To What is God Similar?

Rabbinic parables explicitly compare God to a variety of human analogues, reflecting the rabbis' subtle, complex, and diverse images of God.

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How did the classical rabbis imagine God? Rabbinic literature and archaeological sources reflect a good amount of diversity. Rabbinic sources occasionally restrict the use of graphic images of God and are occasionally more permissive; archaeological sources sometimes include images, sometimes avoid images, and sometimes the archaeological record shows the images destroyed. Eventually, all physical representations of God were forbidden. 

There was no such reticence, however, when using figurative language. Indeed, the literature known as midrash--which interprets and re-uses Scripture to express its own theological concepts--is replete with a wide range of images of God. In particular, the rabbinic parable presents God in many striking and complex ways.

God as King

Without question, the dominant image of God, especially in the later rabbinic parables, is God as King. Many of the king parables distinguish the Eternal King from mortal kings or create an unexpected perspective on the relationship to the king. As if to create a justification for their own use of human images for God, this early mashal (parable) sets the underlying theology of associating God with a human character in God's own mouth.

"A parable to a king who took a walk with a tenant farmer in an orchard, and the farmer tried to hide from him. The king said to the farmer, 'Why are you hiding from me? I am just like you.' The Holy Blessed One, seeing the righteous trembling before Him, says to them, 'I am just like you.'" (Sifra Behukotai 3:3).

"I am just like you," is, of course, hyperbole. Average people are clearly not like kings, human or divine, and yet, the parable affirms to the reader that people should be able to relate to God without trembling.

Another early king parable presents God's role as king as being subject to Israel's approval. God had to earn the title.

"Why are the Ten Commandments not recited at the beginning of the Torah? It is like [the story of] a king who came into a city and said, 'I will be king over you.' And they said to him, 'You haven't done anything for us that [says to us] you should be king.' What did the king do? He built walls and aqueducts and fought wars. He said 'I will be king over you,' and they said 'Yes! Yes!' Similarly, the Omnipresent took Israel out of Egypt, split the [Red] sea, provided the manna and the quail [to eat in the desert], and fought the war with Amalek. He said 'I will be king over you,' and they said 'Yes! Yes!'" (Mekhilta Bahodesh 5).

God is not King as a result of being the Creator. God is only King as a result of human acclamation.

God as the Knowing Creator

Of course, God is also the Creator, but the focus of this image is not simply that the creator controls or owns the creation. Rather, God is a knowing Creator, who has a deep understanding of creation.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.