Song of Songs & 2 Isaiah: Love Sacred and Profane

April 24, 2019 at 9:04 pm | Posted in Hosea, Isaiah 2, Passover/Pesach, Song of Songs | Leave a comment

A single word can mean attraction, desire, passion, affection, or devotion.

In English, that word is “love”.  In Biblical Hebrew, it is ahavah (אַהֲבָה).

Song of Songs, Rothschild machzor, 15th century CE

The noun ahavah and its related verb, ahav (אָהַב), appear eighteen times in The Song of Songs/Shir Hashirim, the short biblical book that Jews traditionally read during the week of Passover/Pesach.  The first line in this series of interlocking poems sets the tone:

            Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth …  (The Song of Songs 1:2)

Soon the female speaker cries:

            Revive me with raisin cakes,

            Refresh me with quinces,

            Because I am faint with ahavah!  (Song of Songs 2:5)

The book frequently expresses erotic attraction by using metaphors from nature.  The woman’s breasts are compared to twin gazelle fawns, date clusters, grape clusters, and towers.1  In another example, the man says:

            A locked garden is my sister, my bride;

            A locked well, a sealed spring.

            Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates

            And choice fruit …  (Song of Songs 4:12-13)

And the woman responds:

            Let my beloved come into his garden,

            And let him eat its choice fruit.  (Songs of Songs 4:16)

What is a book like this doing in the bible?  God is never mentioned in The Song of Songs.  Yet subsequent commentators, including Rashi,2 have argued that the whole book is an allegory for the love between the Israelites and God.

There is a precedent for this analogy.  In the 8th century BCE, Hosea portrayed the northern kingdom of Israel as the unfaithful wife of God.3  After him, several other biblical prophets portrayed the southern kingdom of Judah as God’s unfaithful wife, and the covenant between God and the people as a marriage contract.4  So the idea of using a human marriage as an analogy for the relationship between a people and God was well-known by the third or second century BCE, when The Song of Songs was written.  But the poetry in this book focuses on sexual love, not on the covenant of marriage.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva argued for the inclusion of The Song of Songs in the biblical canon, declaring, “All eternity is not as worthwhile as the day the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all biblical books are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”5

Song of Songs, artist unknown

Perhaps some human beings have loved God with an ahavah similar to the sensual yearning of the lovers in The Song of Songs.  Maimonides wrote: “What is the proper form of the love of God?  It is that one should love God with a great, overpowering, fierce love as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly … for the whole of Song [of Songs] is a parable on this theme.”6

But it is hard to imagine God loving human beings that way.  Although the Torah presents us with an anthropomorphic God who feels rage, jealousy, and compassion, the God of Israel is different from other ancient Near Eastern gods in that God does not partner with a goddess, and never engages in sex.

Then how does God love humans?  In the Hebrew Bible divine love is not individual, but collective.  God loves the people of Israel, or Judah, or Jerusalem.  God loves those who follow God’s rules.  The reader is encouraged to be like God and love concepts such as justice and compassion.

The love of God sometimes seems like immature favoritism to a modern reader.  Out of love, God destroys the rivals or enemies of the Israelites.7  When the Israelites are “unfaithful” and worship other gods, God lashes out in jealousy and destroys them, either by afflicting them with plagues or making their enemies victorious.  Neither the people nor God seem mature enough for marriage.

In other biblical passages, God’s love is more like a good parent’s devotion.

            For Israel was a boy and ohaveihu

            And from Egypt I called to my son …  (Hosea 11:1)

ohaveihu (אֺהֲבֵהוּ) = I loved him.

Similarly, the second book of Isaiah recalls a time when God was kind to the people of Judah, the southern kingdom of Israelites.

            And [God] said: “Surely they are my people,

            Children who do not betray.”

            And [God] became their rescuer.  (Isaiah 63:8)

            … In ahavah and compassion, [God] redeemed them,

            Plucked them up and carried them all the days of old.

            But they, they rebelled

            And pained [God’s] holy spirit.

            And [God] turned against them as an enemy;

            [God] made war against them.  (Isaiah 63:9-10)

Then the people of Judah yearn to come home again to an affectionate “father” who is devoted to their welfare. They recall that:

            “… You, God, are our father,

            Our redeemer of old …  (Isaiah 63:16)

*

Why do we read The Song of Songs during Passover?  The Passover seder retells the story of God taking the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.  We repeat God’s promise:

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:7)

This could mean taking the Israelites as a metaphorical wife; the bible sometimes uses the word “take” (lakach, לָקַה) to mean have intercourse with or marry.  But it could also mean God adopts the Israelite slaves and their fellow-travelers out of compassion, as if they are children who need special care.  Then God treats them with affection and devotion, the ahavah of a parent—at least until they reject God and worship other gods.

Is there anything in The Song of Songs to connect human sensual desire with God’s ahavah?  I found one hint.  Three times in The Song of Songs, the erotic poetry is interrupted by this verse:

            I make you swear, daughters of Jerusalem,

            By deer or by gazelles of the field:

            Do not rouse or lay bare ahavah until it pleases!  (The Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4)

The female speaker is warning her friends not to rush into consummating a sexual attraction; wait until the ahavah is ripe.  She does not say what a ripe love is.  A more overpowering attraction?  Or a fuller relationship with the beloved that includes tenderness, friendship, affection, and devotion, as well as carnal desire?  For human beings, physical ahavah and spiritual ahavah are often inseparable.

May each of us find ahavah in our lives, whether it is passionate desire or affectionate devotion.  And may each of us learn how to turn toward the world with an open heart and ahavah.

  1. The Song of Songs 4:5, 7:4, 7:8, 7:9, 8:10.
  2. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  3. Hosea 2:18-22.
  4. See Jeremiah 2:2, Ezekiel 16:3-14, and Second Isaiah 54:4-10 and 62:5.
  5. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (50-135 CE), quoted in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5.
  6. Maimonides, a.k.a. Moses ben Maimon or Rambam (12th century CE), Mishnah Torah, I: The Book of Knowledge, 10:3, Laws Concerning Repentance.
  7. For example, see Malachi 1:2.

Vayeitzei:  Stealing Away

November 13, 2018 at 9:20 pm | Posted in Hosea, Samuel 1, Vayeitzei | Leave a comment

Jacob runs away twice in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“and he went”).  At the beginning he runs away from his brother Esau in Beersheva, and arrives alone at his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan.  He works as a shepherd for his uncle for twenty years, but Lavan still refuses to grant him independence.  So Jacob runs away again at the end of the Torah portion.  He heads back toward Beersheva with two wives, two concubines, eleven children, many servants, assorted tents and household goods, and more livestock than his own household needs,1 including expensive riding camels.2

His wives Leah and Rachel resent their father and agree it is time to go.3

Lavan went to shear his sheep.  And Rachel, vatiginov the terafim that belonged to her father.   (Genesis/Bereishit 31:19)

vatiginov (וַתִּגְנֺו) = she stole, (or) you stole.  (A form of the verb ganav, גָּנַב = stole, robbed.)

terafim (תְּרָפִים) = figurines or statues of household gods?  (Although the -im suffix usually indicates a plural, the noun terafim can be plural or singular in the bible.)

Unlike his wife Rachel, Jacob takes only what he believes is rightfully his.  But he does a different kind of stealing.

Jacob Flees (artist unknown)

And Jacob, vayignov et leiv Lavan the Aramean by not telling him that he was running away.  And he ran away, he and all that was his; he got up and he crossed the Euphrates and he set his face toward the hills of the Gilead.  (Genesis 31:20-21)

vayignov et leiv (וַיִּגְנֺב אֶת לֵב) = he deceived.  (Literally: vayignov = he stole + et = (definite direct object indicator) + leiv = the mind of.)

Lavan learns three days later that Jacob and his household have fled.  He takes some kinsmen and chases after them, catching up with Jacob’s party in the hills of Gilead.  The next morning Lavan confronts Jacob and says:

“What were you doing when vatignov et levavi and you carried off my daughters like captives of the sword?  Why did you hide to run away, vatignov me, and you did not tell me? … I have power in my hand to do bad to you all, but last night the god of your fathers spoke to me, saying: ‘Protect yourself from speaking with Jacob for good or bad’.”  (Genesis 31:26-27, 29)

vatignov et levavi (ותִּגְנֺב אֶת לְבָבִי) = you deceived me.  (The same idiom as vayignov et leiv.)

He accuses Jacob of both deception (“stealing his mind”) and robbery.  But influenced by the dream from the God of Israel, Lavan gives Jacob the benefit of the doubt.

“And now you surely walked away because you surely longed deeply for the house of your father.  [But] why ganavta my gods?”  (Genesis 31:30)

ganavta (גָנַבְתָּ) = did you steal.   (Another form of the verb ganav.)

Lavan cannot help exclaiming about what bothers him the most: that his household gods, his terafim, are missing.

And Jacob answered and he said to Lavan: “Because I was afraid, because I said [to myself]: ‘What if you tear away your daughters from me?’  If you find anyone has your gods, he shall not live.  In front of our kinsmen, identify what is yours with me and take it!”  And Jacob did not know that Rachel genavatam.  (Genesis 31:31-32)

genavatam (גְּנָבָתַם) = had stolen them.  (Another form of the verb ganav.)

Lavan acts on Jacob’s invitation by searching the tents of Jacob, Leah, the two concubines, and finally Rachel.

Bedouin camel saddle, photo by hannatravels.com

And Rachel?  She had taken the terafim and put them inside the camel saddle, and she sat on them.  Lavan groped through the whole tent, but he did not find them.  (Genesis 31:34)

Rachel tells her father she cannot stand up to greet him because it is her monthly period, and he leaves her tent.  Jacob is spared the anguish of finding out the truth and making good on his promise to kill the thief.

Jacob justifies deceiving Lavan by explaining that he secretly fled because he was afraid of losing his wives.  Later in the confrontation he justifies his deception by bringing up Lavan’s history of cheating him.4

But what about Rachel?  Why does she steal from her father, and is she justified?

What are Lavan’s terafim?

from Judah, 7th century BCE

Lavan’s terafim may be small terra cotta figurines, which archaeologists have found in abundance throughout Mesopotamia as well as at pre-586 B.C.E. sites in the kingdom of Judah.  These figurines came from private houses, not temples.  They may have represented a clan’s ancestors, and ancestor-worship may have been distinguished from idol-worship.5

One proposal is that Lavan’s terafim are similar to the “gods” mentioned in tablets from 1440-1340 B.C.E. at Nuzi.6  According to one Nuzi tablet, the chief heir of an estate received the “gods” of the deceased.  The chief heir was usually a son of the deceased, but if he had no natural son, his adopted son could inherit the “gods” along with the rest of the estate.7

If possession of a family’s terafim indicated the ownership of a household in Charan as well, then Rachel might steal her father’s terafim in case she needs future proof that her husband owns the flocks, slaves, and goods he took.

This explanation is based on 20th-century archaeology, and assumes that the biblical term terafim applies to small terra cotta figurines.  But what if we interpret the word terafim in this week’s Torah portion by examining the other seven occurrences of the word terafim in the Hebrew Bible?

Traditional commentary assumed that terafim were idols, which God forbids in the Ten Commandments and later biblical passages.  Genesis Rabbah 74:5-6 and Rashi (11th-century C.E. rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) credited Rachel with taking the terafim in order to reform her father and end his idol-worship.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch added that since the terafim could not protect themselves from theft, Lavan should realize that they were also powerless to protect him.8

But if Rachel despised the terafim, she could have discarded or destroyed them during the first ten days of the journey, before Laban caught up with them.

Furthermore, the book of Genesis never censures anyone for owning terafim.  And the book of Hosea includes terafim in a list of things the Israelites will be deprived of until they turn back to God.9  The implication is that in the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) where Hosea prophesied, terafim were acceptable accompaniments to the worship of the God of Israel.

Michal Lets David Out the Window, by Gustave Dore, 1865

The first book of Samuel also considers household terafim acceptable.  In 1 Samuel 19:13, King Saul sends men to kill David, and David’s wife Mikhal helps him escape out the bedroom window.  Then she arranges his bed so that it will look as if he is still sleeping there.  She takes a terafim in their house, gives it a wig of goat-hair, and pulls the bedclothes over it.  This man-sized terafim is obviously larger than the ones Rachel steals and hides in her camel saddle.  It seems to be a normal item for a God-fearing Israelite general to have in his house.

That leaves five negative references to terafim in the bible.  Judges 17-18 gently pokes fun at Micah by relating how he acquires four “gods”: a carved silver idol, a cast silver idol, an oracular object, and a terafim.  Like the silver idols, a terafim is a physical object used for dubious religious purposes.

Terafim are listed along with false and/or idolatrous items used for divination in 1 Samuel, 2 Kings, Ezekiel, and Zecharaiah.  These lists assume that terafim are also devices for soothsaying.10  The purpose of Lavan’s terafim may therefore be to provide omens about the future and knowledge of the unknown.

In that case, Rachel might steal the terafim so Lavan could not use them to find out what route Jacob and his household were taking.11  But Lavan and his men track them down anyway.

Jacob and Laban Set a Boundary (artist unknown)

Once Lavan no longer has his terafim for divination, he also becomes able hear God in a dream: an inner voice telling him to guard his own behavior and be careful when he speaks to Jacob.  The next day, Lavan becomes a reasonable man, giving up his “rights” for the sake of peace.12  The two men conduct a ritual to set a clear boundary between the areas they will occupy, and Jacob walks off as a free man and head of his own household.

*

If Rachel had ditched the terafim after stealing them from Lavan, would she, too, have heard God’s voice in dream?  God never speaks to her in the Torah, and she dies in childbirth on the road south of Beit-El.  The contention between Rachel and her sister Leah continues between her sons and Leah’s sons.  Would it have been different if she had heard God’s voice?  What kind of person would she have become?

What if you threw away your terafim?  So many people get attached to the figurines they have acquired: viewing every coincidence as an omen, reacting as if human beings were stock characters made of clay, denying inconvenient realities.  What if you stopped deceiving yourself, stopped stealing your own mind?  What would you be able to hear?

  1. Jacob evidently leaves Charan with more flocks and herds than he needs, since he can afford to give away 580 animals to Esau in Genesis 32:14-16.
  2. Genesis 31:17-18 and 32:16.
  3. Genesis 31:11-16.
  4. Jacob promises to serve Lavan for seven years in exchange for marriage with Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, but at the wedding Lavan substitutes his older daughter, Leah. He gives Rachel to Jacob a week later as a second wife, but he requires Jacob to work another seven years (Genesis 29:15-27).  After he has completed 14 years of service, Jacob asks Lavan to let him go back to Canaan with his wives and children, but Lavan negotiates wages for continued service (Genesis 30:25-31).  Jacob alludes to this history in Vayeitzei in Genesis 31:41.
  5. Aaron Greener, “What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah During the Biblical Period?”, www.thetorah.com, Aug 16, 2016.
  6. The ruins of Nuzi were unearthed near present-day Kirkuk, Iraq, about 430 miles (690 km) east of Charan (present-day Harran in Turkey near the Syrian border).
  7. jewishvirtuallibrary.org/nuzi.
  8. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 640.
  9. Hosea 3:4.
  10. 1 Samuel 15:23, 2 Kings 23:24, Ezekiel 21:26, and Zecharaiah 10:2. Following up on the idea of diviniation, Targum pseudo-Jonathan (originally Targum Yerushalmi) defined a terafim is a mummified head that can speak prophecy.  12th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra proposed that a terafim was an image made by astrologers at a propitious time so that it could speak.
  11. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, Bereishis (vol. 1), English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, NY, 1994, p. 424.
  12. Genesis 31:43-44.

Haftarot Vayeitzei & Vayishlach—Hosea: A Heart Upside Down

December 7, 2016 at 9:26 am | Posted in Hosea, Vayeitzei, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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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 the 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.

Baal in bronze, from Ugarit

Baal in bronze, from Ugarit

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 annihilated along with their neighbors, Sodom and Gomorrah, and presumably shared their immorality. 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:

from Croesus by Nicholas Knupfer

from “Croesus” by Nicholas Knupfer

            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 Shuva.) 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)

 

1 (There is an alternate tradition of reading the book of Obadiah for next week’s haftarah, but Obadiah merely predicts the triumph of the people of Jacob (Israel) and the complete downfall of the people of Esau (Edom), without offering any reasons or any characterizations of God, Jacob, or Esau. Hosea 11:7-12:12, on the other hand, mentions Jacob wrestling with the mysterious being, a key feature of the Torah portion Vayishlach, as well as considering divine and human psychology.)
 

Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah & Shabbat Shuvah—1 Samuel & Hosea:  From Smoke to Words

October 6, 2016 at 11:36 am | Posted in Chukkat, Hosea, Rosh Hashanah, Samuel 1 | Leave a comment
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Almost 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). But the Torah portion this week is Vayeilekh (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:1-30), and it is not assigned a haftarah of its own.

Nevertheless, this week is especially rich in haftarot (plural of “haftarah”) because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return” to God—all before we dive into Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) next week.

The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10.  The reading for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20.  And the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah this Saturday is Hosea 14:2-10. Perhaps it is no accident that during this time of intense prayer from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, two of these three haftarot show that praying with words is better than slaughtering an animal and burning it up into smoke for God.

Prayer is not a dialogue with God, although persons in the Hebrew Bible from Adam to the prophet Malachi do talk with God and hear God’s responses in words—in fact in complete sentences. Sometimes prophets report what God said; other passages are like conversations between two human beings of different rank and power.

first-temple-altarPrayer is more like smoke; it rises up toward God, but God does not answer in words.

Besides having many conversations with God, Moses also prays on behalf of the Israelites when they are traveling through the wilderness south of Edom, 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.  The Israelites complain again about their diet of manna, and God sends poisonous snakes.

Then the people came to Moses and they said: We did wrong when we spoke against God and against you. Hitpalleil to God so He will clear away from us the snakes!  Vayitpalleil, Moses, on behalf of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:7)

Hitpalleil (הִתְפַּלֵּל) = Pray!  (Probably from the same root as pilleil  = reassess. Prayer may be asking for a reassessment from God.)

Vayitpalleil (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל) = And he prayed.

Here the Israelites confess their misdeed, but they do not believe they can pray to God directly, so they ask Moses, God’s prophet, to do it for them.

Temple altar

Temple altar

Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra lays out five categories of offerings burned up into smoke, and each one was transformed into a type of prayer.

1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, to maintain the relationship between the worshiper and God. This became liturgy, written prayers to read, recite, or sing at specific times and occasions.

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering, to show homage or respect.  This corresponds to prayers of praise.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering, to thank God or to express devotion. This corresponds to prayers of thanksgiving.

4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, to fix an unintentional transgression against one of God’s laws; and 5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional wrong (after making amends with the human whom you wronged).  Instead of these two animal offerings, we have prayers of confession asking for God’s forgiveness.

(For more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.)

A additional type of prayer in the Bible is the petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do us a favor. This category includes intercessory prayer, in which a prophet or someone else who is known to be on speaking terms with God utters a petitionary prayer on behalf of a community.

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, any male head of a household can worship God by building an altar and turning an animal into smoke on it.  Gradually this right is restricted in the Hebrew Bible, until animal offerings can only be made at the temple in Jerusalem and under the supervision of priests. Meanwhile, the tradition of individual prayer expands until anyone can do it, and God will hear.

The first prayer in the Bible is an intercessory prayer.  King Avimelekh takes Sarah into his household thinking she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife.  God responds by afflicting the king and all his women with a disease.  Then in a dream, God tells Avimelekh: And now restore the wife to the husband, because he is a prophet vayitpalleil on your behalf, and you will live. But if you do no restoring, know that you will certainly die, you and all that are yours. (Genesis/Bereishit 20:7)

After the king gives Avraham his wife Sarah along with some gifts, Avraham does pray, and God removes the disease.

Intercessory prayers continue to be mentioned in the Bible, including Moses’ prayer regarding the poisonous snakes.  But not until the first book of Samuel, in the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, does someone who has never conversed with God pray for her own sake. On her own initiative, Channah, who has been childless for many years, walks up to the doorway of the temple in Shiloh and prays for a son.

Channah praying from etching by Marc Chagall

Channah praying
from etching by
Marc Chagall

And she was bitter of spirit, vatitpalleil to God, and she wept continually. And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if You really see the wretchedness of Your maidservant and You remember me and do not forget Your maidservant, and You give to Your maidservant a seed of men, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life…  (1 Samuel 1:10-11)

vatitpalleil (וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל) = and she prayed.

God does not answer Channah in words, but she does have a son (a “seed of men”), and she brings him to the temple in Shiloh once he is weaned. There she and her husband sacrifice a bull, following the established ritual, then give him to the priest so the boy can serve as an attendant at the temple. (Channah’s son, Samuel (Shmu-eil), later becomes a prophet and a judge of Israel.)

…and they bowed down there to God.  Vatitpalleil, Channah, and she said:

            My heart rejoices in God…

            There is no holy one like God,

            Because there are none except for You. (1 Samuel 2:1-2)

Channah continues with a long psalm praising God’s power. This time her prayer is not petitionary, but a prayer of praise, like a minchah offering.

This Saturday, on Shabbat Shuvah, we read in the book of Hosea:

            Shuvah, Israel, all the way to God, your god,

            For you have stumbled, through your wrongdoing.

            Take devarim with you

            And shuvu to God.

            Say to [God]:

            May You forgive all wrongdoing

            And take the good.

            And we will make amends of the bulls

            Of our lips.  (Hosea 14:2-3)

Shuvah (שׁוּבָה) = Return! (singular, addressing Israel)

shuvu (שׁוּבוּ) =  Return! (plural, addressing the people)

devarim (דְּבָרִים) = words; events, affairs.

Hosea asks the Israelites to make amends and return to God not by slaughtering bulls and burning them on an altar for God, but through the words of their lips, praying for God to forgive them. Instead of the smoke from a chataat or an asham offering, God wants people to return and atone with spoken prayer.

*

As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the haftarah from 1 Samuel reminds us of the power of individual heartfelt prayer, and the haftarah from Hosea reminds us to return—shuvah!—to God through prayer.

A priest cuts the animal’s throat, blood gushes, smoke roils up into the sky—that kind of worship was sure to have an emotional impact.  But even if someone brought the animal for an asham offering to atone for his own misdeed, or even if the high priest was killing the goat for God on Yom Kippur, people watched the show from a distance.

Channah worked harder, pulling out her own words to plead with God.  Hosea asks us to work harder, bringing our own personal words of confession to God, and returning to the holy one by praying for forgiveness.

It is possible to mouth formulaic prayers without thinking about them. But I believe it is better for our souls if we plumb our own depths, find our own words to bring to God, and do the work.

 

Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser

August 30, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Posted in Hosea, Isaiah 2, Re-eih | 5 Comments
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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

wedding cropped                         —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

            Richamtikh

                           —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.

Haftarat Bemidbar—Hosea: Speaking in Wilderness

June 6, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Hosea | Leave a comment
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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:

Mount Sinai: one possible location

Mount Sinai: one possible location

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.

drawing by Rembrandt

drawing by Rembrandt

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.)

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt

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.

vineyard 1The haftarah continues:

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?

Haftarah for Bemidbar–Hosea: An Unequal Marriage

May 18, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Hosea | Leave a comment
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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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