God's Phallus

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

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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.