Wild Lectionary: Trembling Birds

 Pigeon Pair by Hal Trachenberg, Creative Commons

Proper 13(18) C

Hosea 11:1-11

By Laurel Dykstra

Today’s lectionary passage from Hosea is a potent cocktail that mixes parental love and anger with political violence and nature imagery. More broadly and more problematically, the prophet’s oracles:

  • imagine religious fidelity and commitment to justice, as sexual fidelity within patriarchy
  • conflate non-monogamy and sex commerce
  • assume that sexual violence (reparative rape) is a husband’s prerogative
  • equate military violence and invasion with divine judgement.

We ignore such texts at our peril but as we preach on, teach from, and otherwise engage with them here are some things for the ecologically minded to consider:

Hebrew bible scholar Gale Yee reminds us, “At issue in Hosea is the plurality of Israelite cult, primarily where it intersects with the male political and economic interests of the Monarchy and foreign affairs.”

“In Hosea, Land is not just real estate where the drama of salvation is played out or where Israel received agricultural blessing – she is a major participant in the story.”  Laurie J. Braaten

These verses juxtapose intimacy and power, compassion and anger.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. 11:4

These are tender early acts of care. Teaching to walk, taking them up in arms, healing, lifting to the cheek, bending down to feed. Does/how does the way that these actions, these relationships, these social roles and reproductive labour are gendered impact our images of the Divine?

Tender and reconciling images of intimacy between sexual partners and intimacy between parent and child include the threat of violence and the impulse to violence towards the vulnerable beloved.

when he roars, his children shall come trembling 11:10

Many passages describe what Gale Yee calls a physical kinship between humans and creatures on earth. Modern readers tend to dismiss the idea that human sin has “cosmic” implications but we are living in a time where human greed, lack of a sense of connection or obligation to other humans, other creatures, land has profound impacts.

In Hosea 4 the impact of human transgression is actually a reversal of the sequence of creation in Genesis, which echoes our Anthropocene experience:

There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
 There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Because of this the land dries up,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea are swept away.

In the same chapter (2) that describes the divine husband physically confining and publically stripping his wife, Hosea imagines divine-human restoration with an end to war and violence in a covenant that includes other than human creatures.

I will make a covenant for them
with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the creatures that move along the ground.

In today’s passage (11:11) divine-human reconciliation uses the image of shaking birds approaching in the wake of stayed violence.

They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria

In other literature where doves are described as trembling, predation is explicit:

As the hawk is wont to pursue the trembling doves.

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Not half so swift the trembling doves can fly,
When the fierce eagle cleaves the liquid sky;
Not half so swiftly the fierce eagle moves,
When thro’ the clouds he drives the trembling doves.

Alexander Pope, Windsor Forest

The reality is that species of pigeons and doves will tremble or shake their wings as juveniles to beg food from adults and as adults prior to mating: autonomous behaviours that occur within a species and a kin-bond unrelated to predation or hunting.

How/do we read this scripture of power and violence, land and creature, spirit and body, justice and exploitation in ways that honour authentic experience, in ways that are what ecologist Denis Martinez calls kin-centric—putting neither humans nor non-humans first but interspecies obligation and relationship?
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.

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