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Nothing more, nothing less

The sign and the flesh /2 - In true vocations, one is never greater than one's destiny or one's name

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 05/12/2021

"Life is not simply destiny"

Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence

The paradoxical names of the children of Hosea reveal something profound in the logic of the Bible and parenthood, which is also the art of freeing children from chains.

In the ancient world, a name was a task and a promise, it was destiny. Names definitely oriented life from its inception. That is why names were hidden behind a veil. Revealing your name to someone meant making him overlook the mystery of his own veiled intimacy. A trace of this mystery remains today in the names of a mother, father, grandparents, aunts and uncles, where the name of the relationship means that we do never really pronounce their first names. We know mom and dad’s names, but we do not pronounce them, to keep a little of their mystery of love. We learn them because others pronounce them, we discover them on their lips - very few things hurt a child, boy or girl, more than hearing the names of their father and mother in a loveless manner: it is a desecration of the heart. Today we, or at least many of us, know that we are greater than our name, that thanks to our freedom we can change our destiny, and that we can make our name say things differently from what our parents and life itself originally had in mind. Biblical man did not yet know. He had to learn, with great effort. And sometimes he succeeded.

«So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel”» (Hosea 1,3-4). Hosea's unfaithful wife, Gomer, gives birth to a child. It is God who gives the child its name. After the order to marry a "prostitute", God continues to speak to Hosea within the flesh of his own flesh. As he did with Isaiah, whose son bore his father's wonderful prophecy inscribed in his name – «Shear-Jashub: A remnant will return» (Isaiah 7,3). The first dialogues between God and his prophet are words of the flesh, words of home, a prophecy will learn the words of heaven under a tent and its first vocabulary is a family lexicon.

Scholars continue to offer new interpretations of the meaning of the name Jezreèl, a name linked to the terrible battles that took place in the plain of Jezreèl, to the blood crimes perpetrated there by Jehu, the founding king of the ruling dynasty in the time of Hosea. The Second Book of Kings gives a different reading of Jehu from that of Hosea: «The Lord said to Jehu, “Because you have done well in accomplishing what is right in my eyes…”» (2 Book of Kings 10,30). By doing what is right in my eyes, that is: the murder of Ioram, the seventy beheaded children, the extermination of all the faithful at Ioram in Samaria. A form of justice that we no longer understand, thanks to the Bible itself which, maturing in the soil of history, made us overcome the idea of ​​justice that it itself contained. A justice not even understood by Hosea, who would never have written a sentence like the one just quoted – this is another reason why the Bible is great, the different and opposite readings and interpretations of the facts that are present within it. The name of the son is hence a name of blood for a message of blood.

«Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Call her Lo-Ruhamah (which means “not loved”), for I will no longer show love to Israel, that I should at all forgive them…"» (Hosea 1,6). Unloved, Lo'-ruhamah, a name that makes use, while perverting it, of the great word raham (entrails), the root of mercy (rahamim). It is the word of the father of the prodigal son, of the Good Samaritan. Unloved, not worthy of mercy: a daughter for whom the entrails of her mother, father, God will not move. These are the prophets. To understand even a small part of the mystery we must not take away even an epsilon from the paradox. In order to speak in the name of YHWH, Hosea must give his daughter - and we know what daughters are to fathers - a perverse, wicked name, which denies the profound meaning of all motherhood, fatherhood, of being someone’s child, denying life itself. And he must do it because the greatest crime is about to take place on earth: because I will no longer love the house of Israel, I will no longer forgive them. And if YHWH, the only true God, the father of the people, the most beautiful name, so beautiful as to protect it with a non-pronunciation, should break the Covenant made with Adam, with Noah, with Abraham and with Moses because of our unfaithfulness, if he no longer should love the people he chose and saved from Egypt, if the merciful God no longer should forgive, then the sun will truly have gone out. There will nothing of value left on earth anymore, no entrails of any mother will move any longer. This is the God in the Bible - nothing more, nothing less. The covenant is not a religious matter, God is not that most perfect Being which we were taught about in catechism, during religious feasts and in funerals; no, the biblical God is the horizon of being, he is the foundation of life, he is the light that illuminates every day. If it goes out, everything that is alive will dry up. This is the prophecy; these are the prophets, who must remind the people who the biblical God really is. If the Bible has resisted and has resisted the winds of vanitas of the earth for more than two millennia, it is because the prophets made sure to save this different God, and continue to save him. They did not make him a god-of-good, an educated-god, a god-of-common-sense; no, they kept him within his paradox, and so God stayed alive and living.

Hosea's family message becomes even clearer and stronger with the third child: «After she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, Gomer had another son. Then the Lord said, “Call him Lo-Ammi (which means “not my people”), for you are not my people, and I am not your God"» (Hosea 1,8-9). The third name of the son: Not-my-people, Lo’-’ammî. Here, the breaking of the covenant becomes definitive. YHWH, the I-Am revealed to Moses, withdraws, and the name is reversed into its opposite: I am no longer I-Am. And so the Covenant withdraws and overturns: you are no longer my people. For Hosea the people can (and perhaps must) live without a king, but they are no longer themselves without their special and unique relationship with their God. Hence, here we are faced with the revelation of new dimensions of prophecies - and therefore of many authentic vocations. Hosea is not only explaining to us what the Covenant is, nor what the profound nature of the people of Israel is, here; he is not even just telling us who the biblical God is. He is also talking to us about himself; he is telling us whom a prophet really is.

A prophet could live without "kings", that is, without power, institutions or structures. He could also live without the temple, that is, without worship and without religion. However, he would die if he should distance himself from absolute obedience to the voice. If he should leave this dialogue, he would be lost, lose his way, his candle would burn out. And as long as I-Am, the name-not-name of all names, is alive, we must give our sons and daughters the most beautiful and good names there are. Because parenthood is also about giving wonderful names to our children, and then freeing them from the burden of the "names" we chose for them - and if we fail, we can always go to sleep safe in the hope that another hand will complete the task. If the I-Am should die, however, if the Name should vanish, then all names would become mere wind; and then we could also proceed to give absurd names to our children, our pets, our works, our businesses, our jobs. All true vocations, that are not just self-deception, are tremendous and absolute like the commands imparted to Hosea. Nothing more, nothing less. True vocations can only be obeyed; one can only stay within a paradox of the flesh. They are an open wound, bleeding for life. That is why they are archaic matters, so distant from the spirit of freedom of modern times. I am truly and only destiny. In true vocations, we are not greater than our destiny, we are not greater than our name and by saying "yes”, we freely renounce the control of our destiny and name. Our children, however, do not. They must not become trapped inside the "names" we have chosen for them by obeying a voice.

Thus, here we have one of the brightest songs of Hosea bursting into that darkness, bringing us back to the promise of Abraham and Moses: «“Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore... In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God’… The people of Judah and the people of Israel will come together; they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel. “Say of your brothers, ‘My people,’ and of your sisters, ‘My loved one’» (Hosea 1,10-11, 2,1). We do not know who wrote these three verses, so different from those that precede them (and from those that follow them). They were probably written long after Hosea, after the exile, when the Israelites had again experienced the I-Am and His mercy. An ancient writer changed the names of the sons of Hosea. It took multiple generations to resurrect those sad names. An anonymous scribe, perhaps also a prophet, wanted to add these verses to free those children from the chains of their names. In fact, the sons of Hosea bore (we believe) those names throughout their lives. But that posthumous liberation from the Bible really liberated them - if it hadn’t, the Bible would be fiction.

The meaning of a name sometimes needs time and a different touch from our own to reveal itself. The touch of a grandson writing the true meaning of a grandfather's absurd story, that of a daughter revealing the meaning of a mother's unspeakable suffering. A prophet cannot change his name, because vocations can only be inhabited and obeyed. But others, or life itself, can change the names of our children. The destiny of our children is certainly linked to our own; but not forever, there is a dimension of their destiny that does not depend, and must not depend, on that of their parents. This is true for children of flesh and blood, but it is also true for the works of the prophets, and of the founders of charismatic communities. Their works are born closely linked to their destiny, but one day another touch may arrive and free them, giving them a different meaning than that originally conceived and wanted by the founder, thereby resurrecting them to a new life. However, only the prophets know these things, and their friends who know how to listen to these whispers.

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