God's Phallus

Surprisingly enough, gender-sensitive critiques of the Jewish God can create problems for notions of masculinity.

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In the following article, the author introduces the thesis of his book, God's Phallus: And Other Problems for Men and Monotheism. Based on his reading of Jewish sources, he argues that there is a tension between the Jewish tradition's privileging of heterosexuality (and procreation) and the relationship between God and Jewish men, which contains homoerotic elements. This article is adapted and reprinted from God's Phallus, published by Beacon Press.

The title of this book (God's Phallus) is shocking because the thought of God having a penis is shocking. Most Jews and Christians think of God the father as lacking a body and hence as beyond sexuality. Without a body, God obviously can have no sexual organ. 

But from where does the idea of a disembodied God come? What if, historically speaking, it is discomfort with the idea of God's penis that has generated the idea of an incorporeal God? What if this uneasiness flows from the contradictions inherent in men's relationship with a God who is explicitly male? This in a nutshell is the argument of this book.

This is why the title "God's Phallus" is a serious one that points to interesting questions about the nature of religious symbols and the way in which issues of gender, sexuality, and desire are inseparable from them. More specifically, this is a book about divine fatherhood and the ways in which the sexual body of a father God is troubling for the conception of masculinity.

It may, of course, seem counterintuitive to think of a male God as being problematic for the conception of masculinity. After all, dozens of feminist studies over the past twenty years have explored the way in which images of male deities authorize male domination in the social order. As these studies have well demonstrated, a divine male both legitimates male authority and deifies masculinity. It thus may seem par­adoxical to consider that the symbol of a male God generates dilemmas for the conception of masculinity.

God's phallus--I'm shocked!Nevertheless, I would argue that at the same time that such a symbol works to legitimate masculinity, which may in fact be its primary and even original function, it also renders the meaning of masculinity unstable. This book explores how tensions arising from the idea of the sexual body of the father God are expressed in the myth and ritual of one religious tradition, namely that of ancient Judaism.

So what are the dilemmas evoked by the maleness of God in ancient Judaism? The first is homoeroticism: the love of a male human for a male God. The issue of homoeroticism arises in ancient Israel because the divine‑human relationship is often described in erotic and sexual terms. Marriage and sexuality are frequent biblical metaphors for describing God's relationship with Israel. God is imagined as the husband to Israel the wife; espousal and even sexual intercourse are metaphors for the covenant. Thus when Israel follows other gods, "she" is seen to be whoring. Israel's relationship with God is thus conceptualized as a monogamous sexual relation, and idolatry as adultery.

But the heterosexual metaphors in the ancient texts belie the nature of the relationship in question: it is human males, not females, who are imagined to have the primary intimate relations with the deity. The Israel that is collectively imagined as a woman is actually constituted by men, men like Moses and the patriarchs. And these men love, in ways that are imagined erotically and sensually, a male deity.

This would not have posed a problem if human masculinity was not so strongly associated with procreation in ancient Judaism. Being a man in ancient Israelite culture involved marrying, having children, and carrying forward the lineage of one's father or tribe. Thus ancient Judaism's concept of masculinity was deeply entangled in images of what is now called heterosexuality.

Still another set of dilemmas are generated by the monotheistic image of a sexless father God. As has been pointed out by many inter­preters, the God of the Jews, unlike the gods of the ancient Near East and many other religious traditions, does not have sexual intercourse or father children, at least in the literature that made its way into the Hebrew Bible. The archaeological record suggests that many Israelites may have imagined the goddess Asherah to be a partner of Yahweh, but in the Hebrew Bible, and in the variety of Judaisms that flourished subsequently, Israel imagined God as having no sexual partners.

De­spite the fact that God metaphorically gets married (e.g., Hosea 1‑2; Jeremiah 2:2), and even has sexual intercourse with the entity Israel (Ezekiel 16:8), who is imagined as a woman, this metaphorical union differs from the couplings of male and female deities found in the mythology of many other religious traditions.    

The sexlessness of the father God was problematic in a culture de­fined by patrilineal descent. A man was expected to reproduce, to carry on his line, yet he was also understood to be made in the image of a God who was essentially celibate.

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Howard Eilberg-Schwartz is the author and editor of several books, including People of the Body and The Savage in Judaism.