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Naomi Graetz

Israel, the Adulterous Nation: Parshat Bamidbar

MY 100TH BLOG

Today is my 100th blog — and yes, I’m counting — since I began writing. So much has happened since then. I have shared with you, my readers, the 50th year of my father’s death, my husband’s “bar mitzvah” celebration when he turned 83 in March, his ongoing treatment for basil cell carcinoma, our 60th wedding anniversary last June , my 80th birthday in early August and our 55th anniversary of making aliyah in late August. My mother’s 25th yahrzeit is coming up after Shavuot, and who knows what other personal things I have yet to share with you. Hopefully, only happy events.

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

When I started writing, the country was in turmoil before the elections, and then afterwards we were busy protesting the attempt to overturn democracy in this country; plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same, i.e., nothing has changed. For a while, after October 7th it seemed as if the country had rallied round in shock to help one another and that the endless blaming would not continue. But history is repeating itself and it looks as if we are on a course to self-destruction — if not physically, certainly mentally and even morally. Our raison d’être, that we are the chosen people to be better than other nations is fast going down the drain.

HOW I CAME TO WRITE ABOUT A DIFFICULT TEXT

As many of you know, if you have been following my blogs, I do not look on the bright side of things, and often choose difficult texts to analyze. In 1990, I went on a lecture tour, following an invitation to give a lecture on wifebeating. While there I gave a sermon on this week’s portion–parshat bamidbar–in the Masorti synagogue in Edgeware. The director of the Federation of Jewish Family Services was present when I spoke about the haftarah for the parsha, “The Metaphoric Beating of Hosea’s Wife”. He invited me to do a workshop on Jewish Sources about Wifebeating for senior social workers the following January. By overpreparing for this day-long event, I had enough material to think about writing an entire book on the topic. As some of you may recall from previous blogs, my book on wifebeating (1998) has been translated into Hebrew and is going to be published this year. In January 1991, I was in London, just as the Gulf War broke out. Flights were delayed; when I returned, my husband rushed me to the car and had my gas mask with him. It was a scary time then, and it still is a scary time. Both guided and random missiles still attack us in our country.

The article I wrote, based on the sermon appeared in Conservative Judaism (1993). I argued then that we should not read this troubling text as a haftarah and should look for an alternative reading to substitute for this one–one that is less threatening to women’s safety. Today, I would argue differently, since I believe we have to understand where Judaism’s underlying misogyny comes from; in part, because of the metaphor of God as an abusive husband, and Israel as the abused wife of God. Not only Israel is being abused, it is also Israel’s children who are banished. True — spoiler alert — God takes them back at the end of the haftarah for a happy ending, but that does not atone for Israel and her children’s trauma. There will have to be many years of family counseling in the future to make up for the many years of abuse that the children of Israel (and their parents) faced.

THE HAFTARAH OF BAMIDBAR

Before our haftarah begins, God tells Hosea to “Go, get yourself a wife of whoredom and children of whoredom; for the land will stray from following GOD.”  He went and married Gomer who conceived 3 children. God instructed him to name them as follows: “Jezreel; for, I will soon punish the House of Jehu for the bloody deeds at Jezreel and put an end to the monarchy of the House of Israel. In that day, I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.” Lo-ruhamah; for I will no longer accept the House of Israel or pardon them. And Lo-ammi; for you are not My people, and I will not be your [God]” (Hosea 1). With this in the background we can now proceed to the haftarah which begins in Chapter Two.

The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,” they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-God. The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall assemble together and appoint one head over them; and they shall rise from the ground—for marvelous shall be the day of Jezreel! Oh, call your brothers “My People,” And your sisters “Lovingly Accepted!”

It would seem that God changed his mind about the children of Israel who will be numerous in the future and also beloved by God. But then the haftarah goes on about their mother:

Remonstrate your mother, remonstrate her—For she is not My wife And I am not her husband—And let her put away her whoredom from her face and her adultery from between her breasts. Else will I strip her naked and leave her as on the day she was born: And I will make her like a wilderness, Render her like desert land, and let her die of thirst.

God will make the mother of Israel suffer and be stripped naked with nothing to sustain her.  But then God goes on:

I will also disown her children; For they are now a whore’s brood, in that their mother has played the whore, she that conceived them has acted shamelessly—because she thought, “I will go after my lovers, who supply my bread and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.”  Assuredly, I will hedge up her roads with thorns and raise walls against her, and she shall not find her paths. Pursue her lovers as she will, she shall not overtake them; And seek them as she may, she shall never find them.

Not only will the mother of Israel suffer abuse, but also her children because their mother is a whore. And there were no shelters for battered women in her day and she had no recourse except to suffer. She has no choice and has to go back to the abusive situation:

Then she will say, “I will go and return to my first husband, for then I fared better than now.” And she did not consider this: It was I who bestowed on her the new grain and wine and oil; I who lavished silver on her and gold—which they used for Baal.  Assuredly, I will take back My new grain in its time and my new wine in its season, and I will snatch away My wool and My linen that serve to cover her nakedness.  Now will I uncover her shame in the very sight of her lovers, and not one of them shall save her from Me.  And I will end all her rejoicing: Her festivals, new moons, and sabbaths— All her festive seasons.  I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, which she thinks are a fee she received from her lovers; I will turn them into brushwood, and beasts of the field shall devour them.  Thus, will I punish her for the days of the Baalim, on which she brought them offerings; When, decked with earrings and jewels, she would go after her lovers, forgetting Me—declares GOD.

Despite God’s anger with His unfaithful wife, the mother of Israel (also Hosea’s wife) He goes on to reassure her, that if she repents, He will take her back:

Assuredly, I will speak coaxingly to her and lead her through the wilderness and speak to her tenderly.  I will give her her vineyards from there, And the Valley of Achor as a plowland of hope.  There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
when she came up from the land of Egypt.  And in that day—declares GOD—You will call [Me] Ishi, and no more will you call Me Baali.  For I will remove the names of the Baalim from her mouth, and they shall nevermore be mentioned by name.

It is clear that Israel has to give up her foreign Gods, and possibly her independence, and never speak or think of them again, at least aloud.  If she agrees, then God will renew the covenant, in a statement that is a throwback to the Garden of Eden, before humanity began to sin:

In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land. Thus, I will let them lie down in safety.

In this new era of peace, where there is no more war, God will renew his marriage vows with Israel—in a statement which is also the blessing over the daily donning of tefillin:

And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness; Then you shall be devoted to GOD.

Here the haftarah ends; but the chapter continues and God takes back both his children as well as his errant wife:

In that day, I will respond —declares GOD— I will respond to the sky, and it shall respond to the earth; and the earth shall respond with new grain and wine and oil, and they shall respond to Jezreel.  I will sow her in the land as My own; And take Lo- Ruhamah back in favor; And I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are My people,” and he will respond, “[You are] my God.”

Hopefully, this time God means it—but as we know, we continue to sin and worship other “gods” and God continues to punish us—similar to the cycle of violence that battered women all over the world are familiar with. When I discussed this text with my class, one of the participants said that it sounded to her as if God feels sorry for himself; that his demand for exclusivity is a sign that God has an inferiority complex. Another added that this is a very disturbing and dangerous text for women.

A DANGEROUS ASSUMPTION

This haftarah from chapter two of Hosea is replete with metaphors relating to God’s marriage to the people of Israel. He is passionate! When He is betrayed, he strikes out, yet His love is all encompassing, as seen in the final words of eternal marriage. We are expected to do marriage counseling forever for there is no allowance for divorce in this marriage. It is a very tiring relationship if there is no way out.  There is a midrash which expresses this idea—and can be read in two ways. One way is that it expresses God’s love for us; no matter what we do, He will take us back. The other way is that we are stuck in an unhealthy relationship forever. If we disregard the sympathetic overtones in the midrash and read between the lines of Hosea, we see that in the biblical text the ‘poignant relationship’ is achieved at a price.  The midrash below from Exodus Rabbah compares God to a wife‑beater.  It is on the verse ‘If thou Lend money to any of my people’ (Exod. 22.24).  It describes how after Israel was driven from Jerusalem, their enemies said that God had no desire for His people.  Jeremiah asked God if it was true that He had rejected His children:

‘Hast Thou Utterly rejected Judah?  Hath Thy soul loathed Zion?  Why hast Thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us?’ (Jer. 14.19)   It can be compared to a man who was beating his wife.  Her best friend asked him: ‘How long will you go on beating her?  If your desire is to drive her out [of life], then keep on beating her till she dies; but if you do not wish her [to die], then why do you keep on beating her?’  His reply was: ‘I will not divorce my wife even if my entire palace becomes a ruin.’  This is what Jeremiah said to God: ‘If Thy desire be to drive us out [of this world], then smite us till we die.’ As it says, ‘Thou canst not have utterly rejected us, and be exceedingly wroth against us! [Lam. 5.22], but if this is not [Thy desire], then ‘Why hast Thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us?’.  God replied: ‘I will not banish Israel, even if I destroy my world’, as it says, ‘Thus saith the Lord: If heaven above can be measured…then will I also cast off all the seed of Israel, etc. [Jer. 31.37] (Exodus Rabbah on Mishpatim 31.10).

As you can see this midrash depicts an emotional bond that has developed between God and his people which has resulted in Israel’s being gradually taken prisoner by a pathological courtship. This type of thinking is dangerous to women, but also to the people of Israel.

THEOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS

It is almost a truism to speak of God as having the power and authority to control and possess.  However, it is theologically debatable whether God wants to use this power to interfere in our lives.  Unfortunately, the prophets persisted in representing God as having and wanting the same authority to control and possess that a husband has traditionally had over his wife.  In an ideal marriage, in which there is a relationship of equality, a wife should not have to submit to her husband’s authority. The purpose of the metaphor is to enhance acceptance of God’s relationship with Israel.  But that can only be the case in a society in which the marriage metaphor is acceptable to men and women.  When the marriage metaphor is a priori unacceptable to men and women of a particular society then it no longer serves as an acceptable mode of thought concerning God’s relationship to Israel.

Many of you may be thinking (if you are still reading this), why do we, the Jewish people still accept this relationship. I think it is because during dark times we want surety; we want a strong God; we want someone who dictates to us what to do. We want to go back to our childhood when there were always answers, when God was a benevolent, parent-like figure. But, as Thomas Wolfe’s 1940’s novel stated, You Can’t Go Home Again. If we cling to our childhood God, we cannot grow. It is time to grow up and face a life that is full of uncertainty. It is up to us to make the necessary changes, grow up and start accepting the consequences of adulthood. History does not have to repeat itself. Determinism does not have to hold sway over us. As Karl Marx famously said “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win”. We have to remove the shackles that bind us and start making our way in an uncertain life. Hopefully, it is not too late to save ourselves from ourselves.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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