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 is Re-eih (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:11-55:5).
Hosea was the first prophet to compare the covenant between God and the Israelites to a marriage contract. Preaching in the 8th century B.C.E., Hosea calls the northern kingdom of Israel a prostitute who takes other lovers, i.e. worships other gods, until her own God decides to take action.
And I will bring her to account
Over the days of the Baals
When she turned offerings into smoke for them
And she adorned herself with her rings and ornaments
And she went after her lovers
—and Me, she forgot… (Hosea 2:15)
The books of first and second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all employ Hosea’s metaphor of Israel (or the southern kingdom of Judah, or the city of Jerusalem) as God’s cherished wife who abandons her husband and commits adultery. In this week’s haftarah from second Isaiah (written circa 540-530 B.C.E., two centuries after the first half of the book of Isaiah), Jerusalem is once again compared to a wife, with God as her husband. But this time the story is different.
The haftarah begins with God promising to give Jerusalem jewelry.
Wretched, stormy, she has not been comforted.
Hey! I am setting down turquoise building-stones,
And foundations of sapphires.
And I will make her skylights of agate
And her gates of fire-stone,
And her whole enclosure of jewels. (Isaiah 54:11-12)
What interests me is the reason why God intends to shower Jerusalem with jewelry. Shortly before the opening of this week’s haftarah, second Isaiah declares:
As a wife azuvah and troubled in spirit
God has called to you:
“Can one reject the wife of one’s youth?”
—said your God. (Isaiah 54:6)
azuvah (עֲזוּבָה) = forsaken, abandoned, left behind.
This prophetic passage never calls Jerusalem unfaithful, or at fault in any way as a wife. But it answers God’s rhetorical question by making it clear that God did, in fact, reject Jerusalem.
For a little while azavtikh,
But with a great rachamim I will gather you in.
In a burst of anger I hid my face from you a while,
But with everlasting loyalty
—said your redeemer, God. (Isaiah 54:7-8)
azavtikh (עֲזַבתִּיךְ) = I forsook you, I abandoned you.
rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = compassion, feeling of love, mercy.
richamtikh (רִחַמְתִּיךְ) = I will feel compassion and/or love for you.
In other words, God abandoned Jerusalem and opened the door for the Babylonian army to destroy her (see my post Haftarah for Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship). According to the book of Jeremiah, God did it because Jerusalem was unfaithful and worshiped other gods. But now, in second Isaiah, God has recovered from this particular fit of temper, and is carried away with a different emotion, a compassionate love for “his” wife.
An abusive husband who beats his wife to discharge his anger, and then feels a desire to reclaim her, usually promises her that he will never do it again. In this poetic passage, God continues:
[Like] the waters of Noah this is to me!
I swore that the waters of Noah would not cross
Over the earth again.
Thus I swear
Against becoming angry over you and against rebuking you!
For the mountains may give way
And the hills may totter,
But My loyalty to you shall never give way
And the covenant of My peace shall never change!
—said merachameich, God. (Isaiah 54:9-10)
merachameich (מְרַחֲמֵךְ) = your compassionate one, your one full of loving feelings.
After promising his wife he will never beat her again, what does the standard abusive husband do next? Give her jewelry, of course.
And so we step into this week’s haftarah, in which Jerusalem is wretched—in the sense of being miserable, and “stormy”—full conflicting feelings. And “she has not been comforted”—God’s declaration of everlasting love and promise never to hurt her again is not enough for her to forgive God and take “him” back.
So God promises to give Jerusalem turquoises and sapphires, agates and fire-stones, and jewels all around.
Perhaps even a lavish gift of jewelry is not enough for the battered wife this time, because God goes on in this haftarah to promise Jerusalem children who will all live in peace, and her own personal safety from oppression and ruin. God even goes so far as to say:
Hey! Certainly no one will attack
Without My consent.
Whoever hurts you
Will fall because of you. (Isaiah 54:15)
I wonder if the poet of second Isaiah was aware of the irony?
What does this thinly-disguised allegory of God as the abusive husband and Jerusalem as the battered wife mean?
In the patriarchal culture reflected in the Hebrew Bible, wives were not allowed to divorce their husbands. An actual battered wife had no recourse until Talmudic times. But members of one religion could convert to another.
Second Isaiah addresses the families that the Babylonian army deported from Jerusalem several decades before, when they razed the city. (See my post Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning?)
Now the exiles are living comfortably enough in Babylon, and they hesitate to trust their old god, who let the Babylonian army destroy Jerusalem in the first place.
Yes, the Persian king Cyrus is rapidly taking over the Babylonian empire, and Cyrus has a policy of letting native populations return to their old homes and worship their old gods. But the exiles from Jerusalem are reluctant to go. Like a battered wife, they feel safer in the foreign city of Babylon than they do at home. They are tempted to abandon God for good and assimilate.
Second Isaiah was wise enough to recognize and acknowledge the deepest fear of these exiles who assumed that God was anthropomorphic, and God’s relationship with the Israelites was like a marriage. The exiles knew that the people of Jerusalem were guilty of adultery with other gods. But I bet that subconsciously they also suspected that the husband, God, had an anger management problem and had abused Jerusalem beyond bearing.
A later passage even states that the Israelites would not have strayed if only God had kept “his” temper:
You attacked one who would gladly be righteous
And remember You in Your ways.
But You, You became angry, and so we offended. (Isaiah 64:4)
Throughout the Bible, the old, anthropomorphic God gets carried away by “his” temper. This God is also portrayed as one of many gods, each in charge of its own country or ethnic group, though the God of Israel is the most powerful. This the God who acts like an abusive husband to the Israelites.
Second Isaiah switches back and forth between the old, anthropomorphic God and a new idea of God as vast, remote, and singular. In this new concept, there is only one god, who creates and runs the entire universe.
Shortly after the end of this week’s haftarah, the poet reminds us that God is not really like a human being after all:
My thoughts are not your thoughts,
And your ways are not my ways
—declares God. (Isaiah 55:8)
Elsewhere, second Isaiah insists there are no other gods, as in this bold theological statement:
I am God and there is no other.
The shaper of light and creator of darkness,
The maker of peace and the creator of evil:
I, God, do all of these. (Isaiah 45:6-7)
Today the concept of God in second Isaiah is still at odds with the popular notion of an anthropomorphic God. While the exiles in Babylon may have feared that their God was temperamental and abusive—a characterization supported by numerous Biblical passages—many religious people today believe in an anthropomorphic God who loves each individual the way a parent loves a child. Then they have to explain why their parental God kills so many young and innocent children.
I think the Jews in Babylon were more realistic about what an anthropomorphic god means. And I think second Isaiah was inspired with a far more interesting idea of what God is.
6 thoughts on “Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser”
This is brilliant! And perhaps why it is often the abused who welcome a more abstract and less anthropomorphic deity.