Everyone obeys God in this week’s Torah portion, the opening of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“in a wilderness”). Moses passes on God’s instructions for preparing to leave Mount Sinai and head off through the wilderness again. And the Israelites all organize themselves accordingly.
And the children of Israel did everything that God commanded Moses; thus they did. (Numbers 1:54)
The people’s compliance falls apart before they reach the border of Canaan. But for a while, in the wilderness, Israel and God enjoy a honeymoon.
Metaphors of courtship and marriage are often used later in the Hebrew Bible to express the covenant between God and the Israelites. Going by the order of the books in the canon, the first occurrence is in the book of Isaiah.1 But going by the prophets in historical order, the first occurrence is in the book of Hosea, a prophet who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel 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 for worshiping other gods. He calls the kingdom the “mother” of the Israelites, and declares that she has abandoned her legitimate “husband”, God. As God’s mouthpiece, he urges the kingdom’s children, the Israelite people:
Bring a case against your mother, a case!
For she is not my ishah,
And I am not her ish.
She must clear away the whoredom from her face,
And the sign of adultery from between her breasts.
If not, I will strip her down to her nakedness
And display her as on the day she was born.
And I will turn her into a wilderness
And make her like waterless land,
And let her die of thirst. (Hosea 2:4-5)
ishah (אִשָּׁה) = woman; wife.
ish (אִישׁ) = man; husband.
The kingdom of Israel and God had a covenant like a marriage. But Israel broke it by engaging with other gods, and now God, her husband, is rejecting her. “She is not my ishah, and I am not her ish” might be part of an ancient declaration of divorce.
At this point in Hosea’s poem, the God of Israel is still a jealous god, as in the Second Commandment:
You must not bow down to them and you must not serve them; because I, Y-H-V-H, your God, am a jealous god … (Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9)
Israel must clean herself up, like a prostitute who stops working and removes the make-up (whoredom) from her face, and the sachet of perfume (sign of adultery) from between her breasts.2 If she does not clean up her act, God will humiliate her by stripping her naked. In Israel’s case, God will strip away her fields, orchards, vineyards, and even water sources, making the land a desolate wilderness. God will accomplish this by afflicting the kingdom with severe drought.
The drought will affect the children of Israel—all its residents. But God says:
And I will not feel compassion for her children
Since they are children of whoredom;
Since their mother whored.
She who conceived them acted shamelessly,
For she thought:
“I will go after my lovers,
Who give me my bread and my water,
My wool and my linen,
My oil and my drink.” (Hosea 2:6-7)
But Israel deceived herself about the source of her food, shelter, and clothing; it was God who gave her everything.
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 makes this cold and calculating decision, the prophecy says, God will continue to deprive her of grain, wine, wool, and flax for a while.
And I will make a reckoning against her for the days of the be-alim
For which she burned incense
And adorned herself with her nose-ring and her jewelry
And went after her lovers,
And forgot me!—declares God. (Hosea 2:15)
be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = different local versions of Ba-al (singular of be-alim), a West Semitic god of weather, fertility, and war. (Ba-al (בַּעַל) = master, husband, owner; a West Semitic god.)
The angry God-character in the Torah would probably tell Moses, once again, that it was time to start over and choose a new people to rule Canaan, and then Moses would have to talk God down again. But in the book of Hosea, God will eventually forgive. Once the kingdom of Israel has become a wilderness, God will woo Israel back.
Therefore, hey! I will be her seducer
And I will lead her through the wilderness
And I will speak upon her heart. (Hosea 2:16)
In the Hebrew Bible, speaking upon someone’s heart means changing their feelings. (See my post: Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1.)
And I will give her grapevines from there,
And the Valley of Akhor as an opening for hope.
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)
The statement that Israel will cease to call God her ba-al has a double meaning. Israel will think of God affectionately, as a husband who is her ish (her man), rather than her ba-al (her master). But also she will no longer call upon Ba-al, the Canaanite deity.
The haftarah ends with a marriage formula (which has become part of the prayer for putting on tefillin3):
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 you will know God. (Hosea 2:21-22)
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 that God is promising to exhibit as Israel’s future husband? Or are they the qualities that God intends to instill in Israel, so the marriage can last?
Either way, all Israel does is respond when God speaks upon her heart. God does not require any prior searching, repentance, or reform on Israel’s part. God will take care of everything. And then, the text promises, you will know God. The verb for “know” here, yada (יָדַ), is used for knowledge from direct experience, including sexual knowledge.
During the periods of my life when I felt lost in a wilderness, I continued to sing prayers, but I did not have the heart to passionately seek God. I recited the Shema, with its command: You must love God, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5). But I have never achieved it. I love my husband that way, but then, I know him much better than I know God.
I am acquainted with people who claim to know (have direct experience of) God. I have had a few fleeting transcendent experiences myself, but I would not presume to claim that they were direct experiences of God. And I am content with not knowing—as well as grateful for all the blessings in my life, whatever their source. Paradoxically, one great blessing is that I am able to engage with Torah and think about God.
Yet some people need more than that. So I pray that everyone who needs a personal commitment to God will be blessed to hear God speak upon their hearts, and to know God.
- Isaiah 54:1-10.
- See Song of Songs 1:13.
- Tefillin (תְּפִלִין) is the Hebrew word for the set of two black leather boxes with straps which a Jewish man traditionally wraps around his head and none-dominant arm before praying. (The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah, תְּפִלַּה.) “Laying” or wrapping oneself with tefillin is like putting on a wedding ring: a tangible sign of commitment.