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That other half of the verse

The flesh and the sign /4 - The prophets see the future of others and of God, but for themselves the only see the present.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 19/12/2021

"Money buys pleasure and, at the same time, becomes an expression of shame. As long as money is only considered a means of payment or merely a gift, however, this aspect does not become clear. The love of a prostitute is bought, but not the shame of her client. This shame is what leads man to seek a hideout and then finding the most brilliant one: money."

Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, Vol .1 (I «Passages» di Parigi, Vol. 1)

The power of Hosea's love song stands out in his paradoxical wedding story. It was also a message for the people, and for us. Into the night and beyond.

«Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her… “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master‘ (…) “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky (…) I will betroth you to me forever“» (Hosea 2,14-19).

This dialogue of the heart, of a different and more beautiful youth, a reciprocity between equals and no longer merely a relationship between servant and master, a new alliance that also embraces animals and the earth, a fidelity capable of "forever", blossom like a flower of evil in the crevasses between the harsh lines of accusation that precede them (Hosea 2, 4-15) and the terrible chapter that follows them. On the other hand, when we extrapolate only the footsteps of light, words become too ethereal and pale to truly be able to see and hear them. We will only find the light in the Bible (and in life), and there is much to find, if we look for it alongside and within its darkness. Its sunrise is splendid because it saying farewell to a very dark night. Its ray of light is the one that penetrates between the dark clouds, because skies that are too bright have never know the colours of a rainbow. If we attempt to read Hosea’s love song while releasing it from its scandalous context, we will miss its most beautiful and true notes. Those who tell us about a husband, countless husbands and even more countless wives, who after finally bringing their unfaithful spouse back home one day, find themselves going out looking for him or her again on a different day, because he or she has returned to the same Wrong Path. The saving encounter with Hosea is what the prophet gives us during a pause between a return and a restart, between a betrayal and a reconciliation. Because these are our encounters, the real ones between wives, husbands, daughters and sons, friends, and brothers. Blocking Hosea in his only pages of consolation means taking him out of life in order to put him back, harmless, on the shelf of useless consolations because they are fake.

It should not surprise us, then, that as soon as we have finished reading this hymn of love, taken with emotion, we find ourselves once again in the rawness of the life of the prophet: «Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress» (Hosea 3,1). We do not know who this woman is, if she is the same woman mentioned in the first chapter (Hosea 1,2), if it is his wife, Gomer, the prostitute whom Hosea had to marry at the command of YHWH; nor if this is the same story of the first chapter with some variations, or if the two passages are independent from each other. Because this could be another woman, and therefore Hosea would have had to love two unfaithful wives (as claimed, among others, by Alviero Niccacci, Hosea 1-3: composition and meaning / Osea 1-3: composizione e senso). However, most scholars believe that this woman is still his wife Gomer. Perhaps, after Hosea's repudiation, she found another man, or was bought as a slave, perhaps she had become a sacred prostitute in the meantime, or simply, Gomer had continued to prostitute herself - as chapter 1 suggests, that Gomer had three sons "born from prostitution" (Hosea 1,2). In part, because it is difficult not to agree with Martin Buber when he writes: «The imperative form of the verb "love" is a singular and strange expression: can love really be commanded? Can you demand to love a specific person, where did loving become so concrete? This word can only be addressed to someone who already loves» (The Faith of the Prophets / La fede dei profeti, p. 113). Furthermore, the verb that Hosea uses here to say "love" is ahev, which stands for the emotional-sentimental love between a man and a woman. He does not use the word hesed, which would have given this gesture an aspect of mercy-love.

What really matters, however, is that Hosea continues to write his book with his own flesh. The woman whom he must take back after several other betrayals, or the other possible adulterer, whom he must love, both constitute a real and historical experience lived by the prophet, concrete and public gestures. However, while Hosea obeys the prophetic command and performs these paradoxical, absurd and scandalous gestures (the adultery of a married woman was punishable with death), he does not know the meaning of what he is doing. He just does. His disciples and successive scribes are the ones who explain the meaning of Hosea's gestures to us. While he performs these acts he is in ignorance, and the only language he understands is that of the Voice and then that of his own flesh. The passages of the books of the prophets where the meaning of their gestures is explained, usually the second parts of the verses, are written by other editorial hands - something analogous to the explanation of parables in the Gospels. The prophets know only the first part of their words («Go, show your love to your wife ... »). Only we know the second part («Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes»).

The prophets are like an amputated verse. They see and explain the future of others and the future of God to us, but they can only see the present for themselves, and hence they end up resembling us. This is why the ancient words of the prophecies still speak to us; they overcome the vanitas of time by eternalizing the moment: this is the only possible, strange and good present-day aspect of relevance to them. The details of Hosea's execution of the command, the details of the price to pay, are too specific to merely be a theological message: «So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley» (Hosea 3,2). As in the purchase of Jeremiah's field in Anatot (c. 32), when the prophets reveal prices and quantities to us, they are offering us words that are engrained into their lives. For those (like me) who work in economics as a profession, it is a powerful thing to see a prophet who speaks the language of economics and contracts when referring to the most solemn of acts. Here too, the Bible shocks us with the unexpected because it reverses the natural order of things. We are used to thinking that contracts and money are too poor a language for truly important things and tend to resort to gifts and gratuities instead. The Bible often uses the concept of gifts and gratuitousness, especially when it has to speak to us about God; but for the truly decisive human acts - from the purchase of Sarah's tomb by Abraham to the two denarii of the Good Samaritan - it does not use the language of gifts, but contracts and money. And so, it continues to teach us about life.

What Hosea paid (we do not know if to the woman or, more likely, to her man) is equal to about 30 shekels of silver, which was the price of a slave, the ransom of a woman who had ended up in slavery due to debt, or the cost of a sacred prostitute. However, we still find ourselves facing another reversal of the ordinary state of things. In the ancient world, money entered the realm of intimate relationships between men and women through the dowry or prostitution. Here, however, the text informs us that Hosea was not paying a dowry, because the payment seems to have a very specific purpose: «Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you”» (Hosea 3,3). Hence, Hosea pays the woman to not prostitute herself. Money here plays the opposite role to the one it usually plays. The Bible knows that money can do almost anything; it can even buy life and death. This is why it was brought closer to God later, recognizing an (almost) divine nature in mammon (Matthew 6,24). Nevertheless, Hosea’s unusual gesture also tells us something else: money, the same money, can be used to buy people or to free them. Alongside the men who pay for that kind of ancient service, back in the day as well as today, there are others, men and women, who spend all their energy and their money to free many of Gomer's sisters from the always too crowded streets.

Hosea pays his woman to abstain from prostitution and from sexual intercourse with anyone, Hosea included («and I will behave the same way toward you»). And here, on a different day, someone explained the meaning of Hosea’s gesture to us: «For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or household gods» (Hosea 3,4). Someone who, centuries after Hosea, explained the meaning of that insane gesture of the prophet while recalling the Babylonian exodus or exile. And then concluded: «Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days» (Hosea 3,5). The verb used here, jasab (to sit down), is quite common in the Bible when describing the condition of being in exile: «By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down (jasabnu)» (Psalm 137). Exile was also, and above all, a time from which a new love, a new covenant, a new faith was born. The Jews found themselves defeated, without kings, without sacrifices and without worship. In that time without a temple, in the general silence of politics and religion, a new faith and a new covenant were reborn, that would not have been reborn without the night of worship and power, without the night of God. That exile, neither wished for nor sought out, ended up becoming a time of grace.

After a serious personal or community crisis, before you can begin experiencing a better season, you often needs exile and its typical pedagogy. Relearning a new faith, a new life and a new God, requires the eclipse of one’s previous life and the previous God. In order to start over, there is no need to move straight on to the post-crisis phase; first, you need to know how to cross this middle earth, where you can learn to become poor again, where without a temple and without a palace we can hope to hear the first voice once again. Temples, both religious and secular, fill up too quickly with sacred objects that end up taking away space from the only thing that is necessary: ​​the subtle voice of silence. If Nebuchadnezzar did not arrive to destroy the temple from time to time, we would remain eternally caught up in the things of God and would never hear or listen to the God of all things. Too many crises are not overcome because the haste to start all over again devours this intermediate time of exile, of silence, of poverty, of emptiness, of freedom.

Without exile, we would not have had the Bible, we would have lost the memory of the prophets and without its darkness, we would never have seen or followed a star, any star. In exile, you learn about Christmas.

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