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 Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-10).
For a little while I abandoned you,
But with great compassion I will gather you in. (Isaiah 54:7)
This week’s haftarah is a poem in which the husband is God, and the wife is the Israelites living in exile in Babylon.
I discussed the portrayal of God as a defective husband in my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, so this week I will focus on a verse in which the poet, second Isaiah, tells the Israelites they will no longer experience public disgrace—
Because your be-alim is your Maker;
“God of Tzevaot” is His name.
And your go-eil is the Holy One of Israel;
“God of all the earth” He will be called. (Isaiah 54:5)
be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = plural of ba-al (בַּעַל) = owner, husband, lord, master; or a god in other Canaanite religions. (A noun related to the verb ba-al (בָּעַל) = possess, rule over, take into possession as a wife.)
tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies. (“Sabaoth” in older English translations.)
go-eil (גֺּאֵל) = (singular) redeemer, ransomer, avenger.
The word ba-al in this context does not mean a Canaanite god, but rather lord or husband. The eighth-century B.C.E. prophet Hosea introduced the idea of God as Israel’s husband, and it became a popular prophetic motif in the Bible. Hosea uses two words for “husband”: ba-al and ish. God tells “his” straying wife (the Israelites) that when she returns to him,
You will call Me “my ish”,
And no longer will you call Me “my ba-al”. (Hosea 2:18)
ish (אִישׁ) = man, husband, person, someone.
The term ish puts the husband and wife on friendly and equal footing. The term ba-al makes the husband the wife’s owner and ruler.
This week’s haftarah uses the plural of majesty, calling God be-alim. The plural of majesty is appropriate for the kind of husband who owns and rules over his wife, a ba-al rather than an ish.
When second Isaiah then calls God “your Maker” (osayikh—(עֺשַׂיִךְ)—also a plural of majesty), the prophet may be implying that God owns them because “he” created them in the first place.
Next comes the name “God of Armies”, commonly translated as “Lord of Hosts”. The Bible uses the word tzevaot both for the armies of nations at war, and for the constellations of stars in the sky—considered as formations of God’s angelic servants. God has ultimate power over the success or failure of all armies. The time when God rejects “his wife” in the haftarah corresponds to the beginning of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E., when the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon, which they were not allowed to leave.
Second Isaiah was written around the end of the exile in 538 B.C.E., when the Persian army captured Babylon and its king, Cyrus, decreed general freedom of religion and movement. The prophet’s agenda was to encourage the Israelite exiles who had been assimilating in Babylon to return to their own religion and their own former home. By using the name “God of Armies”, second Isaiah might be saying, “Do not despair! Your husband, owner, and maker also has the power to replace the army that punished you with an army that will rescue you!”
(Another reason for including the name “God of tzevaot” might be to counter the Babylonian view of stars as gods, and remind the people that the God of Israel controls the stars.)
A go-eil in the Bible is the kinsman whose duty is help his close relatives in one of three ways. When an impoverished relative sells himself into slavery, the nearest kinsman who can afford it is the go-eil who must buy him back. When an impoverished relative sells a field, the go-eil buys back the land to keep it in the family, and lets his relative farm it. And when a judge orders the death of a relative’s murderer, the go-eil serves as the executioner.
The Israelites in exile are like slaves because they are unable to leave Babylon, the house of their master. And they are landless because the Babylonians now rule their own former kingdom of Judah.
When second Isaiah calls God the go-eil of the Israelites, it means that God will rescue them from their captivity in Babylon and return them to the land of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. But it also implies that God’s relationship to the Israelites is not only like that of a husband-owner, but also like that of a brother or uncle who is responsible for rescuing them.
This intimate view of God probably did comfort and inspire some of the Israelites in Babylon. I can imagine that other exiles would prefer either an abstract “God of all the earth”, or a friendlier sort of divine husband, an ish.
After all, when God’s wife and possession (the Israelites) did not obey him, her ba-al punished her by arranging for the Babylonian army to seize Jerusalem. Now, when God is in a better mood, he will be the ba-al who takes his wife back to rule over her again, and the go-eil who redeems her by executing her Babylonian enemies and arranging for the Persian army to seize Babylon. The Israelites are in the same position as the wife of a despot; they must meekly accept whatever God does, and be grateful when anything good comes their way.
Last week, in Haftarah for Shoftim—Isaiah: A New Name, I wrote that each of the seven haftarot of consolation (the readings from second Isaiah during the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah) offers a different view of God. This is the fifth haftarah of consolation, and its view of God is open to several interpretations.
I think there is some truth in the idea that all human beings, not just the Israelites in Babylon, are like the wife of a despot who must meekly accept whatever our God does, and be grateful when anything good comes our way. After all, we can take actions that change our lives, but we cannot make our lives from scratch. “Whatever God does” could mean everything that is out of our hands, from the laws of physics to our genes and the world we were born into. If we do not accept reality, we doom ourselves to perpetual anger and misery.
But besides taking whatever actions we can to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, we can also be grateful for the good that happens to come our way. I am grateful I happened to meet my beloved husband. And on another level, I am grateful for the sight of marigolds in the sunlight outside my window.
But I am also ready to say “God of all the earth” instead of thinking of God as an autocratic family member!