The liturgy for the Jewish High Holidays, beginning this week, makes prominent use of the expression avinu malkeinu (“our father, our king”), in reference to God. This famously mixed metaphor throws a spotlight on the central place that such symbolism has had in Jewish thought going back to the Bible. Why are such metaphors employed in biblical and subsequent Jewish discourse? And what is the point of shifting about among the different metaphors?
I would like to consider three of the most important metaphorical frameworks employed to describe the biblical enterprise in the Hebrew Bible (and then carried forward into the Talmud), namely, the metaphors of law, covenant, and teaching. These are not the only metaphors that are used in Hebrew Scripture to establish the purpose of these texts, and to position the reader with reference to them. But so far as I know, they are the most frequently invoked.
The thought of the biblical authors strives constantly to identify that way of thinking, and those actions, that can be relied upon to bring “life and the good” to those who embrace them. This means that their inquiry is one that is centrally concerned to identify lawfulnessin the moral world—in effect, a causal relationship between one’s actions and what then takes place in the world. This concern is expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures in different ways. But its most prominent expression is the metaphor of our lives being governed bylaws that are given by God, who will reward those who obey them, and punish those who do not.
One may wonder why I describe the application of the term law to the laws of Moses as a metaphor. We are so accustomed to thinking of the Mosaic teaching as laws (in Hebrew,hukim) or commandments (mitzvot), that we tend to forget that this way of understanding what God wants from us is itself based on a metaphor, which draws on our experience of a human king governing a political state in an effort to better understand the broader moral and natural order.
The metaphor works as follows. A human king is responsible for the well-being of the political state of which he is the ruler. He issues laws and commands to his people, whose purpose is to create orderly patterns of behavior among his subjects, so that they are all in effect working together to bring about a common good. What is expected of the king’s subjects is, on this view, only that they obey his laws, and thereby do their part in attaining the overall well-being of the nation. If they do not, the king will punish their disobedience, so that good may come to all.
According to a view advanced time and again in the Hebrew Bible, our experience of a human king, if we consider it well, is seen to provide a useful analogy to our experience of God’s action in the world. On this analogy, God is concerned to govern the world, as a human king is concerned to govern a political state. God does this by providing laws and commandments to all things, whose purpose is to create an orderly behavior that is to the good of all.
In prophetic oratory and in Psalms, these laws and commandments are seen as governing everything: The sea has its own laws; the sun, the moon, and the stars, their own laws; the animals and the plants have laws of their own. And the well-being of the good world that we see is the result of this obedience. There are laws for human beings, too, whose purpose is to bring order and well-being into the realm of nations and individuals—a law whose greatest articulation is the laws of Moses. But human beings will not so quickly obey, as the sea and the stars and the animals do, and so God, like a king of flesh and blood, punishes the violation of His laws to try to retain order and direct the world toward life and the good.
Notice that to the extent that the biblical texts are understood by way of the metaphor of law—to the extent, that is, that we think in terms of the law of Moses, rather than the teaching of Moses—the reader places himself, by analogy, in the position of a subject or a soldier seeking to obey the directives of his king. He therefore reads the text in the way that he would read the law book of his king, or a letter of instruction from an officer of the state or one of its military commanders, so that he may know what to do. And here, as in the state or armed service of a human king, what is expected is principally obedience, which is the key to order and well-being.
How different is the metaphor of Scripture as law (which places the reader in the position of a subject or a soldier), from that of Scripture as testimony (which places the reader in the position of a judge)!
The metaphor of the law is not the only one defining the relationship of the reader to the Hebrew Scriptures. A second, crucial metaphor is that of the covenant or alliance (brit), which likewise appears throughout Scripture. This, too, is a metaphor that is drawn, in the first instance, from the political realm. And here, too, God is understood by analogy to our experience of a human king. But the experience that gives rise to the metaphor of the covenant or alliance with a king is quite different from that which gives rise to the metaphor of obeying a king’s law.
While obedience before the king’s law is something that is expected of, and usually proffered by, even subjects who have never laid eyes on the king, a covenant or an alliance is something that can only take place where there is a personal relationship and a personal history with the ruler in question.
More specifically, the king grants a covenant to someone whom he respects, and whose services and assistance he needs and may not be able to obtain without his agreement. Unlike a royal law or decree, which is nothing but an order, a covenant or an alliance thus involves a relationship in which the king, even if he is vastly more powerful than his ally, nonetheless concedes that he is not powerful enough to enforce his will all by himself, and that he needs assistance and collaboration if he is to attain the order he seeks. In other words, the covenant is a relationship that recognizes the weaker party’s voluntary contribution to the king’s order—and the king’s need of such help.
It is precisely this understanding of God as wanting and needing man’s help that pervades biblical covenant-talk, and sets it apart from law-talk with its connotations of coerced obedience. The biblical covenant—the covenant that God makes with Abraham, for example—is a new metaphor for understanding man’s relationship with God, which arises precisely from the fact that man, who is free to choose, is not in God’s pocket, as the ocean and the stars and the animals are. Man is, on this view, an independent player who makes decisions for himself as to how to dispose of his strength and abilities; and this means that God, powerful though He may be, is not all-powerful. Quite to the contrary, God is found to be vulnerable before man’s rebelliousness and depravity. If God’s will is to be done, He will need the help of allies. And those who turn to Him of their own, placing themselves in His service, are described as attaining something that mere obedience never could have obtained—God’s love.
In the oratory of the prophets, this concept of a covenant between man and God becomes the basis for what is surely one of the most extraordinary metaphors in all of Scripture: the portrait of God as Israel’s husband, and the people of Israel as His young wife who rebels and turns to the affections of other men. Here, the metaphor of the covenant shifts somewhat. It is no longer the covenant between a king and his weaker ally, but a marriage covenant.
Yet the underlying structure of the covenant remains much the same, even as the emotions involved burn all the more brightly: The marriage covenant is still the alliance of a (usually) more powerful husband and a weaker wife. But despite being stronger, the husband can never really control his wife. In the end, he can control neither her love nor her actions. If she chooses, she is loyal; if she chooses, she is not.
The same is true, the prophets suggest, of the God of Israel and His people, who swore allegiance to Him in their youth. God is more powerful, to be sure. But He can coerce neither their love nor their actions. If they choose, they are loyal; if they choose, they are not. God, too, like the husband who has been betrayed, is shown to us in unspeakable pain, as He recalls the ardor and devotion that were once his when his wife was young, and which are now long lost.
The stunning vulnerability of the God of Israel as He watches Israel in her disloyalty releases emotions of astonishing power, which serve the prophets well in calling for the Jews to keep faith with their people, their law, and their God. Here, the rules of engagement are shockingly reversed, and the Jews are called to return to God, not because He is an all-powerful ruler who must be obeyed; but precisely because He is vulnerable and needs our help—because He needs the help that our forefathers once promised Him, but which we have not been willing to render Him.
Notice that to the extent that the biblical texts are understood by way of the metaphor of covenant, the reader places himself, by analogy, in the position of a less-powerful ally to a great king, or of the young wife of a great man, who wishes above all to know what the demands of loyalty require. Here, the motive of obedience, so important when Scripture is read as law, evaporates. What is at stake is rather the love that God once felt for those who would join Him in his cause—and the question of whether the old alliance can be honored now, or whether it has in fact been lost for good.
Let us consider one last metaphor used by the biblical authors to describe an enterprise in which they are engaged, the metaphor that sees the Hebrew Scriptures as instruction or teaching (tora). The Hebrew term tora is a cognate of bothparent (horeh) and teacher (moreh). But since most children in ancient Israel received little, if any, instruction from teachers, the term tora should be seen as invoking, first and foremost, the relationship between a child and his or her parents, who are the ones most concerned to see to it that the child gains wisdom, and consequently the best life possible. We can see the word tora used in just this way, for example, in the following passage from Proverbs:
My son, heed the instruction [musar] of your father, and forsake not the teaching [tora] of your mother.
The metaphor that approaches Scripture as instruction or teaching, then, is drawn from a very different range of experiences than that which informs the metaphors of law and covenant. Here, for the first time, we find the God of Israel being understood, not by way of analogy to a king, but to a father. A father, of course, is concerned for order and for obedience within the family, and he frequently looks to his children for their assistance as well.
But none of this is central. What is central is the compassion a father feels for his children, his desire that things go well for them, and the pain he feels over their failures. He wishes to instruct them for no other reason than their own well-being. And this means that he wants them to be wise, to gain understanding so they will be able to stand on their own, and to conduct themselves rightly when he is gone. Thus, when God is depicted by means of an analogy to a father, the ground shifts and we are asked to see reality, not in terms of our responsibilities to uphold his law and so contribute to some general order, but in terms of the understanding and knowledge of the world that God wants us to have so that we can attain the good for ourselves.
And so in the metaphor that sees Scripture as tora, the relationship of the reader to the Bible shifts as well, and we are now to read the old texts—as is explicitly the case in Proverbs—as though they were written by our father, who wishes to help us gain wisdom and understanding, so that we may know how to think about things and what to do about them. In this metaphor, we study Scripture so that we may act, not out of obedience or loyalty, but out of the power of our own understanding and insight to recognize what is right and true. Thus the metaphor of Scripture as instruction or teaching places a premium on our own understanding, and on the good that comes of it.
As discussed, the metaphors of law, covenant, and teaching are not the only ones in Hebrew Scripture, but they are the most common, and among them they establish the framework for Jewish investigation into the nature of reality and man’s place in it down to our own day. In the liturgy of repentance that is the central motif of the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we move back and forth among them: in referring to God as “our king,” we recognize that our own preferences are not always sovereign. There is a moral law because there is a reality that dictates whether something is beneficial or harmful, and this law exists regardless of what human beings may think about things. However, for Jews and others who enter into a covenant with God, this reality takes on a personal aspect. We understand God not as all-powerful but as having needs, and see ourselves as partners in his creation—partners whom God needs. When we do wrong we not only violate the laws of a distant king, but we betray a promise we have made to someone who loves us.
The metaphor of God as “our father” goes even further in this direction, shifting the focus to the instruction that we have received. The Hebrew Scriptures and subsequent Jewish tradition are not just a collection of laws and commands, but an enterprise aimed at imparting reason and understanding to the Jews and to all of mankind. We see ourselves as having been given the precious gift of this tradition to assist us in developing the capacity for independent understanding and judgment. When we do wrong, it is, on this view, because we have not invested enough thought and effort in the discovery of what is right and true. A renewed appreciation of the Hebrew Scriptures as a tradition of inquiry and instruction may be seen as central to making such an effort for Jews, for Christians, and for others as well.