angry and fed up with their unfaithfulness.
A word about Gomer – we don’t know much about her, except that she was an unfaithful wife to Hosea. Some people have speculated the nature of Gomer’s promiscuity; that Gomer was a temple prostitute who participated in rituals with Baal worshippers. However, Gomer’s character and what her promiscuity may have entailed are not essential to understanding this passage and the message intended by this book. Gomer’s promiscuity and infidelity was to shock Israel. Hosea’s marriage to Gomer served the purpose of revealing the scandalous nature of Israel’s own unfaithful relationship with God.
Some people have taken issues with the moral dilemma of God’s command for such a marriage in the first place, but again, the point was to demonstrate the close intimate relationship between God and Israel. The covenantal relationship between King and his subjects was no longer serving the purpose of showing God’s relationship with Israel. God wanted a stronger and more personal metaphor to portray God’s love for God’s people. That is why God used the marriage metaphor. What is more intimate than a marital relationship? Then, God extends the metaphor to the names of Hosea and Gomer’s three children – to go beyond the marriage metaphor to parental metaphor. God chooses the name for each child being born to Hosea and Gomer. The firstborn is given the name Jezreel, meaning “God sows.” The second child is given the name Lo-Ruhamah, meaning “no mercy” or “no compassion.” The third child is given the name Lo-Ammi, meaning “not my people.” If you were offended by hearing of today’s passage – you got the point. God wanted the hearers to be offended by what was happening in Israel. Whenever people heard Hosea’s children being called with these names, they were to be reminded of their strained relationship with God. God wanted the people to get the magnitude and the seriousness of the problem.
The three children’s names – they embody the past, present, and future of God’s relationship with Israel.
- Jezreel – this name that reflects the past – a name of place where the King Jehu committed atrocious acts of violence. This name recalls Israel’s past sins.
- Lo-Ruhamah – this name signifies the present – meaning “no pity” or “no compassion” for them. This name plays on the root word of rehem meaning womb, and signifies that “God’s maternal compassion which issues forth form the divine womb” is no longer present (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, pg. 271).
- Lo-Ammi – this name signifies the future – meaning “no people” or “not my people,” because Israel will no longer be considered as God’s people if they keep up their behavior.
Poor kids, they had to embody God’s judgment in their identity – I hope they had a good therapist. This was a serious pronouncement of judgment. BUT! But, the passage does not end in all gloom and doom. There’s a glimmer of hope in the last verse – “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”
Well, good, the passage ends with a hopeful note for the hearers of Hosea. But what about us? Is there a relevant message here, for us? Is this passage still relevant in this day and age, when many people identify themselves as “Spiritual but not Religious” and think less and less of the institutionalized religion and God that has been presented by the well-meaning, but often misguided institutionalized religion? Yes, there is an ageless message that is as relevant as it was first preached in Hosea’s time: God is always faithful, while human beings rarely are. God desires to be in relationship with us, even when we break that relationship with our own idols. God’s love for us is passionate like lovers and deep like parents.
We are invited to look at God in more intimate manner – not as a spiritually abstract, cold, and detached God who does not get involved in the messiness of relationships – but a passionate and involved God who continues to reach out to human beings to be in relationship with the Holy and abide in Holiness. Jesus said God is like a shepherd who relentlessly searches for the lost sheep until he finds the lost sheep; like a woman who seeks for her lost coin; like a father who waits for his son to come back home. And this relentless love of God is not dependent upon us – which means what we do or don’t do will not change God’s faithfulness to us, but God’s love compels us to be faithful to God. God’s love is present, even when we walk away from God enticed by other loves…and there are plenty of other loves in our lives.
It is easy to dismiss the Book of Hosea in the OT as a strange book about how God made a moral man marry an immoral woman and gave strange names to their children. It’s easy to pass judgment on Gomer – not realizing how we are like Gomer. We confess God as our Creator; we confess God to be our parent; and we confess Jesus to be our Lord and the Holy Spirit to be our counselor. Yet our confessions are not often reflected in the decisions we make in our daily lives. My prayer for this community of faith is that we strive to live up to our Christian name – that we believe in our hearts and confess with our lips would be reflected in our lives, in how we use our money, time, and talent. As people bearing Christ’s name, I hope we would encounter strangers and treat them with respect; we would engage in honest conversations with those whom we do not see eye-to-eye on issues that divide our nation. It is easy to dismiss those who do not share our same values or beliefs, but that we would practice hospitality and generosity modeled by Christ and follow in Christ’s footsteps of welcoming them. We live in this world, but we are not of this world. We live in this world bearing Christ’s name – to live a life that is an “acted sign” of God grace and mercy – a life that lives up to our Christian names as uncommon people of God. May the Spirit of God add to the hearing and blessing of these proclaimed words. Amen.