Tags: First Temple, God's feet, God's footstool, images of God, second Isaiah, Second Temple
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 60:1-22).
A popular image of God is of an old man with a beard, floating in the sky and stretching out his hand like the God that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel. But the Hebrew Bible never mentions a beard in connection with God. “By the hand of God” appears all over the Bible, but it is simply an idiom for “through the agency of God”. Sometimes a deed is accomplished by the hand of a human being, sometimes by the hand of God.
In the Bible, the most common anthropomorphic image of God is of someone enveloped in robes, sitting on a throne. The face is too bright to be seen, and the hands are not mentioned. But sometimes the feet are.
The feet of God appear in this week’s haftarah, where second Isaiah encourages the exiles in Babylon to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem. God tells Jerusalem that someday the other nations, from Sheba to the Phoenician cities of Lebanon, will bring tribute to her.
The magnificence of the Lebanon will come to you,
All its juniper, fir, and cypress,
To glorify the place of My holy site;
And the place of My raglayim I will honor. (Isaiah 60:13)
raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet. (From regel, רֶגֶל = foot. Regalim, רְגָלִים = feet (more than two); times, occasions.)
The Babylonian army had burned the First Temple to the ground when it captured Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon in 589-587 B.C.E. But in 535 B.C.E., the Persian king Cyrus captured Babylon and decreed that all of its foreign populations were free to return to their former homes and worship their own gods. Some of the exiled Israelites were skeptical about going. So in this week’s haftarah, God promises that once the Israelites build a new temple in Jerusalem, God will honor it as the place of the divine presence. Second Isaiah refers to God’s presence in terms of both God’s light and God’s raglayim.
The most stunning appearance of God’s feet is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when 74 people climb halfway up Mount Sinai.
Then they went up, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel. And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath his raglayim it was like a making of bricks of sapir and like an image of the sky for purity. (Exodus/Shemot 24:9-10)
sapir (סַפִּיר) = a blue precious stone. (From the same root as safar (סָפַר) = counted up, and seifer (סֵפֶר) = scroll, document, book.)
Do the 74 Israelites actually see human-shaped feet against the bright blue sky? Is it a shared vision in a dream state? Or do they see something indescribable, which Exodus tries to capture with the metaphors of feet (suggestive of footsteps), sapir (suggestive of writing) and sky (which is also the word for heavens)?
Four other references to God’s feet are based on descriptions of Baal the storm-god in other Canaanite religions. For example:
And He bent down the sky and descended,
And a thick fog was beneath his raglayim. (Psalm 18:10)
Did the original poets who invented these descriptions believe that Baal actually had feet and stood on the clouds, or were they simply writing poetry? What about the poets who applied those descriptions to the God of Israel?
The Bible does use raglayim for several idioms involving human beings. When a man’s foot slips or stumbles, it means he is straying from the path of righteousness. Raglayim also appears as a euphemism for genitals, and even urination. In another biblical idiom, when person A bows at the raglayim of person B, it means A submits to B’s authority. An example occurs in this week’s haftarah immediately after the verse about God’s feet.
And they will walk to you bowing,
The children of your oppressors.
And they will bow down at the soles of your raglayim,
Everyone who used to scorn you.
And they will call you City of God,
Zion, Holy of Israel. (Isaiah 60:14)
People bow down to the ground to honor God throughout the Hebrew Bible, but they never bow to God’s feet. They do, however, bow down to God’s footstool in the Psalms.
Let us enter His sanctuary.
Let us bow down to His hadom-raglayim.
Arise, God, to your resting-place,
You and the ark of Your power! (Psalm 132:7-8)
hadom-raglayim (הֲדֺם־רַגְלַיִם) = the stool for a pair of feet; footstool. (Used in the Bible only five times, always in reference to God).
In Psalms, Lamentations, and 2 Chronicles, God’s footstool is either the ark or the whole First Temple in Jerusalem. But in second Isaiah, the idea of God’s footstool expands along with the idea of God:
Thus said Hashem:
The heavens are My throne
And the earth is My hadom-raglayim.
Where is this house that you will build for Me?
Where is this place, my resting-place?
All these were made by My hand,
So all these came into being
—declares God. (Isaiah 66:1-2)
This week’s haftarah is the sixth of seven readings from second Isaiah called the seven haftarot of consolation. Each one gives us a different view of God, either by shaking up one of the traditional beliefs about a local, anthropomorphic God or by expanding on the concept of a single abstract God for the whole universe.
How can we interpret the line “And the place of My raglayim I will honor” in this haftarah?
God is addressing Jerusalem—but not the ruined houses and broken stones of the old city in the hills of Judah. God is really addressing the people of Jerusalem, the exiles who feel ruined and broken in Babylon. Now they have a chance to go home and rebuild. Now the people can make themselves into a holy footstool, a hadom-raglayim, for God.
Then will they see God’s feet over their heads? No. In the rest of this week’s haftarah second Isaiah describes God’s presence in terms of light, not body parts. The haftarah begins: Arise, shine, for your light has come. (See my earlier post, Haftarah for Ki Tavo—Isaiah: Rise and Shine.)
After God promises to honor the temple as if God’s feet rested there, the haftarah says:
God will be for you an everlasting light;
And your God will be your splendor. (Isaiah 60:19)
The presence of God is more like light than like a robed figure with feet. And if you make yourselves a holy community, the light of God will shine through you.
Tags: haftarah, names of God, religion, second Isaiah
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-10).
For a little while I abandoned you,
But with great compassion I will gather you in. (Isaiah 54:7)
This week’s haftarah is a poem in which the husband is God, and the wife is the Israelites living in exile in Babylon.
I discussed the portrayal of God as a defective husband in my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, so this week I will focus on a verse in which the poet, second Isaiah, tells the Israelites they will no longer experience public disgrace—
Because your be-alim is your Maker;
“God of Tzevaot” is His name.
And your go-eil is the Holy One of Israel;
“God of all the earth” He will be called. (Isaiah 54:5)
be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = plural of ba-al (בַּעַל) = owner, husband, lord, master; or a god in other Canaanite religions. (A noun related to the verb ba-al (בָּעַל) = possess, rule over, take into possession as a wife.)
tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies. (“Sabaoth” in older English translations.)
go-eil (גֺּאֵל) = (singular) redeemer, ransomer, avenger.
The word ba-al in this context does not mean a Canaanite god, but rather lord or husband. The eighth-century B.C.E. prophet Hosea introduced the idea of God as Israel’s husband, and it became a popular prophetic motif in the Bible. Hosea uses two words for “husband”: ba-al and ish. God tells “his” straying wife (the Israelites) that when she returns to him,
You will call Me “my ish”,
And no longer will you call Me “my ba-al”. (Hosea 2:18)
ish (אִישׁ) = man, husband, person, someone.
The term ish puts the husband and wife on friendly and equal footing. The term ba-al makes the husband the wife’s owner and ruler.
This week’s haftarah uses the plural of majesty, calling God be-alim. The plural of majesty is appropriate for the kind of husband who owns and rules over his wife, a ba-al rather than an ish.
When second Isaiah then calls God “your Maker” (osayikh—(עֺשַׂיִךְ)—also a plural of majesty), the prophet may be implying that God owns them because “he” created them in the first place.
Next comes the name “God of Armies”, commonly translated as “Lord of Hosts”. The Bible uses the word tzevaot both for the armies of nations at war, and for the constellations of stars in the sky—considered as formations of God’s angelic servants. God has ultimate power over the success or failure of all armies. The time when God rejects “his wife” in the haftarah corresponds to the beginning of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E., when the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon, which they were not allowed to leave.
Second Isaiah was written around the end of the exile in 538 B.C.E., when the Persian army captured Babylon and its king, Cyrus, decreed general freedom of religion and movement. The prophet’s agenda was to encourage the Israelite exiles who had been assimilating in Babylon to return to their own religion and their own former home. By using the name “God of Armies”, second Isaiah might be saying, “Do not despair! Your husband, owner, and maker also has the power to replace the army that punished you with an army that will rescue you!”
(Another reason for including the name “God of tzevaot” might be to counter the Babylonian view of stars as gods, and remind the people that the God of Israel controls the stars.)
A go-eil in the Bible is the kinsman whose duty is help his close relatives in one of three ways. When an impoverished relative sells himself into slavery, the nearest kinsman who can afford it is the go-eil who must buy him back. When an impoverished relative sells a field, the go-eil buys back the land to keep it in the family, and lets his relative farm it. And when a judge orders the death of a relative’s murderer, the go-eil serves as the executioner.
The Israelites in exile are like slaves because they are unable to leave Babylon, the house of their master. And they are landless because the Babylonians now rule their own former kingdom of Judah.
When second Isaiah calls God the go-eil of the Israelites, it means that God will rescue them from their captivity in Babylon and return them to the land of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. But it also implies that God’s relationship to the Israelites is not only like that of a husband-owner, but also like that of a brother or uncle who is responsible for rescuing them.
This intimate view of God probably did comfort and inspire some of the Israelites in Babylon. I can imagine that other exiles would prefer either an abstract “God of all the earth”, or a friendlier sort of divine husband, an ish.
After all, when God’s wife and possession (the Israelites) did not obey him, her ba-al punished her by arranging for the Babylonian army to seize Jerusalem. Now, when God is in a better mood, he will be the ba-al who takes his wife back to rule over her again, and the go-eil who redeems her by executing her Babylonian enemies and arranging for the Persian army to seize Babylon. The Israelites are in the same position as the wife of a despot; they must meekly accept whatever God does, and be grateful when anything good comes their way.
Last week, in Haftarah for Shoftim—Isaiah: A New Name, I wrote that each of the seven haftarot of consolation (the readings from second Isaiah during the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah) offers a different view of God. This is the fifth haftarah of consolation, and its view of God is open to several interpretations.
I think there is some truth in the idea that all human beings, not just the Israelites in Babylon, are like the wife of a despot who must meekly accept whatever our God does, and be grateful when anything good comes our way. After all, we can take actions that change our lives, but we cannot make our lives from scratch. “Whatever God does” could mean everything that is out of our hands, from the laws of physics to our genes and the world we were born into. If we do not accept reality, we doom ourselves to perpetual anger and misery.
But besides taking whatever actions we can to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, we can also be grateful for the good that happens to come our way. I am grateful I happened to meet my beloved husband. And on another level, I am grateful for the sight of marigolds in the sunlight outside my window.
But I am also ready to say “God of all the earth” instead of thinking of God as an autocratic family member!
Tags: consolation, haftarah, names of God, second Isaiah
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) and the haftarah is Isaiah 51:12-52:12).
The second “book” of Isaiah (written in the sixth century B.C.E. around the end of the Babylonian exile, two centuries after the first half of Isaiah) opens:
Nachamu, nachamu My people!” (Isaiah 40:1)
nachamu (נַחֲמוּ) = Comfort them! (From the same root as nicham (נִחָם) = having a change of heart; regretting, or being comforted.)
This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah begins:
I, I am He who menacheim you. (Isaiah 51:12)
menacheim (מְנַחֵם) = is comforting.
At this point, many of the exiles in Babylon have given up on their old god and abandoned all hope of returning to Jerusalem. So second Isaiah repeatedly tries to reassure them and change their hearts; he or she uses a form of the root verb nicham eleven times.
In the Jewish calendar, this is the time of year when we, too, need comfort leading to a change of heart. So for the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av (the day of mourning for the fall of the temple in Jerusalem) and Rosh Hashanah (the celebration of the new year) we read seven haftarot of “consolation”, all from second Isaiah.
This year I notice that each of these seven haftarot not only urges the exiles to stick to their own religion and prepare to return to Jerusalem; it also coaxes them to consider different views of God.
The first week—
—in Haftarah for Ve-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling? we learned that once God desires to communicate comfort, the transmission of instructions to human prophets goes through divine “voices”, aspects of a God Who contains a variety ideas and purposes. When we feel persecuted, it may comfort us to remember that God is not single-mindedly out to get us, but is looking at a bigger picture.
The second week—
—in Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning? second Isaiah encourages the reluctant Jews in Babylon to think of Jerusalem as a mother missing her children, and of God as a rejected father. Instead of being told that God has compassion on us, we feel compassion for an anthropomorphic God. Feeling compassion for someone else can cause a change of heart in someone who is sunk in despair.
The third week—
—in Haftarah Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, we took a new look at what God would be like if God really were anthropomorphic. Like a slap in the face, this realization could radically change someone’s theological attitude.
The fourth week, this week—
—God not only declares Itself the one who comforts the exiled Israelites, but also announces a new divine name.
In Biblical Hebrew, as in English, “name” can also mean “reputation”. In this week’s haftarah, God mentions two earlier occasions when Israelites, the people God promised to protect, were nevertheless enslaved: when they were sojourning in Egypt, and when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria. Both occasions gave God a bad reputation—a bad name. And the Torah portrays a God who is very concerned about “his” reputation. For example, when God threatens to kill all the Israelites for worshiping a golden calf, Moses talks God out of it by asking:
What would the Egyptians say? “He was bad; He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to remove them from the face of the earth.” (Exodus/Shemot 32:12)
Now, God says, the Babylonians are the oppressors. They captured Jerusalem, razed God’s temple, deported all the leading families of Judah, and still refuse to let them leave Babylon.
Their oppressors mock them—declares God—
And constantly, all day, shemi is reviled. (Isaiah 52:5)
shemi (שְׁמִי) = my name.
The Babylonians are giving the God of Israel a bad name.
Therefore My people shall know shemi,
Therefore, on that day;
Because I myself am the one, hamedabeir. Here I am! (Isaiah 52:5-6)
hamedabeir (הַמְדַבֵּר) = the one who is speaking, the one who speaks, the speaker. (From the root verb diber (דִּבֶּר) = speak)
Since God’s old name has been reviled, God promises that the Israelites will know God by a new name. Then God identifies Itself not merely as the speaker of this verse, but as “the one, The Speaker”, adding extra emphasis with “Here I am!”
The concept of God as Hamedabeir appears elsewhere in the Bible. In the first chapter of the book of Genesis/Bereishit (a chapter that modern scholars suspect was written during the Babylonian exile), God speaks the world into being. Whatever God says, happens.
Second Isaiah not only refers to God as the creator of everything, but emphasizes that what God speaks into being is permanent.
Grass withers, flowers fall
But the davar of our God stands forever! (Isaiah 40:8)
davar (דָּבָר) = word, speech, thing, event. (Also from the root verb diber (דִּבֶּר) = speak.)
What is the davar of God regarding the exiles in Babylon? In this week’s haftarah second Isaiah says:
Be untroubled! Sing out together
Ruins of Jerusalem!
For God nicham His people;
He will redeem Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52:9)
nicham (ִנִחַם) = had a change of heart about; comforted.
God let the Babylonians punish the Israelites because they were unjust and because they worshiped other gods. But now God has had a change of heart and wants to end the punishment and rescue the Israelites from Babylon. Since God’s name was reviled, some of the exiles do not believe God has the power to carry out this desire. So God names Itself Hamedabeir and then declares:
Thus it is: My davar that issues from My mouth
Does not return to me empty-handed,
But performs my pleasure
And succeeds in what I send it to do.
For in celebration you shall leave,
And in security you shall be led. (Isaiah 55:11-12)
The speech of Hamedabeir achieves exactly what God wants it to. In this case, God wants the Israelites in Babylon to return joyfully and safely to Jerusalem. If the exiles believe this information, their hearts will change and they will be filled with new hope.
It is easy to give up on God when life looks bleak, and you blame an anthropomorphic god for making it that way. No wonder many Israelite exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. adopted the Babylonian religion. No wonder many people today adopt the religion of atheism.
But there is an alternative: redefine God. Discover a name for God that changes your view of reality, and therefore changes your heart.
Thinking of God as Hamedabeir, The Speaker, takes me in a different direction from second Isaiah. Not being a physicist, I take it on faith that one reality consists of the movement of sub-atomic particles. But another reality is the world we perceive directly with our senses, the world of the davar—the thing and the event. We human beings cannot help dividing our world into things and events. We are also designed to label everything we experience. What we cannot name does not clearly exist for us. In our own way, we too are speakers.
What if God is the ur-speech that creates things out of the dance of sub-atomic particles—for us and creatures like us?
What if God, The Speaker, is the source of meaning? Maybe God is what speaks to all human beings, a transcendent inner voice which we seldom hear. When we do hear The Speaker say something new, we often misinterpret it. Yet sometimes inspiration shines through.
I am comforted by the idea of a Speaker who makes meaning, even if I do not understand it.
Tags: God, haftarah, religion
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Re-eih (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:11-55:5).
Hosea was the first prophet to compare the covenant between God and the Israelites to a marriage contract. Preaching in the 8th century B.C.E., Hosea calls the northern kingdom of Israel a prostitute who takes other lovers, i.e. worships other gods, until her own God decides to take action.
And I will bring her to account
Over the days of the Baals
When she turned offerings into smoke for them
And she adorned herself with her rings and ornaments
And she went after her lovers
The books of first and second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all employ Hosea’s metaphor of Israel (or the southern kingdom of Judah, or the city of Jerusalem) as God’s cherished wife who abandons her husband and commits adultery. In this week’s haftarah from second Isaiah (written circa 540-530 B.C.E., two centuries after the first half of the book of Isaiah), Jerusalem is once again compared to a wife, with God as her husband. But this time the story is different.
The haftarah begins with God promising to give Jerusalem jewelry.
Wretched, stormy, she has not been comforted.
Hey! I am setting down turquoise building-stones,
And foundations of sapphires.
And I will make her skylights of agate
And her gates of fire-stone,
And her whole enclosure of jewels. (Isaiah 54:11-12)
What interests me is the reason why God intends to shower Jerusalem with jewelry. Shortly before the opening of this week’s haftarah, second Isaiah declares:
As a wife azuvah and troubled in spirit
God has called to you:
“Can one reject the wife of one’s youth?”
—said your God. (Isaiah 54:6)
azuvah (עֲזוּבָה) = forsaken, abandoned, left behind.
This prophetic passage never calls Jerusalem unfaithful, or at fault in any way as a wife. But it answers God’s rhetorical question by making it clear that God did, in fact, reject Jerusalem.
For a little while azavtikh,
But with a great rachamim I will gather you in.
In a burst of anger I hid my face from you a while,
But with everlasting loyalty
—said your redeemer, God. (Isaiah 54:7-8)
azavtikh (עֲזַבתִּיךְ) = I forsook you, I abandoned you.
rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = compassion, feeling of love, mercy.
richamtikh (רִחַמְתִּיךְ) = I will feel compassion and/or love for you.
In other words, God abandoned Jerusalem and opened the door for the Babylonian army to destroy her (see my post Haftarah for Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship). According to the book of Jeremiah, God did it because Jerusalem was unfaithful and worshiped other gods. But now, in second Isaiah, God has recovered from this particular fit of temper, and is carried away with a different emotion, a compassionate love for “his” wife.
An abusive husband who beats his wife to discharge his anger, and then feels a desire to reclaim her, usually promises her that he will never do it again. In this poetic passage, God continues:
[Like] the waters of Noah this is to me!
I swore that the waters of Noah would not cross
Over the earth again.
Thus I swear
Against becoming angry over you and against rebuking you!
For the mountains may give way
And the hills may totter,
But My loyalty to you shall never give way
And the covenant of My peace shall never change!
—said merachameich, God.
merachameich (מְרַחֲמֵךְ) = your compassionate one, your one full of loving feelings.
After promising his wife he will never beat her again, what does the standard abusive husband do next? Give her jewelry, of course.
And so we step into this week’s haftarah, in which Jerusalem is wretched—in the sense of being miserable, and “stormy”—full conflicting feelings. And “she has not been comforted”—God’s declaration of everlasting love and promise never to hurt her again is not enough for her to forgive God and take “him” back.
So God promises to give Jerusalem turquoises and sapphires, agates and fire-stones, and jewels all around.
Perhaps even a lavish gift of jewelry is not enough for the battered wife this time, because God goes on in this haftarah to promise Jerusalem children who will all live in peace, and her own personal safety from oppression and ruin. God even goes so far as to say:
Hey! Certainly no one will attack
Without My consent.
Whoever hurts you
Will fall because of you. (Isaiah 54:15)
I wonder if the poet of second Isaiah was aware of the irony?
What does this thinly-disguised allegory of God as the abusive husband and Jerusalem as the battered wife mean?
In the patriarchal culture reflected in the Hebrew Bible, wives were not allowed to divorce their husbands. An actual battered wife had no recourse until Talmudic times. But members of one religion could convert to another.
Second Isaiah addresses the families that the Babylonian army deported from Jerusalem several decades before, when they razed the city. (See my post Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning?)
Now the exiles are living comfortably enough in Babylon, and they hesitate to trust their old god, who let the Babylonian army destroy Jerusalem in the first place.
Yes, the Persian king Cyrus is rapidly taking over the Babylonian empire, and Cyrus has a policy of letting native populations return to their old homes and worship their old gods. But the exiles from Jerusalem are reluctant to go. Like a battered wife, they feel safer in the foreign city of Babylon than they do at home. They are tempted to abandon God for good and assimilate.
Second Isaiah was wise enough to recognize and acknowledge the deepest fear of these exiles who assumed that God was anthropomorphic, and God’s relationship with the Israelites was like a marriage. The exiles knew that the people of Jerusalem were guilty of adultery with other gods. But I bet that subconsciously they also suspected that the husband, God, had an anger management problem and had abused Jerusalem beyond bearing.
A later passage even states that the Israelites would not have strayed if only God had kept “his” temper:
You attacked one who would gladly be righteous
And remember You in Your ways.
But You, You became angry, and so we offended. (Isaiah 64:4)
Throughout the Bible, the old, anthropomorphic God gets carried away by “his” temper. This God is also portrayed as one of many gods, each in charge of its own country or ethnic group, though the God of Israel is the most powerful. This the God who acts like an abusive husband to the Israelites.
Second Isaiah switches back and forth between the old, anthropomorphic God and a new idea of God as vast, remote, and singular. In this new concept, there is only one god, who creates and runs the entire universe.
Shortly after the end of this week’s haftarah, the poet reminds us that God is not really like a human being after all:
My thoughts are not your thoughts,
And your ways are not my ways
—declares God. (Isaiah 55:8)
Elsewhere, second Isaiah insists there are no other gods, as in this bold theological statement:
I am God and there is no other.
The shaper of light and creator of darkness,
The maker of peace and the creator of evil:
I, God, do all of these. (Isaiah 45:6-7)
Today the concept of God in second Isaiah is still at odds with the popular notion of an anthropomorphic God. While the exiles in Babylon may have feared that their God was temperamental and abusive—a characterization supported by numerous Biblical passages—many religious people today believe in an anthropomorphic God who loves each individual the way a parent loves a child. Then they have to explain why their parental God kills so many young and innocent children.
I think the Jews in Babylon were more realistic about what an anthropomorphic god means. And I think second Isaiah was inspired with a far more interesting idea of what God is.
Tags: Babylonian exile, haftarah, Psalm 137, second Isaiah, Zion
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) and the haftarah is Isaiah 49:14-51:3).
How can we sing a song of God
On foreign soil?
If I forget you, Jerusalem
May I forget my right hand. (Psalm 137:4-5)
Psalm 137, like this week’s haftarah, is about the Babylonian Exile. In 586 B.C.E. the Babylonian army deported the last leading families of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. These Israelites were stuck in the capital of the Babylonian empire for 48 years, until Babylon surrendered to the Persian king Cyrus, who declared freedom of movement and freedom of religion in 538 B.C.E..
In Jewish history, which spans millennia, 48 years may not seem long. But for individuals it was a long time to remember their old home and their old god—especially if they were born in Babylon, and had only their elders’ memories to go by.
Why did I come and there was nobody,
[Why] did I call and there was no answer? (Isaiah 50:2)
Usually when someone in the Hebrew Bible cries “Why have you forsaken me?” it is an Israelite addressing God. But in this week’s haftarah, God feels forsaken by the Israelites who have adjusted to life in Babylon.
In the second book of Isaiah, God is preparing to end the rule of the Babylonian empire, rescue the Israelite exiles, and return them to Jerusalem and their own land. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Va-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling?) But it is no use unless the Israelites trust their God and want to go home.
Imagine you were kidnapped and taken to a strange city. Your life there was comfortable, but you were not free to leave. Would you accept your new reality, adopt the customs and religion of the city, and make it your home?
That must have been the strategy of the Israelites that the Assyrian armies deported from Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, in 729-724 B.C.E.—because the Bible never mentions them again.
Or would you cling to your memories and your old religion, hoping that someday you would escape and go home?
This is the strategy that the second book of Isaiah advocates for the Israelites living in Babylon.
Reading between the lines, I imagine some Israelites moving past their trauma, falling in love with Babylonians, and assimilating. I imagine others stuck with post-traumatic stress disorder, trying hard not to remember their old lives or God or Jerusalem. And I imagine a few stubborn individuals clinging to the belief that their God was alive and well, and would someday rescue them and return them to their motherland.
But how could the believers convince their fellow Israelites to take heart and wait for God?
This week’s haftarah tries a new approach: Stop thinking about yourselves, and remember the parents you left behind! How do they feel—your homeland, which is like a mother, and your God, who is like a father?
The haftarah begins with the land—called Zion for one of the hills in Jerusalem—crying that God has forsaken her, too.
And Zion says:
God has abandoned me,
And my lord has forgotten me! (Isaiah 49:14)
So far, Zion and God sound like lovers. But this is not another example of the prophetic poetry claiming that the people of Israel are straying after other gods like a wife who is unfaithful to her husband. In this haftarah, the innocent land is Zion, and the people are Zion’s children. Zion lies in ruins after the war, empty and desolate because her destroyers (the Babylonians) stole all her children.
God reassures Zion by telling her:
Hey! I will lift up My hand to nations
And raise My banner to peoples,
And they shall bring your sons on their bosoms
And carry your daughters on their shoulders. (Isaiah 49:22)
In this poem God will arrange for foreigners (like King Cyrus) to return Zion’s children to Jerusalem. The poet or poets who wrote second Isaiah probably hoped that if discouraged exiles thought of Jerusalem as a mother missing her children and longing to have them back, their hearts might soften, and they might want to return to her.
Then, second Isaiah says, they would hear God ask:
Why did I come and there was nobody,
[Why] did I call and there was no answer?
Is my hand short, too short for redemption?
And is there no power in me to save? (Isaiah 50:2)
What if their god, their father, had not been defeated when the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem? What if God really had planned the exile to punish them, as Jeremiah kept prophesying during the siege, but now the punishment was over and God missed the Israelites? What if their father, their god, really was powerful enough to rescue them and take them home to Zion?
If both parents, God and Zion, are yearning for them, then the Israelites in Babylon might start yearning for God and Zion again.
It worked. After King Cyrus issued his decree, bands of Israelites from Babylon began returning to Jerusalem, a thousand or so at a time. Under Ezra and Nehemiah they built a new, larger temple for God. The former kingdom of Judah became a Persian province administered by Jews, and the expanded, monotheistic version of their religion, founded by second Isaiah, survived.
Today, two and a half millennia later, yearning for Jerusalem is built into Jewish daily liturgy. At the end of the Passover seder in the spring and Yom Kippur services in the autumn we even sing out: “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Almost half of the Jews in the world today live in the United States. We are free to emigrate to the nation of Israel, as long as we meet Israel’s requirements. Only a few do so. Are religious American Jews still exiles?
Or has God become both the mother and the father we yearn for, while Jerusalem is now a pilgrimage site?
Tags: 1 Kings, book of Job, God, haftarah, religion, theology
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Va-Etchannan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:1-26.
Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, razed its temple, and deported all its leading citizens to Babylonia in 597-596 B.C.E. Then each family in exile faced a decision.
Should they give up on their own religion, their own identity, and assimilate? Or should they have faith that their god had the power and the desire to eventually return them to their own land?
Nachamu, nachamu My people!
Says your god. (Isaiah 40:1)
nachamu (נַחַמוּ) = Comfort! Reassure! (This imperative verb has the plural suffix u (וּ), meaning the speaker—God—is urging more than one person—or divine being—to reassure God’s people.)
This call for reassurance (and enlightenment) opens this week’s haftarah and what is really the second book of Isaiah.
(Isaiah 1-39, considered the first book of Isaiah, is set in the 8th century B.C.E., and warns that God will send an army against the people of Jerusalem if they do not reform. (See my post last week, Haftarah for Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship.) The rest of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, is set in the 6th century B.C.E., near the end of the Babylonian exile and shortly before the Persian emperor Cyrus II took Babylon in 539 B.C.E. , This second book of Isaiah shares a new vision of God: that God is both the protector of the Israelites and the only god in the universe, powerful beyond imagining.)
The haftarah at the beginning of the second book of Isaiah promises that God has forgiven the exiles in Babylonia and will soon gather them home.
Speak (dabru) to the heart of Jerusalem
And call out (kire-u) to her
That she has worked off her debt,
That her wrongdoing has been accepted,
That she has received from the hand of God
Double the amount of all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2)
The Hebrew words for both “Speak!” and “Call out!” above also have the plural suffix u (וּ). But who is God addressing? As the poem continues, it seems that God is giving orders to two disembodied voices.
Clear (panu) in the wilderness
A path for God!
Level (yasheru) in the desert
A highway for our god! (Isaiah 40:3)
kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound; speech.
And the glory of God shall be revealed
And all flesh shall see (ra-u) it together… (Isaiah 40:5)
Again, the verbs are in the plural, with the suffix u (וּ). The kol is not addressing a work crew; it seems to be urging multiple persons to open the minds of the Jerusalemites in Babylon, so they can experience God.
…A[nother] kol says: Call out! (kera!)
And he says: What shall I call out? (Isaiah 40:6)
The second kol uses the singular form, commanding one unidentified male person to call out. But “he” seems to be depressed about the transience of human life, and eight lines later, the kol recruits a second person:
Climb up (aliy) on a high mountain,
Mevaseret of Zion!
Lift up (harimiy) your voice with strength,
Mevaseret of Jerusalem!
Lift up (harimiy), do not be afraid (tiyra-iy)!
Say (imriy) to the cities of Judah:
Here is your god! (Isaiah 40:9)
mevaseret (מְבַשֶֹּרֶת) = herald, bringer of news. (Mevaseret is the feminine form of mevaseir (מְבַשֵֹּר) = a (male) herald.)
The voice addresses the mevaseret using imperative verbs with a singular feminine suffix, iy (יִ), telling her to speak so as to lift the spirits and hopes of the Jewish exiles.
As Sheryl Noson-Blank points out in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, early commentators could not imagine the mevaseret as a woman; Targum Yonatan (~50 B.C.E.) translated mevaseret into Aramaic as plural male prophets, while David Kimchi (1160-1235 C.E.) decided the mevaseret was the land of Zion herself.
The second book of Isaiah never tells us the identity of the man or the woman recruited by the kol. Maybe they are the prophet-poets who wrote the book. Or maybe they represent all inspired men and women among the exiles in Babylon.
Nor does the book clarify what the two voices are. The first statement, that the people of Jerusalem have been sufficiently punished and should now be reassured that God will redeem them, is definitely attributed to God.
But how will God’s order be achieved? The first kol says all impediments to beholding God must be cleared away. The second kol says the news must be called out by heralds, man and woman.
What are these voices that interpret God’s original thought?
Some commentators view the voices as members of a divine council. In other religions of the ancient Near East, the gods assembled under the chairmanship of the chief god to discuss earthly affairs. The Hebrew Bible also mentions a divine council or assembly, whose members are variously described as:
elohim (אֱלֺֹהִים) = gods; a god with various aspects; God.
beney ha-elohim (בְּנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים) = offspring of the gods; offspring of God.
kedoshim (ֹקְדֹשִׁים) = holy ones, holy places.
ruchot (רוּחוֹת) = spirits, winds, motivating forces.
In Psalm 82 the members of God’s assembly are called simply elohim, gods.
God takes a stand in the assembly of El,
Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)
El is the high god in Canaanite mythology, equated with the God of Israel in this psalm. God/El criticizes the elohim in God’s assembly for ignorantly favoring the wicked rather than the poor in their judgments, and decrees that henceforth these lesser gods will die like human beings.
Psalm 89 calls the members of the divine assembly beney elohim (“offspring of gods” or “offspring of God”) and kedoshim (“holy ones”), but they still appear to be lesser gods:
Because who in the sky can measure up to God,
Can compare to God, among beney elohim?
El is greatly dreaded in the council of kedoshim
And held in awe above everyone around Him. (Psalm 89:7-8)
In the book of Genesis, beney ha-elohim (offspring of “the gods” or God) resemble the gods in Greek myths.
The beney ha-elohim saw that the daughters of humankind were good, and they took wives for themselves from all that they chose. …when the beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of humankind, they bore children to them, heroes that were famous forever. (Genesis 6:2, 6:4)
Many scholars consider this fragment a piece of an ancient Canaanite text that was included in Genesis as a result of clumsy editing. However, the book of Job also refers to beney ha-elohim in its first two chapters.
One day the beney ha-elohim came to stand before God, and even the satan came among them. (Job 1:6)
satan (שָׂטָן) = accuser, adversary, one who feels animosity.
The satan persuades God to test Job to find out if he serves God only because he is fortunate, and God commissions this particular “offspring of the gods” to kill Job’s children and destroy his wealth. The heavenly council meets again, and the satan persuades God to commission him to afflict Job with diseases. Then most of the book is a long discussion of the problem of how God can be omnipotent and good, yet permit evil in the world.
Is the divine council of beney ha-elohim, including God’s satan, merely an engaging way of setting up the problem by using a Canaanite mythological theme? Or do the beney ha-elohim represent different aspects of the mind of God, like the different and sometimes conflicting inclinations in each human mind?
In the first book of Kings, the prophet Mikhayehu describes his vision of a divine council whose members appear to include stars, which are often called “the army of the heavens” in the Bible.
I saw God sitting on His throne, and all the army of the heavens was standing in attendance on Him to His right and to His left. And God said: “Who will fool Ahab so he will go up and fall at Ramot of Gilad?” And this one said thus, and this one said thus. Then the ruach went and stood before God and said: “I, I will fool him.” And God said to him: “How?” And he said: “I will go and be a ruach of falsehood in the mouth of all his prophets.” (1 Kings 22:19-22)
ruach (רוּחַ) = spirit, wind, or motivating psychological force (singular of ruchot).
One or more ruchot are also at the council meeting, advising God. Just as God commissions the satan to carry out his suggestion about testing Job, in the first book of Kings God commissions the ruach to carry out his suggestion for bringing down Ahab. Elsewhere in the Bible, God sends a ruach elohim (a spirit of God) or a ruach hakodesh (a holy spirit) to individuals to overwhelm them with a mood or inspire them to become prophets. Here, the ruach that volunteers to makes Ahab’s prophets speak falsehoods is an aspect of God.
Back to this week’s haftarah in second Isaiah. I think the “voices” that respond to God’s initial order to nachamu, nachamu the people of Israel are like a divine council—but it is a council consisting of different aspects of one God. As God considers how to reassure the exiled Israelites, ideas arise, each with its own kol or voice.
The unnamed man and the mevaseret hear these divine voices inside their own heads, and they must respond.
Perhaps their response is the second book of Isaiah.
Tags: good and evil, haftarah, Prophet Isaiah, Prophet Jeremiah, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, Tisha B'Av
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) and the haftarah is Isaiah 1:1-27.
Jerusalem, the strong walled city in the hills, the capital of Judah and the site of the temple of the God of Israel, fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.E. On Tisha B’Av, the tenth of the month of Av, Jews remember the razing of the temple by chanting the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, which begins:
The city sits alone,
Once great with people.
She has become like a widow,
Once great among the nations.
A princess among the provinces,
She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)
Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how? Alas! How could it be? (See my post Devarim: Oh, How?)
The prophet Jeremiah had been warning the people of Jerusalem to stop worshiping other gods and acting immorally (as well as warning the kings of Jerusalem to submit to the Babylonians before it was too late). But they all ignored him. So the God of Israel, the “god of armies”, according to Jeremiah, let the Babylonians destroy the city that was supposed to be the place where God’s enlightenment came into the world.
The book of Jeremiah calls Jerusalem (and by extension the Israelites) God’s bride, who made a covenant like a marriage with God—and then strayed after other gods and became a prostitute. In Lamentations, she has become a widow, utterly bereft of God.
This week’s haftarah is always read on the Saturday morning before Tisha B’Av, and it also includes the despairing cry, Eykhah!
Eykhah! She has become a prostitute,
The [once] faithful city
Filled with justice.
Tzedek used to linger in her,
But now—murderers. (Isaiah 1:21)
Tzedek (צֶדֶק) = virtue, rightness, righteousness justice, good deeds.
The haftarah, which refers to events in 701 B.C.E., also reminds us that according to the book of Isaiah, God gave the people of Judah and Jerusalem more than a century of opportunities to change their ways before finally the temple was razed.
What misdeeds does Isaiah urge the people to stop doing?
This haftarah is not about worshiping false gods, but about worshiping God falsely—by following the ritual forms without obeying God’s commandments about just behavior toward fellow human beings.
Why do you give me so many slaughter-sacrifices?
And the fat of meat-cattle
And the blood of bulls.
And lambs and he-goats
I do not want
When you come to appear before Me.
Who asks for that from your hand?
Do not go on trampling My courts
Incense is repugnant to Me.
New moon and sabbath
Reading to an assembly—
I cannot endure
Misdeeds and ritual celebrations! (Isaiah 1:11-13)
Isaiah is especially critical of the government in Jerusalem.
Your officials are obstinate
And comrades of thieves,
Every one a lover of bribes
And a pursuer of payments.
They do not judge the case of the orphan,
Nor does the lawsuit of the widow come to them. (Isaiah 1:23)
Nevertheless, God offers the people a chance to reform and be saved from future wars.
Go, please, and be set right
[Even] if your faults are like crimson dye,
They shall become white like the snow.
If they are red as scarlet fabric,
They shall become like fleece.
If you do good and you pay attention,
The goodness of the land you shall eat.
But if you refuse and you are obstinate,
You will be devoured by the sword… (Isaiah 1:18-20)
The haftarah concludes:
Zion can be redeemed through justice,
And those who turn back, through tzedek. (Isaiah 1:27)
Like Job, we know that being good is not always rewarded in this world. When we see God as an anthropomorphic judge meting out rewards and punishments, God seems to look away from saints as well as sinners.
Yet the human race as a whole could be redeemed through justice and virtue. If we all dedicated ourselves to following treaties and international laws, to being honest and fair, and to helping the needy, war would disappear.
On an individual level, at least good behavior leads to a clear conscience and the trust of others, and those result in a happier life than the lives of the murderers, thieves, bribe-takers, and heart-hardeners who ruled Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time.
And a happier life than the priests in this week’s haftarah, who spread their hands to bless he congregation even though they, too, are guilty.
And when you spread out your palms
I lift My eyes away from you;
Even if you make abundant prayers
I will not be listening;
Your hands are filled with bloodshed. (Isaiah 1:15)
So go ahead and pray, attend services, follow rituals to approach God. But remember Isaiah’s words, and also keep your hands clean.
Tags: call to prophecy, haftarah, Judah, King Josiah, Prophet Jeremiah, torah portion, Zephaniah
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 1:1-2:3.
Jeremiah discovers his calling in this week’s haftarah:
The word of God happened to me, saying:
Before I enclosed you in the womb, I knew you.
And before you went out from the womb, I consecrated you;
A navi to the nations I appointed you. (Jeremiah 1:4-5)
navi (נָבְיא) = prophet. (Plural = neviyim (נְבִיאִים).)
There are two kinds of neviyim in the Bible: those who have ecstatic experiences of the divine but do not speak for God; and those who serve as mouthpieces or translators for God, giving God’s messages to other people. Jeremiah is the second kind of navi, like Moses, Bilam, Samuel, Natan, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Joel, Amos, Hosea, the first Isaiah, Micah, and Nahum before him.
Jeremiah is an adolescent when he hears God tell him he is a navi.
And I said:
Ahahh! My master, God!
Hey! I do not know how to speak,
Because I am a youth. (Jeremiah 1:6)
Ahahh (אֲהָהּ) = a cry of alarm, like “oh no!” or “alas!”
Jeremiah does not want the job.
While Moses tried to get out of being God’s prophet by claiming his speech and his tongue were heavy, Jeremiah protests that he would be a poor speaker because he is too young.
Perhaps he is wise for his age and knows speaking out effectively against what others are doing requires insights that come from experience. Of course, that wisdom would actually make him more qualified!
More importantly, God consecrated him as a navi before he was born. The language in these poetic verses reflects an observation that we explain today through genetics: human beings are born with genes for certain talents and dispositions, which change from potential to actual in the right environment. Skills can be developed through education and practice, but you can become a stellar dancer only if you were born with certain physical traits, a stellar mathematician only if you were born with certain mental traits, a stellar prophet only if you were born with—what?
My guess is that a competent navi must be born with both the kind of intelligence needed by translators and eloquent speakers, and an unusual spiritual sensitivity. Jeremiah must have had a way with words as a child, and he must have experienced glimpses or echoes of a reality behind our mundane reality.
People enjoy using their talents. So why is Jeremiah horrified at news that he must serve as a navi?
The haftarah opens by stating that Jeremiah began prophesying in the 13th year of the reign of Josiah, king of Judah, which scholars date to the 620’s B.C.E. Two neviyim are already active in Jerusalem at that time: Zephaniah (who has his own book) and Huldah (who is mentioned only when she utters a prophecy for King Josiah five years after Jeremiah’s call, in 2 Kings 22).
King Josiah began his reign at the age of eight, and while he was growing up, Zephaniah was predicting a day of reckoning when God would wipe out Jerusalem, Judah, and most of the world for injustice and idol worship, while giving refuge to a small number of survivors.
When Jeremiah is called to prophesy, Josiah is 21 and has not yet begun his campaign of wiping out the images, shrines, and priests of other gods. The kingdom of Judah is still full of polytheists worshipping Baal, Ashtoret, Molekh, Khemosh, Milkom, and various astral deities. Furthermore, the political situation in the region is shifting. The Assyrian Empire, which had earlier swallowed up the northern kingdom of Israel and made Judah its vassal state, is weakening. Wars are brewing between powers bigger than the little state of Judah. It would be all too easy for a sensitive person to imagine God using foreign armies to punish and destroy the Israelites.
Jeremiah probably expects that the speeches he must make as a navi will be at least as grim and unwelcome as Zephaniah’s. If Jeremiah hopes that at least his private life will continue as before, that hope probably dies when he hears God’s response to his attempt to excuse himself on the grounds of youth.
Do not say “I am a youth”
Because anywhere I send you, you will go,
And anything I command you, you will speak.
Do not be afraid in front of them,
Because I will be with you to rescue you –declares God. (Jeremiah 1:7-8)
Theoretically Jeremiah could refuse the call, but God already knows Jeremiah will obey—and that he will need rescuing from “them”, people who have not yet been named. In case Jeremiah did not get the hint, later in this haftarah God says:
And they will attack you
But they will not vanquish you
Because I will be with you—declares God—to rescue you. (Jeremiah 1:19)
Jeremiah rants against dishonesty, injustice, and the worship of other gods until King Josiah is killed in 609 B.C.E. During the reigns of the next four kings of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon vanquishes the old Assyrian empire and his army conquers Judah, putting Jerusalem under siege in 589 B.C.E.
Jeremiah blames idol-worship for the Babylonian attack, and advises each successive king of Judah (Yeho-achaz, Yehoyakim, Yehoyakin, and Tzidkiyahu) to surrender and make Judah a vassal of the new Babylonian empire. He knows it is the only way to save lives and preserve Jerusalem and its temple.
Despite all of Jeremiah’s prophesies, the people do not repent, and none of the kings submit to Babylon. The Jerusalem faction that opposes surrender flogs, imprisons, and attempts to murder Jeremiah, so he will stop interfering with their power over the king.
When the Babylonians finally do raze Jerusalem and its temple, and kill or take captive most of its leading citizens, all Jeremiah can do is save the lives of a few people who helped him. He spends the rest of his own life in exile in Egypt, prophesying about other countries whose kings do not listen to him.
Maybe Jeremiah glimpses his own future when God first calls him to serve as a navi. That future would make anyone cry Ahahh!
When I was young, I was one of many Americans who believed that if you discovered your true calling and did it, you would be successful and happy. The 1970’s and 80’s were the era of “Do your own thing” and “Follow your bliss”.
Gradually I realized that even when you pursue work you have a talent for and are passionate about, the world does not always rearrange itself to give you a clear path. Some individuals are lucky; I believe my father was born to be an engineer, and he had a profitable and satisfying career in that field. Some are unlucky, and pursue what speaks to their innermost heart only to end up broke and miserable. In some countries, those who pursue the work of a prophet speaking out against the government end up imprisoned (like Jeremiah) or killed (a fate he narrowly escaped).
And some people never try to pursue their calling, either because what they were born to do is something society expects from them anyway, or because they run away from the first intimation that they might have a calling.
What if you realized, with deep inner clarity, that you were called to devote your life to work that would lead to frustration and failure like Jeremiah’s?
Tags: 1 Kings, Book of Numbers, Elijah, haftarah, Jezebel, King Ahab, religion, torah portion, zealots
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:46-19:20.
My god is better than your god.
Holding this opinion (even when your “god” is atheism) is human nature. The trouble begins when someone with religious zeal (great energy and enthusiasm) becomes a zealot (fanatical and uncompromising). When two zealots oppose one another, no compromise is possible; one of them must quit or die.
This week both the Torah portion and the haftarah include a clash between a zealot for the God of Israel and a zealot for the gods of another religion.
The Torah portion, Pinchas, opens with God’s declaration:
Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the High Priest, turned back My hot wrath from the Israelites through his kina among them, kina for Me, so I did not finish off the Israelites through My kina. Therefore say: Here I am, giving him my covenant of peace. And it will be for him and for his seed after him a covenant of priesthood forever… (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:11-13)
kina (קְנְאָ) = zeal, fervor, passion, jealousy.
God has afflicted the Israelites with a plague because many of them started worshiping the local god, Ba-al of Pe-or. While the Israelites are weeping, an Israelite man brings a local woman into a chamber of a tent (possibly God’s Tent of Meeting). Pinchas follows them in and impales them—and God’s plague stops. The Torah uses the same word, kubah (קֻבָּה) for both the tent chamber and the woman’s inner “chamber” where Pinchas’s spear skewers them both. (See my post Balak: Wide Open.)
This week’s Torah portion names the impaled couple: Zimri, a leader in the tribe of Shimon, and Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite chieftain of Moab.
Why would either of these people walk in front of Moses and engage in sex right in or next God’s Tent of Meeting—in the middle of a plague? Tikva Frymer-Kensky suggests in Reading the Women of the Bible that Cozbi is a priestess, a role often given to the daughter of a king, and that Zimri brings her over to conduct a religious ritual to end the plague.
Frymer-Kensky imagines Cozbi might even perform her ritual in the name of the God of Israel. But I imagine Cozbi as so zealous for Ba-al that she wants to save her new neighbors, the Israelites, from their plague-inflicting god by bringing in some positive energy from Ba-al. She does not ask for permission to practice her religion in the Israelite’s holy place; she just does it, in an act of passionate conviction.
In this clash between two zealots, Pinchas wins and Cozbi dies. God (the God character in the Torah) admits to being carried away by zeal, as well, and rewards Pinchas for stopping God from destroying the Israelites.
The haftarah from the first book of Kings tells a different story about two zealots: the battle between the queen of Israel and Israel’s foremost prophet.
King Ahab’s queen and primary wife is Jezebel (Izevel in Hebrew), daughter of the Phoenician King Etba-al of Tyre. It is a good political alliance; but both books of Kings revile Jezebel because of her zeal for her native religion. As soon as Ahab marries Jezebel, according to 1 Kings, he builds a temple to Ba-al and bows down to that god. He also erects a cultic post for the goddess Ashtart.
Jezebel not only persuades her husband to worship her gods, but also tries to stamp out worship of the God of Israel by “exterminating the prophets of God” (1 Kings 18:4).
Furthermore, she uses her personal wealth to maintain 450 prophets of Ba-al (god of fertility, war, and weather) and 400 prophets of Ashtart (goddess of fertility, war, and seafaring).
Meanwhile Elijah, the most powerful prophet of the God of Israel, comes to King Ahab at his capital city, Samaria, and says:
As God lives, the god of Israel on whom I stand in attendance, there will be no dew or rain these years except by the word of my mouth. (1 Kings 17:1)
After three years, the famine in Samaria is severe. Jezebel’s weather god, Ba-al, does nothing. So King Ahab institutes a search for Elijah.
Elijah orders King Ahab to summon “all Israel”, the 450 prophets of Ba-al, and the 400 prophets of Ashtart to Mount Carmel for a contest. The first book of Kings does not mention the prophets of Ashtart again, but the prophets of Ba-al and the Israelite witnesses show up on Mount Carmel, where there are two altars: one for Ba-al and one for the God of Israel. Against impressive odds, the God of Israel wins the contest. (See my post Pinchas & 1 Kings: The Sound of God.) The people of Israel fall on their faces and declare their allegiance to God, and under Elijah’s orders they kill all the prophets of Ba-al.
Then it finally rains.
Jezebel is not present at Mount Carmel, but Ahab comes home and tells her about the contest and that Elijah killed all the prophets of Ba-al by the sword.
Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying: Thus may the gods do and more if by this time tomorrow I have not made your life like the life of one of them. And he was afraid, and he got up and went to [save] his life… (1 Kings 19:2-3)
He reaches Beer-sheva in the kingdom of Judah, then walks for a day into the wilderness and lies down to die. Although he won the contest on Mount Carmel and moved the Israelites to kill 450 Ba-al worshippers, a zealot’s job is never done. His victory seems empty as long as Queen Jezebel, his zealous opponent, is still in power, still supporting the religion of Ba-al and Ashtart, and still determined to kill every one of God’s prophets.
God sends an angel to urge Elijah to eat and keep walking. He ends up on Mount Chorev (also called Mount Sinai) where God asks him:
Why are you here, Elijah? And he said: I was very kina for God, the God of Armies, because the Israelites had abandoned Your covenant and pulled down Your altars and killed Your prophets by the sword. And only I was left, and they tried to take my life. (1 Kings 19:9-10)
He declares he is a zealot for God, and admits that he has failed to exterminate Jezebel’s religion. God responds with a demonstration.
And hey! God was passing by, and a big and strong wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a faint sound of quietness. And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his robe, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave; and hey!—a voice [came] to him, and it said: Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)
And Elijah gives the same reply, word for word. He did not pick up on God’s hint that true service to the divine lies in quietness. So God, instead of rewarding him, tells him he must anoint a young man named Elisha to be a prophet in his place.
In the book of Numbers, Pinchas’s zeal, kina, leads him to kill the Ba-al worshiper Cozbi and her Israelite assistant Zimri. God declares that this murder stopped God’s own kina from killing all the Israelites in a plague, and makes Pinchas a priest. In next week’s Torah portion, Mattot, Pinchas is the priest who goes with the raiding party to kill all the inhabitants of Pe-or. One zealot wins hands-down; the other zealot dies.
Did the good guys win? Read my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent before you decide.
In the first book of Kings, Elijah’s kina leads him to stage a contest between gods and kill 450 Ba-al worshipers on the losing side. God cooperates by sending the dramatic manifestation of fire that Elijah requests on Mount Carmel. But Elijah’s real opponent is the zealot Jezebel, who remains in power.
When two zealots oppose one another, one of them must quit or die. God’s demonstration at Mount Chorev implies that Elijah must quit being a zealot, take a quieter approach to religion and perhaps spend the rest of his life in hiding. But Elijah despairs because he cannot imagine living without fighting for his cause. And God appoints another prophet.
Did the good guys win? No; Jezebel is just as zealous and just as willing to murder for the sake of religion as Elijah is. But God as portrayed in the first book of Kings is now wiser and more mature than the God in the book of Numbers. This god still wants exclusive worship, but recognizes that kina, the passion of the zealot, is not the best approach.
Our world today is full of zealots. It is easy to revile a zealot willing to kill for the sake of a religion or another cause—when that zealot is not on your side. May we all learn to recognize uncompromising zeal in people we agree with, and even in ourselves. May we all learn to restrain ourselves, and listen to the faint sound of quietness.
Tags: child sacrifice, fire offerings, haftarah, religion
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) and the haftarah is Micah 5:6-6:8.
What does God want from us?
(With what) shall I soothe God on High?
Shall I come before Him with olot?
With calves a year old?
Would God be pleased with thousands of rams?
With ten thousand streams of oil?
Should I give my firstborn for my rebellion,
The fruit of my loins for the guilt of my soul? (Micah 6:6-7)
olot (עוֹלוֹת) = plural of olah (עוֹלָה) = rising-offering. In an olah an entire slaughtered animal offering is burned up into smoke. (From the root alah (עלה) = go up.)
In this week’s haftarah, the prophet Micah mocks Israelites who try to buy God’s favor by making sufficiently impressive offerings on the altar. Everyone has a price, these people think, even God. I can get God to forgive my moral shortcomings if I pay the right price.
In last week’s haftarah, Yiftach (“Jephthah” in English), the new chieftain of Gilad, tries to win God’s favor for his upcoming battle with the Ammonites. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Chukkat: Judges—A Peculiar Vow.) He has no idea what kind of gift God would like; God does not speak to him. But he knows what kind of gifts other people donate to their gods. His fellow Israelites serve God by slaughtering livestock and burning them on God’s altar. An even bigger offering, for the people in that region, is to sacrifice one’s own child—preferably one’s firstborn son—to a god.
(Abraham almost does this in Genesis chapter 22; the king of Moab does it in 2 kings 3:27, the Israelites sacrifice their children to Molech in Jeremiah 7:31, and Psalm 106:38 claims that the Israelites “shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they slaughtered for the idols of Canaan”.)
Elsewhere, the Bible makes it clear that human sacrifice is completely unacceptable to the god of Israel. Yiftach’s messages to the king of Ammon show that he is well versed in the history of the Israelite conquests east of the Jordan River, as related in the book of Numbers—and perhaps added to Yiftach’s story by the editor of the book of Judges. But in the original story of Yiftach and his daughter, does Yiftach know about the ban against human sacrifice?
He has only one child, his young adolescent daughter. And he has just been restored to his father’s position as chieftain of Gilad. The best thing a man can hope for, in his culture, is to pass on his position and his property to descendants. Yet everything depends on winning the war with Ammon.
So Yiftach does not choose between sacrificing an animal or a human; he lets God (or fate) decide.
And Yiftach vowed a vow to God, and he said: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then it will be the one that goes out from my door of my house to meet me at my safe return from the Ammonites—[that one] will be for God, and I will make him go up as an olah.” (Judges 11:30-31)
Maybe Yiftach hopes a bull or a ram will trot out of his house when he comes home. Or maybe he expects a male slave to open the door.
Yiftach wins the war, and his troops capture twenty towns from the Ammonites.
And Yiftach came … to his house, and hey!—his daughter was going out to meet him, with tambourines and with dancing. And she was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. As he saw her, he tore his clothes [in grief] and he said: Ah! My daughter, I have certainly been knocked down to my knees! (Judges 11:34-35)
Women in the Bible often sing and dance with tambourines when their military heroes come home in triumph. They do it for Saul and David in the first book of Samuel. Yiftach’s wife is absent from the story, so his adolescent daughter takes on the job.
Yiftach might conclude that God arranged for his daughter to come out because God wants his daughter to go up in smoke.
Some commentators, from the Talmud and the Midrash Rabbah on Leviticus (5th-7th century C.E.) to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century C.E.) to Robert Alter (2013), conclude that Yiftach actually does sacrifice and burn his daughter on the altar.
Another line of commentary, from Resh Lakish in the Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes (6th-8th century C.E.) to Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century C.E.) to Jonathan Magonet (2015), argues that Yiftach does expect a human being to come out the door, but he does not intend to make a human sacrifice. Instead, he plans to dedicate the person to God by paying the priests of Gilad in silver, which they can then use to buy sacrificial animals for a big olah. This is an approved procedure in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra (probably written in the 6th century B.C.E., about the same time that the stories in the book of Judges were collected and edited).
Anyone who shall make a wonderful vow of the value of humans to God, the assessment shall be: for a male 20 to 60 years old, 50 shekels of silver…if five to 20 years old, the assessment shall be …ten shekels for a female… (Leviticus/Vayikra 27:2-3)
Yiftach does not vow to give God “the value of a human”, but he does vow that the human concerned “will be for God”—and also that he will (according to this theory) turn that person into a symbolic olah by paying the priests the correct amount of silver.
Yet if Yiftach expects to give God the assessed value of the first person who comes out of his house, then why is he upset when his daughter dances out? The assessed value of an adolescent girl is lower than the value of an adult male slave; he can save some money!
But Yiftach tears his clothes in grief. That means that either Yiftach does intend to slaughter a human being—his own daughter—on the altar; or a piece of the story is missing.
I suspect that the redactor who assembled the book of Judges omitted something—because the rest of the story of Yiftach’s daughter is about celibacy, not death.
She calmly tells her father that he must carry out his vow, and asks him to delay it for two months.
“Let this thing be done for me: I shall go down on the hills and I shall weep over my betulim, I and my (female) companions.” And he said: “Go.” And he sent her off for two months, her and her companions, and she wept for her betulim on the hills. And at the end of two months she returned to her father and he carried out his vow that he had vowed. And she, she had never known a man. And it became a custom in Israel: for all of her days, the daughters of Israel went to sing for the daughter of Yiftach the Giladite, four days in the year. (Judges 11:37-40)
betulim (בְּתוּלִים) = virginity; celibacy; evidence (of blood on a sheet) of being either virginal or not pregnant.
A period of two months has no special significance elsewhere in the Bible, but it is the right length of time for a woman to wait to make sure she has a menstrual period and is not pregnant.
I think Yiftach’s daughter is reminding him of another alternative to human sacrifice.
According to the Torah, an Israelite woman can achieve a higher level of holiness only by becoming a nazir for a period of time and abstaining from alcohol and grape products, hair care, and being near a dead body. This would not count as a substitute for an olah. But in neighboring Mesopotamia a woman could serve a goddess in several other ways: as a temple sex worker, as a high priestess who had sex only with a god, or as a nun who lived communally in a special part of the temple complex. Neither a priestess nor a nun was allowed to have children.
Israelites in the Bible frequently worship other gods in addition to the God of Israel, and at times they confuse their god with another local god. Perhaps Yiftach’s daughter and her companions weep ritually at one or more hilltop shrines (bamot) dedicated to other gods. Then, when she has proof that she is not pregnant, her father gives her to God—to some god, anyway, a god that will accept her as a priestess or a nun.
That would explain why, after Yiftach has carried out his vow, women of Israel are able to go and sing for the daughter of Yiftach the Giladite, four days in the year—for the rest of her life.
Yiftach still grieves, because now he will have no grandchildren. And his daughter laments for at least two months because now she will never “know” a man or have a child. But by borrowing from another religion, she finds a way to make herself a gift to God by living, not dying.
Later in the Bible, prophets from Isaiah to Malachi point out that although animal offerings in the temple are fine if performed in the right spirit—and to the right god—what God really wants is for people to behave ethically toward one another. The prophet Micah says it best in this week’s haftarah, after he has mocked Israelites who try to buy God’s favor with sacrifices.
He told you, humankind, what is good
And what God is seeking from you:
Only to do justice,
And love kindness,
And walk modestly with your God. (Micah 6:-8)
If only Yiftach knew that was what God wanted! Then he could have vowed: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then, as chief of Gilad, I will do justice and pursue kindness and be humble.”
If only we all dedicate ourselves to being just, kind, and humble, it will be a gift to the whole world.