Parashat Bamidbar Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
presented May 2001 at the Newton Centre Minyan, an egalitarian Jewish congregation in Massachusetts
This is one of a series of drashot (Torah talks) in which I argue that the Rabbis chose Haftorah readings (supplemental readings from the Prophets or Writings) that undermine or subvert themes in the associated weekly Torah reading. The traditional view is that the Haftorah elaborates upon the Torah reading, but I wonder if the Rabbis, like us, found some of the Biblical text problematic.
This week’s Haftorah includes one of my favorite passages in the entire Bible (Tanach). A rebel at heart, what I like most about it is that it seems to subvert some of the major themes, conceptualization and enterprises of the Torah (Five Books of Moses) in general, and of today’s parasha (Torah reading) in particular.
Having just read a parasha dedicated almost entirely to precisely how the people of Israel should be counted, who counts, and how the counted people should be organized, we turned to Hoshea Chap. 2 which opens with a declaration that the people can NOT be counted or measured. I had always assumed that Haftorah passages were chosen to explain, support or embellish the Parasha, but in this case the first verses of the Haftorah seem to undermine the parasha.
It seems to me that the Haftorah passage in Hoshea interrogates the constellation of dominance, hierarchy, militarism (as depicted, among other places, in Bamidbar). Moreover, Hoshea recognizes that on some level this constellation is structurally tied together through acts of counting.
A key enterprise of the Torah is creation through counting, separation, and assignment to proper spheres. Genesis tells a story in which God brings the world into being through numbered stages: Day 1, Day 2, and so on. The events associated with these numbers are above all events of separation. The pre-creation state was one of chaos, lacking ‘form’. The first act of creation was separation of darkness and light. Subsequently, on numbered days, God separated waters from dry land, lights in the heavens to divide day from night. Then God creates various animal life “after its own kind” – a statement of categorization. And finally hierarchy is built into the cosmic system: God creates mankind to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
I will return to this point later, but here I quickly note that gender is also created through processes of separation and the assignment of hierarchical social relationships. Man and woman are created through separation of the primordial being, with the story of their creation culminating in God’s declaring that the man will have dominion over the woman.
The theme of separation echoes throughout the Bible and Jewish culture. I have spoken about this before in the context of my discomfort with binaries, explaining that the dichotomy and separation paradigm is one that makes me deeply uncomfortable, too easily serving as the bedrock of hierarchy which is the foundation of inequality and oppression.
So I shall just briefly mention the separation of milk and meat, the separation of wool and linen, and that most uniquely Jewish of all rituals – Havdalah (the ritual marking the end of the Sabbath) in which we recite the list of separations: holy from everyday, light from dark, Israel from the peoples of the world, and the 7th day from the other six – invoking again the relationship between counting or numbering and the divine power to create. Other convergences of numbers and separation have to do with impurity – the number of days in which a menstruating woman, for example, is separated from the ritual space. And finally, I draw attention to the relationship between numbering and authority in the context of reward and punishment: If Israel behaves well rain will come in its proper seasons, and in last week’s parasha we read about sins for which punishment is meted out to the 7th generation.
Turning now to today’s parasha, in the first few verses we right away see that we are dealing with an awful lot of numbers: On the first day, of the second month of the second year. God tells Moses to count the children of Israel, and goes into great detail on exactly how to count. Counting in the Chumash, as we have seen, is not an idle exercise. Counting has social, political and cosmological significance, which I shall draw out shortly.
But first, I draw attention to the name of this parasha, and of the book we are now beginning – Numbers. (The book of Numbers is called Bamidbar in Hebrew). Midbar often is translated into ‘desert’ but it actually means wilderness – the untamed place. I would like to suggest that in Biblical culture “wilderness” has a deeply negative connotation. Returning to the creation story, we remember that the ordering process of creation is one in which “chaos” – surely similar to the untamed wilderness – is numbered and organized. Chaos is the uncounted – uncountable – state that, in the cosmology of the Bible, must be conquered. I would further suggest that within the Torah paradigm there is an association of chaos with feminine gendering: women are essentially chaotic, not only in terms of bodily “fluxes and flows” that seem uncontrollable, but also in terms of their social identities – women do not really belong to the house of their fathers nor to the house of their husbands – living in an eternal limbo state in a society in which social identity is framed in terms of the “house” to which one belongs.
In our parasha the act of numbering is explicitly masculine: only men are counted, and the counting is done according to the “house of the father.” Moreover, the process of number is connected to the military enterprise: the men of age to go to war are the ones who are counted. It is significant that at the same time that God give instructions for counting soldiers, He also instructs Moshe to single out the men who are the heads of household, and lists the men who will are further singled out to “stand with” the leaders Moses and Aaron. Continuing the work begun at the end of the book of Exodus and throughout the Book of Leviticus, this parasha engages in transforming the “midbar” from a place of disorder into a place of order by establishing and numbering laws – the 10 laws inscribed on stone, declaring who should put their tent where, counting people according to the groups to which they belong or are assigned, and singling out leaders who will have authority of various kinds over the people.
I hope you are with me with this, because now I want to move to the text that interests me more profoundly – the Hosea text of today’s Haftorah. Bearing in mind the argument that I have made about the centrality of counting in the Torah in general and in today’s parasha in particular, it is indeed surprising to hear the prophet declare in the opening verses to today’s Haftorah reading that the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea which cannot be measured or counted. To emphasize the point, Hosea reiterates: not measured OR counted. How can this be understood when we have just read that the children of Israel not only can, but must – by divine ordinance – be counted.
In today’ reading, the Prophet then moves to a statement of integration, rather than the separation that characterizes the Torah parasha: The children of Yehuda and the children of Yisrael are to be gathered together. Moreover, and to me this is a particularly interesting piece, in contrast to only men (and men of fighting age) “counting” in the parasha, in Hoshea both men and women are gathered together: Hoshea is told by God to say to the men “Ammi” (my people) and the women “Ruhama” (a difficult to translate word that shares the root with ‘mercy’ and ‘womb’).
But to my mind the most astonishing passage here is the prolonged metaphor of the wife who has “played the harlot.” Unlike in Torah law where adultery is punished by stoning, and even a woman accused of adultery by a husband who has no proof is subjected to public humiliation, here the “harlot” is forgiven and God will lavish upon her love and vineyards. Even more astonishingly, this re-union between the harlot (Israel) and God will take place in the Midbar (2:16) which in Hoshea is not a place to be conquered or organized, but a place in which one can live a joyous life.
A related theme in the Haftorah has to do with change. In the Torah portion the noticeable group that is not numbered is Levites. A Levite is an example of what social scientists call an ascribed status rather than an achieved one. In other words, one does not become a religious leader in the Levite model because one makes a life style decision and then dedicates oneself to pursuing holiness, sacred learning, moral actions, etc. Rather, one is a Levite because one is born to be a Levite. In contrast, in Hoshea the entire metaphor of the harlot is a metaphor in which meaningful, existential change is always a possibility: The harlot can become the Wife of God in sacred marriage, she is not born to be nor doomed to be a sinner.
The final sentences of the Hoshea passage are equally important: “And it shall be on that day, says the Lord, that thou shalt say, Ishi (my person / man) and shall no more say to me Baali (my owner / husband). For I will take away the names of the Bealim (usually translated as idols; from the same root at Baali) out of her mouth, and they shall no more be mentioned by their name. And on that day I will make a covenant for them with the wild beasts, and with the birds of the sky, and with the creeping things on the ground: I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the earth, and will make them lie down in safety.”
These sentences, I believe, represent an extensive subversion of the social order depicted and dictated in the Chumash. In Hoshea, the relationship between God and Israel will not be one of dominance – God will not be Baal, Master, but one of equality – God will be Ish – PERSON. This is an extraordinary statement, collapsing the hierarchical cosmos established in Genesis and reinforced throughout the Chumash. In addition, gender relationships will be egalitarian – the woman will call her husband Man, and not Master. Next, the covenant that God made with Man in Genesis is now extended to the animals as well, and, in contrast to the Genesis scenario, Man will no longer have dominion over the animals but will be in a covenantal relationship with them. Finally, in contrast to the numbering and militarism of the Parasha, Hoshea here valorizes the cessation of war in cosmological terms: weapons and battle will actually be extracted from the Earth.
In sum, the separations that constitute the cultural paradigm in the Chumash are in the Hoshea Haftorah replaced with the ultimate cosmic integration – the betrothal of God and the people. In Hoshea’s vision, the uncounted and uncountable children of Yehuda (Judah) and Yisrael (Israel) together will stand in relationship to a humane and humanized God, will be in covenant with the animals of the world, and will establish egalitarian and harmonious relationships among themselves. As I said a few minutes ago, this is one of my favorite Biblical passages: Hosea seems to share my political aversions to social hierarchies, militarism and sexism, and even my personal aversion to arithmetic.
Finally, to place Hoshea historically – although the vision in the Haftorah may sound to us like a messianic end of days type vision, in fact Hosea pre-dates messianic concerns. His concern is with the 8th century unethical aspects associated with affluence in the Northern Kingdom. Thus his scenario can be understood as an entirely realizable one – which pleases me immensely, prodding us to abandon patterns of separation, hierarchy, and exclusion right now and not at some future mythic time.