Sunday, January 08, 2006

Oppressive Metaphor and the Liberating Literal Sense (a defense of hierarchical theological language)

©Berel Dov Lerner. This essay is reprinted here with minor corrections from Ralph Bisschops and James Francis, (eds.) Metaphor, Canon and Community: Jewish, Christian and Islamic Approaches (Berne: Peter Lang, 1999) 233-41. It has been reprinted a number of times, most recently in the journal, The Reconstructionist. To see it as it appears there, look for for my name at

When we think about our relationship with God, we quite naturally tend to understand it in terms borrowed from language describing the ties and alliances which hold between human beings. It is hardly necessary to mention that the contemporary (Western, high-brow) common wisdom views all such types of relationships between people as more-or-less temporary cultural constructs whose very existence is constantly threatened by the contingencies of social, political, economic and technological change. When a particular kind of human relationship is affected by such changes, it may cease to serve as an intelligible metaphor for the human/divine relationship, a predicament which Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit have called "the fading of the metaphor".1

Sometimes a theological metaphor will not merely fade into unintelligibility; it may become positively jarring. Such is the case when ancient texts refer to the human/divine bond in terms of social relationships which are now rejected as oppressive or exploitative, i.e. God as our King, Master, Lord, etc. Perhaps the best known critique of such metaphors is Mary Daly's now classic work of feminist theology, Beyond God the Father. Despite her radical rejection of traditional Christianity (which she calls "Christolatry"), Daly's scholarly grounding is in Christian theology, and she (at least in her earlier work) openly adopted central ideas of modern Christian theologians such as Paul Tillich. Of course, the Jewish community has not remained untouched by these issues. Members of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement recently expressed similarly critical attitudes towards these "politically incorrect" metaphors in the discussion surrounding the publication of Shabbat Vehagim, the newest addition to their series of prayer books, Kol Haneshamah. The Spring 1994 number of The Reconstructionist was largely devoted to these issues. One writer there complained that

...the image of God as King not only reinforces the notion that men are the real leaders; it also reinforces hierarchy rooted in a single powerful patriarchal authority figure, whether that figure be the rabbi, the corporate executive, or the public official. Jewish liturgy can unintentionally reinforce the legitimacy of excessive presidential power . . .2

Even those who have discovered ways to make their peace with the traditional liturgy still recognize the "cognitive dissonance [which] results from praying with images of God that one finds archaic, false or repugnant."3 We, who are neither ruled by kings nor enslaved by masters, may at first find these metaphors for God unpalatable. However, a more sophisticated approach to theological language must take into account the traditions in which these metaphors occur. For example, before we reject monarchy as a theological metaphor on the basis of its political implications, it is worth investigating the political uses to which it was put by our predecessors who both embraced the metaphor and actually lived in a world governed by kings. Most crucially, we must consider whether the notion of God as king was meant to be understood metaphorically to begin with.

Divine Kingship Undermines Human Kingship

At least within the Jewish tradition4, a strong case can be made for the thesis that when a human power-relationship is used as a theological metaphor, far from strengthening the original human relationship, the metaphorical usage radically undermines the legitimacy of the human relationship. The notion of God's kingship is an obvious case in point. One might think that this metaphor would serve as the basis for some version of the doctrine of the "divine right of kings".5 Be that as it may, in telling the story of Gideon's campaigns, the author of Judges seems to have arrived at the opposite conclusion:

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, "Rule over us you, your son and your grandson as well; for you have saved us from the Midianites.“ But Gideon replied, "I will not rule over you myself, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord alone shall rule over you.“ (Judg. 8: 22-3)6

A similar sentiment informs the story in I Samuel of Saul’s rise to power as the first king of Israel. From the start the prophet Samuel opposes the elders' request that he appoint a king. God himself complains that "It is Me they have rejected as their king" (I Sam. 8:7). Samuel, following God’s command, delivers to the people a harrowing catalogue of the injustices which they must expect to suffer under a human monarch, which ends with the chilling prediction, "The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and the Lord will not answer you on that day" (I Sam. 8: 18). Despite Samuel's protestations and warnings, the people insist on being ruled by a mortal king "like all other nations" (8: 5). Even after Saul's initial successes, Samuel continues to harangue the people for having said "'No, we must have a king reigning over us' - though the Lord your God is your King" (12: 12).

In order to understand Gideon and Samuel's antimonarchical politics, it is important to keep in mind that the biblical institution of kingship defines a king's claim to his subject’s obedience and loyalty as being unique. In a monogamous society, an individual may not be married to more than one person at a time. Similarly, monarchical political tradition did not allow a person to be a subject of two or more different kings at the same time.7 Therefore, if I recognize God as my king, it is no longer possible for me to recognize some human being as also playing that role.

The rhetorically crucial point of Gideon and Samuel’s talk of "God our King" is that they are not speaking metaphorically, but rather quite literally. A literal king does not challenge the legitimacy of a metaphorical king (and vice-versa). Suppose a Jordanian lover of popular music had complained that Elvis Presley, rather than Hussein, was the true king. We would have pointed out to him that just because he recognizes the metaphorical status of one person as "The King of Rock n' Roll", he need not forswear granting someone else the political status of literal kingship. In the same way, if Gideon and Samuel understood God's kingship to be merely metaphorical, they would have no reason to complain that the anointment of a literal king would somehow impinge upon it.

The literal nature of God's kingship has striking implications for both language and politics. For more than two thousand years, sophisticated pagan and monotheist readers have dealt with scandalous passages in religious texts by reading them as metaphor and allegory. Embarrassing anthropomorphisms which seem to imply God's corporeality are safely transformed into descriptions of his power and actions, as in the case of the expression "the hand of God". The problem with these non-literal interpretations is that they cut both ways. Suppose I express my appreciation for some woman's beauty by metaphorically referring to her as a rose. My use of such a metaphor will obviously commit me to the notion that a rose itself is in fact beautiful. Similarly, if I express the depth and importance of the relationship between God and Israel by referring to it metaphorically as a relationship between lover and beloved, I must obviously be committed to the notion that human erotic love is not a trivial matter. We are so used to applying metaphorical interpretation to anthropomorphic religious language that we naturally assume that an expression such as "the Lord your God is your King” should also be taken metaphorically. However, the above discussion makes it clear that the metaphorical interpretation of divine kingship implies that we attribute positive qualities to human kingship, which we then go on to ascribe to God by way of metaphor. Because neither Gideon nor Samuel meant their talk about God as King metaphorically, they were not attributing qualities of human kings to God (nor, reciprocally, God-like qualities to kings).8 On the contrary, by conceiving of God as King, they reveal how intolerably presumptuous it is for any mere human to assume such a role. Only God, who is absolutely and ontologically different from and superior to human beings, can legitimately claim the kind of power which mortal kings try to wield over their fellow human beings. A human king is literally "playing God". Just as the association of the practice of worship with the divine makes it unthinkable for one mortal to demand worship from his fellow, the notion of God as King undermines the attempt of any merely human leader to claim our absolute obedience and loyalty. A people which thinks of itself as ruled by God will have no truck with tyrants who would usurp God’s role. Martin Buber has stated that this theocratic/libertarian attitude has informed the Jewish spirit since the theophany at Sinai:

The paradox of every original and direct theocracy, that it involves the intractableness of the human person, the drive of man to be independent of man, but for the sake of a highest commitment, already appears in the Sinai covenant.9

God as Master and Liberator

Several other seemingly "archaic, false or repugnant" images of God become paradoxically liberating when understood in their original, literal, sense. The human institutions of slavery and servitude are obviously unjust and the notion of "God our Master" has traditionally been used to undermine and limit precisely these institutions. Just as people who recognize the literal kingship of God will not abide human tyranny, those who call God "Master" cannot allow human beings to claim mastery over their fellows. Furthermore, Scripture tells us that God exercises the uniquely legitimate prerogatives of Divine mastery so as to undo the injustices of illegitimate human mastery. In Leviticus 25: 54-5, it is God's literal claim of mastery over the Jewish people which underwrites the demand that Jewish servants be freed in the Jubilee year:10

If he has not been redeemed in any of those ways, he and his children with him shall go free in the jubilee year. For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants; they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.

The Babylonian Talmud further applies the idea that the servant of God is free from servitude to mortals to the relations between employer and wage laborer. No work agreement is absolutely binding, as this would constitute a challenge to God's ultimate mastery:

Rav stated: A laborer may renege [on his agreement to work] even in the middle of the [work] day! . For it is written, "For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants" - My servants, and not servants to [other] servants.11

The notion of God's mastery does not merely limit the powers of a would-be human master. Those who recognize God’s mastery must realize the freedom that this entails in their own lives. The Torah speaks of the loyal servant who, after seven years of enslavement, rejects the liberation offered by God:

When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall be freed, without payment . . . But if the slave declares, "I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to be freed," his master shall take him before God [or perhaps, the judge]. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life. (Ex. 21: 2, 5-6)12

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai's interpretation of this strange procedure is given in Tractate Kiddushin 22b of the Babylonian Talmud:

How is the ear different from all other parts of the body [that it is to be pierced in a slave who refuses his freedom]? The Holy One blessed be He said: "The ear which heard my voice at Mount Sinai when I said, For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants"; My servants, and not servants to [other] servants - and this one went and acquired himself a master - let it be pierced!

According to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai, one’s attainment of personal freedom from enslavement to humans is itself a fundamental expression of one's commitment to serve God.

Passing Mary Daly's Test

The Talmudic interpretations I have mentioned regarding the notion of "God our Master" have an importance beyond the light they shed on the biblical text. The exegetical imagination will always be capable of inventing apologetic glosses on Scripture which make it palatable to contemporary tastes. However, it may be argued that this is not sufficient to justify our continued positive appreciation of biblical texts. Consider, for instance, Mary Daly's opposition to Paul Tillich's13 reinterpretation of the story of The Fall:

However, as in the case of his analysis of the Fall, Tillich abstracts from the specific content of the symbol, which in fact functions to justify oppressive social structures. Once again there is no notice taken of the fact that the medium is the message. Defenders of this method argue that the symbol "can be used oppressively" but insist that it need not function in this way. This kind of defense is understandable but it leaves a basic question unanswered: If the symbol can be "used" that way and in fact has a long history of being "used" that way, isn't this an indication of some inherent deficiency in the symbol itself?14

The style of interpretation which I am here endorsing does not suffer from the deficiencies which Daly attributes to Tillich. Here there is no question of abstracting "from the specific content of the symbol", since the images of God here discussed are being considered in terms of their literal "specific content", rather than as symbols or metaphors. Furthermore, as is demonstrated by the Talmudic passages here cited (and these exemplary passages could be multiplied with many others from the rabbinic literature through the ages), these purportedly oppressive images of God do not have a "long history of being 'used'" in an oppressive way, at least not within the Jewish tradition. I would go so far as to say that an oppressive interpretation of these notions of God could only be made in spite of how they have been understood by the rabbis. The discomfort of the contemporary faithful with "archaic, false or repugnant" images of God may indicate a deficiency in the cultural grounding of our generation rather than "some inherent deficiency in the symbol itself".

The danger will always remain that people will make incorrect inferences from the propriety of talking about God's superiority to the propriety of talking about the superiority of particular human beings. If, however, for political reasons, we censor all hierarchical religious language, we will also lack the means to speak of divine transcendence. Of course, those who reject a personalist theology, or who are unwilling to contemplate the possibility of a Being who quite properly relates to human beings as their absolute superior, will still have reason to reject traditional references to God's mastery and kingship. However, as I have demonstrated, the upshot of God’s superiority far from implies the endorsement of unequal relationships between human beings.

Landownership and the Lessons of the Exodus

My final example involves the return of ancestral lands to their original owners in the jubilee year. According to biblical law, every fifty years (in the jubilee year), each family, no matter what deals it may have struck in the preceding five decades and regardless of its financial fortunes, regains possession of its original familial lands. Here again we see the divine/human relationship described in the language of oppression. God is the great landowner and we but his tenant farmers: "The Land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me" (Lev. 25: 23). However, divine "monopoly" ownership of land does not imply unjust distribution. In fact, the priestly tribe of Levi, who would seem to be the most natural beneficiaries of such ownership, "have received no hereditary share along with their kinsmen: the Lord is their share" (Deut. 10: 9). Instead, the claim of divine ownership is mentioned only in order to undermine any human attempt at gaining monopoly control of land. No one may be permanently disinherited of their ancestral portion, "the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me".

The three aspects of liberation which I have discussed (i. e. freedom from monarchy, freedom from slavery and freedom from monopoly land-ownership) precisely define the liberation described in the story of the Exodus.15 In Egypt, the Israelites were enslaved by an absolute monarch who owned all of the land (see Gen. 47). The liberation from these forms of oppression is depicted by the Exodus story as the replacement of Pharaoh's dominion by that of God. In the words of the late biblical scholar Binyamin Uffenheimer:

Pharaonic slavery was conceived by Israel as the symbol of human bondage. As against it, the Kingdom of God was meant to be free from any kind of human domination.16

Careful examination of one word in the original Hebrew text of Exodus will help strengthen this point. God does not directly call for the freeing of the Israelite slaves, rather he repeatedly demands of Pharaoh "Let my people go that they may worship Me" (Ex. 7: 16, 7: 26, 8: 16, 9: 1, 9: 13, 10: 3). The word "worship" is deserving of further scrutiny. In the Hebrew, it appears as ve'ya'avduni, which may also be literally rendered "that they may serve me". The term here translated as "worship" is derived from exactly the same root as the word eved (slave or servant), which is used by scripture to describe the position of the Israelites in Egypt. In other words, God may be seen as demanding that Pharaoh hand over to him the mastery over the Jewish People. When the Israelites fully realize their servitude to God, they become fully liberated from their servitude to Pharaoh. Here again, in the story which has most fundamentally expressed the need for human liberation in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, we encounter the theological- political axiom that only God has the right to make absolute demands of human beings, and what He does demand is that they be free.


This essay is reprinted with minor corrections from Ralph Bisschops and James Francis, (eds.) Metaphor, Canon and Community: Jewish, Christian and Islamic Approaches (Berne: Peter Lang, 1999) 233-41.
1. See their Idolatry, Naomi Goldblum, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 30-35. Halbertal and Margalit argue that changes in nature of marital relationships have spoiled the use of erotic jealousy as a metaphor for God's response to idolatry.
2. David Teutsch, "Seeking God in the Siddur: Reflections on Kol Haneshama," The Reconstructionist 59: (1) 1994, 15.
3. Eliezer Diamond, "Image and Imagination: The Revealed and Hidden Faces of God in Jewish Liturgy". The Reconstructionist 59(1): 1994, 57.
4. David Nicholis, "Addressing God as Ruler: Prayer and Petition," British Journal of Sociology 44(1) 1993,reviews the political uses of the notion of God's kingship in the Christian tradition.
5. Exceptions to this thesis may be found in the tiny portion of Jewish liturgy, which relates directly to human monarchs. B. Berakhot 58a states: “One who sees a king of Israel says ‘Blessed [is he] who has given of his glory to those who revere him.’ [One who sees] a king of the nations says, ‘Blessed [is he] who has given of his glory to flesh and blood.’" Also see Sarah Japhet, The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and Its Place in Biblical Thought (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1997) 334-348. Japhet argues convincingly that several verses in Chronicles (I Chr. 17: 14, 28: 5, 29: 23, II Chr. 9: 8, and 13: 8) point to a counter-tradition which understands God's kingship as supportive of human (especially Davidic) kingship. Expressions of this tradition may also be found in Psalms. Don Levenson Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 117 writes: "The theology of Psalm 89...sees the governance of the world as lying in the hands of a dyarchy of God and king."
6. All biblical quotations are from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia and New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1988).
7. The ancient Near Eastern attitude towards the king’s unique claim to his subject's loyalty is somewhat more complicated than I have described it here. Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), 70 - 75, points out that the Hebrew word melek, while usually translated as "king", may refer to two different forms of political authority, which he calls, respectively, "sovereignty" and "suzerainty". Levenson claims that while the general notion of God's sovereignty does not undermine human kingship, God's role as suzerain (an emperor, or in other words, a master of vassals) strictly implies his unique rule over Israel which pre-empts any other claim, be it human or divine. Vassals "must acknowledge only one suzerain, the great king [emphasis in original] of their alliance" (pg. 71). "Both Israel as a nation and the Israelite as an individual stand in the position of royal vassals of the divine suzerain" (pg. 72).
8. I should point out that, literally understood, kingship refers merely to a particular political-legal relationship. The fact that someone is a king tells us a lot about his legal prerogatives in a monarchical state and very little about his essential characteristics. In regard to these the fact that someone may be called a king only tells us that he fulfills the minimum definition of a "person" who is capable of claiming such a role. Similarly, we might infer from the statement "Charlie Brown owes me five dollars" that Mr. Brown is someone legally definable as a person rather than a cartoon character or a cat of the same name. This legalistic understanding of what it means to be a king reduces the metaphysical difficulties of attributing literal kingship to God. The same is true of the terms "landowner” and "slave owner" dealt with below.
9. Martin Buber,Kingship of God, (Richard Scheimann, trans.) (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 138. Not surprisingly, anti-monarchists in the modern period have made political use of these biblical sources. The great defender of the American and French revolutions, Thomas Paine, devoted several pages of his classic treatise Common Sense to Gideon and Samuel, and wrote of the ancient Israelites:

Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts. And when a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to the persons of kings, he need not wonder that the Almighty, ever jealous of his honor, should disapprove of a form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of heaven. (Thomas Paine, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, (N. F. Adkins, ed.) (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1953), 11).

Paine concludes:

These portions of scripture are direct and positive. They admit of no equivocal construction. That the Almighty has entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false. (pg. 13)

For further examples of the antimonarchical use of scripture in the modern West, see Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985) 127-8. Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was the most prominent medieval Jewish thinker to base an extended anti-monarchical argument on these scriptural passages. The relevant sections of his biblical commentaries are conveniently available in English translation in R. Lerner and M. Mahdi (Eds.), Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook (New York: The Free Press, 1963).
10. Emmanuel Levinas presents a similar discussion of these sources in his book Beyond the Verse, (Gary D. Mole, trans.) (London: Athlone Press, 1994), 10. I am indebted to Dr. Ralph Bisschops for bringing this to my attention. My analysis also shares a weakness in common with Levinas's Jewish writings. While we both seek universal human liberation, tradition usually only relates to liberation internal to the Jewish people. Strictly speaking, the notions of God as King, slave-owner and landowner serve within Judaism to free Jews from human kings, slaveowners and landowners. The issue of particularism does not touch my central thesis that within Judaism, hierarchical God-talk is liberating.
11. B. Bava Mezia 10a. In Levinas' book this is mistakenly cited as 10b.
12. The standard Jewish interpretation would have it that even such a "slave for life" would be freed even against his will in the jubilee year.
13. See Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology, (vol. II). (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 31-39.
14. Mary Daly,Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), 72.
15. A further discussion of the relationship between the deprivations of Egypt and the social provisions of biblical law see my "Redemption: Time and Space," Jewish Biblical Quarterly 21(3)1993: 178-82.
16. Benjamin Uffenheimer, "Utopia and Reality in Biblical Thought," Immanuel 9: 1979: 7. See also his Ancient Prophecy in Israel (revised edition, Hebrew), (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1984) for an in-depth discussion of many of the points I have touched upon in this paper. His treatment of the ancient Near Eastern background for Israel’s covenant with God is especially interesting.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can I get a copy of your paper "Omphalos Revisited" in the The Jewish Bible Quarterly XXIII:3(91) pp. 162-7? Do you have an e-mail address? Many thanks.

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Blogger Berel Dov Lerner said...

The file I have of that article has become corrupted. I hope to scan my hardcopy of the article and get it on the blog soon.

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