Theology

Spirit of Prostitution: a bi reading of Gomer

This is an expository/interpretive paper I wrote for my “Interpretation as Resistance: Feminist, Womanist, and Queer Readings of the Bible.” I hope y’all enjoy it.

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The whole LGBT movement is as phony as a three-dollar bill; look at this “B” thing in the middle; that’s just clear-cut straight-up promiscuity.

~Andrée  Sue Peterson

The ‘B’ stands for bisexual. That’s orgies! Are you really going to support this?

~James Dobson

Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. Let her remove the adulterous look from her face and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts … She said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink.

~Hosea 2:2-5

I thought that the redemptive love story of Hosea and Gomer was familiar to me. It was a metaphorical touchstone for the faith community of my adolescence, a story we referred to often as containing the Creation–Fall–Redemption arc we believed was at the core of Christianity. Gomer’s story was our story, because no matter how badly we sinned or how far we fell, God would still love and forgive us. Now, it is fascinating to me that although there are distinctive anti-Semitic tendencies in Christian fundamentalism, the way we interacted with Hosea was almost midrashic. This is demonstrated nowhere so well as in Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love, which is a retelling of the story of Hosea and Gomer set during the California Gold Rush. However, attempts to give a narrative framing to Hosea exist in abundance—evangelical Christian-style midrashim of Hosea are at bible.org, Lifeway, and Christianity Today. These retellings were more familiar to me than the text itself, and had overwritten my understanding of Hosea so much that when I read it in the NIV and Tanakh Translation, I was surprised by how much I struggled to find the narrative structure I’d grown up with.

I have been deep in the trenches with the evangelical structuring of Hosea as I’ve been doing a close reading of Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love for the past year. Over that time, the character of Gomer—and Rivers’ character, Angel—have come to mean a great deal to me for the exact reasons that Rivers, and evangelical culture more widely, condemn Gomer. My participation in this class has shown me that I love Gomer because I read her from a bipanqueer perspective, and in resisting Rivers’ framing I’ve come to play a Trickster role with the text. After all, if there’s a biblical character that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians would compare me, a bisexual woman, to—it’s Gomer. Gomer and I represent a sexuality that cannot be constrained, women who exercise our autonomy in defiance of societal expectations, and even if we arrive in a place that is culturally approved, we still represent a queer threat of instability.

In Hosea, Gomer is figurative of both women and Israel as a nation. After her introduction in the opening of the text, she is not referred to by name again. Instead, as the text develops she is replaced by generalities: woman, wife, mother, adulteress, prostitute, whore. Gomer’s badness is just women’s badness and Israel is bad when she/he/it behaves like Gomer (or like women). As a bipanqueer woman, I am frequently forced by culture to be a similar stand-in for all other queer women—or their ideas of queer women are forced onto me, regardless of their accuracy. There’s no separation of our “badness”; queer women are bad like me, and I am bad like queer women. The same thing happens in Hosea when the specificity of Gomer disappears from the text. Who she actually is doesn’t appear to matter to the writer(s), and telling her story is irrelevant. I intend to subvert this approach to the text by bringing the specificity of my story and to return Gomer as the principal character of the book.

The writers represent Gomer as a woman whose sexuality cannot be controlled, restrained or limited. She is an adulteress, “burning like an oven … blaz[ing] like a flaming fire … devour[ing her] rulers.” In the evangelical narrative framing of her character, Gomer returns again and again to her old life, which is depicted as irresistible to her. All through the text she is described as having a “spirit of prostitution,” and her unrestrainable sexuality is shown as being the core of her nature. These patterns are often applied to bipanqueer woman—our sexual appetites apparently know no bounds. We are inherently promiscuous and incapable of loyal monogamy. Many lesbian women are unwilling to enter relationships with bi women because they think we will inevitably be unfaithful or leave them. For straight men, bi women’s sexuality is still seen as unquenchable except instead of seeing this negatively, some straight men believe we are willing to engage in any sex act at any time with any person—or persons. However, I take joy in my sexuality that is free and unbounded, and I’m delighted that Gomer is the same. She knew what society thought of her—that is inescapable—but she enjoyed her sexuality, was brazen and forthright. She expressed her sexuality freely with an “adulterous look on her face,” and she knows her worth and claims it in olive oil and new wine. For Gomer and myself, it is impossible to contain not just our sexuality but the whole of ourselves. My sexuality has given me the gift of ignoring boundaries.

Another thing that is integral to Gomer’s story and my experience as a bi woman is how we exercise our autonomy. Society wants to enforce its monosexist boxes, but we can choose to live outside hetero- or homo-normative spheres. I have chosen a cis male partner, but that does not mean I have chosen a “straight” partnership. My partnership is queer because I am queer. Likewise, Gomer may have chosen Hosea, but that does not mean she chose to be circumscribed by the limits presented in Hosea. Without the assumption that Gomer is innately promiscuous, the narrative structure that she was constantly leaving her husband and returning to prostitution falls apart—it is not even necessarily supported by the text, as scholars disagree whether or not the opening verse in chapter three should be translated “Go, show love to your wife again” or “Go, befriend a woman.” Gomer chose to live with Hosea, to mother his children, but something that is clear to me as a bipanqueer woman is that Gomer did not choose to destroy herself in the process. She remained independent and autonomous, even in the face of a “yolk on her fair neck.” She defied expectations, as all bipanqueer women do.

Another facet of Gomer’s story that is analogous to my own is that she does, ultimately, choose a role and a “lifestyle” that, on the surface, conforms to her prescribed roles. She became a wife and mother, and according to the writer(s) may have “reformed.” I married a cis man, and hope to become a mother. In the meantime, I am mostly a “stay at home wife.” In an ironic twist of fate, my “lifestyle” more closely resembles the fundamentalist, patriarchal ideal than many of the women who were my peers in fundamentalism and would still consider themselves fundamentalists. A brief glance at the superficial facts of my life reveal a woman who works from home, who performs many of the traditionally feminine domestic duties like cooking and laundry. My partner takes on many of the traditionally masculine ones—managing our finances, mowing the lawn, etc. These “facts,” however, are not because we are obeying a complementarian understanding of marriage, but because I am allergic to grass and obsessed with Food Network, while my partner is genuinely overjoyed by spreadsheets. A deeper look would reveal many aspects of our lives that would horrify anti-feminists.

The text does not offer readers a deeper look into Gomer’s inner life, but if we remove the typical evangelical narrative structure and all the assumptions about her character, I believe we can achieve a more subversive and hopeful telling. Reading from a queer perspective offers the ability to see Gomer as a consistently destabilizing force. Women like Gomer and myself will always remain threats, as our sexual identities will always introduce instability into patriarchal structures. We can refuse yokes, cajoling, or demands and stay true and loyal to ourselves; the men who surround us know this, and should fear their inability to control us. Gomer knows she can provide for herself without Hosea and that she can be content, even happy, without him. I know that I do not need patriarchy, heterosexism, or monosexism to sustain either my Christian identity or my marriage. Even when we arrive at a place or a time in our lives when patriarchy or queerphobia may approve of our choices, we do not make those choices for anyone but ourselves.

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  • I never considered the possibility before that Gomer may have been bi- or pansexual. Interesting.

    Several months ago, I started thinking loosely about the implications of Gomer as a sexually confident or self-determinant woman, and concluded that it made the story much more interesting without fundamentally altering it, but that’s all the further I took it.

    I like your ideas here. I’ll be thinking about them for a while.

    • To be clear I’m not arguing that she is, I’m pointing out the ways Gomer’s story relates to my own experiences as a bi woman.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    I really enjoyed reading that.

  • mhelbert

    Well done! This is a very good, unique way to look at the story. It helps to humanize the one who has been continually dehumanized. The last time I read Hosea, I noticed for the first time that Gomer was a daughter. The writer even told us her father’s name. For me, that was the humanizing moment. That gave me a whole new perspective on the story.
    Thank you for this!

  • Ysolde

    Reading this I was wondering if you had seen any pieces that might be representative of a transgender person within the texts? I’ve long ago left most bible reading behind, but have been interested to see these stories from your perspective. Is it possible that some of the heroes/heroines within the bible could be transgender?

    • So in my research for this I found there’s actually a metric butt ton of trans readings of Hosea. Jared Beverly wrote a thesis on the gender instability in Hosea that you can download as a pdf and read for free. A Google search of his name and “queer Hosea” should pull it right up.

      There’s also a bunch of other stuff out there. “Jacob’s Wound” has a chapter called “Transgender Israel” I think, and Ken Stone has edited a queer commentary that’s pretty great.

      As far as specific characters, I know there’s been some conversations about the Ethiopian Eunuch. I think of Jesus as trans — if he was born of a virgin (debatable but whatevs) but the rest of it all matched up with the human experience … Jesus had XX chromosomes and yet definitely presented as male and was treated as one. I know that’s a stretch (if his birth was miraculous there’s no reason he couldn’t have XY chromosomes + penis/testes, but I have my headcanons and they make me happy.

      • Ysolde

        Thank you so much!
        I’ll certainly take a look.

  • Sheryl Tribble

    I have been greatly enjoying your series on “Redeeming Love” (and your posts on many other topics as well). I consider myself a basically conservative Christian (although not an evangelical), and I was keenly disappointed in “Redeeming Love” the first time I read it, because I thought Michael was an abuser, however you’re bringing up a lot of stuff that I can see now you’ve pointed it out, but that I wasn’t aware of reading it (partly because I wasn’t raised evangelical, I suppose). So thank you for that.

    One thing that makes me crazy when it comes to supposedly Biblical discussions of prostitution or purity is a verse straight out of Hosea — Hosea 4:14a: “I will not punish your daughters when they commit harlotry, nor your brides when they commit adultery, for the men themselves go apart with harlots…”. While on the one hand, the Bible does not approve of prostitution, OTOH, the Biblical God recognizes that, when a culture gives women little choice in the manner, individual women should not be condemned.

    Other people made choices that had trapped Angel into this situation, and I believe God would recognize her innocence — but many modern Christians do not, which irritates me. I find this particularly irritating in a book supposedly based on Hosea, which specifically forgives women in a culture where men offer them no other option. And, no, Michael Hosea is not offering Angel a reasonable option — he’s just offering her another form of slavery, one where she’s blamed for things she had no control over, while denying her the option she wants.

    Either Francine Rivers didn’t ever sit down and read the book of Hosea before writing a book based on it (which seems really unlikely), or she not only ignores that verse, but chooses to argue against it, which I think is a really strange thing for someone who claims to take the Bible literally to do.

    The Bible consistently presents God as holding leaders and the powerful more accountable than those under them or those with little social power — it fascinates me how often modern Christians flip this and blame the abused while excusing the abusers. Horrifies me, too, of course, but it’s such a pervasive concept that I’m constantly surprised when people discuss a passage including that principle and complete ignore it, and no one calls them on it.

    The whole purity culture depends on no one ever reading the Bible, which holds men accountable for their own sexuality. Every modesty verse purity culture plays with has been wrenched out of a discussion that has absolutely nothing to do with male desire, and no one blinks an eye. And yet nearly everyone holding to these concepts claims to take the Bible literally and seriously. It’s bizarre.