Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion (Numbers 1:1-4:20) has the same name as the book it begins, Bemidbar. The haftarah is Hosea 2:1-22.
The Hebrew name of each of the first five books of the Bible is the first significant word in the first sentence of the book. This week Jews begin studying the book called “Numbers” in English, which begins:
God vayedabeir to Moses bemidbar of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first [day] of the second month, in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt. (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:1)
vayedabeir (וַיְדַבֵּר) = (and) he/it spoke.
bemidbar (בְּמִדְבָּר) = be- (בְּ) = in a + midbar (מִדְבָּר) = wilderness; uncultivated and/or uninhabited land.
Although bemidbar by itself means “in a wilderness”, when it is followed by a definite place-name, such as “Sinai”, a better translation is “in the wilderness of Sinai”. A common custom today is to call the book of Numbers Bamidbar (בַּמִדְבָּר), the word for “in the wilderness’ if it is not immediately followed by a place-name. But some commentators, myself included, prefer to take the name Bemidbar directly from the text.
A more important question is whether midbar comes from the same root as vayedabeir. The modern scholarly consensus is that there are at least two root words with the letters דבר, one that has to do with driving away or going behind, and one that has to do with speech, words, and things. Midbar comes from the first root, and could be translated as “back-country”. Vayedabeir comes from the second root, and is a form of the verb dibeir =speak.
But that does not stop a poetic prophet from using the word midbar both to indicate wilderness and to allude to a medabeir (מְדַבֵּר) = “one who speaks, speaker”.
Hosea’s prophesies were composed in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E.. Like the later prophets, Hosea keeps warning the people of Israel to stop being unfaithful to God by worshiping other gods. Hosea compares Israel to a woman who abandons her first husband and prostitutes herself with other men. In this week’s haftarah, Hosea passes on God’s warning that Israel must stop soliciting.
Or else I will strip her naked,
Bare as the day of her birth,
And I will make her like the midbar
And render her like a waterless land,
And I will let her die of thirst. (Hosea 2:5)
God is threatening not merely to humiliate Israel like a women stripped naked in public, but also to turn the cultivated and inhabited land of Israel into the worst kind of wilderness: an empty desert. This is the midbar that the children of Israel feared when they crossed the wilderness with Moses, and panicked three times when there was no water: twice in the book of Exodus/Shemot, and once in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar:
There was no water for the community, and they congregated against Moses and against Aaron…and they said…Why did you bring the congregation of God to this midbar to die here, us and our livestock? (Numbers 20:2-4)
Their complaint was false on at least three counts: it was God who led the people into the wilderness; God led them from Mount Sinai straight to the border of their promised land, but they refused to cross, so it was their fault that God made them stay in the wilderness for 40 years; and finally, they had no reason to believe that God, who provided water and food throughout their wilderness journey, would fail to do so again.
Apparently the inhabitants of Israel in Hosea’s time were just as full of false beliefs. In this week’s haftarah, Israel (the unfaithful wife) says her other gods (her illicit lovers) gave her vines and fig trees; she does not recognize her crops as a gift from her own God.
God promises to turn Israel into a midbar to punish her. But then God will take her back.
Indeed, here I am, seducing her.
And I will lead her through the midbar,
Vedibarti to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)
vedibarti (וְדִבַּרְתִּי) = and I will speak. (From the same root as dibeir.)
Now we see the midbar in a different light, as the place where God speaks to the Israelites. God first spoke to Moses out of the burning bush in the midbar of Sinai.
And Moses…led the flock to the back of the midbar, and he came to the mountain of the God… (Exodus/Shemot 3:1)
There God commissioned Moses to serve as God’s prophet in Egypt. After the Israelite slaves were freed, God’s pillar of cloud and fire led them back to the midbar of Sinai.
They journeyed from Refidim and they entered Midbar Sinai and they camped bamidbar, and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God… (Exodus 19:2-3)
The Israelites stayed in the midbar of Sinai for two years, while God spoke the Ten Commandments, made a covenant, and gave Moses instructions for the sanctuary and the duties of priests and the various holiday observances. That was the midbar where God was a medabeir, one who speaks.
The book of Hosea says that after God has punished Israel for being unfaithful and the land is reduced to a midbar, God will speak to Israel again—but this time, instead of repeating the rules and instructions for the religion, God will “speak to her heart”, “seducing” her to return to God.
And I will give her vineyards from there,
And the valley of disturbance for a doorway of hope.
And she will answer there as in the days of her youth,
As the day she came up from the land of Egypt. (Hosea 2:17)
God will speak to Israel’s heart, and Israel will answer as in the days when the Israelites lived in the wilderness. The wild land will grow vineyards, and the wild heart will grow hope.
The midbar is the place of insecurity, where no wells are dug and no crops planted. But the midbar is also the place where people can hear the medabeir: God speaking.
Does God speak in your heart when you are well-clothed, well-fed, and secure? Or is that when you attribute your good fortune to other gods, such as your own cleverness or hard work?
Are you more likely to hear God speaking in your heart when you are in a place of insecurity?