There is a Way Back
Haftarah Shabbat Shuvah, Hosea 14:2–10
© Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, West Hartford, CT
The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. It is also one of the least read! Even those who claim love and fidelity for the Bible, who often quote chapter and verse, rarely have read the Scriptures in entirety!
It is so common for biblical adherents to skip over the most difficult passages to interpret and the ones that are frankly just difficult to hear. Psalm 137, for example, is often quoted and sung in various Christian and Jewish liturgies as well as popular song (for example, Joan Baez, “By the Rivers of Babylon”) yet its impassioned plea to dash our enemies’ babies against rocks (v. 9) is usually expurgated! The fact is that the Bible is hardly a children’s book. It deals with human frailty and the hard and often harsh reality of human interaction. Perhaps, though, given the most popular viewing and reading choices in popular culture, it would be a better PR strategy to advertise the more scandalous narratives in Scripture!
The haftarah for this week has one of the steamiest back-stories in the entire biblical canon. It can be found in the book of Hosea, which has its own set of PR problems. First and foremost, it is one of the so-called minor prophets, a very unfortunate moniker! Nothing says “pay no attention” like calling something minor. This nomenclature is not a commentary on the importance of these prophets; rather it is a misunderstood description of their shorter length. I think if we called these the “very short but really important prophets” it would boost their ratings exponentially! But so would this story. It is what my mother, of blessed memory, would refer to as a “tear jerker”—a sad story of adultery, abandonment, neglect, and betrayal. It is also, though, a story of faithfulness, patience, love, and relational restoration.
The haftarah begins, “Shuvah Yisrael ad Adonai Elohekha, Return Israel to the Lord your God” (Hosea 14:2). This is more than a casual appeal; rather it is an intense and imperative plea for Israel to come home, leave its diverse lovers, live faithfully with Hashem, and avoid the self-inflicted wounds they have been enduring since national inception. It is a desperate cry that concludes the story of Hosea, who is asked to embrace and empathize with God’s cuckoldry.
Hosea probably began his prophetic ministry during the reign of Jeroboam II, toward the end of Israel’s prosperity. Though we have very little precise biographical info on Hosea, his life is laid bare before us as a living allegory. He is asked to marry Gomer, a woman of questionable reputation and morals, and raise three children that may or may not be his own. In fact, he names them Yizre’el (God sows), Lo-Ruchamah (unpitied), and Lo-Ammi (not my people) (Hosea 1:2–8). As distasteful as the latter two names are, the first, Yizre’el, would have been a salt-in-the-wound name. Though it was originally the bread basket of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Yizre’el had become place of death and destruction during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel and the entire Jehu dynasty. The association of this place with a child would be much like naming the child Dachau or Treblinka today!
Hosea loves Gomer despite her adultery and abandonment of him and the children. She loves the pleasantries of life and runs to her lovers who lavish gifts upon her. This, of course, parallels the story of Israel who collectively pursues the gods and values of her neighbors, remaining unaware that it is actually Hashem that provides the prosperity she enjoys (2:10–11). No doubt the scandal has made Hosea the subject of ridicule by his neighbors who have become bored with this love-struck prophet who cannot keep his own house in order.
The story of Hosea and Gomer becomes inextricably bound up with the story of God and Israel. Eventually Gomer finds her bottom, and her adultery/prostitution finds its obvious destiny in a society that simultaneously promotes and condemns promiscuity. She is stripped naked and put up for sale to the highest bidder. But Hosea’s love for Gomer is unrelenting. He purchases her for fifteen pieces of silver and eight bushels of barley and restores her to his home. For a time, they will not have marital relations as they work out their issues. In the same way Hashem declares that he will never forsake Israel, and she will forever be his wife. But there is going to be a long time of galut, an adequate separation so she can learn covenant faithfulness. The time will come when she will call him Ish rather than Ba’al. Though both can understood as husband, one denotes her man, a loving partner, while the latter expresses his mastery and lordship over her (3:2–5). In this narrative we can see the continuum between yirat Hashem (the fear of the Lord) and ahavat Hashem (the love of the Lord).
Just as Gomer’s infidelity mirrors Israel’s indiscretion, so does each of ours, with the attitudes, temperament, and actions of an unfaithful people. How often do we run after the lavish trappings that we somehow imagine will make us happy, forgetting that Hashem provides every good and pleasant gift? Do we chase after the gods of wealth, stature, and momentary celebrity, forgetting that true security comes from the One who will never forget or forsake us? Are ego and hubris our lovers, and have social media, political affiliation, and financial enterprise become our forbidden rendezvous? Have we forgotten who it is that redeemed us for a price far greater than silver?
Much like Israel, we individually cannot be separated from the love of God. But we can continue to live in personal galut, a separation from the intimacy that the Holy One desires to have with every one of us. As we continue our introspection throughout these Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), we must not ask, “What can I get away with?” but, rather “How long do I wish to stay away?” Our first love is calling us. This is the time for reconciliation. The Holy One is crying Shuvah! Return! How long will we wait?