Alas! Lonely she sits

Why did the Israelite prophets choose to describe the relationship between God and his nation in terms of a relationship between a woman and her husband? Dr. Gili Zivan discusses and thinks whether another description is possible. 

“Alas! Lonely sits the city

Once great with people!

She that was great among nations

Is become like a widow;

The princess among states

Is become a thrall.

Bitterly she weeps in the night,

Her cheek wet with tears.

There is none to comfort her

Of all her friends.

All her allies have betrayed her;

They have become her foes.

Judah has gone into exile

Because of misery and harsh oppression;

When she settled among the nations,

She found no rest;

All her pursuers overtook her

In the narrow places.” (Eicha, ch 1, v 1-3)

 

The protagonist of the lamentation that we read on the 9th of Av is compared to a lonely woman who cries as she recalls her past greatness. She has no one to comfort her; her former friends now hate her. She’s exiled from her land, dwells among strangers, and cannot stop her tears: “For these things do I weep, my eyes flow with tears; Far from me is any comforter who might revive my spirit; My children are forlorn, for the foe has prevailed.”

 

I’d like to halt this familiar, predictable stream of words for a moment to ask: Why did the author of the Eicha lamentations (Jeremiah or a different prophet of era of the Destruction) choose to describe the destruction of the nation as a tragedy befalling a city/woman? While the Hebrew word for “city” is feminine, this is insufficient to account for the detailed descriptions of philandering and betrayed women presented in Eicha and the other prophets. 

 

Why did the Israelite prophets choose to describe the relationship between God and his nation in terms of a relationship between a woman and her husband? What is the significance of this comparison, which appears throughout all the books of the prophets, and portrays the nation of Israel as a wife who is (variously) faithful/unfaithful/abandoned/exiled? And God as a man who is faithful, supportive, angry, punitive and forgiving?

 

Why, in the traditional “code” of the Hebrew bible, is the nation of Israel compared to a prostitute by Isaiah: “Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt – but now murderers” (Isaiah ch 1, v 21)? Why does Jeremiah choose to present the nation, in its flight from Egypt and desert journey, as a young woman who follows her beloved on a tortuous path: “I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth. Your love as a bride – how you followed me in the wilderness in a land not sown” (Jeremiah, ch 2, v 2)? Ezekiel describes the sins of the nation as rampant promiscuity: “I let you grow like the plans of the field; and you continued to grow until you attained womanhood, until your breasts became firm and your hair sprouted. You were still naked and bare when I passed by you again and saw that your time had arrived. So I spread My robe over you and covered your nakedness, and I entered into a covenant with you by oath… thus you became mine… You grew more and more beautiful… Your beauty won you fame among the nations, for it was perfected… But confident in your beauty and fame, you played the harlot; you lavished your favors on every passerby” (Ezekiel, ch 16, v 7-16). Isaiah comforts the people of Israel by saying: “Shout, oh barren one, you who bore no child” (Isaiah, ch 54, v 1). And why does Hosea choose to imagine the idyllic days when the Israelite people return to their origins as a woman who achieves a perfect union with her husband: “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call Me ‘my Husband [Ishi]’ and no more will you call me ‘my Master [Ba’ali][1]’” (Isaiah, ch 2, v 18)?

 

In his commentary on the Song of Songs[2], Gershon Cohen claims that the Rabbis only had the temerity to portray the Song of Songs as an allegory of the relationship between God and his people because of the prophetic precedent comparing it to the relationship between a man and a woman. The early Israelites, claims Cohen, were very familiar with idolotrous rituals, especially fertility rites involving prostitution, which were widespread in early cultures. How is it that despite their strong rejection of these practices and approaches, the Israelite prophets represent the relationship between man and God almost exclusively in terms of the relationship between lover and beloved? Cohen believes that specifically because the Israelite belief system was free of pagan myths concerning divine couples and sexual rites, they could use this audacious metaphor for the relationship between man and God – or more precisely, between Israel and their God.

 

What are we to understand from these comparisons? First and foremost, they affirm that relationships between men and women are appropriate, and perhaps even more than appropriate. Sexual attraction and erotic relations create a way of life that is positive, valuable and sacred. As such, deeper theological significance can be ascribed to the erotic drive. In the words of Avraham Kariv:

 

“Even when the Song of Songs is interpreted allegorically, it attests that the Holy Scriptures do not condemn love between two people – otherwise it would not be used as a metaphor for loving God. A metaphor can only convey the legitimacy of its target if the metaphor itself is legitimate. This applies not only to the Song of Songs, but also to the very essence of this metaphor, which appears widely in the Prophets. The verse, “I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth. Your love as a bride…” convincingly demonstrates that “devotion of youth” and “love as a bride” are positive – even beautiful -- in the eyes of the prophet, and as such a proper metaphor for Israel’s initial attachment to God”. (The Seven Pillars of the Tana”ch, page 147)

 

Beyond this, the Prophets show us that the ideal relationship between men and women is reciprocal. In the words of Hosea which I quoted above, “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call Me ‘my Husband [Ishi]’ and no more will you call me ‘my Master [Ba’ali]’”. (Which feminist does not long for that day?)

 

Fidelity is not generated through a man’s mastery over his wife but is rather a result of his love for her and her love for him, which are expressed in the willing choice to be faithful and true. However, there’s a fly in the ointment. Now that we that we’ve been privileged to examples of equal, reciprocal relationships, and can appreciate the prophets’ courage in describing God’s relationship with his people as the bond between a man and a women -- and not as the relationship of a master to his slave or a father to a son -- we need to take a closer look at the comparison and entertain a few critical thoughts about it and its impact on us, the readers, and on readers throughout the generations.

 

Comparing the people of Israel to a woman is not as simple as I’ve made it seem. The fact that the rebellious and sinful nation is always compared to an unfaithful wife, the weak link in the marital bond, attributes to women a particular position within the hierarchy of the marriage. “Women are fickle” and the people of Israel can similarly not be depended on to resist being swayed by idolatrous trends and fads. A woman is a beautiful creature -- “You grew more and more beautiful…” in the words of Ezekiel – but susceptible to temptation: “…you played the harlot; you lavished your favors on every passerby” (Ezekiel, ch 16, v 13) and Israel is likewise swayed. Hosea’s wife returns to him only because embarrassingly, her lover rejects her: ‘Pursue her lovers as she will, she shall not overtake them; And seek them as she may, she shall never find them. Then she will say, “I will go and return to my first husband, for then I fared better than now.’” (Hosea, ch 2, v 9)

 

Man (God, in our metaphor) is steadfast -- he remains faithful, steadfast and protective, while the woman is always an ungrateful, philandering seductress who lusts after lovers. Just as the metaphor of the couple expresses a positive attitude toward love and eroticism, the metaphor of the nation as an adulterous, promiscuous woman expresses a negative attitude toward women. This metaphor stems from a worldview that we reject -- but which the metaphor strengthens. It reinforces stereotypes of female licentiousness, instability and rebelliousness. As readers with a feminist, egalitarian worldview, it is a significant challenge to see women portrayed in the prophetic stories not just as weak but as promiscuous and erratic as well. 

 

How can we focus on positive verses such as “And I will espouse you forever; I will espouse you with righteousness and justice and with goodness and with mercy” (Hosea ch 2, v 22)? And how do we grapple with the image of the adulterous, promiscuous and seductive woman?

 

The fact that the overwhelming majority of prophets and scribes were men and that these prophetic writings were composed in a wholly patriarchal, hierarchical society, in which women were the ultimate (seductive, tempting) “other”, does not lessen our need to adapt prophecies, symbols and metaphors to the religious and social milieu we live in today. However, I believe that cognizance of the educational paradox inherent in how relationships are described can be the starting point for new ways to read Lamentations, Hosea, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Micha and other prophetic books.

 

This year, as we sit on our synagogues’ floors and read from the Book of Lamentations, perhaps we will take note of the skewed image of women and remember that our society has still not managed to eliminate negative female stereotypes. We will think about the young women at the ragged edges of society who have no choice but to support themselves through the oldest profession in the world, by selling their bodies to “every passerby” (Ezekiel ch 16, v 13). And perhaps, we’ll try to imagine an alternative scenario to symbolize the Destruction, of a modest and faithful woman who weeps over her philandering mate.

 

 

[1] This verse uses two different words with double and triple meanings. ‘Ba’ali’ means ‘my husband’ as well as ‘my master’ and significantly, is also the name of a Babylonian god. ‘Ishi’ means ‘my man’ and can also mean ‘my husband’.

[2] Shir Hashirim B’aspeclariya Hayehudit שיר השירים באספקלריה היהודיתש