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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"It is written, 'Woe unto them that seek deep [places], to hide their counsel from the Lord' (Isaiah 29:15). R. Levi said: This is like [the story of] a city planner who built a city with [secret] chambers, canals, and caves. Later he became a tax-collector, and the inhabitants of the country hid from him in those chambers and caves. Said he to them, 'It is I who built all these chambers and caves; to what purpose then is your hiding?' Similarly, 'Woe unto them that seek deep [places], to hide their counsel from the Lord'..." (Genesis Rabbah 24:1).

This parable describes God's dual nature, both as Creator and as the One who collects what is due. While Jews living under the Roman Empire might be successful in hiding assets from confiscatory taxation, they would not be able to hide their thoughts from God.

God as Master of Life and Death

Another image, common in the liturgy as well, is God as the master of life and death. Strikingly, the images which refer to this aspect of God do not reflect positive characteristics. A mashal of R.Hanina b. Papa likens God to a hunter who holds a bird in his hand. The hunter met a man and asked him: "Is this dead or alive?" "If you wish, it is alive; and if you wish, it is dead," was the reply (Genesis Rabbah 19:11). Imagining God as the capricious hunter who could, with a light squeeze, prove the man's guess wrong, can be seen as a reproach.

God as Parent

Rather than maintaining simple, stereotypical images, like many in the liturgy, the mashal recognizes the complexity of the human relationship with God, transcending the stereotypical depiction by creating complex characters who reflect a complex relationship. God is described as a parent who cares for the children and also punishes them.

In a widely known parable, God goes to extreme lengths to protect his son.

"It is like [the story of] a person who is traveling. He had his son in front of him until brigands came, so he put him behind him. A wolf came up from behind, and he put him in front. Brigands came from in front and wolves from behind, so he carried him. The son was hot, so he provided shade with his cloak. He was hungry; he fed him. He was thirsty; he gave him drink" (Mekhilta Beshallach 4).

An almost identical parable, however, appears in Lamentations Rabbah 2:2, except when he puts the child on his shoulders, the child poops on the father. The father casts the child to the ground. The image of God as a frustrated and angry parent may not be comforting, but, in the context of the mourning in the book of Lamentations, Israel's sins are seen as the natural acts of a child, and God's punishment as an emotional overreaction.

God as Kohen

In antiquity, the kohen (levitical priest) was known among the people not for his role in the Temple cult (which had been abandoned after the destruction of the Temple) but for his avoidance of impurity. So when God is imagined as a kohen, a source of impurity represents whatever God dislikes.

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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.