The sign and the flesh/7 - True prophets are not loved because they destroy homes and offer tents.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 16/01/2022
"God is behind everything, but everything hides God"
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Volume II, 5.4
This chapter of Hosea, one of the best known and most beloved, is a profound reflection on the nature of idolatry and the traps of sacrificial logic because, as the God of the Bible and Christ repeats: «I desire mercy, not sacrifice» (Matthew 9,13)
It is not easy to truly understand the harshness with which the prophets view idols and idolatry. Chapter six of the book of Hosea, where there also are several references dear to Christianity, addresses a central aspect of this fight against idolatry. He denounces the people who delude themselves that they know God (YHWH) and instead confuse him with the natural god of the seasons and the rhythm of the days: «Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth» (Hosea 6,3). An obvious god, captured within the natural order of things, who must come as the dawn comes every day, like rain, like autumn. Without ever surprising us.
A song of religious illusion, which however contains a phrase that the first Christians and then the Fathers (Tertullian) loved very much: «Come, and let us return to the Lord… After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us» (Hosea 6,1-2). After two days he will revive us.. on the third day he will restore us, he will revive us. When Paul writes to the Corinthians: «He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures» (1 Corinthians 15,4), it is likely that the Scriptures he had in mind were precisely this passage from Hosea - the Spirit can draw words of life even from songs that did not please the prophets.
There may be something important in this critique of identifying YHWH with the natural gods of fertility. It may be good to dwell on this. In the Bible and, later, in Christianity there is a deep vein that is intertwined with primitive religions and natural cults. Biblical man emerged from previous forms of archaic religiosity, where the divinities could be discerned in the rhythm of life and death, of the sun, and of the stars. This was his world, he did not know of any others. He knew that life radically depended on the fertility of the earth, on the generosity of the seasons. He felt, by an invincible instinct, that his land was also inhabited by invisible but very real beings, to whom he felt tied and on whom the life of everyone and everything depended. It was therefore inevitable that the first words with which men spoke to the gods were those they had learned from nature and from life, because they were the only ones they knew and loved. Hence, at the dawn of civilization, the great myths of the god who dies in autumn, remains in the sepulcher in winter and then rises in spring were born, of the god who fertilizes the earth with rain and snow and then gives birth to flowers and fruits, in the fields and in the pots of Adonis. They inserted the first religious narratives into this great cycle of nature, drawing and giving life to them with these bright colors. They gave their most beautiful words to God.
What did the Bible do with this natural religiosity? Did it consider it all vanitas? Yes and no. For the men and women in flesh and blood of the people of Israel it was not: they felt God under all things, like in their neighboring peoples, like our peasant grandparents who felt a divine thrill walking their own paths, chasing the trail of the deer and the fox, they felt that death was not the last word and they knew that a mysterious spring of life would one day surprise them, and they would see their parents and children again. They sang the same songs to the vineyards and the last sheaf, praying for the rain and for the earthquake not to return. Thus, we learned to pray, to speak with the angels and demons, to glimpse God behind everything and immediately see him disappear again.
One day, however, a different day, the Bible tells us that something new and unexpected happened. When, inside a mystery always enveloped by a veiling-revealing cloud, that God, whom all peoples had heard and tried to intercept, told us something new about himself, he gave us words that we did not yet have. Thus, a different story began of a people from which the Bible was born, whose first purpose was not to collect the words about God that men already knew, but to let us know those that were not there yet. It is this "not yet" that constitutes the immense value of the Bible, its precious treasure that the people have kept. And in order to underline the novelty of the words of heaven, the religious words of the earth ended up becoming the words of idols, of the "false and lying gods". Hence, it is clear why the first fight against idolatry that the Bible waged was an internal one against its own people, because the religiosity of the earth and nature was the one from which the tribes of Jacob also came. They were children of Abraham and of the Middle Eastern myths, of the natural cults of simpler gods. Cults that were much loved by the people, against which the Bible has been very harsh - and the prophets ruthless - because it wanted to affirm something new, and continues to affirm it. The Bible found it very difficult to separate true faith from that in the gods of nature, because the people felt that there was also some true trace of the same God who once revealed his real name in those ancient traditions that they had learned in Canaan and had brought with them from Ur of the Chaldeans and Egypt. Each revelation of new dimensions of reality is a creative destruction and there is almost always some good material among that which has been destroyed and wiped out. The prophets, by vocation, mercilessly demolish temples, capitals and ancient mosaics, sometimes very beautiful ones, and some are lost forever because the area that covers the new religion never coincides exactly with that covered by the previous ones.
It is within this discourse that we must also place Hosea’s criticism with its (for us) disconcerting intensity and harshness: «Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth» (Hosea 6,5). Prophecy is this as well: «To uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow» (Jeremiah 1,10). However, since the buildings that are torn down by the prophets are those in which the people live, including the palaces of the kings and the temples of the priests, the work of the prophets is very hard, painful, and neither loved nor understood. But they keep on hack away, chasing people from their homes and kings from their palaces; and they do it - and this is the point - not to build other palaces and new temples in place of the previous ones, but to go back to being poor and free and then resume the journey towards a land that is always promised, the land of the not-yet. True prophets are not loved, because they destroy homes and in their place offer tents, they tear down temples and instead offer us an empty space, they destroy our homes and leave us out in the cold of a naked following. Who obeys the prophets? Nobody.
It is at the climax of this song that we reach, perhaps, the most precious pearl of this chapter. Here it is: «For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offering» (Hosea 6,6). I want hesed (that is, mercy, faithful love, reciprocity, loyalty) and therefore the true knowledge of God-YHWH. On the other side, that is, on the wrong side, we have the sacrifices. We have thus arrived at the centre, at the central point not only of Hosea but of all prophecy, perhaps not only of biblical prophecy but of every authentic prophecy - the earth is full of prophecy, even our arid and waterless land is full of it. There is a conflict, an alternative, a "moat" (J. Jeremias) between the faith of the prophets and that of the temple, that is, between the faith founded on hesed and that based on sacrifices, between the civilization of gratuitousness and the civilization of calculation, between the religion of love and the commercial one.
Love and sacrifices: two different religious paths, opposite, incompatible, as the Hebrew verb used by Hosea (hps) also reveals, which clearly says that God loves, likes, wants, appreciates hesed and does not want, does not love, does not like the sacrifices, they bother him. In the ancient world, everyone made sacrifices, including the sophisticated Greeks and the juridical and rational Romans. In this sacrificial environment, accepted by all and loved by priests, Hosea shouts that offering sacrifices is not only useless (Qoelet) but it bothers God, it disturbs him. The prophets are immense and wonderful in these kind of cries; they are truly different from us in this. With a little bit of courage, we can go so far as to say: "Sacrifices are less important than love, but a little worship is also needed, a few offerings to the temple do not harm anyone, the people love these practices". The true and great prophets cannot. They tell us something different, in fact, they tells is the opposite. They are tremendous and radical, unbalanced, partisan, divisive, unkind, exaggerated, excessive.
Like Jesus of Nazareth, who in front of the many who protested for his frequenting of public sinners (Matthew, the tax collector), quotes precisely this phrase by Hosea: «Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’» (Matthew 9,13) and then he repeats it to explain to us how to look at the Law and the temple: «If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent» (Matthew 12,7). Here Jesus explains Hosea to us, showing us that the alternative-moat-conflict between love and sacrifice is not limited only to religious life but extends to the entire social life. Not only does he, along with Hosea, repeat to us that his religion is not that of sacrifices, but that of love-hesed-agape; he also tells us that the culture of sacrifice is the wrong relationship, not only with God, but with life, because it is relationality based on calculation and not on generosity, on economic logic and not on excess. The logic of sacrifice is first of all an anthropological trap and second a theological and religious question. It is the logic of those who live by making calculations, calculating the costs and benefits of each action, because, after all, they are atheists, they do not believe that we are loved, that there is a great candor in the world, that we are children. Sacrificial faith imprisons God in a cage that is narrower than that of the most stingy man. Whoever sets his life on sacrifices believes in meritocracy because he does not believe in grace, he does not trust the great providence of the world and therefore buys himself a small private providence that will never satisfy him.
The prophets fight with all their strength against sacrifices to tell us: you are worth more than your works, you are greater than your calculations, you are better than your contracts, you are loved even if you do not deserve it: because I just love you, not for your merits, I love you for you. To fight the religion of sacrifice therefore means renouncing a petty, impoverished, stingy worldview. By broadening our idea of God, the prophets broaden the idea we have of others and of ourselves.