The Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) this coming Shabbat is from Chapter 2 of Hosea. It is perhaps the most agonized and agonizing shriek in the Bible, crested by one of the most lovely images of love, justice, and shalom.
It calls on us to transform our own worst nightmares of betrayal into faithfulness, a world where the bloody Bow of war has been broken from all Earth and transmuted to the beauty of the Rainbow glowing in the clouds, calling to memory and renewal the covenant that binds with God not only all Humanity but all life on Earth.
The story begins before the text of the Haftarah. Hosea hears God commanding him to marry a ‘wife of whoredom” who brings upon Hosea all the grief and despair that consume God, turning the Breath of Life into a sharp and bitter wind.
Why does the Voice insist on making Hosea’s life a bitterness? Because the People Israel has betrayed the teachings of the Holy One to walk in holiness.
So even Hosea’s children with Gomer must be named “Not Given Compassion” and ”Not My People.” For that is how deep will the break be between the Breath of Life and the People who have abandoned being Godwrestlers. ”For you are not my people and I/ Anokhi, the universal Liberator God who spoke at Sinai, will not be your God.”
Then, in the Haftarah itself, Hosea hears God threaten the utter abandonment of the people whoring after gods of greed and “ownership” and war. Wife Gomer is assailed as a stand-in for a whoring People Israel: “She must turn away from the whorishness she breathes before her face, her adultery from between her breasts. For otherwise I will strip her naked and make her like a wilderness.”
Then, Hosea hears, only in the midst of shame and destitution will Gomer – that is, the People Israel – find her false gods useless, pointless, and turn back to the true Breath of Life.
And then the Haftarah turns to joy:
“On that day you will call me Ishi [my man, my spouse, my equal] and not Baali [my boss], for the names of the false-gods-Baalim/ Bosses shall nevermore be heard from your lips.
“And on that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping-beings of the humus-earth. I will break bow, sword, and war from the world and will let them all lie down in safety.
“And I will espouse you for me forever,. I will espouse you with equal justice and with care for the downtrodden, with love and with compassion. I will espouse you to me with faithfulness and you shall fully, deeply, experience the Breath of Life.
“And on that day I will respond to the sky, and the spheres of air will respond to Earth, and Earth will respond with new grain, with olive-oil and wine. And I will say to “Not My People,” "You are my people," and he will say, “My God!”
Many in a generation of Feminist Jews have harshly criticized Hosea for his harsh use of a real woman as merely a symbol of the treachery of the whole people toward their highest values. There is a great deal of truth in the criticism, steeped as it is in an attempt to transcend the ancient, and continuing, attempt to demean and subjugate women as vessels of betrayal from the path of higher values.
Yet Hosea himself looks past that pattern of humiliation to one in which a human marriage and our very relationship with the sacred Ultimate can become equal, faithful, and loving.
Hosea calls us to that transformation in our intimate lives, in the society of women, men, and all their varied sexualities and genders; the transformation that ends the war and violence, the bow and sword and bomb and gun, between peoples and within each people; the transformation into a cultural and political ecology in which each person, each culture, each species fits into a greater ecosystem; the transformation of overlordship into a jigsaw puzzle in which our very differences invite us to fit together; the transformation in air and water and soil and animals and plants from subjugation -- into love and justice.
Can we learn this transformation from growing ever larger isles of love? We can. And if we won’t, Hosea and the Breath of Life insist on warning us, we will have to learn it from shame and destitution.