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’s Torah portion is Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), and the haftarah is Hosea 12:13-14:10. Next week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) and the haftarah is Hosea 11:7-12:12. 1
Together, the passages from Hosea show us a God whose “heart has turned upside down”.
A punishment from God! That’s how the Bible describes almost every plague or military defeat the Israelites suffer, from the time they leave Mt. Sinai to the fall of their first temple in Jerusalem. God gets a hot nose (the biblical idiom for anger) when the Israelites fail to live up to their covenant with God—by not trusting God to provide for them, by worshiping other gods, or by neglecting God’s ritual and ethical laws. Then God yells at them through a prophet, and lashes out with a deadly punishment.
Yet in the second half of Isaiah, God says the Israelites have suffered enough, and forgives them. And in the haftarot for this week and next week, two contiguous sections the book of Hosea, God is torn between vicious anger and tender-hearted love.
The double passage begins with God saying:
My people are stuck in meshuvah from me.
Upward they are summoned—
They do not rise at all. (Hosea 11:7)
meshuvah (מְשׁוּבָה) = backsliding, defection (to other gods), disloyalty.
The people of the northern kingdom of Israel (which Hosea also calls Efrayim, after the tribe of its first king, Jeroboam) remain trapped in their habit of worshiping Baal, even though prophets such as Hosea call for reform. When any of the people of Israel or Judah persist in worshiping idols, God usually becomes enraged and threatens destruction. But this time, God says:
How can I give you up, Efrayim?
[How] can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I put you in the position of Admah?
[How] can I treat you like Tzevoyim?
My heart nehapakh.
It is altogether anxious, and I have had a change of heart. (Hosea 11:8)
nehapakh (נֶהְפַּךְ) = has turned upside down, turned around, been overturned.
Admah and Tzevoyim were villages that God annihilated along with their neighbors, Sodom and Gomorrah, during Abraham’s lifetime. Presumably these villages shared the immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet although the northern kingdom of Israel is engaging in the Baal-worship of its neighboring kingdoms, the thought of annihilating Israel turns God’s anger into anxiety.
I will not act on the anger of My nose.
I will not turn to destroy Efrayim.
Because I am a god, and not a man;
The holy one in your midst.
And I will not come with agitation. (Hosea 11:7-9)
The book of Hosea implies that only a human man would reject his unfaithful wife in anger. A god, unlike a man, is able to master emotional reactions. The God of Israel chooses the path of love instead—at least for a few more verses. Then God remembers:
Efrayim encircled Me with false denials,
And the house of Israel with deceit… (Hosea 12:1)
It cut a covenant with Assyria;
Then it brought oil as tribute to Egypt. (Hosea 12:2)
The book of Hosea, like the book of Jeremiah, urges the Israelites not to become vassal states of other empires, but to remain independent and trust God to protect them. The government of the northern kingdom is deceiving itself by pretending that an alliance with a foreign empire does not affect its service to God, but only leads to wealth and power. Israel, personified as Efrayim, says:
How rich I have become!
I have found power for myself.
[In] all my labor they cannot find crooked activity
That is a sin. (Hosea 12:9)
Efrayim knows his shady dealings are crooked, but tells himself that he is good as long as he does not break the letter of the law. However, God knows better.
And now they add sin to sin
And they make for themselves molten images…
They speak to them!
Sacrificers of humans, they kiss calves! (Hosea 13:2)
God’s nose gets hot again, and God speaks of punishing the Israelites in various terrible ways, concluding:
By the sword they shall fall;
Their infants shall be smashed on rocks,
And their pregnant women shall be ripped open! (Hosea 14:1)
Then Hosea advises the Israelites to pray for forgiveness and promise never to worship idols again. (See my post Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuvah.) Their words are enough to turn God’s heart upside down once again. God says:
I will heal their meshuvah.
I will love them nedavah.
For my hot nose has turned away from them. (Hosea 14:5)
nedavah (נְדָבָה) = voluntarily, freely, as a gift, spontaneously.
A prayer and a promise are enough to change God from an angry punisher into a loving and forgiving healer. God’s love is not even contingent on the Israelites fulfilling their promise.
God predicts that the Israelites will be cured of their meshuvah, their habit of disloyalty and defection, in response to God’s freely given love.
Efrayim [shall say]: “What are idols to me now?”
I Myself shall respond and I shall look at him with regard. (Hosea 14:9)
Parents and teachers are familiar with the conundrum God faces in these haftarot. After you have told children what they are doing wrong, and what they should do instead, do you wait for them to change their behavior before you reward them? Or do you shower them with love first, hoping that they will then change in response to your trust in them?
I suspect the right answer is different for each child. And once in a while, when a child is testing you, you need to show that your temper has limits, and mete out an appropriate level of punishment.
In most of the Bible, God is not a wonderful parent or teacher. The anthropomorphic God has a hair-trigger temper, and “His” punishments include early and painful death for thousands of innocent people. But Hosea holds up a different model when he suggests that a god has more self-control than a man. The God of Israel need not act like a man who cannot overcome his anger against an unfaithful wife, Hosea says. God can stay calm and heal humans of their slavish devotion to idols and emperors—through love.
Today many adult humans try to meet the higher standards that Hosea set for God, behaving with self-control, good judgment, and love. It is not easy, since we seem to be made in the image of the old anthropomorphic God, full of both anger and love.
Underneath those feelings, can we come close to a more holy God? I believe we can, if we spend enough time reflecting and turning our hearts upside down, as well as recognizing our self-deceit and denial and pushing through to deeper truths.
You, you must return to your own god!
You must observe kindness and just judgments,
And eagerly wait for your god, constantly! (Hosea 12:7)