Professor Yochanan Muffs, in his book The Personhood of God, has raised our awareness to the very graphic nature of Biblical imagery. The prophets, according to Muffs, did not shy away from “daring modes of literary depiction” to get their points across to their audience. (pp. 98-9) In one vivid image, Hosea depicts God’s nourishing treatment of the penitent after they have turned away from idolatry: ‘Ephraim [shall say]: ‘What more have I to do with idols? When I [God] respond and look to him [Ephraim], I [God] become like a leafy cypress. Your fruit is provided by Me.‘” (14:9)
The language of this verse and its portrait of God, is difficult because it likens God to a “leafy cypress tree”. Targum Yonatan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, was apparently uncomfortable with this imagery and translated the verse this way: “Said the House of Israel: ‘What is it to us to worship [false] gods? I [God], through My Word, will accept the prayers of Israel and I will show them mercy, through My word. I [God] will make him [Israel] like a goodly cypress that will be forgiven and whose repentance will be accepted“. The Targum could not bring itself to describe God as a tree, so, instead, it transferred the association to Israel. When Israel repents, God will cause it to flourish like a goodly cypress tree.
The following midrash expressed itself in a similar fashion: “Rabbi Yohanan said: “I am like a leafy cypress” (Hosea 14:9) – this refers to Israel, ‘I [Israel] am he who bowed myself low to uproot the very spirit of idolatry.‘… I [Israel] am the one who bowed himself low to uproot from myself the idolatrous impulse [for Your sake, God].” (adapted from Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:17:2) Here, it is Israel which made itself like a cypress tree which could bow down to show its fealty to God.
Rashi, however, takes Hosea’s imagery at face value: “I [God] will bow Myself down so that he [Israel] may grab hold of Me like a leafy cedar bows low to the earth so that a person can latch on to its branches, that is to say, that I [God] am readily available to him.” Rashi, it seems to me, has captured Hosea’s intention. Human beings need to know that God cares – that there is immediacy to God’s relationship with us. Hosea wanted us to have a feeling for this sense of immanence. As Muffs noted, the loss of such imagery is a shame. Without it, God is but an abstract. With it, we have a sense that we are never alone.