Haftarah Parshat Bemidbar
May 24, 2014 / 24 Iyar 5774
In the first chapter of the book of Hosea, God charges him with delivering a harsh denunciation of the behavior and disloyalty of the children of Israel. He is told to marry a harlot and to sire children from her, giving each child a symbolic name meant to represent Israel’s alienation from God. At the beginning of the second chapter, which marks the beginning of this week’s haftarah, Hosea’s message takes an abrupt turn in the opposite direction, changing its tone from one of criticism to one of encouragement and reconciliation: “The number of the people of Israel shall be like 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’.” (2:1)
Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, understood this verse as a description of the transformative process that the people would undergo while in exile: “It will be in their place of exile among the nations on account of their transgressions of the Torah that it was said to them: ‘You are not My people.’ At which point, they repented and multiplied and then were called the ‘Children of the Living God’.”
The Talmud, on the other hand, explains this change in Hosea’s message anecdotally: “And she (Hosea’s wife) conceived, and bore him a son. And the Lord said to him: ‘Call his name Jezreel; for in yet in little while I will visit the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu, and will cause to cease the kingdom of the house of Israel. And it shall come to pass on that day, that I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.’ And she conceived again, and bore a daughter. And God said to him: ‘Call her name Lo-ruhamah [that has not obtained compassion]; for I will no longer have compassion for the house of Israel, that I should in any wise pardon them . . . And she conceived, and bore a son. And God said: ‘Call his name Lo-ammi [not my people]; for you are not My people, and I (God) will not be yours.After two sons and one daughter were born to him, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Hosea: ‘You should have learned from your teacher Moses, for as soon as I spoke with him he parted from his wife; so too you should leave her.’ ‘Master of the Universe!’, Hosea pleaded: ‘I have children by her, and I can neither expel her nor divorce her.’ Said the Holy One blessed be He, to him: ‘Then if you, whose wife is a harlot and your children are the children of harlotry, and you do not even know whether they are yours or whether they belong to others, yet [you] are so; then Israel who are My children, the children of My tried ones, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; yet you say: Exchange them for a different people!’ As soon as Hosea perceived that he had sinned, he arose to plead for mercy for himself. God said to him: ‘Instead of praying for yourself, you should plead for mercy for Israel, against whom I have decreed three decrees on your account’. Immediately, he rose up and begged for mercy, and God annulled the decree[s]. Then, Hosea began to bless them, as it is said: ‘The number of the people of Israel shall be like 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’.” (adapted from Pesahim 87b)
According to this telling, Hosea had encouraged God’s decrees against Israel. God’s commands to Hosea regarding his wife and children were meant to teach him to have concern and mercy for his people, something he previously lacked. The Talmud has thus transformed this whole episode from one where Israel was being warned by God concerning its sins into a lesson in the training of a prophet and leader.