Haftarah for Bemidbar–Hosea: An Unequal Marriage

Everyone obeys God in the opening Torah portion of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“in a wilderness”), as the Israelites prepare to leave Mount Sinai and head toward their promised land.

And the children of Israel did everything that God commanded Moses; thus they did.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:54)

The people’s compliance falls apart even before they reach the border of Canaan. But for a while, in the wilderness, Israel and God enjoy a honeymoon.

The metaphors of courtship and marriage to express the covenant between God and the Israelites is popular in later Jewish writing, but it does not show up in the Hebrew Bible until the Latter Prophets. Going by the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible, the first occurrence is in Isaiah; going by the prophets in historical order, the first occurrence is in the book of Hosea, who lived in the 8th century B.C.E.

In this week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the Torah portion), Hosea criticizes the northern kingdom of Israel for worshiping other gods. He calls the kingdom the “mother” of the Israelites, and declares that she has abandoned her legitimate “husband”, God, and become a harlot.

At first Hosea, speaking God’s words, says Israel has abused her marriage covenant so badly that she and God are now divorced.

Rebuke your mother, rebuke; for she is not my wife, and I am not her ish. (Hosea 2:4)

ish (אִישׁ) = man, husband. (Out of the two Biblical terms for “husband”, ish and ba-al, ish is the more affectionate one.)

Next God promises to inflict drought on Israel. When she turns to other gods for help, God will frustrate her.

She will pursue her lovers, but she will not catch them. She will seek them, but she will not find them. Then she will say: I will go and return to my first ish, because it was better for me then than now. (Hosea 2:9)

After Israel has this thought, God will continue to punish her for a while, destroying her vines and fig trees. Then suddenly God’s behavior toward Israel will change. God will woo Israel into a second marriage, one that will last forever.

Therefore I myself will become her seducer, and I will lead her through the wilderness, and I will speak to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

What will lead God to become Israel’s seducer?  Is it a response to her pursuit of other gods? Or to her brief realization that she was better off with her first husband, the god of Israel—even though she does not follow up on this realization by pursuing or seeking out God?

After speaking to her heart, God says, God will give Israel good farmland again.

She will respond there as in the days of her youth, as on the day she came up from the land of Egypt. And it will be on that day—declares God—you will call me “my ish”, and you will no longer call me “my ba-al”. I will remove the names of the be-alim from her mouth, and their names will no longer be remembered. (Hosea 2:17-19)

ba-al (בַּעַל), plural be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = owner, husband, master; the West Semitic god of weather, fertility, and war. (The be-alim were different local versions of Ba-al.)

Here the book of Hosea makes two predictions via one word, ba-al. The text says both that Israel will devote herself only to God, forgetting the gods (be-alim ) who were her illicit lovers; and that Israel will think of God affectionately, as a husband who is her ish (her man), rather than her ba-al (her master).

The haftarah portion ends with a marriage formula (which has become part of the prayer for putting on tefillin):

I will betroth you to me forever, and I will betroth you to me with rightness and with lawfulness, and with loyalty and with mercy; and I will betroth you to me with faithfulness, and veyadat God. (Hosea 2:21-22)

veyadat (וְיָדַתְּ) = and you will know. (Biblical Hebrew generally uses the verb yada for knowledge from direct experience, including sexual knowledge.)

This strikes me as an amazing betrothal. In our modern world, when two human beings get engaged, we assume both parties want the marriage and are independently motivated to commit to it. But in this passage, all the commitment comes from God.

Are rightness, lawfulness, loyalty, mercy, and faithfulness the qualities God is promising to exhibit as Israel’s husband? Or are they the qualities God intends to instill in Israel so the marriage can last?

Either way, all Israel does is respond when God speaks to her heart (and gives her farmland). God does not require any prior seeking out, repentance, or reform on Israel’s part. Israel is not required to embody rightness, lawfulness, loyalty, mercy, and faithfulness on her own initiative. God will take care of everything.

And then, the text promises, you will know God.

I suspect that most of us have to search with all our selves, conscious and unconscious, in order to find God. I know my own efforts result in teasing glimpses or transient feelings, but I have never yet been able to say I “know” God.

Yet maybe for some of us, it is enough merely to wonder if we would be better off with God than we are now. Maybe God might unexpectedly speak to our hearts, or inside our hearts, whether we have made an effort or not. And then we would know God, from the inside.

May everyone who needs a personal “marriage” to God be blessed to hear God speak in their hearts, and to know God.


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