Haftarah Parshat Nitzvaim-Vayelekh
August 31, 2013
25 Elul 5773
The last of the prophecies in this week’s haftarah (63:1-8) paints a vivid picture of the prophet gazing upon a hero’s triumphant return from the field of battle: “Who is this coming from Edom, in crimson garments from Botzrah? Who is this majestic in attire, pressing forward in His great might? It is I, who contend victoriously, powerful to give triumph.” (63:1-2) This image graphically portrays the prophet’s vision of God’s triumph over one of Israel’s adversary, the Edomites.
The exact historical circumstances which prompted this prophecy are unclear. The Edomites dwelled on the east bank of the Dead Sea. It is known that they joined together with the Babylonians in the destruction of the First Commonwealth and regularly caused trouble during the period of the return from Babylonian exile. All of these activities could have prompted the prophet’s animosity. Rabbi David Kimche, on the other hand, adopts the rabbinic association of Edom with Rome and understands this prophecy in messianic terms as a prophecy of God’s triumph over Rome (future enemies).
For the modern, the depiction of God as a victorious warrior dressed in His military regalia, spattered with the blood of His defeated enemy is startling. This discrepancy was not lost on the sages as is indicated by Rashi’s comments on this verse: “The prophecy prophesies on the future when the Holy One Blessed be He will take vengeance against Edom, and God Himself will kill their king (or ministering angel) first… And the prophet speaks using images of human beings making war wearing raiment, with killing and blood being spattered on clothing, for this is the way of Scripture, which speaks of God’s presence in human terms, to make intelligible (Literally – “l’shaber et ha’ozen – to break one’s ear”) to enable one to understand, for one cannot understand most of God’s wonders as they are.”
Whether the prophet understood this vision literally or figuratively (like Rashi), I cannot say. Rashi, though, like at least some sages stretching back already to the time of the Mishnah, had an appreciation that reading prophecies required some sense of sophistication and literary sensibilities in order to be understood. Rashi asserts that the prophet uses language as a model to explain things which are not easy to comprehend in a manner similar to the way we use models in science to illustrate that which people would not otherwise understand.
The upshot of the prophet’s message here is to show that God has ultimate concern for our welfare. He is concerned with justice and fairness. He is concerned with right and wrong. These values are one of our ultimate priorities as we edge toward Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), also known as Yom HaDin – the Day of Judgment.