Light from the Sidra

Bamidbar ('In the Wilderness'). 24 May 2014. 24 Iyyar 5774.

Torah: Numbers 1:1-4:20. F=Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Gods and lovers

At the heart of the camp of Israel stood the tabernacle, the house of God. In the inner circle - around the tabernacle of the congregation on the east side were stationed Moses, Aaron and the priests; on the north side were the 3,200 sons of Merari; on the west side were the 2,630 sons of Gershon; on the south side were the 2,750 sons of Kohath. In the outer circle the tribe of Judah camped on the east side; the tribe of Dan on the north; the tribe of Ephraim on the west, and the tribe of Reuben on the south side. To the three sons of Levi and their families was committed the service of the tabernacle, and to each of the divisions of the Levites clear instructions were given regarding the transportation of the tabernacle from place to place.

In the midst of this multitude of 603,550 souls, God dwelt. Israel was his people. He communicated with them and guided them. His Presence, his Word, his commandments were real. God set apart his people to himself, quarantining them from other nations in order to train and sanctify them: ‘Be holy, for I, HASHEM your God, am holy’.

If this was a fairy tale, after God had blessed Israel with his Torah, with a land inheritance and with his very presence we might expect Israel to have lived happily ever after. You would expect that this people, living under the shadow of the Almighty and fulfilling the commandments of their God in their daily life would have been an example to the nations of the world. It was like the Garden of Eden again. Israel, the new humanity with God in their midst, was being given the opportunity to succeed where Adam failed. But, like the first man, Israel also blew it.

In the Haftarah, God vividly illustrates his word to Israel through the life of the prophet Hosea. Israel is likened to an unfaithful wife. But though Hosea’s wife repeatedly cheated on him, the prophet still loved her and made every effort to win her heart again and transform her into a faithful bride. Likewise, God’s love for Israel is faithful, strong and true:

Therefore, behold, I will seduce her, and I will lead her to the desert and I will speak to her heart. And I will give to her her vineyards from there, and [make] the valley of Achor (Troubling) into a portal of hope; she will dwell there as in the days of her youth, as on the day of her ascent from the land of Egypt (Hosea 2:14,15).

Hosea’s prophecy tells us three things:

There is meaning to the history of Israel. The Jewish people are never victims of circumstance nor is their survival the result of blind chance or bitter mysterious fate. God is at work in the history of the people of Israel: ‘I will seduce her, and I will lead her to the desert and I will speak to her heart.

There is a purpose and a goal to God’s action: ‘…I will speak to her heart.’

God will bring Israel out of this ‘desert: ‘…I will give to her her vineyards from there.’

When did God bring Israel to the desert a second time? The language is obviously symbolic – it is Exodus language – and it is in that sense that we must understand the word ‘desert.’ If we take the ‘wilderness’ to mean the Assyrian or the Babylonian captivity – although after the Babylonian exile the people were cured of idolatry in its worst pagan forms – the nation never again had full political independence and never again obtained the blessings God had promised them. The Persians, the Greeks, the Syrians and the Romans ruled over them and, finally, Israel went into the ‘wilderness’ of the Diaspora for the best part of 2000 years.

Here – as with many other ‘problem’ passages in the Hebrew Scriptures – the New Testament Scriptures shed necessary light. Without the New Testament, we cannot rightly understand the Hebrew prophets. If we want to know what the prophecy of Hosea really means, we should listen to the words of Jesus as he approached Jerusalem for the last time:

Now as [Jesus] drew near, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation’ (Luke 19:41-44).

God visited his people in the person of Jesus the Messiah, his last messenger. But Israel did not understand and went out into the bitter Diaspora of two thousand years. In Jesus, Israel will once again return to her divine husband and be reconciled to him. And the prophet Hosea confirmed this:

Afterward [at the end of the Diaspora] the children of Israel will return, and seek out HASHEM their God and David their king; and they will tremble for HASHEM and for his goodness in the end of days (Hosea 3:5).

‘David their king’ is none other than the Messiah. In God and in his Messiah, Israel shall be saved. Israel’s national redemption and our personal salvation are found in Jesus and in no other.

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