Divine love in Hosea 11

Human parents, even good ones, have limits. God does not.

At its heart, Judaism is about love. If you find that claim surprising, you’re not alone. Many Christians and Jews—and, sadly, even some of my rabbinical students—view Christianity as a religion of love and grace while viewing Judaism as a religion merely of law and justice. We assume that Judaism values rituals and actions more than beliefs and emotions, and we’re taught that the God of the Hebrew Bible is angry and vindictive while the God of the New Testament is loving and forgiving. These ideas are the legacies of anti-Judaism, propagated by a long-standing stream of Christian thought that David Nirenberg and Leonardo Capezzone describe as “powerful theological discourse about the supersession of a loveless Judaism by a loving Christianity.”

This is all hopelessly misguided. Judaism is a religion of love and law, of action and emotion. Jewish liturgy reminds us daily that Jewish law is itself a manifestation of divine love, not a contrast or alternative to it. Jewish texts push us to love both more deeply and more widely, to want our neighbors to flourish, to love the stranger, to see the world with eyes of love and generosity of spirit. The God of Judaism is a God whose love is unfathomably vast, vaster and greater than anything human beings can imagine, let alone embody. What makes God worthy of worship is the depth, steadfastness, and extent of God’s love.

Nothing makes this clearer than Hosea 11. In one of the most exquisite chapters in the Hebrew Bible, the prophet imagines God struggling with how to respond to a recalcitrant people. So exasperated and hurt is God by the people’s constant backsliding that God considers walking away from them altogether. But Hosea discovers that God just can’t do that.