Israel as Foundling
Orphanhood, Adoption, and the Fatherhood of God
A paper delivered October 18, 2004 at the Simmons Family Charitable Foundation 15th Annual Program in Biblical Archaeology, The University of Judaism.
"Among all the literary classics that I have spent any serious time reading, the Tanakh is unequaled in its capacity to spring a surprise on the reader with a quiet detail that, like a plant ignored at the edge of a garden, suddenly seems to burst into bloom."
e are all God’s children.” Who in America has not heard this benign and soothing declaration? In an era when religion is so often a source of bitter division, “We are all God’s children” seems to promise the balm of reconciliation. You heard those words spoken most recently on October 13 during the third presidential debate. Moderator Bob Schieffer had asked the two candidates whether homosexuals are as they are by nature or by choice—a matter, amazingly enough, about which presidential candidates in our day are expected to have a developed opinion. Lurking in the background was a more loaded theological formulation of the same question: Does God make gays gay, or do they start straight and become gay by their own choice and against his will? President Bush, addressing himself to the question as formulated, said, “I don’t know.” Senator Kerry, addressing himself to the question behind the question, said, “We are all God’s children.”
Who was right? No wonder it’s a close election.
The title of this evening’s lecture is “Israel as Foundling,” but the ultimate target of the lecture is captured in the last words of the subtitle, “Orphanhood, Adoption, and the Fatherhood of God.” It is the fatherhood of God that I invite you to join me this evening in considering or reconsidering.
This lecture is part of a long-running series of lectures mostly about the Bible as illumined by archaeology. A generation or two ago, archaeology seemed repeatedly to deliver startling confirmations of the historicity of the Bible. More recently, and particularly in the hands of Israeli archaeologists, the venerable discipline has seemed to go in the opposite direction, offering one startling disconfirmation after another. I should perhaps begin, then, by reassuring you that you will not end this evening having learned that on the basis of the latest excavations we now know that God is not our Father.
I confess that I have no expertise, in any case, in the kind of archaeology that brings surprises up from underground. You will have two or three exciting opportunities to hear that kind of archaeologist before the conclusion of this year’s Simmons Lecture Series, but my kind of treasure hunt is of a different sort, a hunt for sentences lying in plain view, not buried but only relatively unnoticed. It is by such re-discoveries of the unhidden, I believe, that the reading and re-reading of any literary classic sustains its momentum over the years and over the centuries. And among all the literary classics that I have spent any serious time reading, the Tanakh is unequaled in its capacity to spring a surprise on the reader with a quiet detail that, like a plant ignored at the edge of a garden, suddenly seems to burst into bloom. Recovering from such a discovery can take a little time, but then speed is not the quality we most prize in biblical interpretation.
o, then, in a mood of quiet reconsideration, let us examine this most familiar and comforting of all theological ideas, the fatherhood of God, as we find it in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. We must start, of course, with the Book of Genesis, for if we are all God’s children, is it not because we are all descended from his first children, Adam and Eve? But were Adam and Eve really God’s children? Was that their relationship to him? If so, how we would we expect to know this? We would expect to know it, would we not, from the fact of their addressing him as father or from his addressing them as son or daughter.
But read Genesis 1-3. Nothing of the sort ever happens. God never addresses Adam as “My son” or Eve as “My daughter.” Neither of them ever addresses him in a sentence beginning, “O Father.” By what terms do the three address one another? As it happens, terms of address simply do not occur in these chapters. Eve does refer to God, using the word ‘elohim, but neither she nor her husband ever addresses him in any form of that name. In referring to them, God uses the common nouns man and woman, but he too employs no terms of direct address: neither those words nor the names Adam and Eve.
Granting then that terms of direct address do not reveal to us any familial relationship between God and the first human couple, does something else in the text suggest such a relationship? The most basic relationship between him and them is that of creator to creatures, but we who read the story know this in a way that the humans who appear in it do not, for unlike us they do not witness their own creation. We know moreover that God has made them in his image and likeness, and perhaps we may infer that looking upon God as they apparently do, they may recognize something of a resemblance. But on what textual grounds, if any, could we claim that this resemblance in itself constitutes a familial relationship between him and them?
I confess that I see none. God conducts himself with solicitude—the word love may not be too strong—toward his human creatures, at least until he grows angry with them, but solicitude need not imply paternity. No, as the myth unfolds, God reveals himself to his first human creatures rather as their master than as their father. Adam and Eve, whether or not they fully appreciate that God is their creator, do acknowledge his mastery over them in some preliminary way. Though they will disobey him, they do not challenge his right to command their obedience. A bit later, when he sentences them and all their offspring to death, when he blights the Earth that Adam will cultivate, when he turns childbirth into torture for Eve, they are given a grim demonstration of his mastery, although God seems, if anything, less determined to punish our first parents by this demonstration of his power than he is to rebuke the clever serpent who tempted them and has thereby so thoroughly disrupted God’s arrangements for them. In any case, we must conclude that it is mastery rather than paternity that defines God’s relationship to his first human creatures in the opening chapters of Genesis.
And it is mastery, is it not, rather than paternity that would seem proper to a celibate god like this one? If there is no mother goddess, and there evidently is none, then how can there be a father god? Athena may have sprung full-grown from the brow of Zeus, but paternity normally requires maternity, and indeed most ancient gods were sexual beings who created by some kind of sexual generation. The God of the Book of Genesis, by sharpest contrast, is celibate. He has no spouse, and he does not create by sexual generation but rather by serene and lordly speech. He creates by commanding.
If we were disposed to speak of God’s form of creativity as analogous to parturition, and some later Jewish and Christian thinkers were indeed so disposed, we could say that his firstborn offspring, born from his mouth, was the sentence yehi ‘or, “Let there be light.” Before light appeared, that sentence emerged. God begot the word in his mind and bore it from no other womb than his mouth, and thereupon the word begot the light.
But having forced even this much of an opening for a paternal or paternal/maternal understanding of divine creativity, we must immediately note that if God fathers humankind by speaking it into existence, he fathers everything else in just the same way: the heavens and the earth, the “seed-bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it,” and so forth. Even granting that everything fathered forth in this way reflects its divine parentage in some way, parentage so understood bears little resemblance to the tender and dignifying relationship that we ordinarily understand by the sentence “We are all God’s children.” But the author of the creation myth that we find in the Book of Genesis had a clear reason for his refusal to suggest any genealogical relationship between God and his first human creatures.
When monotheism was a new and strange idea, an idea in acute danger of being normalized back toward the culturally dominant polytheism, to claim a filial relationship with a father god was dangerously close to claiming divinity for oneself. Like father, like son is a rule that applies, after all, right down to our own day. In Semitic antiquity, moreover, much suggests that rather than mere physical resemblance we must understand in the father-son relationship something much stronger, something, in fact, approaching true identity transference. It was because of identity transference that the sins of the fathers could justifiably be visited upon the sons. But what would become of monotheism if the one God, the monos theos, had children to whom his divine identity could be similarly passed down?
Later in the development of ancient Israelite thought, as monotheism hardened gradually into a stable belief, it became possible to employ paternity as a metaphor without compromising this belief. But, as I hope to demonstrate in discussing the image of the foundling, it would be necessary even then to put certain reminders in place that the paternal metaphor was indeed only a metaphor. As a true historical hypothesis, my contention that fatherhood is a late-arising metaphor rather than a part of Israel’s earliest monotheistic belief about God cannot really be proven. It can only be offered as an interpretive invitation, as if to say, “Taste and see. Read the text expecting, as a mere working hypothesis, that fatherhood-language will emerge gradually rather than being omnipresent from the start, and then see how things work out.”
Gradual development, I must now hasten to add, does not mean step-by-step logical development. What we see, in fact, is a process by which true sexual parenthood for God is apparently rejected, then quite boldly and explicitly entertained as a possibility for him, then rejected again with greater clarity, then readmitted but in an adoptive or metaphorical form, and finally embraced with growing emotion and yet with a crucial correction of the metaphor.
As background for this entire evolution, there stands the universal human observation that it is sexual intercourse that enables men and women to make other men and women and that the boys and girls who are made in this way frequently resemble their mothers and fathers. But does this observable fact about humankind mean that human beings have a power like the one that God exercises at Genesis 1:27 when he creates a man and a woman in his own image? The answer is evidently yes. Sexuality is indeed a godlike power. But then is God’s version of this power necessarily sexual? The answer is no, eventually, but clarity on this point does not come without a struggle, and, dramatically enough, the struggle seems at times to take place within God himself, for at times he seems to regard the free exercise of human sexual fertility as if it were the key power of a rival divinity and therefore to be combatted rather than fostered.
The core transaction of all great literary art is the transformation of thought into story. Changes of thought en route to clarity become in the hands of a literary artist stages in a story en route to its resolution. If this is easily said, it is not at all easily done, particularly when it is through the story that the thought first takes shape.
With regard to the story of God’s fatherhood, I invite you to put yourself in the condition of someone who does not yet know whether or not divine and human generativity are both sexual in character. Maybe God is a truly sexual being, maybe he isn’t. If he is, then the possibility of divine breeding exists, bringing with it a potential multiplication of divinities, of whom none will ever disappear because all are immortal. Moreover, this multiplication of sexual immortals will open the further possibility of divine-human hybridization and perhaps the sexual transmission of immortality from gods to men. How exciting! This idea does have its appeal. But now imagine that having entertained seductive ideas like these, you have in the last analysis decided to reject them but are allowed to do so only in the form of a story. What sort of story do you tell?
The story you tell might conceivably come out a little like a strange but crucial episode in Genesis that comes as a transition between the creation myth and the flood myth. In Genesis 6:1-8, we read:
When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw how beautiful were the daughters of men and took wives from among those that pleased them. The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.” It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth—when the sons of God cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.
The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them. But Noah found favor with the Lord.
In the Book of Genesis, the destruction of the world by water is a stage in the plot corresponding to a movement of thought from an understanding of divine and human generativity as equally sexual to an understanding of them as different in that regard. The correction of a mistaken idea becomes, when turned into myth, the story of one world being destroyed and another replacing it. Earlier leads to later in the story as mistake leads to correction in the argument. Before the flood, God is capable of breeding and in fact does breed in a very literal sense of the word. After the flood, he no longer engages in any such activity. The destruction of the world in which God was a literally sexual being means the rejection of the idea that he ever could be such—that he ever could be, in other words, that kind of father or ever have truly divine children. And just how large a share in the divine life do God’s human creatures have? They have his breath in them. Does that mean that, like him, they will breathe forever? The answer, initially, is yes, but then God changes his mind. In Genesis 3, he angrily sentences the first humans to death. In Genesis 6, he assigns humanity a finite lifespan as an afterthought, an adjustment in his plans. In either case, because God is a single character, equally himself wherever he appears in the story, the story itself gains in power as he makes these changes. We see him doing one thing, then regretting it and doing something else. We see him evolving in and through his own words and actions.
God seems utterly celibate in the magisterial, world-creating recital of the first chapter of Genesis. But God seems anything but celibate in the passage from Genesis 6 that I just read to you. Because in that very passage he ends up destroying the world in which his own celibacy was negotiable, his celibacy thereafter seems quite beyond negotiation, a fixed feature of his character. God does not begin celibate, in short, but rather adopts celibacy. Yet having resolved with such violent finality to have no divine offspring of his own, God proceeds to develop a suddenly intense interest in the generativity of his human creatures.
After the floodwaters recede, God makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants—in effect, then, a covenant with the entire human race. Why did God make no such covenant with Adam and his descendants? An Adamic covenant may be implicit in the physical arrangements God puts in place, arrangements that make obedience to his commands feasible, but there is no explicit covenant in the creation story, and on the human side there is no act of ratification. If we read Genesis 1-3 in light of the opening of Genesis 6, then perhaps we may infer that it was not entirely clear at the start whether God’s relationship to his human creatures would be familial or contractual. Were Adam and Eve to acknowledge God as their father or as their lord? The opening chapters of Genesis suggest that he regards himself as their lord rather than their father, but the passage from Genesis 6 just quoted demonstrates that the possibility of his being father rather than lord had not yet been foreclosed.
The Noachic covenant forecloses it. Coming as it does after this outbreak of divine sexual activity, God’s covenant with Noah has a double meaning or a double effect. First, under the sign of the rainbow, it ends the estrangement between God and his now renewed creation. Second, it establishes that the relationship between God and his human creatures is now truly and only a contractual rather than a physical relationship. The fertility command given to Adam and Eve is repeated to Noah and his descendants: “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1); but though they will multiply, it is now clear that God himself will not.
As in the creation myth, so also in this destruction myth, God never addresses his human interlocutor as “My son,” and he himself is never addressed as “My father.” Noah never speaks to God at all, but he does silently ratify the contractual nature of his relationship to God by offering a sacrifice, as we read: “Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar. The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of man, ...nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done’ ” (Gen. 8:20-21).
Israel has not yet been mentioned in the biblical epic, and yet Israel is here by anticipation. If Israel’s later relationship with God is to be essentially covenantal rather than familial, then it is of considerable importance that no other nation be capable of claiming that its relationship with him is familial. You have perhaps seen the newly popular bumper sticker “I don’t know—and neither do you!” The Noachic covenant will make it possible for Israel in a future generation to assert, by implication at least, “We are not God’s biological children—and neither are you.” Nobody has a familial relationship with God because God is simply not that kind of god. What everyone does have is a covenantal relationship, but there can be special covenants within that generic covenant.
said a moment ago that once God definitively renounces conventional, genital paternity for himself and establishes his first-ever covenant with humankind, his interest in human reproduction seems to grow more intense. Let me now add that it is because of this interest that God’s involvement in human history grows as tangled as it does. It need not have been so. If God was going to be a god who himself did not perform any act of sexual generation, he might have expressed no interest in those that humans perform. But the opposite turns out to be the case. He promises Abraham miraculous fertility, offspring as numerous as the stars, and human history is broken open when he keeps his promise. The Israelites in Egypt grow astoundingly numerous, their women giving birth essentially without labor, and the Egyptians strike back. To save his people, God is forced to go to war for the first time in his career; and at that point like a ship slipping anchor, he and Israel are fairly launched on their long historical voyage. Had God not elevated Israelite fertility so far above the human norm, he himself would never have had to go to war. But had God not become celibate, perhaps he would not have needed to make this unexplained and otherwise unmotivated promise of miraculous fertility to Abraham.
There is an undeniable grandeur about major human events: war and peace, the exile and homecoming of entire nations, retribution and vindication, and so forth. Yet we all know that family formation and family life have their own emotional intensity: finding a spouse, trying to conceive, conceiving, making it through the pregnancy, bringing the newborn through the perilous first year, and so forth. The birth of a single child over all the obstacles that can and so often do arise can seem no less momentous than victory in a great war. The call of Abraham begins the story of a great nation, the nation of Israel. The story will eventually include war and peace, exile and homecoming, punishment and vindication, and all that makes for grandeur in a national epic, yet the story will never lose the special intensity of an intimate family drama in which the birth of every Jewish child seems a victory over obstacles as large as those that faced Abraham and Sarah. This is the special quality, as it has always seemed to me, of the Jewish vision of Jewish history. And yet we must wonder: What motivated God to begin it?
God’s involvement in the drama of Abraham’s fatherhood, not to speak of Sarah’s motherhood, is both intense and intensely ambivalent. Let me note, to begin with, that “the God of my Father,” a phrase that we begin to hear at this point in the Bible, is not “God my Father.” Like Adam and Noah, Abraham never addresses God as his father, and God never addresses Abraham as his son. God’s attention to Abraham’s reproduction is as intense as that of any grandfather expecting a grandson, yet God’s involvement, to repeat, is intensely ambivalent: Does he want his own promise kept, or does he want it frustrated? We see this ambivalence when, having promised Abraham fertility beyond all natural limits, God postpones his first conception deep into old age and arranges for Ishmael as well as Isaac a narrow brush with death in childhood. It is as if God has renounced paternity for himself, chosen in its stead a vicarious and divinely enlarged paternity in Abraham, and then struggled to accept his own compromise.
Circumcision, the sign of the covenant by which God promises Abraham miraculous fertility, entails Abraham’s giving a share of his fertility—symbolized by his foreskin, the excised part of his sexual organ—back to God. God paid no such attention to Adam’s or Noah’s genitalia, though God commanded both of them to increase and fill the earth. God takes the interest that he does take in Abraham’s genitalia as a way of assigning himself a share of Abraham’s fatherhood perhaps—though his motive is never stated—because at this point in his story he can hope for nothing more. And yet his share remains contractual rather than truly familial, and neither Ishmael nor Isaac will ever address God as father. God can bestow fertility, and does, but there is a poignant difference between doing that and being an actual father.
If we are going to reach the title subject before time runs out, we need to lengthen our stride a bit, so let us skip ahead to the Book of Exodus and particularly to a pair of verses that might seem to reverse everything I have claimed to this point. At Exodus 4:22-23, God gives Moses the language in which he will warn Pharaoh to release Israel or prepare to pay a terrible price:
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.”
God’s way of characterizing his relationship with Israel certainly sounds paternal here, but note well: God is not explaining this relationship for the benefit of Moses or the Israelites. He is putting it in alien language for an alien ruler and an alien god. Pharaoh, according to Egyptian religion, was not just the king but also the divine fertility guarantor of the Egyptian people—in effect, the father of his country. God is, so to speak, translating his relationship to Israel into Egyptian theological terms for the benefit of the rival god whose claim to be a god is about to be destroyed in the destruction of Egypt itself.
Were this God’s own understanding of his relationship to Israel, were it the understanding that he wanted to implant in the people he will soon bind to himself by the covenant at Sinai, then at some point he would say to them, “You are Israel, my first-born son.” He would instruct them to pray to him, “You are our father, and we are your first-born son.” But during the lifetime of Moses that point is never reached, and no such words are ever spoken. On the contrary, it is at Sinai that the contractual seems most overwhelmingly to eclipse any remaining trace of the familial. As if to stress that God’s liberty to form new covenants is not inhibited by any fatherly feeling he may have toward Israel, God goes so far as to propose after the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32) that he exterminate Israel on the spot and create a new people for himself using Moses as the new Abraham. Moses, in a famous bit of biblical bargaining, talks him out of it. But once again God had shown an astonishing ambivalence, a truly lethal volatility, with regard to his own undertakings.
Within Torah, the paternal image remains available as a general metaphor for care. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses says, looking back on Israel’s forty years in the desert, “The Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way you traveled until you came to this place” (1:31) and “The Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son” (8:5). The more poetic the language, the more easily things may be said that are not literally true. Thus, in the so-called Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32), the poet sings of God as
The Rock!—His deeds are perfect,
Yea, all His ways are just (32:4)
and a bit later, compounding images, sings of him again as a kind of paternal rock:
You neglected the Rock that begot you,
Forgot the God who brought you forth (32:27).
At Deuteronomy 14:1, we even encounter the flat statement “You are children of the Lord your God,” but the context somewhat dilutes the assertion. The fuller passage reads:
You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people (14:1-2).
In context, the phrase “children of the Lord” seems synonymous with the milder “consecrated to the Lord.” Clearly, however, the relationship rests on the free and therefore revocable choice of God. Election creates a revocable relationship, true parenthood an irrevocable one. By the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, there is an undeniable emotional ardor burning within God’s relationship to Israel, but to love someone, even to love him like a son, is not to be his father.
ranting that paternal language, even if not entirely absent, is strikingly rare in Torah, whence comes the paternal language that now seems so central to our imaginings of God? It comes at the time and really in the person of King David. It comes in particular in words that God speaks to David through the prophet Nathan. God’s story can be read, in a way, as the story of fatherhood lost and found. Imagine, if you will, a childless man who yearns to be a father. Imagine a man with an immense capacity to do good yet one whose path to normal human paternity is blocked. What can he do? Well, he can adopt a child, can’t he? But will he? First, he must decide to adopt, he must adopt himself into the role of father to another’s child before he can invite the child to adopt the corresponding role of child to himself.
I describe the process as if the initiative must lie entirely with the prospective parent; but in the real world of adoptions, as you may know, the initiative sometimes begins with the child. My wife, Jacqueline, who is with me tonight, and I have had the experience of having a teen-age boy invite us to adopt him. I know a couple with several children of their own who were asked to care temporarily for a foster child but fell in love with him and ended up adopting him. In the Books of Samuel, as Harold Bloom has taught us to see, God falls in love with David, but David is far from a passive partner in the transaction. In 1 Samuel 7, David does something so spontaneous and winning that God is moved to adopt David’s son. And if this is a boon for Solomon, it represents a momentous change in God himself.
As the story opens, David is embarrassed to be living in a cedar-paneled palace, while the Ark of the Lord—in effect, the Lord himself—is housed in a mere tent. The prophet Nathan guesses what David is about to do—namely, build God a temple—and endorses the idea, but God then intercepts David outdoes him.
While the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had granted him safety from all the enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan: “Here am I dwelling in a house of cedar, while the Ark of the Lord abides in a tent!” Nathan said to the king, “Go and do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.”
But that same night the word of the Lord same to Nathan: “ Go and say to My servant David: Thus said the Lord: Are you the one to build a house for Me to dwell in? From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle. As I moved about wherever the Israelites went, did I ever reproach any of the tribal leaders whom I appointed to care for My people Israel: Why have you not built Me a house of cedar? ...
The Lord declares to you that He, the Lord, will establish a house for you. When your days are done and you lie with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own issue, and I will establish his kingship. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish his royal throne forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to Me. When he does wrong, I will chastise him with the rod of men and the affliction of mortals; but I will never withdraw My favor from him as I withdrew it from Saul, whom I removed to make room for you. Your house and your kingship shall be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever. (1 Samuel 7:1-7, 11b-16)
I said earlier that election is a revocable relationship, while parenthood is an irrevocable one. In promising to adopt David’s son, God speaks of chastising him “with the rod of men and the affliction of mortals.” Chastisement of this sort—a mild, merely human sort—is to be contrasted with the wrath of God, which takes the form of outright revocation of the relationship, extending even to the extermination of the offender as in the flood or, very nearly, after the golden calf episode. By renouncing his right ever to revoke the relationship, God becomes a true, if adoptive, father to Solomon and so promises David a house, a dynasty, that will last for all time.
As a moment in the life of God, 1 Samuel 7 is a moment of poignancy and beauty. And yet it is a moment that brings trouble in its wake, for though God intends only adoptive fatherhood, Israel is surrounded by nations that believe in literal divine-human fatherhood. Historically, the establishment of kingship in Israel does seem to have opened a cultural path to the reintroduction of a Canaanite idea that might be put in the form of this syllogism:
The king is identified with the god.
The people are identified with the king.
Therefore, the people are identified with the god.
Using paternal language, this syllogism can be restated:
The king is the son of the god.
The people are the children of the king.
Therefore, the people are children of the god.
I said earlier that Torah avoids father-language for a reason. This is the reason. Father-language is a standing invitation to the multiplication of divinities and to the blurring of the distinction between the one true God and his human creatures. This blurring can be avoided if care is taken to distinguish biological from adoptive fatherhood, but pride and ambition are all too likely to get in the way. From within this world of belief, the impulse is overwhelming to say, in effect, “All humankind are God’s subjects, and he rules them with a firm hand. We alone are God’s children, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, and he cares for us alone with true paternal love.”
Against this impulse, the prophets of Israel developed a small but scathing set of counter-narratives, symbolic re-tellings or corrective images of the entire history of Israel. The intent of these was, on the one hand, to preserve and defend the new and rightly cherished understanding of God as Israel’s adoptive father while, on the other, reviving and underscoring the older view that Israel had no physical relationship with God and that therefore Israelites must not regard themselves as inherently—much less, as physically—closer to God than other peoples.
If pure Israelite ancestry conferred some kind of physical nearness to God, then it would indeed be something to be cherished and preserved, but in these prophecies Israelite ancestry is denied to Israel herself. What might seem a genealogical contradiction has a rhetorical point: Israel becomes Israel in one way and one way alone—namely, by the free, unprompted action of God. Thus, we read in Ezekiel 16:1-7:
The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal, proclaim Jerusalem’s abominations to her, and say: Thus said the Lord God to Jerusalem: By origin and birth you are from the land of the Canaanites—your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. As for your birth, when you were born your navel cord was not cut, and you were not bathed in water to smooth you; and you were not rubbed with salt, nor were you swaddled. No one pitied you enough to any one of these things for you out of compassion for you; on the day you were born, you were left lying, rejected, in the open field. When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you, “Live in spite of your blood. Yea, I said to you: Live in spite of your blood. I let you grow like the plants of the field: and you continued to grow up until you to attained to womanhood, until your breasts became firm and your pubic hair sprouted.
We may well imagine that in the Israel of Ezekiel’s day, “Your father was an Amorite” was an insult, and “Your mother was a Hittite” another. In Judaea after the Babylonian exile, a disparaging distinction was drawn between the true Israelites—namely, those who had been carried into exile or who had been born in exile of Israelite parents—and those who had remained in the land but now seemed, to the returnees, seemed more Canaanite than Israelite. “Born in the land of the Canaanites” would then have been yet another ethnic slur.
In this shocking passage, however, God himself delivers just these insults to his people as a whole. Amorite, Hittite, Canaanite—who knows the genealogy of a foundling? A foundling is an orphan, a castoff, nobody’s baby, unknown and forever unknowable. Ezekiel describes this infant in a deliberately revolting away as lying in the slime of the afterbirth, flailing about helplessly in that mess of blood and amniotic fluid. Her umbilical cord has not been tied or cut. Without God’s immediate intervention, she will die within hours. But God says to her, “Live,” and takes her in. This is the image of a kind of fatherhood that can only be adoptive fatherhood.
The story of this foundling continues as she comes of age and marries her loving father-protector, then deserts him and debauches herself with a series of lovers, and finally repents and is taken back by him. These two images—Israel as God’s child and Israel as God’s spouse—would together be an image of incest if we were not in the realm of adoptive, analogous, or metaphorical relationships. In Torah, marital imagery is avoided even more scrupulously than parental imagery presumably out of fear that it would be taken literally. In the prophets, not only do we find both images, we sometimes find them mingled in the same incident to make a strong point even stronger. Clearly, the prophets write with some confidence that metaphorical language will be recognized as such. The challenge has become one of finding the metaphors that say what needs to be said.
If the image of Israel as a discarded orphan whom God has rescued from a hideous and pathetic death is powerful, more powerful still, perhaps, is the image of Israel as hijodeputa, a whoreson or a whore’s daughter, and of God himself as a man married to the whore. This is the image that we encounter in the Book of Hosea (1:2-5, 8-9):
When the Lord first spoke to Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, get yourself a wife of whoredom and children of whoredom; for the land will stray from following the Lord. So he went and married Gomer daughter of Diblaim. She conceived and bore him a son, and the Lord instructed him, “Name him Jezreel; for, I will soon punish the House of Jehu for the bloody deeds at Jezreel and put an end to the monarchy of the House of Israel. In that day, I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.”
She conceived again and bore a daughter; and He said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah [“No Pity”]; for henceforth I will have no pity on the House of Israel nor will I pardon them. ...
After weaning Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then He said, “Name him Lo-ammi [“Not My People”]; for you are not My people, and I will not be your God.”
Are Gomer’s three children Hosea’s children? Since she makes a living by sleeping with many men, he cannot know whose these children of hers are, and that is just the point of the story. If Hosea stands for God, and these children stand for Israel, then Israel has no automatic or inherent or quasi-physical relationship with God. Hosea would be fully within his rights to reject Gomer’s children as presumptively no children of his, and God, by unmistakable implication, would be fully within his rights to reject Israel as no child of his either.
In Hosea, as in Ezekiel, the marital image functions alongside the parental image. Though Gomer’s three bastards represent Israel, so does Gomer, the whore herself. But what if Hosea actually loves her? What if he is willing to accept her children, no matter whose they are, as his own? If so, and if Hosea represents God, what does this tell us about God? In an ecstatic passage, God says that he loves Israel despite all debaucheries and will somehow seduce her back into fidelity to himself. Having accomplished this miracle, he promises that he will take pity on the girl named No Pity and say to the boy named Not-My-People, “You are my people.”
I have been quoting so far from the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, but let me quote this climactic passage in Hosea in the King James Version, which does have its moments:
I will betroth thee unto me for ever;
Yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment,
And in lovingkindness, and in mercies.
I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness:
and thou shalt know the Lord.
And it shall come to pass in that day,
I will hear, saith the Lord,
I will hear the heavens,
and they shall hear the earth.
And the earth shall hear the corn, and the wine, and the oil;
And they shall hear Jezreel.
And I will sow her unto me in the earth;
and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy;
And I will say to them which were not my people,
Thou art my people;
And they shall say,
Thou art my God.
As I tried to indicate earlier, Ezekiel and Hosea want to humble Israel and yet exalt Israel. They want in the bluntest, rudest way possible to deny Israel any automatic intimacy with God, as if the mere accident of birth could ever be enough, and yet they want to promise Israel that because of God’s great love, Israel can be God’s baby anyway in both the nursery and the honeymoon sense of the word—God’s little kid and God’s sweetheart, both at the same time.
What does the rudeness of the rebuke accomplish? It carries Israel back to Torah where, you will recall, all God’s relationships with human beings bespoke mastery rather than paternity. Islam, as you may know, sees all the legendary figures of Torah as proto-Muslims because they acknowledged God as their master. They put themselves in a relationship of submission to God, which, for Islam, is the only proper relationship for a human being ever to claim. Thus, the Qur’an at sura 5, verse 18 admonishes:
The Jews and Christians say, “We are sons of God and his loved ones.” Say: Why then does he punish you for your sins? No, you are mere mortal men whom he has created. He forgives whom he will and punishes whom he will. God is the ruler of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, and unto him is the journeying.
The Qur’an is right: Jews and Christians do indeed speak of God as their father and of themselves as his children. However, if they are faithful to the full strength and the full complexity of their respective traditions, they never forget that God is, first and last, as in Islam, the Lord of the World, the Master of the Universe. He is avinu, but he is also, and immediately, malkenu. Christians may pray to him as “Our Father,” but their prayer must immediately continue “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” In and of ourselves, we are all orphans and foundlings, whoresons and bastards. If we are his children, it is only because he has taken us in and made us his own. This is what makes our story his, and in the very last reckoning, this is what makes it a divine comedy.