The connection between the haftarah and the portion of Bamidbar appears in its the opening words of the prophet: “The number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor counted.” This prophecy connects with the portion of Bamidbar, which deals primarily with the census of the Jewish people taken in the desert.

As for the background and story of the haftarah itself, we need to go back to beginning of the book of Hosea. Out of all the stories and prophecies in the Tanach, this one stands out as rare, unique and extremely poignant.

Often, a prophet was instructed to make a physical display of a certain message that G‑d wanted to convey to the people. Here, G‑d commands Hosea to marry a prostitute and have children with her. “The land is going astray from G‑d,” he was told; Hosea, as a prophet, would provide a living image of what it is like to put up with a wayward counterpart.

(There is a rather fierce argument among the commentaries as to whether this command was to be carried out in actual life. Rashi, basing himself on the Talmudic passage cited below, understands that this was something Hosea was to actually do. Ibn Ezra,1 however, insists that this could not have been possible. According to him, both the commandment and its execution were part of the prophetic vision itself.)

When the woman—Gomer bat Divlaim—had a son, G‑d commanded Hosea to name him Yizre’el (Jezreel). One of the reasons for this was because the this name contains the two words yizra E-l—G‑d will “sow” or disperse: the people of Israel were going to eventually be dispersed throughout the world in exile. The next two children were also to be named rather grimly: a daughter called Lo-Ruchama, “a subject of no mercy,” and another boy, Lo-Ami, “not My people.” Both of these were to serve as a message to the people that their relationship with G‑d was in shambles.

A sharp turn

But in the second chapter of his book Hosea makes a sharp turn, as do many of the prophets. Amid the rebuke, he suddenly begins uplifting and comforting the people. He speaks of the time to come when the themes of all these three names will totally turn around. The Jews will be gathered into their land and “sown” there under the banner of Moshiach. They will again be recognized as the nation of G‑d, to whom He will show abundant mercy.

In the present, however, the nation of Israel had betrayed their Maker. Much like a wayward woman, they had traded real love and true happiness for the shallow and temporary glamor of foreign temptations. This was true on multiple levels. Politically, the Jews of that time had placed their trust in some of the most powerful nations at the time, namely Egypt and Assyria. Spiritually, they had succumbed to the lure of the popular culture—idol-worship and the lifestyle that accompanied it.

Hosea appeals to the people to visualize these temptations as the shallow love and temporary gain that is the lot of a prostitute. When the going gets tough, she has no one to turn to. Her “lovers” betray her, and her husband is there no more. In a similar way, the Jewish people who has deserted G‑d would now be vulnerable to their vicious enemies and to all natural and unnatural disasters, just by having cast themselves away from the source of safety and good.

Yet G‑d would not relent. As a loving “husband,” He would do everything to awaken the senses and feelings of His people. He will take His “wife” out to the wilderness—to exile—where she can no longer convince herself that anyone else loves or provides for her. In this way, He will make it impossible for her to pursue her foolish ways even if she wants to. It will be there and then that she will return: to her G‑d, to her land, and to a state of peace and prosperity.

At that time G‑d will rejoin with His people in an eternal bond of love. No longer will she relate to G‑d in fear as a “master,” but with love, as a wife to a husband. This marriage-like bond will comprise mutual commitments in heart and in deed: The Jewish people will commit to rightness and justice, and G‑d, to kindness and mercy. The Jewish people will bring forth their faith in G‑d, and G‑d will make himself known to them.

Behind the scenes

The narrative of Hosea touches on the wrenching and difficult relationship between G‑d and His people. But in the Talmud2 we are given us a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes. It seems that the entire bizarre instruction to Hosea was more of a lesson to the prophet himself then to the people he was to rebuke:

“The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Hosea: ‘Your sons, the people of Israel, have sinned!’” Of all the ways he could have responded, Hosea chose to suggest something drastic: “‘Master of the Universe, the entire world is Yours. Since Israel has sinned, exchange them for another nation.’”

G‑d was not impressed. “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said [to Himself]: ‘What shall I do to this elder who does not know how to defend Israel?’” G‑d had a plan. He would instruct His prophet to marry the most loathsome of women and start a family with her. He would then see how easy it would be for Hosea to exit this union, which seemed so repulsive at the outset…

“After two sons and one daughter had been born to him, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Hosea: ‘Shouldn’t you have learned from the example of your master Moses, who, once I spoke with him, separated from his wife? You too, separate yourself from your wife!’ Hosea answered: ‘Master of the Universe, I have children from her, and I am unable to dismiss her or to divorce her!’”

“The Holy One, Blessed be He, rebuked him and said to him: ‘Consider: your wife is a prostitute, and your children from her are children of prostitution, and you do not even know if they are yours or if they are children of other men. And despite this, you are still attached to them and will not forsake them. How much more so am I still attached to the Jewish people, who are My sons, the sons of My faithful, the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… And you say that I should replace them with another nation?’”

Hosea realized his mistake. He had deeply underestimated G‑d’s love to His people, and now understood what G‑d was trying to teach him. Hosea prayed for the reversal of the three terrible prophecies carried in the names given to the children, and began pouring blessings upon his people—the blessings contained in this haftarah.

Indeed, G‑d is bound with His people on an existential level. Although the relationship may experience hardship, it is nevertheless unbreakable. It is our responsibility to cherish this relationship and repair it if it may go wrong, but never may we assume that the relationship is ever susceptible to being broken. It is simply not possible.